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.
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:
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.
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:
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  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"  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, "....you 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. "...it 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:
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:
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.
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:
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.