Friday, March 31, 2006

$ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $

I may make a few enemies here among folks who perceive what I'm saying as an attack on contemporary religion, but I never quite understood why otherwise-intelligent human beings don't see through this whole "evangelical wealth-building" movement. After all, from a marketing standpoint, what better shtick could there be than to make people feel comfortable about their more venal inclinations--and yes, to even make them believe that they're doing the Lord's work in the bargain! Take a guy like Joel (Your Best Life Now) Osteen, who, on the heels of his book's phenomenal success, moved his Lakewood Church congregation into what used to be known as Compaq Center, heretofore the home of the Houston Rockets NBA team. Osteen, as portrayed in the New York Times article linked above, feels no qualms about his rapidly compounding fortune or the hedonistic nature of his overtures to his ever-burgeoning flock. Though he tells Times writer Ralph Blumenthal that he's "never done it for the money," he goes on to explain his success thusly: "I believe it's God rewarding you."

Now that sounds harmless enough on the surface. It even sounds, well, uplifting. And it's really nothing all that new. In more traditional religious outreaches, proponents of tithing (giving a tenth of your earnings to your church) long have argued that givers will be rewarded financially for their Christian charity. Which, to my mind, raises a whole other set of questions of the sort that devout types tell you "you're not supposed to ask"--like, say, If God is going to reward you for tithing by giving you back your money anyway, then why does He force you to go through the whole circuitous exercise as a way of funding your church? Why not just let people of good intentions keep the money they have and "cause" the church to get the money it needs by simply "making it so"? For that matter, if tithers truly believe that they're going to get their money back and then some, how much of a sacrifice is it for them to tithe in the first place? But I guess such inquiries are best left to RELIGIONblog.

My more immediate point here is the uneasy parallels alert readers will see to that oft-debunked Tommy Lasorda credo about how "the guy who wins is the guy who wants it the most." Osteen appears to be saying--and how can his remarks be read differently?--that if he (meaning Osteen, not God) is successful, it's because He (meaning God, not Osteen) is rewarding him (Osteen) for doing His (God's) work. This in turn also implies that if you, average Jill or Joe, aren't successful, it must be because God doesn't think you're worthy of it: You're not doing His work. This would seem to be an unflinching (and very un-Jesus-like) indictment of poor people everywhere. Wouldn't it?

The good preacher never troubles himself with such matters. Osteen is one of America's most tireless advocates of "a prosperous mindset" and seeking "the premier spot" in life's figurative parking lot. At the same time, he pointedly avoids--as Blumenthal writes--"the darker themes of sin, suffering and self-denial," which is to say, those unpleasantries long associated with religions in which parisioners are actually expected to meet certain standards of behavior and self-sacrifice. Because let's face it--who wants to attend a church where the pastor composes long lists of things you have to deny yourself or should beat yourself up about? God just wants you to have that premier parking spot! Just as God clearly wants you to keep buying Osteen's books.

Speaking of which, he (Osteen, not God) is working on a new one. He's putting it together with "some material I haven't used, stuff on relationships," he tells Blumenthal. (You wonder if, somewhere, Dr. Phil and John Gray are quaking in their secular boots.) The precise terms of the deal haven't been disclosed, but industry sources speculate that Osteen could walk away with more than the $10 million Bill Clinton got for his memoir. A very nice parking spot indeed.

As previously noted in SHAMblog, much the same could be said of Mark "Chicken Soup" Hansen and his growing stable of mainstream thinkalikes. By including the word enlightened in the subtitle of his books, and making regular rhetorical nods to the concept, Hansen and partner Robert Allen manage to remove the fundamental* tackiness from aspiring to be the next Donald Trump, bathing the shameless pursuit of riches in a philanthropic, quasi-spiritual glow.

* no pun intended.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Seeing things like this always reminds me of Jesus holding up the coin and noting that it was Caesar's, not God's. Poor Jesus, who told His disciples to give away their extra cloak to the poor and never to take anything more with them than a pair of sandals! I'm sure He's wondering how His message managed to morph into a Republican manifesto...

Anonymous said...

Seeing things like this always reminds me of Jesus holding up the coin and noting that it was Caesar's, not God's. Poor Jesus, who told His disciples to give away their extra cloak to the poor and never to take anything more with them than a pair of sandals! I'm sure He's wondering how His message managed to morph into a Republican manifesto...

Rodger Johnson said...

Dude, you are so right about Osteen. I don't have anything insightful, profound, or otherwise witty to add. But I did want to weigh in.

I've attended church since I was a wee-whipper snapper. I've studied the Bible extensively as literature, philosophy, and commentary on appropriate human behavior. Even more so, tithing is a very interesting biblical topic, one that many churches and demonination -- the larger evangelical movement, unfortunately -- get wrong.

There is no promise of God -- personal financial planner -- breathing blessings of monetary wealth on mankind for their penance of a tenth.

The promise is that He (God) will provide the necessities to survive.

That's only one type of tithing discussed in the Bible. There are two other types discussed in the Old Testament -- methods of supporting the church that are impractical for modern-day followers. That is, unless you have a few dozen farm animals that you can donate to the local chapel.

The other type of tithing is too detailed to discuss here because it intails a more spiritual persuasion to maintain the church, and to get a thorough understanding of it requires the use of some tools such as a lexicon, a concordence and learned theologian.

