Monday, October 31, 2011

Do Atheists Own the Internet?

A certain YouTube atheist, CultofDusty, has staked the claim that "atheists own the Internet." I won’t link to his video here, because Dusty takes a George Carlin persona and has all the associated linguistic traits (and to be fair, he has in turn shown himself to be courteous in comments to me). He's a bit of a performer, so one may perhaps excuse him for some hyperbole. However, allowing for that, his reasons given for making this statement aren't particularly compelling:

Atheists are defeating Christians in debates on social media websites. Maybe so. I don’t hang around those at all. But they’re not winning on sites like TheologyWeb where serious discussion takes place, and social media sites aren’t exactly havens for people with a high interest in scholarship. At the same time, I’m not inclined to assume that this is any more than a case of .150 batters doing better than .125 batters. We collect screwy statements from atheists and Christians alike, and social media havens like Facebook are prime breeding grounds for silly statements from all sides -- mostly Christians.

Atheist videos get more views on YouTube than Christian videos. Statistically this doesn’t mean anything by itself. There are also crackpot videos on YouTube about things like the moon landings being faked that get more views than either atheist or Christian videos. Also, this could easily be a function of there being proportionately more options for Christians in terms of their viewing selections, whereas being that there are fewer atheists, there are also fewer channels for them to choose from, which means their views tend to get clustered. Finally, what about repeat views? In any event, this is a stat that would need to be looked into more deeply before any meaning could be assigned to it (and I’d also like to verify it with more detailed research).

Still and all, I think in one sense Dusty's right. I don't think atheists "own" the Internet, but I do think that as a whole, they've been more effective and proactive in using it as a popular tool to spread their message. I also think that's not necessarily something for them to be proud of. Dusty says that atheists are winning on the Internet because religious arguments are stupid and easy to defeat, and an open marketplace of ideas like the Internet makes that clear. I think a more likely explanation – based on my research presented in a Christian Research Journal article, “The Mesmerizing Misinformation Maelstrom,” and as affirmed by various experts in the area of technology, education, and brain research (summed up well in Carr's excellent book, The Shallows) -- is that the Internet is an environment that by its very nature discourages deep thinking and encourages quick, shallow answers to complex questions. That in turn means that Internet users can easily get the impression that they’ve done a “winning” job on some issue when they have not.

As an indication of this, Dusty says that a “five second Google search” makes it easy to find out that religious people are lying. Really? Allowing for hyperbole again, who really thinks that five seconds or even five minutes is enough to satisfy a burden of serious research? What about evaluating the sources critically? What about scholarly journals and commentaries? As I told one of his fans, even if atheists own the Internet, Christians (and theists) still own scholarly print resources like books and journals – and which of those would be better sources for accurate information?

Because of what the Internet can do to discourage deep thinking, I’d say that laying claim to "owning" the Internet is akin to boasting that one owns a garbage truck in a contest where having the most dignified vehicle is the standard. In this light, please note as well that Dusty argues for some rather fringe positions, such as one I answered in a recent video of mine, that the works of Tacitus, and so his reference to Jesus as well, are late forgeries. This is a view that serious scholars of Tacitus and Greco-Roman history would find appalling. It’s also the kind of view one gets by spending only five seconds doing research.

By the same token, atheists have certainly rushed faster to take the advantage of YouTube; but as shown in a series on the Forge blog - which offers but a sample of what can be found there - this, too, is nothing to be proud of. Many of these atheists promote radical, insensible ideas like the Christ myth, and YouTube is a place where video presentations favoring "9/11 truther" scenarios can garner as much applause as a skilled opera singer in Vienna. Of course, we might also suggest that that's a case of better players not showing up -- or falling down on the job.

So we can grant that the atheists have often done better than Christians in the Internet medium; the question then turns to why. The "whys" are likely many: Much more aggressive evangelistic zeal by atheists (Dusty himself expresses a strong desire to oppose Christians based on things like their political choices); too much concern with devotional and entertainment matters by Christians (who knows of that many atheist rock groups that sing about their atheism and nothing else?); the fact that some atheist arguments, because they tend to merely consist of denials and negations, have much less content to argue and so lend themselves much better to a rapid-fire medium; lack of education in the churches (what else?), and -- this is one that hits home with me particularly -- a serious deficiency in creativity.

Part of this is understandable: How does one present information about, e.g., the authorship of 2 Thessalonians in a way that is entertaining and interesting? It's not easy, but it can be done; my own YouTube video on this featured the Apostle Paul confronting Bart Ehrman in his own classroom – and the two of them exchanging points in Dr. Seuss rhyme-verse. Creativity can be a challenge when the topics are so obscure and complex, but I take it as a challenge to be met.

Our apologetics also tend to have to be longer and more involved, because they require a deeper and more comprehensive understanding; as I say in the CRJ article, you can sum up the problem of evil just by pointing to any number of daily headlines and asking where God was, but a theodicy requires much more effort and much more understanding -- two things antithetical to the Internet medium.

I also think that far too many Christians don't have enough of a creative "edge" in what they do present. By this I don't simply mean they are boring (though many are); I also don't mean simply that their production values are poor (though many are). I'm also not condemning any who are doing the best they can with what they have; I think very little of "talking head" videos (no matter who makes them), but if that is all someone can do, with the resources they have at hand, so be it. I do mean, however, that there is often very little sense of risk in production; that presentation is often stiflingly conservative. Turn on camera; talk politely; turn off camera. In contrast, it appears that many YT atheists have put some extra interest in making their presentations unusual or entertaining -- like Dusty, whose "schtick," as noted, is adapting a George Carlin style persona.

Clearly Christians need to break some creative ground here. My own contribution has been the use of basic hand-drawn animation and edgy humor. Not many others are taking such steps, but some are. One of my fellow YouTube apologists, for example (under the handle "CRoadWarrior"), has taken the brilliant step of adopting the persona of a professional wrestler in his videos. This is the sort of creative risk we need to be more in tune with taking, but unfortunately, it seems that many Christians are stuck in straightforward didactic mode (which has often been said to be the case for our entertainment as well).

We may not "own" the Internet – I really don’t think anyone does -- but if we're concerned to redeem others for Christ, and present our arguments, we need to be much wiser and proactive in staking a claim in it.

Friday, October 28, 2011

October 2011 E-Block

The new issue is now posted -- here's a rundown of the contents.

The Musicians' Gambits -- Profiles of popular Christian music groups. This time: Stryper. I never understood a word these guys were singing, but I had a certain sympathy for them as artists -- trying to carve a niche to reach a certain group, while being condemned by the closed-minded (in this case, Jimmy Swaggart especially) who didn't "get it". How well I sympathize.

Beating Boring Bible Study -- A short, practical survey recommending a course of Bible study. Readers ask me now and then if I can recommend a course of Bible study, and I always say that something that is more to the point is better than something that strains to make books like Haggai wholly relevant to today.

A Ride in the Reconstruction Zone, Part 4 -- Last in the series on H. J. Rushdoony. I still didn't find hard evidence of Rushdoony's supposedly most offensive teachings, and he seems to have been victimized by some bogus quotes.

Grace Like Rain -- A "native informant" piece on life in a collectivist village. This guest piece by "A. J." is an excellent peek into the sort of social setting that existed in Bible times.

The ICBI Survey -- Statistical results of a survey of the qualifications of ICBI members to comment on Mike Licona's take on Matthew 27. There were over 300 members of ICBI, and by my reckoning no more than 30 were/are (some are deceased) qualified to assess the Licona-Geisler controversy. Geisler's appeal to this group needs serious qualification.

Source Criteria Soundoff-- Some comments on Sources of the Jesus Tradition, a book produced by the Jesus Project, and its criterion for deciding what Jesus said and did. This is an initial step into what I hope to someday make into a broader project on criterion for evaluating sources.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I'ts Heretic Season!

From the November 2008 E-Block.


In an item you can find here, Tony Burke -- a professor at York University -- has a handful to say about Christian apologetics literature which responds to "apparent" attacks on Christianity, in particular, books about "Christian Apocrypha (CA)." His issue with these is that "they often misrepresent the texts, their authors, and the scholars who study them."

Unfortunately, one of the few things he fails to go on to do is explain how exactly these apologetics authors "misrepresent" anything whatsoever, or how they sacrifice accuracy, or perform any of the abominations with which he charges them.

Apologetics literature serves a particular purpose: To answer questions people pose. They are also all about answering specific claims. In a book about the Gospel of Judas, reviewed in this very E-Block, Porter and Heath write because they are responding to exceptional claims made about that document. These claims raise questions which in turn warrant a response for those who have those questions. Sometimes these claims are made by scholars; at other times, more often by far I'd say, they are made by the popular media or by Skeptics or others who take the conclusions of the scholars and run with them. Either way, they provoke questions. Apologists aim to answer these questions. I rather wonder if York is aware of this.

