Via Wikimedia Commons

Via Wikimedia Commons

So let's talk about this guy.

On his face, I've never trusted him. By which I mean, I saw his face and decided he could not be trusted. Snap judgment, I know, but most of life's judgments are snap, because we're busy people. I'm not actively religious, I'm not in the market for a guiding figure in that arena. I'm not actively anti-religious either, so for all intents and purposes, in my life, my snap judgment sufficed, and I felt free to ignore anything related to him I came across, because I didn't trust him.

Then the hurricane hit Houston this past fall, and since I lived in Texas as well as various other coastal-type areas, I had a bit of ingrained empathy for the victims of the flooding I was seeing on the news, perhaps a little more than other people who weren't immediately affected by the storm, perhaps not, I don't know. I cared, is the point. I was paying attention.

When I saw the story that claimed Osteen's church was not allowing hurricane victims to take shelter in their building, his status in my head switched from nonentity to active villain. I reposted a story on Facebook which referred to a public backlash against the Lakewood church. Which for me is a significant thing. I don't dole out likes too often, much less feel compelled to forward something along, to insist other people see it, too. But I felt bad for the Houstonians! I thought they were being shat upon, in their hour of need, when they needed their community leaders to step up! It seemed to me to be a pretty clear case of rich guy values his possessions over human life.

My sister didn't see it that way and a couple days later posted the first sermon Joel gave when the Lakewood church reopened for regular services (they did open for shelter for the flood victims shortly after I'd reposted their shame). In it Joel says whoa whoa whoa, let's not all jump to conclusions, here. We of course wanted to open our doors, but guys? We're in Houston too, hello? We. Were. Flooded. Too. Duuhhhhhhhhh.

Perhaps I'm tipping my hand, but I still don't like the guy. In any case, my sister posted this and said, See? Shouldn't go casting blame about until you have all the facts. I suppose she is allowed to give me some shit, given she's my older sister, but this seemed excessive. She'd already offered her correction once on my original post (after I'd referred to him as a "craven gluttonous shitpile" which she told me itself seemed excessive). But now here she was again, drawing my attention to the quote-unquote facts. Rubbing her little brother's nose in it.

So. Since the facts around that situation are debatable (TMZ posted what was reported as a video from right outside the Lakewood church showing no substantial flooding, while Lakewood responded with its own photo of their flooded parking garage), I can't be certain it's my predetermined attitude toward the man (liar) making me choose my side. I want to say Nobody wanted to take shelter in your friggin parking garage, you scabrous twat! They wanted inside your building, inside the locked doors! but that might be my bias talking, so I'm going to concede that point. The Lakewood church, for all I know, did everything it could to help Houston's displaced citizenry in the wake of the hurricane.

Now what I'm interested in is whether my gut instinct not to trust him was correct or not. What makes someone untrustworthy? Lying, sure, but you'd have to look pretty far and wide to find someone with zero demonstrable occurrences of a lie or the spreading of misinformation. Just scrolling back in time through my own Facebook feed, I found things I'd posted that now I was like, well that's not true anymore, that changed, should probably delete that. But I didn't. 

I already know if I scour the web for examples of Osteen lying, I'll find it. I'll find it because he's a human and celebrity and you can't be both of those things without somebody calling you out for something stupid you said or did, because at some point you did say or do something stupid. What I'm more interested in, I guess, is whether his untrustworthiness is of the evil variety.

One of the earliest comments on my sister's response post was a hearty endorsement of my gut reaction, saying Osteen is an evil money-grubbing troll and fuck him right in the earball, or something. Which wasn't any more productive than my original post had proved to be. What little I could confirm was that yes, he lives in an extravagant (~$10 million) house. But the evidence I'd expected to find wasn't so readily available. 

What I'd expected was, honestly, a bold proclamation on their website of "Pay us money and God will reward you with success in your life," which is how I understood the Prosperity Gospel, according to its critics. Prosperity Gospel ministries, according to other evangelical churches, are defined by their insistence that true believers are due "not just the removal of sin, but also the removal of sickness and poverty." By that definition, I would say Osteen fits the bill, but the article linked above also gives six defining characteristics to help you recognize a Prosperity evangelical when you see one:

  1. The absence of a serious doctrine of the biblical necessity of suffering

  2. The absence of a clear and prominent doctrine of self-denial

  3. The absence of serious exposition of Scripture

  4. The absence of dealing with tensions in Scripture

  5. Church leaders who have exorbitant lifestyles

  6. A prominence of self and a marginalization of the greatness of God

Before I get too deep into this, I should ask whether or not Prosperity Gospel itself is an evil enterprise. We've collectively decided that it's okay to preach about a God that will forgive us our sins, if we only believe and ask for that forgiveness. Is it also okay to include poverty and illness as sins on the list? I can't say no, because I can't define what a sin is for anyone else. For instance, I personally find Funyuns to be an abomination unto the lord, but who am I to judge? What might tip the scales in the evil direction for Prosperity Gospel, however, is preaching that these two particular sins will be forgiven in this lifetime. If you only believe. 

