I'm down in Florida for the week to watch a friend of the family take the next space shuttle into orbit, which means two things. One, I get to read different papers. Two, I'll be preparing to watch Atlantis lift off when Mitt Romney gives the speech heard ’round the world. I'm sure we'll be looking at media coverage of one of those two events as we progress through the week. So the local paper down here is The Orlando Sentinel, which has religion reporter Mark Pinsky on staff. He wrote the best-selling The Gospel According to The Simpsons and highly praised A Jew Among the Evangelicals, among other books, and has written religion stories for years.
Last week, the perpetually upbeat Joel Osteen visited Orlando and the Sentinel covered it from many different angles. Pinsky previewed the visit with an article contrasting Osteen with the televangelists currently under Senate scrutiny:
He has not taken a salary from his Houston megachurch for two years. He owns one house -- the same one he and his wife, Victoria, have lived in for 13 years -- and until recently he drove a 9-year-old car he inherited from his late father. Osteen pays his own hotel bills, and there is no private jet.
Although the upbeat minister does take collections at services, netting an estimated $43 million a year, Osteen does not ask for money on his broadcasts, which reach an estimated 7 million viewers weekly in the U.S. and 100 other countries. Nonetheless, an additional $30 million comes through the mail. His most recent book deal earned him a $13 million advance.
"We make plenty of money from our books," said Osteen, 44. "But we just live normal lives. We try to be conservative and honor God with our life and with our example."
Osteen refuses to condemn the targets of [Sen. Charles] Grassley's inquiry, or Richard Roberts, who quit as president of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., amid charges that he used school funds and facilities for his family.
"While I never like to hear negative things about friends and other ministers, I choose to believe the very best in them," Osteen said.
Osteen leads the 48,000-member Lakewood Church in Houston. Services border on the nonsectarian, with no crosses in evidence. Osteen's theology is more inspirational than theological, with a strong emphasis on self-help, in the feel-good tradition of Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller. Osteen speaks from a lectern he prefers to call a "podium," rather than a "pulpit." His books are filled with lots of exclamation points, but the word Jesus rarely appears.
Pinsky's story is favorable but balanced. I still remember Pinsky's 2004 profile that fleshed out Osteen's views in more detail. The most interesting thing about the Sentinel's coverage, in my view, were the myriad posts on its self-help blog run by Kris Hey. In many ways, that's where a lot of coverage of someone like Osteen belongs. There were 15 posts in a two-day period, ranging from updates about the weather hampering attendance at Osteen's Amway Arena show to how many people were in line at the next day's book signing.
I also liked this relevant bit from a story about the book signing by Wes Smith and Pinsky:
Fundamentalist preachers may speak of hellfire and brimstone, but Osteen offers warm encouragement and images of God as a loving father figure.
"Joel doesn't follow the usual preacher's routine," said Joyce Kellenberger, 48, of Jacksonville. "It comes from his heart."
Some hail Osteen as "the next Billy Graham," but Naples nurse Angela Miller, 39, said at the book-signing that Graham is "like a CEO, while Joel is like one of your co-workers."
Marsha Berning of Seminole offered that you can take the religious references out of Joel's message and it is still the same message.
"You don't have to be a Christian to get his message of hope -- that no matter where you are in life, you can be better and do better," said Berning, 51.
A quote like that last one makes a lot more sense when placed in the context of Pinsky's earlier reporting about Osteen and his lack of theological distinctives.