On Sunday night, 41,000 fans packed Nationals Stadium in Washington, D.C., to hear a message of hope, inspiration, and encouragement from Joel Osteen. Most paid about $20 (including fees) for the privilege.
Osteen sold out the stadium — a feat the Nationals rarely accomplish. But did he have to sell out to do so?
Osteen is the latest embodiment of the American Religion — Revivalism. For centuries now, preachers have known how to fill stadiums or circus tents and send people home with hope in their heart and a skip in their step. Osteen promises you will leave a transformed person — at least until his tour comes around again next year, when you can be transformed again.
Osteen’s message is a positive one for a difficult time. Every one of us has seeds of greatness inside, potential that has not yet been released, buried treasure waiting to be discovered. If you were a car, you would be the fully loaded and totally equipped model — “with pin stripes,” he says, gesturing to his suit.
Before God created you, he planned great things for you. As you stretch your faith, “God is going to show up, and show out, in tremendous ways. … If you don’t step into your destiny and release your gift, then this world will not be as bright as it should be.”
That’s a pretty positive message. What could be wrong with that?
The biggest problem with Osteen’s message about God is that it is really a message about me. God is a potential, a force, a co-pilot, waiting to be tapped and deployed. I may have a net below me, but I am the one that has to take the first steps on the wire:
Taking steps of faith is imperative to fulfilling your destiny. When I make a move, God will make a move. When I stretch my faith, God will release more of his favor. When I think bigger, God will act bigger.
God is as big as I think him to be.
Yes, this is the American Religion: a program, a plan, five simple steps to help me be all that I can be. This is the religion of the bootstraps, where “God helps those who help themselves.”
By the way, an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that is a quote from the Bible. It’s not.
And that’s the second problem. Osteen’s message is not biblical. His promise that his audience will be taught the Bible — from a preacher who has admitted that teaching the Bible isn’t his strength — is fulfilled with a smattering of verses. These snippets are at best torn out of their context, at worst fabricated.
There’s this stretch: “God is saying to you what He said to Lot, ‘Hurry up and get there, so I can show you my favor in a greater way.’” In Genesis 19:22, the Angel does tell Lot “Get there quickly, for I can do nothing until you arrive there.” God waiting on Lot to step out in faith so he can bless him? Not exactly. It is God telling Lot to flee to Zoar, a city of safety, so he can rain down fire on Sodom and Gomorrah.
Osteen bolsters his bootstrap religion by quoting Jesus: “Roll away the stone, and I’ll raise Lazarus.” This, Osteen says, is a “principle,” “God expects us to do what we can, and He will do what we can’t. If you will do the natural, God will do the supernatural.”
One problem. Jesus does command them to roll away the stone, but no such quid pro quo is found in holy writ. This foundational principle is one of Osteen’s own making.