Monday, March 15, 2010
(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.
When I 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 such 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 generally 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. On the other hand, they're not exactly earth-shatteringly original.
Osteen looks like a cross between comedian Martin Short and John Thain, the former head of Merrill Lynch. But 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 platitudinously 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.
And 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 still 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 practitioner of medicine. 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. Having a church where you tell 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 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'."