Those who know of Joel Osteen may be surprised to hear that I’m reading his #1 New York Times bestseller Your Best Life Now and trying to figure out what speaks to me and what doesn’t. For those unfamiliar with the famous smile pictured here, Osteen is the pastor of Lakewood Church, said to be the largest and fastest growing church in the US with a weekly attendance around 38,000. An additional 20 million people per month view his weekly sermon on television, which is what publishers call “a platform,” the kind that helped his first book sell over 4 million copies. So, when I saw Your Best Life Now available for a quarter at a used book sale, I was curious.
In some ways, Osteen’s core message is not that different than mine: God is good, and life goes better when we trust that. Many of his stories of faith are inspiring examples of what Quakers call “way opening,” moments when we get aligned with our purpose, and God opens doors for us. Osteen encourages gratitude, trust, and optimism and says that holding onto resentment and fear can block blessings in our lives. On a very basic level, I agree with him.
My disagreement starts with his understanding of how blessings work. He uses the word “favor” a lot, arguing that God will give us “an edge,” presumably because God likes us (Osteen’s readers?) better than all the other people “He” created. Obviously there is a particularly narrow version of Christianity at work here, even though it is never articulated. It reminds me of Peterson Toscano’s recent Facebook wall post: “Jesus Loves You! But he seems to love you more if you are healthy, white, male, American or European, middle/upper class, in a monogamous heterosexual marriage and able to reproduce.”
The assumption that material prosperity is a sign of God’s favor is the second problem that I have with Osteen’s approach. Although he acknowledges that blessings can come in many forms, so many of his stories involve people getting rich that I started to wonder if he reads the same Gospel I do. While I don’t believe that money itself is evil (as some Quakers seem to), Osteen makes buying a mansion sound like a spiritual practice. I’m sure this is part of what is so appealing about his message, as well as books like The Secret, which says a lot of the same things without the Christian veneer.
My third objection is that the first two approaches can lead to a total lack of compassion for people who are poor or suffering. Taken to its logical conclusion, his philosophy seems to imply that if you are sick it’s because you didn’t have the faith to be healed; if you are poor, it’s because you were blocking God’s blessings or didn’t have God’s favor. I think of the many people who have been starving and dying of poverty related diseases in Zimbabwe, and I wonder if their problem is a lack of faith or a history of colonialism followed by dictatorship. Somehow I think Jesus would judge the people who got rich exploiting Zimbabwe’s wealth, not the people who are suffering because of it.
Despite my discomfort with so much of Osteen’s philosophy, I find myself wanting to finish the book. I feel like I am still recovering from the opposite religious message, that God wants us to suffer all the time, which can be equally harmful. There is something in Osteen’s message of hope that speaks to me, even though I have to constantly edit and translate it into my own spiritual language. In the end, I wonder if this book is spiritual junk food, something people crave, even though it is really bad for them, or if it’s more like fruit, sweet and good for us, but needing to be eaten in balance with other types of food. Either way, many people are clearly hungry for it.