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Monday, March 15, 2010

Joel Osteen

(Top left, Joel Osteen; above, John Thain; left, Tony Robbins. All three men are exhibiting
the I've-got-nothing-to-hide stance.)

The previous post about salesmen reminded me of someone I occasionally see late at night when channel surfing: televangelist Joel Osteen.

Whenever I do stumble across Osteen, I'll often find myself watching him for several minutes: there's something absolutely fascinating about this cherubic, wholesome man who seems to exude constant warmth. (Generally the only people able to call up such constant, effusive sincerity are the totally insincere.) Osteen preaches from an Astrodome-like megachurch, and his version of Christianity is basically, God wants you to be wealthy. In Osteen's world, wealth and power are simply just rewards for being a good Christian.

In only a slight paraphrase: God wants you to be greedy. God-as-Gordon-Gekko is certainly an interesting take on Christianity.

God must certainly have wanted Mr. Osteen to be wealthy. He reportedly takes in $43 million a year from tithes, and another $36 million from mailed in contributions.

He gets this kind of money by reciting homilies like: "If you foster an image of defeat and failure, then you're going to live that kind of life."

"We have to conceive it on the inside before we're ever going to receive it on the outside."

"Too many people go around worried and upset. They're always trying to figure everything out."

"Relationships are more important than our accomplishments."

"There is no greater investment in life than in being a people builder."

Sometimes Osteen throws a little God in, too: "When we truly trust in God and believe that He's in control, we can rest. There's a peace in our minds and our hearts."

(Mr. Osteen does not talk about how it's easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to ascend to the kingdom of heaven.)

He's basically a meld of Norman Vincent Peale, Dale Carnegie, Tony Robbins, and the US Army ("Be all you can be"). You can't really argue with most of his bromides; but none are earth-shatteringly original.

Osteen looks like a cross between comedian Martin Short and John Thain, the former head of Merrill Lynch. His behavior is closer to that of Thain -- though he is definitely someone whom Short might spoof. (I met Thain once, and he struck me as a weirdly pompous boy scout.) Osteen is particularly reminiscent of Thain in the fall of '08, when Thain was reassuring the world that Merrill was in fine shape, right before he sold it to Bank of America to forestall bankruptcy.

Perhaps this is an unfair comparison; Osteen has yet to be caught in any sort of scandal. Yet the aroma of snake oil follows both men.

Osteen is also reminiscent of Tony Robbins, another "life coach" who preached to everyone that they could be as successful as they wanted to be. Back in the 80's, for a fairly stiff price, you could attend one of Robbins' seminars and listen to him tell you that you could be whatever you wanted to be, that all you had to do was just reach out and grab that success. Then he would have you do things like walk across live coals to prove to you what previously unsuspected abilities you had. The main difference between the two men is that Osteen covers his life coaching with a patina of religion.

A thin patina it is. Osteen calls himself a "nondenominational Christian," which prevents any meddling from (or revenue sharing with) head office types. But more serious Christians are up in arms over Osteen's ministry, which they feel is blasphemous. Osteen rarely refers to Jesus Christ, has no crosses in his church, never talks about sin, and rarely quotes the Bible.

Osteen never went to a seminary, and his only religious training prior to becoming a preacher was to help out behind the scenes until his father (the previous pastor) died. His status as pastor was never conferred by any official group; he pretty much just anointed himself. So in a sense, he is a pastor the same way Julius "Doctor J" Erving, formerly of the Philadelphia 76ers, is a physician. Osteen's sermons are also notoriously light on Scripture. For the most part, he just says that God wants you to do the same types of things that Tony Robbins would have you do.

This brings up interesting question: is Tony Robbins godlike? His voice was certainly deep enough. And Robbins' acromegaly lent a certain larger than life aura to him. (I'm guessing he had surgery to counter whatever pituitary disorder was causing it once he hit 6'6.") Interestingly, two of Robbins' three books are called "Awaken the Giant Within" and "Giant Steps."