It is no shame to be "concerned about the impact of non-canonical texts and heretical ideas" on readers. Burke, as a scholar, is obviously "concerned" himself about misrepresentation. So are apologists. What is the difference? There is none, as long as the work is done accurately. Yet Burke spends very little to no time showing that work was done inaccurately. Indeed, his own response is a study in what he claims are the illicit tactics of apologists:

  • Their chief strategy is to refute by exposure...This refutation is done with little or no argumentation; the views are presented in such a disparaging way that detailed argument is unnecessary. And yet Burke's response is no different. His tactic is to "refute by exposure" by quoting selected phrases from apologists which he finds particularly offensive, and indicating a lack of fairness in their approach -- without demonstrating that this is the case. Beyond this, it is simply false to say that "refutation by exposure" is a "chief strategy." Books Burke disparages, like Jenkins' Hidden Gospels, are fully documented and closely argued. If not, he must explain why not. He does not.
  • On the whole, the heresy hunters spare no invective in their description of the heresies and tend to place emphasis on the most repugnant aspects (real or imagined) of their beliefs and practices. And yet, Burke himself does the very same thing in disparaging the work of apologists. Perhaps he would say that it is too sensitive to regard his words as "invective" when he speaks of insiders and outsiders, etc. and that this is not invective, just an honest assessment. Well -- so is what the apologists say of the heretics, then.
  • Quotations from the CA are necessary if constructing an argument about or against their contents. However, often the apologists excerpt the texts simply to highlight their differences from the canonical texts. Of course, only those sections of the CA texts that are particularly odd are provided and commented upon. And the problem with this is what, exactly? Again, the purpose of such works is to answer questions. Foremost among these would be, "What unique beliefs do these groups hold which published these documents?" This would be a chief question because one way that these documents are used is to claim that they represent a more original form of Christianity. Highlighting the differences, as Burke puts it, is a necessary step in establishing the ideological nature of the parties that authored the document, thus establishing as well a basis for comparison to orthodoxy -- which leads in turn to being able to analyze (to whatever extent necessary) those differing beliefs.

    This sort of question is not answered by quoting mundane portions of these works, or by quoting portions with which orthodoxy holds no disagreement. Burke objects that Such focus on the "bizarre" elements of the texts misrepresents their contents. How so? How can direct quotes "misrepresent" a belief? Burke makes no effort to show that beliefs are reported inaccurately. Perhaps he can say that they are reported incompletely, but that is irrelevant to the questions being addressed. Apologists do not claim that such quotes are exemplars of the entire contents of these documents, or that the bizarre elements represent the totality of all the groups believe.

    Interestingly, Burke does not deny that there "is plenty of material in the canonical texts that is bizarre or objectionable" but simply thinks it "unfair" to quote only that. Why? Will these quotes become less "bizarre" by padding them with more "normal" material? He says, Large parts of the CA are quite "orthodox" but these sections are not discussed. What of it? How would this remove the perfume of the unique from that which is discussed? But once again, in light of the purpose of the apologist -- to answer specific claims and questions that are posed -- no purpose whatsoever is served in quoting the "normal" material. No one is disputing that heretical material might contain non-heretical beliefs.

    Burke does not dispute at all the contention of apologists that "the CA are not compatible with the canonical texts." Yes, he acknowledges, it "may be so" that both the Gnostic and the canonical views cannot be correct. But, he says, "the fact remains that throughout history Christians have combined both accepted and censured texts in a variety of ways, including art and iconography, popular literature, and manuscript transmission. So, reading the canonical and non-canonical gospels side-by-side was not only possible, it actually happened."

    This misrepresents the point. When Wright and other apologists say that these works cannot be read side by side, they are not saying that it cannot be physically done (!), but that one cannot do so and maintain in an epistemologically sound way that both are valid pictures of what actually happened in history, or represent compatible belief systems! Once again, also, Burke also fails to grasp that the purpose of apologetic works is to answer questions and claims -- such as, that the Gospel of Judas may represent a truer picture of what actually happened than the canonical Gospels.

    The bottom line is that when apologists describe the contents of Gnostic texts as absurd, they are either correct or they are not. Burke does not argue this. He merely "argues by exposure" and raises unsubstantiated charges of "lack of awareness of the complexities of defining Gnosticism" and "reliance on outdated scholarship on the texts" without any details offered or any arguments addressed. (Perhaps these arguments are only available via access to Burke's own personal gnosis!)

  • Another strategy the apologists have in common with the ancient heresy hunters is the demonization of the heresiarchs, or in the modern context, the demonization of CA scholars. Yet Burke is no different, as he likewise "demonizes" apologists for their efforts. Perhaps he would say, again, he's just giving an honest assessment. Again, apologists can say so as well. And once again, the real question is, are these alleged "demonizations" false? Here at least Burke tries to show that they are, but his efforts are hardly convincing. For example:
    Bock's straw man is the "new school" of Harvard, also called Neo-Gnostics, led by James Robinson and Helmut Koester.

    That is all that is said of Bock's comments! So why is it wrong? It is not explained.

    Elaine Pagels is also associated with the new school. She is often singled out by the apologists and, it seems, misrepresented. According to Jenkins, "There were two rival streams within Christianity, and for Pagels, as for many other writers, the wrong side won."[19] But Pagels has never made such a claim; indeed, in her magnum opus, The Gnostic Gospels, she is quite conciliatory, stating, "I believe that we owe the survival of Christian tradition to the organizational and theological structure that the emerging church developed."[20]

    This is all quite interesting, but there is nothing in Pagels' quote offered by Burke that is even relevant to what is said by Jenkins. The Pagels quote does not deny "two rival streams" or that "the wrong side won." At most it merely would suggest a way whereby Pagels supposes the "right side" won. Burke seems to have the impression that if he quotes something by Pagels that is vaguely complimentary to orthodoxy, he thereby erases the specific charge Jenkins brings to the fore. It is also a case of Burke again committing his own sin of "quotation by exposure."

    All Burke can say otherwise to this point is that, first, the "new school" is not as monolithic as the apologists suggest. But I think this is a red herring, for he quotes no apologist who says otherwise, or who claims that Bart Ehrman holds exactly the same beliefs as Stevan Davies. Second, Burke says that the new school is further maligned by associating them with fringe scholarship, including scholars like Michael Baigent, Barbara Thiering, Carsten Thiede, and John Allegro. Aside from the travesty of calling Baigent a scholar (which Burke admitted in a reply to Rob Bowman was a careless mistake), Burke has failed to define what he means by "associating with" and so has also failed to show that the association, such as it may exist, is invalid or unwarranted.

In sum, Burke closes with three points reiterating his case. We may reframe them just as easily to accuse Burke, in a facetious way:

First, Burke is motivated to write by a fear that others will be led astray by the ideas presented in the works of the apologists. His work is aimed at those curious about the literature and/or those concerned about others who are curious about the literature. In either case, his article mainly appeals to those within a rather closed community of ideologues who, ultimately, are unlikely to leave the group over the claims of "conservative" scholarship.

Second, Burke and his rivals seem never to interact with one another. Burke reads and seek to refute the apologists' works, but otherwise has little substantial knowledge of the literature and ignores scholarship that does not support his interpretation of the evidence.

Third, Burke makes no effort to understand or sympathize with the apologists and their supporters. He simply wants the "apologies" to disappear.

I am, of course, being facetious. I would never use arguments of this sort in addressing an opponent; they are motivational commentary that fails to address specific claims of fact. In the end, it is here where Burke's commentary is a conspicuous failure. He does not appreciate (as he puts it in a reply to Bowman) what he calls "needless value judgments or disparaging comments" but he fails to show by argument that they are "needless" or inaccurate. Surely it can be agreed that there are works deserving of "value judgments". If that is so, then merely pointing out that they are made, and affixing a label to them, is not enough. The labels must be validated. This seems to have escaped Burke, as he says in a reply to Bowman:

Rob also says I misrepresent Witherington's views on the Gospel of Thomas. But again, my aim was not to agree or disagree with his assessment of the value of this text as a tool for establishing the teachings of the Historical Jesus, but how he unnecessarily disparages the text. One can discuss the historical credibility of the Jesus in the text without labeling some of its sayings as "pantheistic," "misogynist," and "obscure for obscurity's sake!" Worse still, these assessments are incredibly shortsighted and deserve deeper analysis.

But this is the very point at issue. Burke does not show that Witherington's assessments are "shortsighted". It is Witherington's very "assessment of the value of this text as a tool for establishing the teachings of the Historical Jesus" that provokes these disparaging statements that Burke himself disparages. Moreover, all three of the quoted points -- pantheistic, misogynist, obscure -- involve elements that can be objectively discerned from a text. Is the text not pantheistic? Not misogynist? Not obscure? Then Burke needs to show that they are not. To the extent that he does not, his effort comprises a complete failure to convict apologists of wrongdoing.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Prosperity Preachers: Joel Osteen, Part 2

From the December 2008 E-Block.


In putting together Part 2 of this article set on the teachings of Joel Osteen, my goals were twofold:

  1. Review video material by Osteen for any further teachings or insights other than those found previously in his books (reviewed in Part 1 of this series).
  2. Review and evaluate major criticisms of Osteen to determine if they are warranted and fair.

