“The Osteen Predicament”

It sounds like the title of some second-rate thriller novel, where a naive but plucky Congressional aide learns about a dark plot in the unseen corners of the halls of power, and she’s forced to team up with the handsome but brash reporter who… Well, anyway, it’s actually Albert Mohler’s critique of Joel and Victoria Osteen’s theology. And if there’s anything we love around here, it’s Osteen critiques:

America deserves the Osteens. The consumer culture, the cult of the therapeutic, the marketing impulse, and the sheer superficiality of American cultural Christianity probably made the Osteens inevitable. The Osteens are phenomenally successful because they are the exaggerated fulfillment of the self-help movement and the cult of celebrity rolled into one massive mega-church media empire. And, to cap it all off, they give Americans what Americans crave — reassurance delivered with a smile.

Judged in theological terms, the Osteen message is the latest and slickest version of Prosperity Theology. That American heresy has now spread throughout much of the world, but it began in the context of American Pentecostalism in the early twentieth century. Prosperity theology, promising that God rewards faith with health and wealth, first appealed to those described as “the dispossessed” — the very poor. Now, its updated version appeals to the aspirational class of the suburbs. Whereas the early devotees of Prosperity Theology prayed for a roof over their heads that did not leak, the devotees of prosperity theology in the Age of Osteen pray for ever bigger houses. The story of how the Osteens exercised faith for a big house comes early in Joel Osteen’s best-seller, Your Best Life Now.

Prosperity Theology certainly sells books and draws crowds in the United States, but what does it possibly say to a grieving Christian wife and mother in Iraq? How can it possibly be squared with the actual message of the New Testament? How can any sinner be saved, without a clear presentation of sin, redemption, the cross, the empty tomb, and the call to faith and repentance? Prosperity Theology fails every test, and fails every test miserably. It is a false gospel, and one that must be repudiated, not merely reformatted.

Victoria Osteen’s comments fit naturally within the worldview and message she and her husband have carefully cultivated. The divine-human relationship is just turned upside down, and God’s greatest desire is said to be our happiness. But what is happiness? It is a word that cannot bear much weight. As writers from C. S. Lewis to the Apostle Paul have made clear, happiness is no substitute for joy. Happiness, in the smiling version assured in the Age of Osteen, doesn’t last, cannot satisfy, and often is not even real.

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