Nonetheless, the Osteen "health 'n wealth" ideology is a crock of
@#$%.

Thank you for addressing this and calling it what it is -- SHAM.

Steve Salerno said...

Rodg, much thanks for the clarification re tithing. I think a lot of folks who casually peruse this blog (especially those who are undecided about self-help) think I'm "just looking for stuff" to rip apart--especially when I'm taking on a "religious" figure like Osteen--as if so much of SHAM isn't inherently ripe for the picking! When I say I'm amazed that people don't see through all of this, I'm not just being rhetorically cute; I mean it with every fiber of me. The mind boggles. Though a difference of opinion exists on whether P.T. Barnum ever really made that famous remark about suckers being born by the minute, surely if he DID say it, the folks who swear by some of these guys are the suckers ol' P.T. would've had in mind...

Keep the insights coming.

Anonymous said...

I'm a devout Catholic Christian, and I tithe. I agree with what Rodger says about what tithing is actually supposed to be, but I also know of many churches who use the kind of persuaders that Steve describes: tithe and you'll be financially rewarded, tithe and just WATCH the money come back to you multiplied (this always sounds like an infomercial for a pyramid scheme to me), in times of financial hardship a person who tithes will be less likely to lose their job than one who doesn't, etc. If you are expecting some kind of financial reward for tithing, and if receiving such a reward is necessary for you to continue doing so, you are indeed missing the whole point.

In regards to Osteen - I can't stand the man, or his so-called 'ministry.' He's nothing more than a white male, evangelical version of Oprah. Let's just hope he doesn't start his own 'O' magazine. :)

Anonymous said...

I have mixed emotions about this. I think we have to give Mr. Osteen credit, and also Rick Warren, and even (though it pains me to say) Mr. Bush, for bringing religion back into the mainstream of life. It's just too bad that he's used his pulpit as a platform for personal advancement, and the glorification of the Almighty Buck. That's the sad part. Josh

Rodger Johnson said...

Let my first address the Catholic responder...

Thank you for agreeing with me. Just the other day, I was talking with a Greek Orthodox member of a local church, and he agrees that tithing is a stipulation that is used to support the church. You know, keeping the lights on, the water running, the clergy paid, and keeping the bill collectors at bay.

As I wrote in my original comment, that the Bible is a commentary on appropriate human behavior -- at least to a western ideology -- that behavior extends to the practice of tithing.

The orthodox and I agree that God does promise to return at least 10X our tenth, but that factor of ten is never really qualified in monetary terms. So that returned "interest" could come in any form. For me, I count it as a loving and supportive wife, an organization willing to pay for my graduate school, a tragedy that has recently ocurred to my family -- yes, tragedies can be blessings -- as well as numerous other tangibles and intangibles.

The blessing God returns as promised come in many varieties, shapes, sizes, and color.

Now let me address Josh -- annonymous #2 and the fifth commenter -- Osteen(ism) and Bush(ism) can hardly be classified as Christian.

Let's look at Osteen first. If you've read Steve Salerno's book -- and I have -- then he very clearly illustrates the empty rhetoric pontificated by mainstream SHAMers, such as Dr. Phil and Tony Robins. If you pay close attention to their rhetoric and listen closely to Osteen(ism), you'll find they are very similar -- empty, void, generalizations that otherwise flout basic maxims of logic and commonsense. Osteen said once, "Your faith is as clear as your goal. Make it a point in your life to live a fullfilling and prosperous life."

This presumes a lot:

1. that faith is tied to goals
2. that fulfillment is tied to prospriety
3. that the "good life" somehow related to a dollar amount.

All three are vast distortions of a common western ideology -- and Christian one too -- called the Golden Mean.

(see Aristotle for clarification and edification). He usually hangs out with Socrates and Plato. However, he has been know to drink beer with Hercules in Corith from time to time. --I'm being glib.

Let's trip up the Bush too.

President Bush's policies, ideologies and leadership have also been a SHAM. Nothing that his administration has implemented has strengthened the American economy, our allies' economy or the security of Americans at home or abroad. If his Christian values are what guide him, I don't want that brand of Christdom. And, neither should you.

He's a bad example of a leader, a piss-poor president, and a bumbling idiot when he tries to speak publicly.

He is getting quite wealthy, however, just remember that this summer when your paying $4 for a gallon of gas this summer.

Keith Throop said...

Steve,

As a pastor in a Baptist church who has been exposing the Scripture-twisting of the prosperity preachers like Osteen for many years, I thank you for your article. As you can obviously see, it is guys like Osteen that give us all a bad name.

I particularly liked this observation:

"This in turn also implies that if you, average Jill or Joe, aren't successful, it must be because God doesn't think you're worthy of it: You're not doing His work. This would seem to be an unflinching (and very un-Jesus-like) indictment of poor people everywhere. Wouldn't it?"

Amen! And it also presumes a a blatantly un-Scriptural and un-Christlike definition of "success" in the first place! For example, I do not make much money all, but I have a wonderful marriage and family. And I am profoundly happy in serving the Lord. I feel like the richest man in the world!

Frankly, many Christians such as myself believe preachers such as Osteen have subtly turned people toward idolatry, away from Christ and toward Materialism.

By the way, thanks for not painting us all with the same broad brush. I continue to follow your blog as one of my favorites.