Video Reviews

In reviewing Osteen's sermons, my purpose was not to simply rehash and repeat what has already been discovered in Part 1 of this series. I specifically sought out new material, but as it turns out, I found very little new. In this respect, Osteen imitates others pastors (such as R. C Sproul) in that what you hear from his sermons, you will find repeated in his books - sometimes, the same analogies and stories virtually verbatim.[1]

What little new I did find will therefore be reserved for the next section on criticisms, save that I did find some rather questionable practices offered by Joel's wife, Victoria, who presides over the pre-sermon portion of the Lakewood service: The music, the prayer, and the communion service. The latter offered a particularly disturbing component, as it was indicated that all present could participate - there was no exclusion from the communion for non-Christians! Victoria Osteen also indicated that the communion "brings healing" to the body and emotions, but did not clearly say how this is accomplished. Of course, this does not cohere with the Biblical model for the communion, which is designated as a fellowship meal specifically for those who are members of the Body of Christ. There is also nothing to suggest a "healing" component of any kind.


Criticisms of Osteen are available from a wide variety of sources, including major discernment ministries like Watchman Fellowship. Since my goal is to evaluate criticisms, not ministries, I will merely provide a roster of criticisms and points I have found, and comment on their validity. I will also be using public interviews of Osteen by major news organizations. The criticisms will be framed in terms of a template inspired by one of my favorite television programs - Mythbusters! After this fashion, the criticisms will be rated as Busted, Plausible, or Confirmed.

Criticism: Joel Osteen offers a "cotton candy" gospel lacking in important teachings.

Judgment: Confirmed.

Osteen is seldom if ever criticized for outrightly heretical teachings. Lakewood Church's statement of faith is generally if not universally recognized as orthodox. A more valid criticism is this one: It is noted that his sermons simply do not touch upon issues of doctrines (e.g., the Trinity, inspiration of the Bible, etc.), and I have found nothing to invalidate this concern. Critics note even as I did the sparseness of Biblical citations in Osteen's sermons, as well as that his invitations to salvation at the end seem tacked on and out of place after the sermon contents. [2]

Let's break this criticism down into sub-criticisms with respect to specific lacks reported in Osteen's teachings.

Criticism: Osteen does not mention sin much or at all, and in fact avoids mentioning it.

Judgment: Confirmed.

Indeed, this one isn't open to dispute at all, for Osteen plainly acknowledges that he avoids the topic of sin. An oft-quoted comment by Osteen attests to this:

I think for years there's been a lot of hellfire and damnation. You go to church to figure out what you're doing wrong and you leave feeling bad like you're not going to make it...We believe in focusing on the goodness of God." Of course, incessant focus on sin has, historically, been a criticism of the Christian church. Sometimes it is a warranted criticism; more often, it is rather the critic who has manufactured the focus, while ignoring the remainder of the message.[3]

However, Osteen's own reaction is a pendulum swing too far in the opposite direction. As a popular homily goes, we need the bad news (that we are sinners) for the good news (of forgiveness) to be effectual. Osteen's call to repentance at the end of his sermons aside, the bulk of his message prefaces the good news of the Gospel by offering the good news that God wants to be good to you. Or, as he put it in an interview:

Well, I think that most people already know what they're doing wrong. And for me to get in here and just beat 'em down and talk down to 'em, I just don't think that inspires anybody to rise higher. But I want to motivate. I wanna motivate every person to leave here to be a better father, a better husband, to break addictions to come up higher in their walk with the Lord. [4]

Relatedly, Osteen is often criticized for providing worship services that look more like entertainment than church, and this too is a charge he willingly affirms. He freely acknowledges that Lakewood is devoid of Christian symbols like crosses, and that the services are designed such that they are trying to "take the barriers down that have kept people from coming." The practice of sanitizing extends even to teachings; this has already been seen in the books, as we have noted (and the contents of which were occasionally repeated in the sermons), but I did find one more example, respecting a misuse of Scripture, that was noteworthy, though it came from Victoria Osteen rather than Joel. She alluded to the parable of the talents, and says that the ruler was "unimpressed" with third servant. However, "unimpressed" is not quite the word for what the ruler's reaction was!

Then the one who had received the one talent came and said, 'Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.' But his master answered, 'Evil and lazy slave! So you knew that I harvest where I didn't sow and gather where I didn't scatter? Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest! Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten. For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth'

What will Osteen's congregants think when and if they ever turn to this passage and find out that "unimpressed" wasn't quite the way it happened? I can affirm that many an apostasy has been occasioned by persons who realized that their preachers weren't being thoroughly transparent about the contents of the Bible. I fear for what might happen to those who start to follow the Berean model at Osteen's church. Ironically, it may be the modern tendency to not read and study the Bible that ends up preserving the faith of Osteen's congregants - such as it is.

But then again, it is ironic "good news" that Osteen's teaching techniques do not encourage Berean sensibilities. Osteen happily declares that the services are simple and easy to understand, and that "[a] lot of people who come now are people that haven't been to church in 20 to 30 years." This may be so, but a more relevant question is, "What will these same people be doing, 20 to 30 years from now?" The unfortunate and likely answer is that we will have the converts who are the proverbial mile wide and an inch deep. And although Osteen probably does not realize it, his own performance in television interviews gives us a clear signal that this is the case, and tells us what is likely to happen to his congregants when they go out into the world.

Although I found several examples of this sort of thing, one will be sufficient to establish the point without beating it into the ground. In an interview with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, the following dialogue occurred:

WALLACE: And what about Mitt Romney? And I've got to ask you the question, because it is a question whether it should be or not in this campaign, is a Mormon a true Christian?

OSTEEN: Well, in my mind they are. Mitt Romney has said that he believes in Christ as his savior, and that's what I believe, so, you know, I'm not the one to judge the little details of it. So I believe they are.

And so, you know, Mitt Romney seems like a man of character and integrity to me, and I don't think he would - anything would stop me from voting for him if that's what I felt like.

WALLACE: So, for instance, when people start talking about Joseph Smith, the founder of the church, and the golden tablets in upstate New York, and God assumes the shape of a man, do you not get hung up in those theological issues?

OSTEEN: I probably don't get hung up in them because I haven't really studied them or thought about them. And you know, I just try to let God be the judge of that. I mean, I don't know.

I certainly can't say that I agree with everything that I've heard about it, but from what I've heard from Mitt, when he says that Christ is his savior, to me that's a common bond.

There is little that can be said here positively about Osteen's treatment of Mormonism. He has openly admitted that he has not studied the issues, and has deferred judgment to God. Now of course, this would be a valid course if it had been offered apart from the prior affirmation that in Osteen's mind, a Mormon is a true Christian. In saying this, Osteen has made a judgment that his own professed lack of study ought to have caused him to avoid.

The difficulty here - and the foreboding for all who are Osteen's congregants -- is that the "I don't knows" and the equivocating answers can be multiplied from various interviews. I was able to find multiple examples of this regarding topics ranging from homosexuality to the return of Christ to the fate of those who do not accept the Gospel.[5] The attendant difficulties are obvious, and we will discuss them in due course, but let us first ask the question of why and how Osteen has come to be this way.

Right Here, Right Now

At the heart of the problem are two related difficulties that make it unlikely that Osteen will change in this regard any time soon. The first difficulty is that Osteen's focus is only on what can be done for people now, with no expressed concern for what will happen later. We saw this in Osteen's books, to the extent that he was unaware of the inherent problems in his epistemology of blessings: Serious questions were not answered, but put off with a wait-and-see approach that made it impossible to arrive at a rational disconfirmation. By the same token, it is hard to find a vision in Osteen for what is to come for his listeners five, ten years down the road. Thus he says:

...what I'm called to do is say 'I want to help you learn how to forgive today. I want to help you to have the right thoughts today.' Just simple things. [6]

Osteen's proof of his progress on the right path is also, not surprisingly, focused on the here and how:

"You know, you get people that wanna criticize, 'You're not doing enough of this, enough of that.' Well, we're not perfect. But to have you know hundreds of people tellin' ya 'You changed my life. I haven't been in church in 30 years.' Or 'You saved my marriage.' Not me, but God, but they're telling me, but you know what? You can't help but leave every Sunday afternoon...," Osteen says, getting emotional.

So it is for the testimony of the now. But what will these same people be years in the future, when the lack of substance in Osteen's teachings become apparent? To be sure, in line with the process of confirmation bias inherent in Osteen's books, he will no doubt point at that time to those who remain successes - while saying little about those who were not. Only time will tell - but is it worth the risk with the lives of others that Osteen is taking?