Few would mistake Joel Osteen for a god, he's far too boyish-looking. But he is a financial giant. Telling people that God wants you to be rich is a brilliant marketing idea. Asking them to tithe to you and gussying up your trite little homilies with occasional references to God takes a certain shamelessness, but Osteen evidently is not burdened by an overly strong sense of shame.

The spirit of Elmer Gantry lives.

Addendum, same day: my son just read this and said, "What a bullshitter. I'm going to start a ministry and tell all the pretty girls, 'God wants you to have sex with me'."


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this post. I've never heard of Joel Osteen but I don't channel surf. I'm always amazed that people are so willing to funnel their hard earned money to these preacher types, even after all that went on with Jim Baker and others like him. I used to think it was because they were made to feel guilty and their donations were a sort of penance, but from your description of Osteen it doesn't sounds like he necessarily uses that angle in his message. With so many worthy charities and organizations that could put the money to better use, it's too bad that some are so easily led by those like Osteen --bullshitters as you son so aptly put it.

John Craig said...

Anonymous -- Thank you, and Amen.

These televangelist types are proof that P.T. Barnum was right.

Anonymous said...

This blog post is the first thing I thought of when reading about Joel Osteen tonight.
He's under fire for keeping his megachurch shut in Houston, saying it's because of 'flooding'
when photographs show it is quite dry. Supposedly, it can hold almost 17,000 people.

If he doesn't care about the people, wouldn't he at least realize that this would be a public
relations catastrophe? Maybe the doors will open soon.

Anonymous said...

Oh my gosh! I just posted anonymously and then I finished watching a youtube video about this, and the guy
says what I just wrote in the exact same words. If he doesn't care about the people doesn't he at least care about
the P.R.?

So, now I'm not so sure I want you to post my comment after all because it sounds too much like what this other person
is saying. Or, maybe this is just so obvious that lots of people are thinking it at the same time?

In any case, I would not have suspected Osteen on my own. I just thought he had a naive and childish
worldview, not that he was a sociopath.

John Craig said...

Anon --
I had the same reaction you did when I saw those photographs: this is a PR disaster for Osteen. I tell you what, your reaction was only natural, so there's no reason to be embarrassed by what you said. And you're commenting anonymously, so there's even less reason (though I can take a guess, from your tone and language). But if you want me to take down both of your comments, just say so and I will. But since you sound ambivalent about it, in the meantime I'll leave it up.

By the way, I didn't quite come out and say Osteen is a sociopath in this post. Though, given how much of a con artist he is, he's certainly a prime candidate.

Anonymous said...

That's right, I see that you really don't outright say that he's a sociopath. Thanks for your consideration about my
post. I guess it's fine to leave it up - but I've been reading your blog for awhile and didn't want my first comment to
just be something that is 100% obvious and that everybody else was going to be saying anyhow. Oh well - and I'm
glad you thought the same.

Whether he's a sociopath or not, I no longer think he is just childish and agree that he's a con artist. The fact that
he would lie about the flooding and think nobody would notice in the age of social media is one of those weird behaviors
that I used to think people just didn't do. And when I last checked, he had made no donation of his own but provided
a page on his site for people to donate hurricane relief money to HIS ministry. Another thing where I wonder, doesn't he
at least realize how bad this looks??

Maybe not, or else he plans to come up with some spin such as always worked for him before...

John Craig said...

Anon --
Ah, I thought you might be one of my regular commenters since you made a point of saying you'd commented anonymously this time. I guess you have been reading for some time, though, if you remembered this post from seven years ago.

Yes, nobody who is merely naive and childish would be as manipulative and greedy as Osteen. He's got a great con going. It's always seemed to me that the people who attend his sermons are themselves somewhat childish and naive, and he counts on that to keep the money flowing. Maybe he thought that nobody would notice if his was one of the few churches which didn't take in refugees from the flood. (It's almost ironic, when you think about it, that this was a flood of almost Biblical proportions.)

Anyway, no need to be self-conscious, I appreciate your comment. If, in the future, you continue to comment, you might consider using a name (it doesn't have to be your own), that way I get a sense of whom I'm talking with.