A Brit's ode to Joel Osteen

Joel Osteen is "the new face of Christianity." That breaking religion news out of Houston -- published 4,845 miles away in London -- arrives courtesy of a 3,800-word profile in The Observer, which boldly declares:

If anybody is the face of evangelical Christianity in America today, it is Joel Osteen.

Not just that, but Osteen is "America's pastor." As the story's main deck headline explains:

Forget Billy Graham and Jimmy Swaggart -- the most popular and influential pastor in the U.S. is Joel Osteen.

Oh, and by the way, Ronald Reagan is no longer U.S. president. If you're wondering where The Observer got its scoop on Osteen's rise to preeminence in American evangelicalism, I couldn't tell you. The reporter doesn't bother to attribute that "fact" to anyone. It's just assumed.

As for me, I evidently don't have the same expert sources as this writer because my first thought was: What about that other guy? You know, the guy who hosted a presidential debate -- er, forum -- at his church in 2008.

Strangely enough, The Observer piece does mention Rick Warren, so it appears this reporter has heard of him. But Warren merits none of the hyperbolic adjectives reserved for the story's star. Rather, Warren plays a bit role as a critic of Osteen's "prosperity gospel" focus:

Many evangelicals despise the doctrine. Rick Warren, the California megapastor who gave the invocation at (President Barack) Obama's inauguration, told Time magazine: "This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy? There is a word for that: baloney. It's creating a false idol. You don't measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty. Why isn't everyone in the church a millionaire?"

I know I shouldn't take a British newspaper report too seriously, and really, I'm not.

For entertainment value alone, this story is worth the read. Yes, it cultivates mostly well-plowed ground. But in recounting the high and low points of Osteen's biography and the "vast, thrumming God-machine" that is Lakewood Church in Houston, it intersperses tons of colorful, often humorous anecdotes.

This megachurch-sized paragraph is typical:

Three enormous video screens advertise church groups such as Griefshare: From Mourning to Joy and the Freedom Series. But just as I'm wondering what the Quest for Authentic Manhood involves, the house worship band kicks out the jams. It's 11am exactly and the day's second service has begun. The stage is dominated by an enormous revolving golden globe, in front of which is a rock orchestra flanked on either side by a multiracial gospel choir. Meanwhile, no fewer than nine lead singers are dancing about the stage, praising the Lord. And as if the stage isn't busy enough, down on the floor a small army of serious-looking men dressed in black suits stands alert, ever watchful, communicating with each other through radio mics. Theoretically they're church ushers, but they look more like secret service men guarding a president. Gently but firmly they guide latecomers to their seats, leaving nothing to chance, as if one wrong step could upset the delicate balance that keeps 16,000 evangelical Christians from erupting into violence and anarchy.

Still, I couldn't resist asking a few expert observers for their take on Osteen's place in the imaginary evangelical hierarchy.

Reaction No. 1 came from Shaun Casey, a professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. He coordinated evangelical outreach efforts for Obama's 2008 campaign. His take:

Joel Osteen is one of a thousand faces of evangelical Christianity today. To be sure, many of those thousands would kill all the others for the title "the indisputable face," but alas, evangelicals are like feral cats: They are not organized around a single leader, and they do not answer, nor have they ever answered, to a single voice. Anyone with more than 10 minutes of experience in the evangelical world would laugh at the notion there is one indisputable leader among the multitude of aspirants to that title.

Um, good thing that British reporter didn't contact Casey. I don't think it would have helped his storyline.

Reaction No. 2 came from Bill Leonard, dean and church history professor at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. His take:

No, Joel Osteen is not the indisputable face of evangelical religion. In fact, many evangelicals dispute his place in their movement, suggesting that he is "soft on sin" or more of a Christian motivational speaker.

My overall assessment is that given diversity and pluralism in American religion, even evangelical religion, there are many "faces" of American evangelicalism today. It depends on the subgroup with which folks most identity.

Again, whew! Maybe that British reporter knew what he was doing by avoiding expert opinions.

Or maybe he's just as clueless -- on this one point -- as the article makes him appear.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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