Osteen v. Trump and Cowell: This Time, It’s Personal

Happy new year. To life. L’chaim. Drink up. Should auld acquaintance. Blank slate, blank page, new calendar on the wall, new refill in the Day-Timer, taxes coming due, time to take down the lights, hey hey. Naught but sparkling stars in a cold, clear, bright sky in naught-eight. Let’s start over.

It’s only the 17th, not too late to say that, right?

Hey, I’m the father of twins who will be freakin’ three next month. Give me a break. I’m still here, I’m still postin’, I’m not on vacation (what’s a vacation?).

Well, let’s get settled, then. One of this blog’s primary objectives is to make not-obvious connections between two or more seemingly disparate people/places/things that don’t usually get compared, so on to today’s business.

Plenty of Jewish journalists seem to like Joel Osteen. (Probably a lot of that has to do with him not going around saying we’re going to hell; of course, it’s not his thing to say anybody is going to hell, which is one of the reasons he’s The Most Popular Preacher in America Today.)

Let’s see: there’s Barbara Walters (she named him one of her 10 Most Fascinating People of 2006)…Larry King (who interviewed Joel and/or Victoria in ’05, ’06 and ’07)…a New York Times reporter named Blumenthal, who wrote a feature on him in March of ’06..and, well, me. I can’t speak for Baba and Larry and that other guy, but I’ve met Joel and interviewed him and been to his church not once but twice, and I’ve read lots and lots about him and his dad and Victoria and Lakewood, including lots and lots of relentless criticism, everything from Word Faith and the Prosperity Gospel to his lack of seminary background to Accusations of Apostasy and That Incident on the Airplane (none of which I trust I have to rehash yet again here).

I’ve delved into the Christian blogosphere. Every commentary discussing Joel Osteen seems to draw at least 400 remarks, most of them irate and sneering, with a few defending him just to spice things up a bit.

Me, I still like the guy.

2006 was a very good year for Osteen, just like 2007 and, I assume, ’08 will be. Joel has discovered the champion in himself, and is living his best life now. Just over two years ago, I traveled to Houston to interview The Most Popular Preacher in America Today, along with Victoria, for the cover story of a relatively new Texas magazine oriented toward families. The focus of the piece (per the editor’s explicit instructions) was not to be religion and faith, but Joel and Victoria’s relationship with each other.

It was Elvis’s birthday, although I didn’t bring that up at the time (it made a handy hook to hang the piece from, however, comparing Joel to Elvis — you know, Southern gentleman, religiously inclined, good sense of humor and just-folks manner, lots of charisma and stage presence, plays arena shows, et cetera). If you’ve seen his TV program, being in the audience at Lakewood was just like being inside the box, except you get to look wherever you wanted and got to see the parts they don’t show (like passing the buckets, and Joel’s climactic invitation to everyone who wanted to come down and accept Jesus as Lord, and much preliminary music and expertly done lighting effects, and moments like Joel’s breaking down when he referred to his father, who had died seven years ago that month, as having set up a reservoir of grace for his family; someone called out from the audience, “We love you, Joel!” and there was applause, and he regained his composure a few moments later).

It had taken a good two months or so of preliminary inquiries and arrangements to get the interview; as you know, Joel has been and continues to be journalized to a fare-thee-well, and I suppose it’s a rare weekend at Lakewood that passes without he and/or Victoria being interviewed by someone. On that January day, in addition to me, a young French journaliste named Anne-Sophie was waiting to interview Joel for her piece in Match du Monde on les megachurches du l’Amerique, and the high-level Lakewood staffers who were shepherding us along (very considerate and friendly, very mindful of how to present Joel and the church in the best light for our benefit) took us down to a basement-level VIP reception room with adjacent offices. (I was actually introduced to Joel and Victoria in the elevator going down.)

The magazine I was on assignment for had sent the publisher, a photographer and a couple of staffers along to make a presentation of their product to the Osteens and Lakewood’s management, and they joined us in the reception room (which suggested an expensive suite in a downtown hotel). Joel and Victoria divided their time between myself and Anne-Sophie, who conducted our interviews in separate rooms; it seemed the best way to go for us, since we, of course, had different questions and very different audiences to consider. So for some minutes, I sat alone with Joel Osteen in a small room furnished with little more than leather couches and a large digital clock (a none-too-subtle reminder that time constraints were always to be considered).

In person, Joel seemed almost painfully shy at times, yet very focused, self-directed and intense. He answered the questions quietly, rapidly, thoughtfully, and most of the time, gazing downwards. I got the definite sense that although he enjoyed being in the spotlight when he preached in front of thousands at Lakewood and millions through the TV screen, he didn’t particularly enjoy being the focus of attention when the cameras were turned off. Victoria was much more social and chatty. (The Airplane Incident had happened less than three weeks before; no, I didn’t ask her about it. Call me a wuss, but I thought it would just poison the atmosphere in the room, I’m sure I wouldn’t be told anything new, and the publisher had told me straight out that he wasn’t interested in printing anything about the story.)

Feeling myself up to a challenge, I went out of my way to engage Victoria, who I could tell from the start was someone with whom I had absolutely nothing in common. Still, we both had young children (I showed the Osteens photos of Leo and Luka, who were less than a year old at the time, and she said something to the effect that they were important to me because I liked to hold them close). After the official interviews had ended and the photo session was being set up, I stood in the hallway with Victoria and the photographer and we chatted together for a time; she talked about the things her son and daughter were interested in, and I said something about how you can try to influence them, but in the end they do what they want to do (speaking more from conjecture than from personal experience at that point). In the end, Joel inscribed my copy of his book, and I drove home to Austin. It was a long and interesting day.

Joel Osteen’s most virulent and persistent critics don’t come from the left, but from fundamentalist Christians who think he’s glossing over Bible teachings in favor of self-help messages (at best), and is a heretic who’s going to hell and leading others there along with him (at worst). As you can find these criticisms readily enough on the Internet, again, I don’t feel the need to go into them here in any great detail. I don’t think I have to go around apologizing for liking him, either (and neither does Mrs. Pogoer, who started watching him shortly after he went on the air and was the one who first told me about him). As I wrote in my piece, he brings hope and encouragement to countless troubled and searching souls, and although he may not be doctrinally pure (like I give a damn), I don’t think there’s a whole lot wrong with that.

In America, where everything, certainly reality TV, is structured as a contest which ends with one winner and a whole bunch of losers, whether it’s a singing contest, a dance contest or a business competition, where the contestants are tasked to slag each other’s qualifications in order to boost their own chances, and where Donald Trump was recently quoted verbatim on Celebrity Apprentice not too long ago as saying, “Most people are losers,” and Simon Cowell makes a living out of being the meanie who dashes clueless contestants’ dreams, well…it seems like Joel “Discover the Champion in You” Osteen is going just a bit against the grain here. He says things like “You are a child of the Most High God,” encouraging everyone to live their best life now, and become a better them, and so forth.

Perhaps some people get mad if they’re told lots of people are capable of being winners, too? That things can actually improve?

All I can do is to repeat my favorite quote, from the British cultural historian and author Raymond Williams:

“To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.”

You go, Smiling Preacher Man.

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