Extra Layers of Insulation

I mentioned two difficulties. The second difficulty is more serious than the first. In line with a focus on the here and now, Osteen has created around himself a circular system of confirmation bias that allows him to dismiss criticism, and by extension, recognize a need for change in his approach. In one of the sermons I watched, Osteen happily affirmed that he believed that people who always want to argue are not worth fighting, and he recommended that one answer criticisms with the "fruit of a well-lived life" rather than an actual answer. As he put it, why answer the critics, when two more will pop up in that one's place! Osteen offered the example of himself discussing issues with a man who came up to discuss doctrine. The man tried to find points of disagreement with Osteen's theology, but Osteen simply said that he agreed with all the man said.

Because of his performance in news interviews recounted above, questions immediately arise: Did Osteen really have a doctrine formulated in these issues prior to this meeting? Or was he being agreeable simply to "avoid a fight" with the man? I am afraid that the evidence indicates that the latter is a far more plausible answer.

Osteen also said that he believes that God will bless you by using criticism to promote you. You have no time to argue, he says; you have a destiny to fulfill. Clearly, we have here a closed, self-insulated system that can find no disconfirmation. Osteen is setting up his listeners, and potentially himself, for a hard fall. We can only hope indeed, as one critic says, that the words of James 3:1 - Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly -- will eventually come to his mind.

Criticism: Osteen lacks formal training as a pastor.

Judgment: Confirmed.

Not surprisingly, Osteen's program of non-disconfirmation gives him a ready means to deflect a related criticism that he lacks formal training as a pastor (which in turn, readily explains the lack of substantive answers to theological questions). In the 60 Minutes interview, Mike Wallace brought this up, and noted Osteen's reply that the twelve disciples of Jesus didn't have formal training either. This is not quite true, or the whole story. Matthew certainly had the equivalent to a modern seminary education as a scribe; Paul had extensive rabbinic training as a disciple, and Luke was among the most educated persons of his day.

Naturally, since less than 10% of the Roman world was literate (and maybe 3% of persons in Palestine), the lack of training cited by Osteen has more to do with the nature of that world than with any lack of relevance today for formal training to be a pastor. At the same time, as I have pointed out in many venues, much of the knowledge that the disciples had of their own day and contexts are things they could take for granted, but which we cannot. Osteen has positioned himself as a broker of information on the Gospel - as presented in a document written in another language, another time, and another place. His example of the apostles, his only argument to the contrary, is simply not effectual. Osteen owes it to his congregants (as do all pastors) to either receive such training, or else consult with those who have. This is especially the case with his current status as a "celebrity" as recognized by secular news organizations. He is Christ's ambassador, and "I don't know" - not used on occasion, but repeated often, and concerning important issues -- does not represent Christ well to anyone, nor does it fulfill the commission to make disciples of all nations. It also once again makes James 3:1 all the more ominous.

Sadly, the disconfirmation factor makes it likely, again, that there will be no change in this. Osteen says of his lack of education, "I know this is right for me... I'm comfortable." While he does say that "ideally" a pastor should be trained, he finds the "ministerial" aspect more important:

You see somebody down, that's lonely, take them to lunch. Encourage them. To me, that's part of it. That's not, you know, public speaking like I am, but I think you have to be called, number one. You have to feel it in your heart, this is what you're supposed to do.

And again, as cited by an article from Newsweek:

We deal every week with someone whose child got killed, or they lost their job. I don't understand it. All you can do is let God comfort you and move on. Part of faith is not understanding.

Once again, we can only hope that Osteen's congregants will not pay the price for this further down the road. As we note in an article on the meaning of faith, Osteen's understanding is incorrect. "Not understanding" is not a natural aspect of faith; while faith may sometimes require us to trust without understanding, it does not do so for lack of answers or in order to come to the defense of the irrational. Eventually, for some of Osteen's congregants, cognitive dissonance will set in when they realize that their questions deserve answers that Osteen's teachings cannot provide.

Criticism: Osteen teaches the "word-faith" heresy/teaching.

Judgment: Plausible

KING: What's the prosperity gospel, and why do you preach it? You think God wants us to have money?

J. OSTEEN: Well. You know, Larry? That's something I kind of get tagged with that I don't even like. I'm not a prosperity preacher, quote. My message is very balanced. I preach about forgiveness and hope, as a matter of fact, I've never preached a message on money.

Osteen has not preached a message on money, true - but he preaches success and promotion, and he need not mention one avenue of that (money) for the accusation of "prosperity teaching" to sound plausible. But I have rendered this as "plausible" for a specific reason. In part 1 of this series, I noted that one point on which Osteen's orthodoxy is routinely questioned is with respect to his reputed adherence to Word-Faith principles. I found nothing in Osteen's sermons or interviews to cause me to reverse or modify this judgment, though I continue to see why critics might find this a plausible charge.

It is fair to say that Osteen is to some extent shooting himself in the foot when he insulates himself from critics on this issue. Despite his own advice in his book to consider the opinions of others, Osteen apparently does not heed criticism of himself on this point, which is unfortunate, because it seems that it could be cleared up quite easily. The answer to King above is simply too vague to satisfy the criticisms.

One might suggest, in light of what we have seen, that Osteen may not know enough about prosperity teachings to defend himself from the charge that he is using them. Some critics believe Osteen is being disingenuous here, and perhaps they are right - but I have yet to see evidence that this is the case. As I noted previously, Osteen's teachings simply lack the most clear specifics of the Word-Faith message.

In surveying criticisms, I sought specific examples of Osteen using Word-Faith teachings, but in each case, more charitable interpretations are possible, which leaves enough room for doubt that I could not call this criticism Confirmed; and yet, there was also not enough said by Osteen to call the criticism Busted.

Example #1: Seed Letter. Critics offer a 2005 ministry letter from Osteen which read as follows:

People tell me, "Joel, He is God. If He wants to bless me, He can." Friend, God works by laws. You can't expect to reap a harvest without first planting your seeds. If you will be faithful and do what God is asking you to do, God will do His part. Don't let the enemy deceive you into holding on to your seed-get it into the ground!

As you read this, God may be speaking to your heart. Trust that He will direct you how and where He wants you to sow your seed. If you are moved to send a seed gift in the enclosed reply envelope..."

To be sure, Osteen uses some of the language of the Word-Faith movement here when he speaks of sowing seed; but in fairness, the Word-Faith movement is using Biblical language - as we sow, so shall we reap! There are several options here:

  1. Osteen is getting this language from the Bible, and it is coincidental that it reflects what is said by the WF teachers.
  2. Osteen is imitating some of what he has heard from WF teachers, and does not know (or care) how they have misused it.
  3. Osteen is teaching WF principles.

Given the data so far, I am inclined towards #2 as the likeliest explanation. Osteen's apparent lack of serious education, his indifference to criticism, and (dare I say) his healthy smile all point to naivete rather than deception. Arguably, I am granting too much benefit of the doubt, but for now, this is where the evidence leads.

Example #2: Faith as a force. In my last article, I sought out, but could not find in his books, any statement by Osteen that faith was some sort of "force" which got us what we wanted. One critic did find such a statement in a 2000 Osteen sermon, but I find that it is equivocal:

Fear is a force just like faith is a force. If you give into fear and start to dwell on that junk and start to act on it, that fear can actually bring things to pass just like faith can bring things to pass. Job said, 'the thing I greatly feared came upon me.' Fear is a force just like faith is a force. If you give into fear and start to dwell on that junk and start to act on it, that fear can actually bring things to pass just like faith can bring things to pass.

The reason why I must consider this equivocal is that once again, it seems that Osteen is focusing on the psychological impact of faith and fear rather than seeing it as some sort of intrinsic power. Of course, the appeal to Job is misguided, inasmuch as we can hardly say that Job in any sense caused his sufferings to come upon himself. Nevertheless, it seems to me that psychology, not WF, lies behind this statement, and it is perhaps of significance that Osteen has not referred to faith as a force in his books which came later. It may be charitably argued that he has realized that he leaves himself open to be misread by using this language. A less charitable evaluation may simply say Osteen is being inconsistent or dishonest, but I will reserve that judgment barring further information.

Example #3: Satan and Jesus on WWF. Critics also note that Osteen has taught something associated with WF to the effect that Jesus fought with Satan in hell. [8]

The Bible indicates that for three days, Jesus went into the very depths of hell. Right into the enemy's own territory. And He did battle with Satan face to face. Can you imagine what a show down that was? It was good vs. evil. Right vs. wrong. Holiness vs. filth. Here are the two most powerful forces in the universe have come together to do battle for the first time in history. But thank God. The Bible says, "Satan was no match for our Champion". This was no contest. (Congregation applauds)

Jesus crushed Satan's head with His foot. He bruised his head. And He once and for all, forever defeated and dethroned and demoralized our enemy. One translation says, "He paralyzed him and rendered him powerless". But thank God. He didn't even stop there. He went over and ripped the keys of death and hell out of Satan's hands. And He grabbed Satan by the nap of his neck and He began to slowly drag him down through the corridors of Hell. All beat up and bruised because He wanted to make sure that every single demon saw very clearly that Jesus was indeed the undisputed Champion of all time! Amen? (Congregation applauds)

However, critics must also admit that Osteen does not also offer related WF teaching that Jesus "became sin" on the cross and became an evil being. I do not think it is sufficient here to say that Osteen may believe this also. I have run across Christians who are not WF who nevertheless believe that Jesus and Satan fought in hell. Perhaps this is where Osteen's belief lies; perhaps not. But the data at present is simply not sufficient to make a judgment.