Is that damaging? Probably. Yes. Yes, that is dangerous. Especially the illness part. But is it evil? Well, that's complicated. I don't usually assign the evil label until money is involved. Like, for instance, this book, sold on the definitive Prosperity preacher Benny Hinn's website, which is written by a Dr. Francisco Contreras, seen here offering the opinion that "laughter and music . . . are the most potent immunostimulating agents" and are therefore the two best cancer treatments of all. Which is damaging in several ways, because not only is the scientific evidence offered to back up that claim a link to an article on the same website, which offers a brief explanation how one component of the immune system works (the lymphatic system) followed by ten things that can screw it up, and which incidentally does not mention music or laughter at all, but also, and rather importantly, cancer is not a disease the way measles and mumps are diseases. The immune system doesn't have a singular relationship with cancer's development. It's not kill the virus, kill the disease. Cancer is the result of mutated chromosomes. Which mean, it's complicated. Sometimes the cancer hijacks immune cell development which allows the cancer to spread, in which case a too-burly immune system would be a decided disadvantage.

So, yeah. Selling cancer patients a book full of advice like Got cancer? Pray more! is pretty patently evil. And if that's Prosperity Gospel, the whole lot of them can go rot.

But Osteen's online store doesn't sell that book, or anything resembling it. Mostly it's just books they (the Osteens, collectively) have written themselves. They do sell a $40 bible, but not that book. So is he Prosperity, or not? Let's check the list.

I don't know how to address issues one through four. It's tough to prove an absence. I've read a bunch of blog posts. I've listened to about five recent sermons. I can't say for sure there's an absence of an emphasis on suffering. One recent post does, in fact, remind people that belief in God is not for the good times alone, but also the bad. Number two, though, it's looking doubtful. Peppered pretty regularly throughout the sermons and the blog posts are assurances that no, actually, self-denial isn't all that necessary at all, because if you recognize that this God is a big God (?), your eyes will be opened to all the "blessings, favor, and victory" that are just over the horizon.

Number three, again, who knows. The dude brings up Scripture all the time, and yes it is relentlessly oversimplified, but he probably considers this serious exposition, and I'm sure most of his followers would agree. Number four, though, thanks to that oversimplification, is probably the easiest of these absences to prove. There are never any questions brought up by the scriptural quotes, only clear and potent messages.

Number five, $10 million house.

 Via Google Maps via Daily Mail

Via Google Maps via Daily Mail

Number six, I didn't ever actually register a marginalization of God (beyond referring to him as merely big, which, I don't care what God you're praying to, that adjective has to stay at the bottom of the barrel when you're searching for descriptors). Oh, and also that God cannot change the past, because he is a God of the present, which is probably just a semantic quibble. On the whole, Joel and company seem to be pretty adamant that God can do all things. But there is also a strong emphasis on the self, and accomplishing one's own personal desires. He's having his cake and eating it. It's pretty impressive, actually. In a way.

So. Is it definitive that the Lakewood church engages in the sinful ways of the Prosperity Gospel? Well, yes. Kind of. But they come by it honestly, I think. They do tell their followers that a stout belief in the same God that they believe in will result in said God rewarding them with prosperity (I don't see much mention of health or healing, but he can't hide his admiration for wealth and gold and thereby equating their accumulation with piety and spiritual resolve — millionaires are often referred to with the same respect and admiration as otherwise reserved for saints). But then again, why shouldn't they believe that doctrine whole-heartedly? It's exactly what happened to them. 

I don't think he's evil. I think he's harmful to certain people, to some degree, but also quite beneficial to others. His sermons are filled to overflowing with pop-psychology maxims and choruses of affirmation and hope. I think he kept the doors closed because he was worried about lawsuits, assuming that there would be some sort of liability issue if he allowed anyone in before he was absolutely sure no one could sue him for the quality of his care. Which is a typical rich guy move, but not at all uncommon.

Joel and his family are, I think pretty clearly, rich people first, pastors of the word of God second. I don't think it's intentional, I don't think they're even all that aware of it, and of course would vehemently deny it in any case. It's just... who they are. They value money. They do, but they don't ever explicitly say that giving money is required for salvation. Only your faith, only your belief. Of course, donating is a pretty large indicator of how strongly you believe, so . . .

That same commenter mentioned above, who clearly did not like Osteen whatsoever, mentioned that the "$50 million a year" Joel pulls in (figure unsubstantiated) means he is "an embarrassment to god" and to himself. My sister calmly reminded that commenter and the audience at large that having money doesn't make you an inherently bad person. 

Maybe she's right about that. But that argument gets thinner the more money you accumulate. Who knows, though, maybe old Joel is like Bill Gates and he's got some grand plan for his financial slush pile akin to ridding the world of hook worms and malaria. If he doesn't, then clearly he prefers possessing that money over the good deeds that could be performed with it. Or bad deeds. Really any deeds. Rich people are only rich because they prefer having money over spending it. 

Buuuuut . . . It gets a little thinner still when you recall that Joel Osteen is not the businessman responsible for Microsoft but is in fact in the profession of ministry, of spiritual service to his flock, flinging around the name of a dude called Jesus, noted temple-destructionist.. Good deeds is kind of implied by the job description, isn't it?

Thinner still when you see at the bottom of his website a link and a phone number for "Customer Service."

And when you remember that house.

Whatever. I already told you I still don't like the guy, but that's a personal opinion, one I don't expect you to adopt. And whether or not being rich makes you evil is a debate for another time.

TL;DR: I rescind my statement that Mr. Osteen is a craven gluttonous shitpile. He is not craven. He is a perfectly average — socially and ethically speaking —  gluttonous shitpile.

So there, sis. Thbbhbpptbbhtt.

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