Mr. Osteen goes to Washington

Ready. Set. Smile. Joel Osteen is taking the nation's capital by media storm, drawing a Beltway-size dose of attention in advance of a big event at the Washington Nationals' ballpark this weekend.

The big headline seems to be Osteen's statement to CNN that he considers Mitt Romney, who is Mormon, a "brother in Christ." Godbeat pros Eric Marrapodi and Dan Gilgoff feature a handful of Osteen nuggets in an informative and entertaining post on CNN's Belief Blog.

In a profile tied to the event, Washington Post religion writer Michelle Boorstein explores the Osteen phenomenon on today's front page:

Come sunset Saturday, Nationals Park will be full not with baseball fans but with 41,000 devotees of another American phenomenon: Joel Osteen.

Second base will become the main stage for the wavy-haired, ever-smiling Texan, whose cast for the 2 1/2-hour “America’s Night of Hope” includes 100 singers and musicians, 1,000 ticket-ripping volunteers, and a six-person social media team to keep Twitter and Facebook buzzing.

Yet, one of the largest religious events in the region since Pope Benedict XVI’s 2008 visit is coming together pretty much outside of the organized church world.

With a few exceptions, there will be no church bus groups or pastor promotions, and many — if not most — of the people who paid $15 for a ticket didn’t hear about the event through their church, because they don’t go to one.

A reader who shared the link with GetReligion commented:

When I saw that bit about Osteen being the biggest religious event since Benedict, my teeth started grinding (how many heads of state visit Osteen, or hierarchs, or professors, or actual poor people, or...). However, I'm glad that I read through it all, because I learned more about how Osteen got started and felt that both sides were given their due.

A colleague quipped:

Notice how many times "Jesus" shows up in this story. And this is not a criticism!

(For the record, "Jesus" does not make an appearance in this story.)

Boorstein's story, which I enjoyed, does a nice job of capturing the essence of Osteen and explaining why his followers love him and his critics accuse him of "cotton-candy theology," as one source put it in a 2004 profile of Osteen that I wrote for The Associated Press.

Particularly given the space constraints of a daily newspaper article — this one runs roughly 900 words — the Post catches the appropriate high points of Osteen's rise to fame and his place in modern American religion.

A revealing section of the piece:

With a few exceptions, there will be no church bus groups or pastor promotions, and many — if not most — of the people who paid $15 for a ticket didn’t hear about the event through their church, because they don’t go to one.

They are probably among the 10 million people who Osteen’s group says watch his weekly TV broadcast, the crown jewel of a mega­ministry built on the concept of a totally positive, in-your-corner God whose list of “don’ts” is pretty short: Don’t lose hope!

The show flashes ads for the monthly “inspirational” events more frequently than it flashes verses from the Bible. ...

People love him for the same reason that many others, pastors in particular, shun him: his near-total silence on the subjects of sin, suffering and detailed doctrine.

“My message isn’t real religious,” Osteen said in an interview. “I’ve stayed good in my sweet spot, which is encouraging people, and hope.”

("Sweet spot." Event at a baseball stadium. Nice soundbite.)

Later, readers hear from a pastor favorable to Osteen and a theologian not impressed with him. Also quoted is a "non-churchgoing Catholic" who plans to attend the event:

James Bailey, a leadership professor at George Washington University’s business school who will be at the ballpark Saturday, found himself drawn into the Osteen vortex about a year ago while flipping through TV channels one Sunday morning.

“He isn’t heavy-handed with the practical elements: Do this or that, or you’re going to hell,” said Bailey, a non-churchgoing Catholic. “There was a light touch. It’s like, ‘This is about your relationship with God. All I’m doing here is helping you find that relationship.’?”

After providing details on the extraordinary growth of Osteen's church and television ministry, the Post notes:

He’s sold a million books in Muslim Indonesia. Regular Sunday viewers and attendees at the ballpark will be Jewish, Hindu or the kind of people who check “none” when asked to identify their religion.

Osteen’s success says much about American religion in 2012, when “church” can be a bunch of strangers online who may not even be Christian and when one of the few pastors who can fill a baseball stadium preaches about love, not doctrine.

That's fascinating information to me. I'd love to know more about the people drawn to Osteen. If I have one complaint, it's that the Post doesn't quote more Osteenites about why he appeals to them and what they believe. In particular, I'd love to hear from one of the Jews or Hindus referenced. I do know that Boorstein tweeted last week in search of potential interviewees planning to attend the D.C. event.

All in all, though, I found much to like about the Post story. As always, GetReligion readers are free to disagree. If you decide to leave a comment, however, please be sure to include a smiley face. Just kidding, although I just can't resist.


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