Example #4: The laws of faith. Similar to examples 1 and 2, critics have cited a 2004 sermon in which Osteen says:

You've got to speak it out. Your words have creative power. One of the primary ways we release our faith is through our words. There is a divine connection between you declaring God's favor and seeing God's favor manifested in your life. And some of you are doing your best to please the Lord. You are living a holy consecrated life, but you're not really experiencing God's supernatural favor. And it's simply because you're not declaring it. You've got to give life to your faith by speaking it out...

You can cancel out God's plan by speaking negative words. God works by laws.

Critics connect this to the WF supposition that God operates by spiritual "laws" He is obliged to obey. However, once again, critical elements are lacking that make a rendering greater than Plausible possible. Osteen does not speak of God being obliged to obey these laws. Thus it is not clear whether Osteen is saying that, or whether he means that God has established certain laws within a covenant structure. The question of whether God must obey these laws, or simply does follow them, is not clearly answered.


In the final analysis, the criticism that is most on target against Osteen is the one which targets the brittleness of his theology and the vacuity of his teachings. Although the judgment of Osteen as Word-Faith is possible to defend against - for now - the judgment of his message as thematically self-serving and without substantive content is not.

I prefer to think, for now, that Osteen is simply plunged into his own well of naivete. However, this does not minimize the damage that his approach can do. As the Western world's condition as a spiritual wasteland becomes more serious, it will not do to feed the patient "cotton candy" when what they need is chemotherapy.


[1] Naturally, there is nothing inherently wrong with this; it is a standard procedure by pastors and teachers, myself included!

[2] Arguably, there is much more talk about doctrine in Lakewood's educational programs, but there is little available to confirm or deny this on Lakewood's website. At some future date, perhaps a personal visit to Lakewood is in order to find out!

[3]Indeed, from the way critics speak of it, one might suppose that Jonathan Edwards had only one sermon in his repertoire, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." But as noted by the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University:

Anthologized in high school and college textbooks, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God represents in many persons' minds the bleak, cruel, and hell-bent outlook of Edwards and his Puritan predecessors. But of course such a representation is only a caricature, for Sinners, if it represents anything, stands for only a small part of Edwards's view of the relationship between humankind and God. As a specially crafted awakening sermon, Sinners was aimed at a particularly hard-hearted congregation. But, at the same time, the awakening sermon and all it expressed-the awful weight of sin, the wrath of an infinitely holy God, and the unexpectedness of the moment when God will execute justice-were integral to Edwards's theology. This sermon, therefore, deserves to be studied and meditated on for its own sake, but also as part of a larger vision of the spiritual life. Accessed November 21, 2008. I daresay Osteen himself may be subject to the same sort of lack of focus regarding the supposed prevalence of teaching on sin the church today.


[5] 12/22/06 In one particular case, Osteen's equivocation on the matter of the fate of those who reject the Gospel inspired a much less equivocal affirmation on that matter in a later interview, as well as a temporary statement on Osteen's website. The exchange on Larry King's program affirming the correction was recorded as follows:

KING: On this program you angered some evangelicals two years ago when you did not say that accepting Jesus is the only way to heaven. This is the birth of Jesus coming up Monday. You still believe that?

J. OSTEEN: No. I believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven.

KING: So you misspoke?

J. OSTEEN: I thought that I said that. I said I believe in a personal relationship with Christ. You go back and pull things out of the transcript, it could look like that, but the foundation of the Christian faith is that Christ came as a sacrifice so that we can receive forgiveness.

KING: So you don't believe, you don't go to heaven?

J. OSTEEN: I believe it's true what you're saying, that you have to have a relationship with Christ. I mean, the "Scripture" is so clear. The most famous "Scripture" is God sent his son to, you know, forgive the world and if you believe in him, you will have everlasting life. And another place it talks about Jesus said, you can't get to the father unless through me. So I do believe that. It's the foundation of our faith.

KING: So was that out of context two years ago ...

J. OSTEEN: I think that being young and ...

KING: Did I trick you?

J. OSTEEN: No, I never felt like that whatsoever. I just think -- and I was first to admit, if anybody took it like that, I'll admit an oversight.

It was never my desire or intention to leave any doubt as to what I believe and Whom I serve. I believe with all my heart that it is only through Christ that we have hope in eternal life. I regret and sincerely apologize that I was unclear on the very thing in which I have dedicated my life.

Jesus declared in John 14; I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me. I believe that Jesus Christ alone is the only way to salvation. However, it wasn't until I had the opportunity to review the transcript of the interview that I realize I had not clearly stated that having a personal relationship with Jesus is the only way to heaven. It's about the individual's choice to follow Him.

God has given me a platform to present the Gospel to a very diverse audience. In my desire not to alienate the people that Jesus came to save, I did not clearly communicate the convictions that I hold so precious.



[8]This may be found online at

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Prosperity Preachers: Joel Osteen, Part 1

One of my first serial efforts in the E-Block was called The Prosperity Preachers, in which I looked at some popular preachers who seemed to teach that old health and wealth gospel. We did 2 entries on Joel Osteen; here's Part 1 as it appeared in the November 2008 E-Block.


Until now, as I have been primarily occupied with Skeptics, and the claims of various cults, I have never had time or the need to consider the claims and teachings of various spiritual leaders within the broad sweep of Christendom. For that reason, our consideration of these leaders within this new e-zine will involve something of a fresh, objective approach. I am well aware that many denigrate these leaders by name - but I know little more than that about them. Thus I hope to produce evaluations of these leaders that are as free from preconceived notions as possible.

We start with Joel Osteen - pastor of Houston's Lakewood Church. My evaluation in this issue concerns only his two books: Your Best Life Now (YBL) and Become a Better You (BBY). Because this is my first examination of Osteen's work, I will advise the reader that my conclusions this round are based solely on these books. How the questions I address are answered may change as I further evaluate Osteen's work in other venues (such as television broadcasts) and later, after my own readings are complete, criticisms of Osteen by others.

Initial Assessment

There is much to be said positively about Osteen as a communicator. He is clearly gifted in the area of drawing illustrative analogies, and in presenting his ideas in a format that any reader can understand. The "downside" to his presentation format is that, in an effort to hammer home ideas, Osteen frequently becomes repetitive. As I have said of other authors, he is gifted in the area of saying in 5000 words what could have as easily been said in 500!

One likely issue of concern to readers is that while Osteen is a pastor, if his name and references to his church were removed from the books, one could easily take him to be not a pastor, but a Christian motivational speaker, after the manner of Zig Ziglar. It is tempting to say that in this regard, Osteen actually did miss his calling. Arguably, Lakewood Church has boomed precisely because he excels at motivational speaking (though not necessarily, not other reasons). As a motivator, Osteen excels. I would estimate that at least 90% of his text is unobjectionable, if we view his writings in that light. As a pastor, however, much of what he has to offer seems out of place. The invitation to become a Christian which appears at the end of his books (and is made at the end of his sermons) seems tacked on as though they were a formal obligation to remind the reader that Osteen is a pastor.

Inevitably -- because of the use of the "numbered steps" model in the book's subtitles (e.g., "7 Steps to Living At Your Full Potential") - I found myself drawing comparisons between Osteen and the self-help guru Wayne Dyer. The similarities are not hard to find, and no doubt derive from the common practices of all motivational speakers. Like Dyer, Osteen encourages positive attitudes and the performance of good deeds. Fortunately, Osteen does not follow Dyer into such epistemological paradigms as "re-writing your own reality" and keeping such an "open mind" that you are willing to accept that perhaps crystals can cure diseases. However, some have suggested that Osteen does adhere to certain teachings of the "Word-Faith" movement, and we will be looking at to what extent this may be true.

Good Advice for Living

As noted, the bulk of Osteen's text is unobjectionable advice for practical, satisfying living. Here are some examples:

  • BBY 25 Quit mourning over something you can't change.
  • BBY 27 Bad company will more likely pull you down, than you will pull them up.
  • BBY 30 Surround yourself with people who will give you an honest opinion, not yes-men.
  • BBY 55 Share problems with others who will stand with you.
  • BBY 62-3 Look at things long term; the price you pay now may reap rewards later, in or past your lifetime.
  • BBY 72 Do things you love doing when you select a career.
  • BBY 87; YBL 66 When you make mistakes, repent and move on; don't harp on the past.
  • BBY 142 Take time to encourage your spouse.
  • BBY 151; YBL 271 Don't make a big deal over small things.
  • BBY 154 Swallow your pride and consider the opinions of others.
  • BBY 167 Treat people with respect and dignity.
  • BBY 169 Children need positive role models.
  • BBY 180 Don't be self-centered; have consideration for others.
  • BBY 198 Become better by checking your habits.
  • BBY 244; YBL 221 Be a giver and an encourager.
  • BBY 348; YBL 283 Present yourself in an honorable way (appearance) and be a good steward.
  • BBY 365 Be thankful for what you have.
  • YBL 19 Associate with enthusiastic and successful people.
  • YBL 103 Take responsibility for your own actions
  • YBL 164 Let God avenge wrongs to you - don't take your own vengeance.
  • YBL 293 Be a person of integrity in your behavior -- you represent Christ.

