Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Evangelical Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Some excerpts from John Leland of The New York Times on the new celebrity of evangelicalism, Joel Osteen and his nondenominational Lakewood Church. (Forced to perform ritual gestures of "objectivity," Leland's contempt for Osteen oozes through in his tone and in a series of carefully selected direct quotes):

"The nondenominational Lakewood Church, the nation's largest congregation, moved into the Compaq Center, once the home of the Houston Rockets, over the weekend. After $95 million in renovations, including two waterfalls and enough carpeting to cover nine football fields, the arena now belongs to a charismatic church with a congregation of 30,000, revenues of $55 million last year and a television audience in the millions.

Like many new evangelical churches, the building has no cross, no stained glass, no other religious iconography. Instead, it has a cafe with wireless Internet access, 32 video game kiosks and a vault to store the offering.

On Saturday evening, at the first service in the arena, Joel Osteen, the pastor, exhorted a packed house of black, white and Latino worshipers, some of whom arrived three hours early. "What a sight this is. You guys look like victors, not victims," he said, to a round of applause. "We're just going to have a great time and celebrate the goodness of God tonight."

Mr. Osteen, 43, a personable Texan with soap-opera features and wavy, gelled hair, did not go to seminary and dropped out of college after a year. But since he inherited the church from his father in 1999, he has been on a roll, spreading a simple self-help message that congregants say is both uplifting and accessible. God, Mr. Osteen preaches, does not want to see people suffering and poor; he wants them to be healthy, wealthy and wise.

This message, along with Mr. Osteen's boyish appeal and media savvy, has produced the popular television ministry, a best-selling book, national arena appearances by Mr. Osteen (including two sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden last year and another date scheduled for October) and a congregation that has quadrupled in six years. The choir alone has 500 members.

To his flock, Mr. Osteen is to varying degrees spiritual leader, motivational speaker and celebrity. Congregants line up for his autograph after services. His publisher, Warner Faith, provided a private jet for his tour to promote the book, "Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential," which has 2.8 million copies in print. With the book's success, Mr. Osteen said he has forgone his $200,000 salary from the church this year.


Mr. Osteen's rise is an indicator of the growth and upward mobility of the charismatic branch of evangelical Christianity, and a rebound for television ministry after the sexual and financial scandals of the 1980's, said Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. Mr. Osteen avoids contentious issues like abortion and homosexuality, and he does not ask for money on his broadcasts.


Mr. Osteen's rationale for spending $95 million on a church rather than on ministering to the poor was typically upbeat. "My philosophy," he said, "is that that $95 million will be nothing compared to what we'll do when we have 100,000 people."


Church members said they had experienced small miracles as a result of attending Lakewood, and especially as a result of tithing, which Mr. Osteen tells them will bring even greater rewards.

Jeffrey D. Holliman Sr., 38, who said Mr. Osteen makes the Bible "intelligible," added that God had recently steered money his way after the electric company threatened to cut his service. Walter Gonzalez, 28, said that since he started tithing, he had more money left after paying his bills.


If not for the religious references, Mr. Osteen's sermons, on topics like procrastination, submitting to authority and staying positive, could be secular motivational speeches. This is by design. "The principles in the Bible will work for anybody," he said. "If you give, you will be blessed. I talk about things for everyday life. I don't get deep and theological."


Mr. Osteen begins each sermon with a joke and follows with anecdotes from his own life, about how through faith he received a house, a parking space, a happy marriage. There is no time to ruminate on theological puzzles, like why God allows people to suffer.

"The answer is I don't know," Mr. Osteen said. "We deal every week with someone whose child got killed, or they lost their job. I don't understand it. All you can do is let God comfort you and move on. Part of faith is not understanding."

This relentless focus on the positive has led critics to call him lightweight.

"The idea of suffering as a Christian virtue is not part of his worldview," said Lynn Mitchell, director of religious studies at the University of Houston. "Some call it Christianity Lite - you get all the benefits, but don't pay attention to the fact that Jesus called for suffering. He doesn't tackle many of the problems of the world."

But many among his congregants said he tackled their problems. Mario Cervantes, 38, said that the church had taught him to name the things he wanted, and that he would receive them. "The Bible says, speak those things that aren't as if they are," Mr. Cervantes said.

"Now I'm speaking my marriage to Isabelle," he said, gesturing to his girlfriend. "And having a relationship with my children. The Bible tells me that as long as I serve him, I shall have what I want. The reason I didn't name material things is that I know I'm here on borrowed time from God."

After the opening night service at the arena on Saturday, Julio Roman, 18, a seminary student who flew in from Chicago, walked out ecstatic. "Did it feel like church?" he said. "Yes, in a bigger, more extravagant way. No more little storefronts - this is the new face of church." (John Leland, "A Church That Packs Them In, 16,000 at a Time," The New York Times, July 18, 2005).


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