August 22, 2011
Equal Time Now! Practicing the Way of Joel Osteen
For most of the summer we at Strangely Dim have been playing with Practicing the Way of Jesus, a new book by Mark Scandrette. Mark is a spiritual director of sorts who believes that discipleship--our lifelong reconfiguration of ourselves according to the teachings and leadings of Jesus--is not a mere intellectual exercise or even a simple matter of private practice but a communal experiment involving our whole selves and a trusted community. We've had fruitful experiments over the course of the summer, and I anticipate that even after the newness of the book wears off, the poignancy of the message will stick around.
But Mark is just one guy, with one guy's perspective on discipleship. In the interest of equal time, I thought it would be prudent to try the experiments on offer from a different source: Joel Osteen.
I first encountered Osteen at a book signing in Nashville. I was signing my first book; he was signing his. I was visited by a handful of people; he had busloads of people snaking through the exhibit. I was bitter and resentful; he just kept flashing that annoyingly friendly smile of his.
Osteen is pastor of one of the largest churches in the United States. This summer he joined U2 and Paul McCartney as the only arena acts to visit Chicago. (U2 played where the Chicago Bears play; Sir Paul, the Cubs; Osteen, the White Sox). His message--his gospel, really--is arguably summed up in the title of that first book of his: Your Best Life Now. Contrast that with Mark's Practicing the Way of Jesus: the subject of Osteen's book is you, the reader of the book, rather than Jesus; the end (your best life) is in view rather than the means (practicing the way); an immediate reward is promised by Osteen, whereas there is no promise to be found in the title of Mark's book. That's not to say Mark's title is bad; it just highlights that these are two very different approaches to the good life.
So, I decided, for seven days I'd take in insights from Osteen and conduct myself accordingly. I wasn't in the mood to drop ten bucks for the daily Osteen app, so I settled for free online content--blog posts, archived articles, that sort of thing. My first Osteen reading was a blog post about a time he was stuck in traffic en route to a big rally. He called ahead to the stadium, and they sent a police officer to get him unstuck. With an officer taking the wheel, Osteen's car violated lane limits and speed limits, with police waving them along all the way. (I can imagine a few stuck commuters offering a different kind of wave.)
The lesson? Like the police, who are (allegedly) above the law, God is not constrained by the laws of medical science, or of finance, or the laws of nature. So don't let your buzz be prematurely killed by the fact that you're in debt, or that you have a debilitating disease, or whatever other circumstances you face that seem insurmountable. Laws are made to be broken, when circumstances call for it and connections allow for it.
I'm reminded of a scene from Gilligan's Island, in which Gilligan floats suspended above his hut, flapping makeshift wings and defying gravity, until the Skipper shouts "You can't fly; it's impossible!" and Gilligan plummets to the earth.
Much of Osteen's message is a matter of what my therapist-wife calls "positive self-talk." Here's an example, which he draws (appropriately) from Psalm 42:
You have to stay on the offensive. Don't wait until you've been down for three days before you decide to do something about it. The moment you feel that discouragement trying to come on you, rise up and say, "No, I'm not going there." You wake up in the morning and feel the blahs, you say, "Nope, that's not for me. This is going to be a good day. It's the day the Lord has made."
In an era when futility can seem to rule the day, when it seems the machines have won, when it seems the best that we can hope for is mere financial prosperity, when, as I read recently, we are miraculously adept at healing rotting bodies but at a loss when it comes to rotting souls--in such an era as this, a regular dose of hopeful defiance, even defiance of the self, can actually help. We do well to remember that this day, however sucky it seems, is the day that the Lord has made. And because God is good, there's potential for every day to be good.
That being said, I can hardly ignore Osteen's (likely unintentional) allusion to Jesus' time in the tomb. Down for three days before removing the stone covering and reclaiming the day, Jesus seems (in this scene at least) to actively resist the preemptive positivity Osteen so regularly preaches.
But I'm running an experiment. I'm not supposed to critique; I'm supposed to kick Osteen's tires. So I spent the week refusing to accept the limitations of my debt burden, my physical fitness, and so on. And I reminded myself to concentrate on the good in the people around me, rather than the things that bug me about them. And I reminded myself whenever I was discouraged or frustrated or disappointed with myself that God made me a masterpiece, or whatever. And I generally felt better about life.
It strikes me that the principal difference between Osteen and Scandrette's models of formation is that Osteen focuses on outlook, whereas Scandrette focuses on lifestyle. Scandrette suggests that we behave our way into a way of perceiving the world, whereas Osteen encourages us to perceive the world a certain way and then act accordingly. We assert ourselves onto our environment, according to Osteen; according to Scandrette we face reality and act wisely in the face of it.
But the assertion Osteen invites us to make overlooks the reality that Scandrette points out to us: we are not alone in the universe; our outlook is not the only one; our best life is always overlapping, and sometimes in conflict with, the best lives (even the barely survivable lives) of others. There are people besides us whom Jesus would call on us to sacrifice for, even to fight for. No matter how much I read from Osteen, that rarely seems to come up--and when it does, it's generally immaterial, a kind of "be nice to others" pat on the head.
Osteen focuses on the individual, not the kingdom. That's not necessarily bad--every kingdom is constituted by a collection of individuals experiencing life together--but it's certainly not complete. Osteen assures us that all these things that we ache for will be added unto us; Jesus assures us of the very same thing, but he advises us, even commands us, to look after his kingdom first.
So while I can now better appreciate Osteen for what he is, I'm still far more compelled by the kingdom of love Mark Scandrette is pointing us toward--where our personal outcomes are less important than the way we walk and the people we walk with.