    If this were all there was to Osteen's books, then perhaps we'd hear little more about him in terms of criticism. However, as we will see, a certain amount of Osteen's content reflects an injudicious and uncritical application of data.

    Does Osteen misapply Scripture?

    The answer to this question is a yes with a caveat. Osteen does often misapply Scripture in these books, but he does so with no more frequency than many pastors I have encountered. Not that I say this to justify or defend him. I am merely pointing out that Osteen thus far earns no special condemnation in this regard.

    Most of Osteen's misapplications of Scripture involve either anachronism (reading modern values and meaning into the text) or midrashic readings of the text. Let's look at examples of each.

  • BBY 9 Anachronism: God asks in the Garden of Eden, "Adam, who told you that you were naked?" Osteen equates this to God asking, "Who told you that something was wrong with you?" It is hard to see how Osteen arrives at this reading. Biblical social values regarded nakedness as shameful (see here), and the question is asked in the aftermath of the "original sin." It is impossible to jump from God's question to Osteen's interpretation of the question.
  • BBY10 Midrashic reading: In John 4, the woman at the well says that she has no bucket to draw water. Osteen turns this into lesson on how we "start thinking about what we don't have, and all the obstacles in our path..." Creative, but entirely unsubstantiated.
  • BBY 30 Anachronism: Osteen turns Eliab's taunt to David to return home to take care of the family's sheep, into Eliab saying, "David, you're never going to do anything great. You don't have what it takes." Hardly: This is simply Eliab reminding David to return to his proper responsibility within the family hierarchy.
  • BBY 24 Midrashic reading: Osteen notes that a car has large windshield, but a small rearview mirror. He says: "The implication is obvious: What happened in your past is not nearly as important as what is in your future." Yes, Osteen not only applies midrash to Scripture, but also to automotive engineering!
  • BBY 129 Anachronism: Speaking of Josh 5:9, where God says to Joshua, "Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you," Osteen writes: "In other words, they didn't feel good about themselves. They had been hurt and mistreated; they were discouraged, even after being delivered from slavery." Here again this is entirely unsuitable to the agonistic tenor of the Biblical world. There would be no conception of "feeling good about yourself" in the sense of self-esteem, but rather, a sense of shame (reproach) at having been prisoners in Egypt.
  • BBY 273-4 Midrashic reading: Osteen says that Jesus was able to calm the storm on the Sea of Galilee "because he had peace inside Himself." In addition to being midrashic, this is also rather poor theology. Jesus' power derived from his divinity, not an inner sense of self.
  • YBL 58 Anachronism: Gideon is used as an example of person who thought little of himself, as he appealed to his poverty, low status, etc. when called by God (Judges 6). On the contrary, in the agonistic society of the Biblical world, Gideon's reply to God was not "unqualified, full of fear, and lacking in confidence" as Osteen claims; rather, it was the proper, humble response of a servant who did not seek to rise above himself. (Osteen commits the same anachronism with Mephibosheth; YBL 89, and at YBL 61 efers to Biblical characters' lack of self-esteem - a non-existent concept in the ancient world; see here.)

    These are just a few examples of places where Osteen misapplies Scripture. Admittedly, I have read or heard worse. But there is one particular application of Osteen's that lies at the heart of much of what he says, and that deserves special notice.

    Our Role and Purpose: Misapplication of Image Language

    Seemingly at the core of much of Osteen's understanding of the relationship between God and man is his reading of Genesis 1:26 (which speaks of man being made in God's "image"). Mormons of course use this verse to claim that God is a human being, and some Word-Faith teachers (like Kenneth Copeland) have gone in the same direction. I find no indication yet that Osteen goes quite that far, but he does seem to think that image-language implies some similarity to God. Osteen speaks of God having "put something deep down inside us that evokes a desire to be more like him" (BBY, xiii), and repeatedly invokes God's reputed desire to have us be happy and successful, and our status as God's children, to justify his teachings. Thus, for example:

  • BBY 34 "Your Heavenly Father spoke the galaxies into existence." Heroes of faith in your spiritual bloodline include Moses, David, Daniel, etc. "You come from a bloodline of champions...You are the seed of Almighty God."
  • BBY 35 "Because of what God has done, every one of us is a thoroughbred."
  • YBL 5 "...God wants us to constantly be increasing, to be rising to new heights. He wants to increase you in His wisdom and help you to make better decisions. God wants to increase you financially, by giving you promotions, fresh ideas, and creativity."

    As noted in my book The Mormon Defenders, the actual meaning of Gen. 1:26 has to do with man as God's authorized representative on earth. Thus Osteen's interpretation of the Bible's image-language as a basis for self-evaluation is incorrect. Yes, it is true, as Osteen says, that God has a destiny in mind for all of us; yes, as he says, each member of the Body of Christ has gifts and talents that are given. There is also no reason to have a "defeated mind-set" (BBY, 4), as Osteen says. However, in his effort to encourage those who have such a mindset, Osteen swings the pendulum too far the other way. The Biblical social world is one in which frank and honest evaluations of one's own capabilities were acceptable, and this is the same viewpoint the Bible offers. Simply calling yourself a "thoroughbred" or a "champion" without justification would have been seen as obnoxious, even more so than it is today. It would be better to say we are all intended to be successful finishers of the race to which we have been assigned -- and in some cases, it may be intended for us to take something less than first place. Not all evangelists can be Billy Graham; but all have their place in God's economy.

    What may be even more greatly perceived as problematic is what blessings Osteen claims will be the result of our obedience to God (BBY 302). Osteen says that because we are God's, we can expect favor and "preferential treatment" from others. At times he says that this favor comes from people returning our own goodness unto us: He notes the example of his father, who, based on reputation, and association with God, received favor from others. (YBL 39-40) At other times, Osteen implies that this favor will be bestowed supernaturally; in one case he uses the example of a grocery store opening a new checkout lane when you're in a hurry! (YBL 44) In all of this Osteen cautions that we should not become arrogant or think we are owed a living. However, we should also note something he does not mention - which is that Jesus promised persecutions, not favor.

    To be sure, it is not at all impossible that God may work out favor for us in some ways. But there are two cautions that need to be associated with this point. Let's look at those now.

    Taking Favor for Granted

    If I were Joel Osteen, I might take this as an example of God's favor in action, but I'll assume for now it was merely coincidence! In light of Osteen's associations with "prosperity" teachings - and his verified teachings concerning the receipt of preferential treatment - a recent article in TIME magazine here sets off alarm bells:

    Has the so-called Prosperity gospel turned its followers into some of the most willing participants - and hence, victims - of the current financial crisis? That's what a scholar of the fast-growing brand of Pentecostal Christianity believes. While researching a book on black televangelism, says Jonathan Walton, a religion professor at the University of California at Riverside, he realized that Prosperity's central promise - that God will "make a way" for poor people to enjoy the better things in life - had developed an additional, dangerous expression during the subprime-lending boom. Walton says that this encouraged congregants who got dicey mortgages to believe "God caused the bank to ignore my credit score and blessed me with my first house." The results, he says, "were disastrous, because they pretty much turned parishioners into prey for greedy brokers."
    Others think he may be right. Says Anthea Butler, an expert in Pentecostalism at the University of Rochester in New York: "The pastor's not gonna say, 'Go down to Wachovia and get a loan,' but I have heard, 'Even if you have a poor credit rating, God can still bless you - if you put some faith out there [that is, make a big donation to the church], you'll get that house or that car or that apartment.' " Adds J. Lee Grady, editor of the magazine Charisma: "It definitely goes on, that a preacher might say, 'If you give this offering, God will give you a house.' And if they did get the house, people did think that it was an answer to prayer, when in fact it was really bad banking policy." If so, the situation offers a look at how a native-born faith built partially on American economic optimism entered into a toxic symbiosis with a pathological market.

    A full comparison to Osteen is not precise, because the issue in TIME is people who are encouraged to give sacrificially to their churches only. Osteen, in contrast, refers to the planting of "seeds" in many ways - by the performance of favors for others, or by tithing, or even by simply encouraging someone. In addition, Osteen occasionally buffers his message of "seed faith" with hedges of discretion. This in turn leads to a discussion of the second, more critical caution that Osteen's teachings warrant.

    Confirmation Bias and Verification Problems

    "I know these principles work, because I have experienced them firsthand in my own life." (BBY, xiv) This encapsulates Osteen's total assurance about the validity of his principles for gaining success. The immediate problem is that personal anecdote as a verification technique is epistemologically unsound. It is far too easy to fall into confirmation bias, or to explain away difficulties with further epicycles of explanation.

    I noted this tendency in the writings of self-help guru Wayne Dyer some years ago:

    "You have the power within you to attract to yourself all that you could ever want." [xi]...[T]he oddity is that if you follow Dyer's other advice of redefining problems so they no longer worry you, then when you don't get the car, you will simply redefine the problem so that you never actually wanted it or were going to get it. There is nothing quite like a failsafe self-help manual…Nor is likely you will hear of anyone else's failures using Dyer's methods, since he explains in Manifest [62] that it is essential to keep your manifesting "private"...And conveniently, this offers Dyer another contrived way to explain failures, since the ability of people to keep their desires secret is hardly a universal ability. Just in case, Dyer also counsels "infinite patience" and being "unconcerned about the details" [134] in case you have a hard time "manifesting" what you want.

    Osteen tells us many anecdotes of how he or someone else used his principles to gain success. For example (BBY 16), he tells a story of his church, Lakewood, seeking a property and not being able to get it. Osteen then said to himself, "Joel, God has closed this door for a reason. He has something better in store." Osteen found confirmation of this when his church ended up with better option in the Compaq Center.

    While we may not doubt that God may theoretically close a lesser door to open a better one, Osteen's system provides no way to verify that this has happened. Instead - hauntingly like Dyer - Osteen simply redefines any problems or disconfirmations so that it is exactly what was intended to happen. Thus (BBY 226) he will say, for example, if you have a bad time in traffic and miss a meeting, you can thank God for putting you in right place at right time. But how do we know this? We don't. We just "have faith" that God has worked behind the scenes. Osteen's depth of "faith" is therefore such that he believes (BBY 293) God arranged things like timing of traffic lights, formulated years in the past, to make it easier for people to get to Compaq Center.

    There are three disturbing aspects to Osteen's epistemological system.

    First, his system has an unsatisfactory accounting for failures which makes it non-disprovable. Osteen seems to want to say as little as possible about what to do when you follow the principles he lays down and still do not achieve a result. In BBY (359), to the question, "What if nothing happens?" he says:

    What if you do this and it does happen? Even if it doesn't turn out the way you had hoped, you'll still be better off to live your life positively and hopeful.

    Similarly, in YBL (16) he says:

    What if you do that and it does work? Whom are we kidding here? What do you have to lose by keeping your hopes alive?

    In short, Osteen really does not answer for failures. To that extent, his system for success is no more verifiable than a Mormon internal witness.

    Second, his system too easily redefines problems out of existence. Thus in YBL (41-2) he gives the example of searching for a parking spot in a crowded lot. Osteen thanks God for a good space when he finds one, but what if you do not find one? Then, he says, " get out and walk, and with every step, you thank God that you are strong and healthy and have the ability to walk." And he explains further of a time when he didn't find a parking space close by (43):

    "...God has my best interests at heart...He is working for my good. A delay may spare me from an accident. Or a delay may cause me to bump into somebody that needs to be encouraged, somebody that needs to see a smile."

    There is good reason for this methodology to disturb us. Atheist Dan Barker, in his original book Losing Faith in Faith (and now also in Godless, a book reviewed in this very issue), tells much the same story of his quests for parking spaces - even having used the same Scripture that Osteen does, Romans 8:28: "All things work together for good to them that love the Lord." Before long, the logical strain becomes apparent: What of the person whose delay in finding a space caused them to get into an accident? To be sure, we are counseled to always be thankful to God, and we should be. Nevertheless, if we persist in a vision of God as a micromanager to this extent, then inevitably, we are compelled to rationalization as Barker was, ending up as he did, driving in random directions under the prompting of an inner voice, and ending up in the middle of a vacant lot thinking it was a test of our faith.

    I am not saying of course that God cannot by His power arrange for a good parking space! However, I do find it presumptuous to think that He does such things on the microscopic scale that Osteen envisions. To claim this is to leave the system open to rationalization at the crux point of failures. (As for Romans 8:28, it is probably best to read it as referring to God working out things for "those that love him" in a collective sense -- that is, the church, as in the whole of the passage -- rather than for individual concerns.)

    Finally, Osteen's system requires a strained explanation for success by non-Christians. At only one point (YBL 229) does Osteen address this problem, and he is compelled to claim that a wealthy Saudi prince who gave charitably was rich because "the principles of giving are spiritual principles" that work regardless of religion - he "lent to God by helping the poor, and God will not be in debt to any person." There is absolutely no reason to say this, Scripturally or otherwise. It is true that God sometimes makes use of His ideological enemies to accomplish His purposes, but as above, it is presumptuous to universalize God's actions in this regard, especially when the person in question is not being used as a tool of judgment.

    A final note of interest: In BBY (60), Osteen tells an anecdote of white blood cells taken from volunteers and put in test tube These were measured with a lie detector as the volunteer watched violent images, and according to Osteen, the white blood cells reacted too! Regrettably, Osteen gives no documentation for this study, which sounds a great deal like something that was once "busted" on Mythbusters!

    Question: Is Osteen of the "Word-Faith" movement?

    If Osteen is indeed a "Word-Faith" advocate, it can be difficult to discern from these books (though it may become apparent as we study further). The Watchman Fellowship here offers several defining doctrines of the Word-Faith movement. Do any of these appear in Osteen's books?

    God -- Word-Faith teachers claim that God operates by spiritual law and is obliged to obey the faith-filled commands and desires of believers. He not only reveals prosperity teaching supernaturally to the Word-Faith teachers, but personally and verbally confirms their unique interpretations of Scripture (Copeland, Laws of Prosperity, pp. 60-62).

    I have found nothing in Osteen's books that say that God is "obliged" to obey "faith-filled commands and desires." Faith does play a role in Osteen's system, but its role is somewhat murkier (see below).

    The Faith teachers also make God into a big man. Copeland says, "God is...a being that stands somewhere around 6'-2," 6'-3," that weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple of hundred pounds, little better, and has a hand span of nine inches across

    I have found nothing to suggest that Osteen believes that God is a "big man."

    Man --Word-Faith teachers say that not only is God a big man, but man is a little god. Kenneth Hagin has asserted, "man...was created on terms of equality with God, and he could stand in God's presence without any consciousness of inferiority.... He made us the same class of being that He is Himself.... He lived on terms equal with God.... The believer is called Christ, that's who we are; we're Christ" (Zoe: The God Kind of Life, pp. 35-36, 41).

    While Osteen envisions men (or at least believers) as being part of a metaphorical "bloodline of champions," I have found nothing to suggest that he regards man as God's equal. Nor did I find anything akin to Word-Faith teacher Kenneth Hagin's statement, "You are as much the incarnation of God as Jesus Christ was."

    Atonement -- They say Jesus not only bore our sins on Calvary, but also took on the actual nature of Satan himself.

    I found nothing in the books to suggest that Osteen subscribes to this belief.

    But we at last come to a place where Osteen's offered teachings most closely resemble Word-Faith teachings - that is, in his "principles" for success. Watchman Fellowship says:

    1) Positive Confession: The Theology of the Spoken Word (Rhematology), or thought actualization, is commonly known as positive confession. It stresses the inherent power of words and thoughts. Each person predestines his own future by what he says verbally and by how well he uses spiritual laws. As such, it is as if we live in a mechanistic universe instead of a personal one (see, Kenneth Copeland, Laws of Prosperity, p. 15; Charles Capps, The Tongue A Creative Force, pp. 117-118; Releasing the Ability of God, pp. 98-99, 101-104).
    2) The Gospel of Health: Isaiah 53 is used to justify blanket coverage for the physical healing of every Christian who has enough faith. " is the plan of our Father God in His great love and His great mercy that no believer should ever be sick, that every believer should live his life full span down here on earth and that every believer should finally just fall asleep in Jesus" (Hagin, Seven Things You Should Know About Divine Healing, p. 21). Hagin also denies having a headache for forty-five years, labeling such as "simply symptoms rather than any indication of a headache" (In the Name of Jesus, p. 44).
    3) The Gospel of Wealth: A central tenet of the prosperity gospel is that God wills the financial prosperity of every Christian. If a believer lives in poverty, he/she is living outside God's intended will. "You must realize that it is God's will for you to prosper" (Copeland, Laws of Prosperity, p. 51).

    We find in Osteen points uncomfortably similar to all three of these teachings. Nevertheless, in the books at least, it does not seem that Osteen goes quite as far as the Watchman descriptions. Most of his statements that resemble "positive confession" seem to reflect the psychological impact of negative words rather than their innate power, thus:

  • BBY 12 "Don't allow negative words or attitudes to take root and keep you from pressing forward."
  • BBY 111 "Positively or negatively, creative power resides in your words, because you believe your words more than you believe anybody else's."

    Explicit statements that words and thoughts have "inherent power" are not to be found. At worst, we have vague statements like this one (BBY 21-2) that say to remind yourself of your own positive qualities and favor from God, and then: "Declare these statements by faith and before long, you will begin to see them in reality." In this, it is not clearly said that the words of faith have "inherent power." A more charitable reading would be that Osteen is simply referring to the innate psychological effect of words and thoughts, which is something he does explicitly write of, repeatedly, as also here:

  • YBL 101 "...thoughts determine actions, attitude, and self-image...Your life will always follow your thoughts."

    Beyond this, it is hard to see Osteen making certain statements if indeed he is a full-blown Word-Faith teacher. For example (BBY 45), he says that if you reflect on your ancestors having diabetes, "you're planning to be diabetic." Put your foot down, he says, and say you won't have it: "Don't make plans for negative things." If left by itself, this may sound purely Word-Faith. Yet Osteen also counsels: "[I will] do my part to stay healthy…try to eat right and exercise regularly." Would a Word-Faith teacher counsel the need for exercise and diet, not just "faith"? Perhaps they would; but if so, they would then be inconsistent in their teachings. If Osteen is indeed of the Word-Faith movement, he does not represent his theology well here.

    Similarly, it would be hard to imagine someone tied to the "Gospel of Wealth" making statements like this (BBY 208):

    We need to think long and hard before we buy something that puts us deeply into debt. Do you really need that fancy car? Do you really need that extra toy?...I say this respectfully, but often we don't really need a miracle, we just need to develop better spending and saving habits.

    At BBY 209, Osteen illustrates a "step of faith" by a couple deeply in debt: They do not speak words of faith and demand action from God - they go to see a financial counselor and commit to a budgeting program!

    Other comments do not cohere well with a Word-Faith approach. At BBY 258, Osteen says, "Understand that your faith will not instantly deliver you out of every problem. Instead, your faith will carry you through the problem." At BBY 259 he says that God can answer prayer with a no. At BBY 337 he says, "[God] can provide - even if it takes a miracle to do so!" And at YBL 74: "...if you'll get into agreement with God, if you'll focus on your possibilities, your faith can cause God to show up and work supernaturally in your life." Surely a solid Word-Faith preacher would have said "will" - not "can."

    YBL 195-6 says: "I would love to tell you that if you prayed hard enough, and if you had enough faith, your prayers would always be answered within twenty-four hours. But that's simply not true. God is not like an ATM machine, where you punch in the right codes and receive what you requested….we all have to wait patiently. That's part of learning to trust God." This is decidedly contrary to a Word-Faith mentality that specifically treats God as an "ATM machine" where your faith is the code you punch in.

    There is no doubt that some of Osteen's less explicit statements leave open a Word-Faith interpretation. At YBL 33, he says to a man who says that God will bless him if He wants to, and he won't be pushy:

    Unfortunately, that's just the opposite how God operates. God works by faith. You must believe first, and then you'll receive...God is waiting on you to stretch your faith. Make room in your thinking, and then you'll start experiencing some of His supernatural increase.

    At YBL 127-9, Osteen writes of how his mother "kept on confessing God's Word" and was healed of disease. He then says we can do this in our "everyday lives" too: "Your words have enormous creative power. The moment you speak something out, you give birth to it." This seems very much Word-Faith, but in the next paragraph, he goes on to say, "...we are profoundly influenced by what we say about ourselves." Is this then Word-Faith - or self-psychology in action?

    Then there is a teaching of "seed faith." Based on the principle that you reap what you sow, YBL 250-1 says, "When you meet other people's needs, God has promised that He will make sure yours needs are supplied." It is said further (255-6) that if you tithe, God will return the blessing; not necessarily in money, but perhaps in health, promotion, and so on. Osteen goes on to say: "I'm not suggesting that you can buy miracles." "...I am saying God sees your gifts." This does not seem quite coherent with Word-Faith, although it does warrant a certain caution: For as Jesus stated, those who seek to be noted on earth for their philanthropy will have already received their reward. Osteen's teaching of success in this life, if valid, suggests that it is received at the expense of rewards in the next life.

    Concluding Impressions

    What then of this initial survey of Osteen's books? We may have more to say after a study of his television appearances, and criticisms of his ministry. For now, these are my impressions:

  • Barring further discovery, in light of more explicit statements made by Osteen about the psychological impact of words and thoughts, it may be charitable to read his less explicit statements on faith as having an exhortational function, rather than a methodological function in which faith is a force that gets us what we want.
  • Osteen is subjected often to targeted criticism for not mentioning sin. This is a valid criticism. Jesus is not mentioned often in these books; nor is sin or forgiveness...but it is there, although tinged with Osteen's message of success (BBY 101-2 for example). To that extent again, Osteen better resembles a motivational speaker rather than a pastor.

    If I had to conclude my study here, given my natural tendency to grant the benefit of the doubt, I might reach the conclusion that Osteen's teachings are the result of a blissful naivete rather than an attempt to wrest teachings of health and wealth from the Scriptures. However, we will complete our evaluation in the next edition of the E-Block and see if any different conclusion can be reached. My conclusions may also change as I do more research into the Word-Faith movement.

  • Wednesday, October 19, 2011

    Sun Stand Still: Part 4

    David Sorrell continues...

    Chapter 9: The Simplest Systematic Theology Ever

    Welcome back to the review of Sun Stand Still. This time we’ll be looking at Furtick’s take on Systematic Theology, which should be a good thing, except it serves to give us a better look at why he says what he does about the will of God.

    He starts out by rightly admiring The Knowledge of the Holy by Tozer, which is a pretty good little book, but it should have informed him a little more about the will of God. He’s right by hammering home time and again that who God really is matters a great deal for how we approach him. Unfortunately, this begs a few really big questions regarding God’s will and the Sun Stand Still approach to prayer, but the particulars of that will be reserved for a more appropriate chapter.

    One thing I would like to point out about his discussion of his treatment of “God is good” (he kind of creates a theology out of the line “God is great, God is good” prayer for simplicity’s sake) is that there is an equivocation on the term ‘good.’

    God is not good in the same sense that we are good; when theologians refer to the goodness of God they mean that God is perfect and lacks nothing in nature; the kind of goodness that Furtick speaks of is God’s omnibenevolence. But if you’re going to speak of God’s goodness toward his people, there is simply more to it than His being good.

    Furtick’s gift as an entertaining storyteller really shines through in this chapter in the story he tells of being confronted by a bully in school and rescued by a teacher whom the bully feared. Yet the question ultimately remains—which he does try to address later in the book and elsewhere—of what it means when SSS prayers don’t get answered.

    Chapter 10: Hear. Speak. Do.

    “[…]in the pages of the Scriptures, as God’s promises become personal to you, your faith potential is ignited.”

    In what sense to the promises of God become personal to us? How do we know which ones are meant for us and which were meant for those to whom the texts were originally written—and is it fair to appropriate those promises in things like Sun Stand Still? Also, Furtick’s latent charismatic influences tend to show up in this chapter in his talk of activating/igniting faith. Naturally I recommend Tekton’s article on Faith as a better understanding.

    “If your faith isn’t rooted in God’s promises, it’s not scriptural faith. It’s just wishful thinking.” As written, that’s true and commendable. But God’s promises to Joshua aren’t applicable to us.

    It’s clear through the book that Furtick lacks an understanding of how God uses people and nations to accomplish His will. Just because God used someone in the Bible, it doesn’t mean that there’s a principle to be learned that can be applied to our own lives. Again, this is just another product of the brand of Christianity Furtick is from.

    Furtick lists twelve Audacious Faith Confessions to bolster our faith. Let’s take a look:

    1. I am fully forgiven and free from all shame and condemnation. (Romans 8:1-2, Ephesians 1:7-8, 1 John 1:9)

    This is one of the few times he actually gets to the core of the gospel—that we are far from God because of sin.

    The rest of them with few exceptions are just Joel Osteen, word-of-faith-esque soundbytes that by themselves are just spiritual fluff (even if they are supported with Scripture). A few stand out:

    “I am increasing in influence and favor for the kingdom of God.”

    What? He references Genesis 45 (Joseph), 1 Samuel 2:26 (Samuel), and Acts 2:37-47 (the rise of the early church at Pentecost).

    Is this a legitimate treatment of the rise of the aforementioned people? No. There’s no guarantee that influence and favor follow from believing in God; in fact the exact opposite is the one thing guaranteed by Scripture. But more importantly, why should we desire influence and favor? I’m looking at you, Prayer of Jabez.

    Since the theme of the chapter is hearing the word, preaching, and ‘activating faith,’ he quotes Matthew 14 and Peter walking on the water. Furtick holds Peter up as a great example of someone who heard Jesus call, speaks of a bold claim about his faith, and then activates his faith by getting out of the boat and walking on the water.

    Except Furtick ends the story there. Which means it’s out of context: because Peter promptly loses that faith. In one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard on this passage, Peter, whose name meant rock, sank like one. That this follows the swagger is no accident and not to be left out. It’s about Jesus, not Peter—because Jesus rescues Peter and lugs him back into the boat. In terms of activating faith, Peter’s example seriously backfires.