My family isn't the religious sort. We've attended our share of sermons and pancake breakfasts, but none of it (other than the pancakes) ever took. At best, my siblings and I view organized religion as a mild irritation, like Fox News or canker sores.
Our mother is slightly more spiritually inclined but still infinitely more likely to watch The Biggest Loser than The 700 Club. At least until Joel Osteen came along. For months, she talked about a preacher on TV who's funny and upbeat and doesn't try to cram Thessalonians down her throat like he was shoving a tree stump into a wood chipper.
I nodded and smiled, figuring it was just an inevitable stop—like menopause, Viagra or forgetting to wear pants—parents take on the road to senility. Then I began to see Osteen on Larry King Live, CBS Sunday Morning and The New York Times Best Sellers list.
Turns out, the boyish, 44-year-old pastor—whose weekly service at Lakewood Church in Houston broadcasts to more than 100 countries—is the hottest thing in Christendom, save perhaps his wife (and co-pastor) Victoria Osteen, a striking, slightly robotic blonde presumably manufactured at a Miss Texas factory somewhere outside Amarillo.
I finally acquiesced to Mom's fascination when I heard the Osteens were coming to San Diego on Jan. 4. Besides, we totally spaced on her Christmas present.
“I guarantee you that I'm going to cry,” she says as we join the procession slouching towards Cox Arena and “A Night of Hope” with the Texas televangelist.
“There's a good chance I'm going to fall asleep,” my brother Aaron counters.
Within seconds of walking through the gate, Mom finds and purchases a copy of Osteen's latest book, Become a Better You. The atmosphere is typical of any big event, though it feels vaguely absurd to see people walking into church, as it were, holding funnel cakes and cotton candy.
We find our seats—right of a massive stage flanked by six huge projection screens—shortly before the arena goes dark. A spotlight shines on a long-haired guitarist performing an “Amazing Grace” guitar solo. Choir leader Cindy Cruse-Ratcliff shouts, “C'mon San Diego!” and the near-capacity crowd stands and claps as the band and choir—15 people strong—launches into the first song.
I belong to you / You belong to me, Lord / I'm surrounded everywhere I go….
The arena erupts when Osteen takes the stage. Mom is clapping hard, her eyes already welling with emotion.
“I can't see you all, but you look great,” Osteen says, squinting into the crowd. “You look like victors, not victims!”
Joel and Victoria Osteen are standing at a podium—emblazoned with the Osteen Ministries logo—looking like they're about to read the nominations for Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Series, Mini-Series or Television Movie.
“Not one of us is going to leave here the same way we came in,” Osteen says.
He manages to smile, talk and exude aw schucks charm all at once. He tells us that 2008 is going to be our best year ever. He talks about the importance of positive thinking, eschewing negativity and maximizing potential. This isn't fire and brimstone; it's a hot tub and back massage, a more sincere and elaborate version of “Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley.” You're good enough. You're smart enough. And, doggone it, Jesus loves you.
Osteen is just the conduit. A guy who sits between you and God in Algebra class, passing love notes—“I like you. Do you like me? Yes __ No __ [Check one]”—between you and The Almighty.
He is more motivational speaker than pulpit-pounding preacher, and his message—including benign buzz words like “increase” and “promotion”—could find a place at one of those business seminars featuring Donald Trump, Tony Robbins and George Foreman.
“Don't magnify your problems; magnify God,” Osteen implores. “Be a believer, not a doubter. Be a victor not a victim…. You have to conceive it on the inside before you can receive it on the outside.”
Osteen begins to cite a reading from Psalms before he trips up on the exact passage.
“It says in Psalms 55:12… or 55:22… somewhere in Psalms,” he chuckles.
The crowd roars its approval. Osteen is a practical theologian preaching a pragmatic theology in which you don't have to recite scripture verbatim to find salvation. He peppers his talks with light-hearted anecdotes and self-deprecating humor. In short, he brings heaven down to earth.
Still, I'm wary. Visions of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Oral Roberts dance through my head. I'm cautious of my mother's suitor. If you break her heart, so help me God, Osteen, I'll break your skinny little legs.
I don't voice these concerns to Mom, listening attentively at my side. This preaching, these songs and this message are not the religion of rigidity she grew up with. Her enthusiasm barely diminishes when an army of volunteers begins patrolling the aisles with plastic collection buckets—at an event people paid $20 a pop to attend. She opens her purse and slips two $5 bills into the bucket. I force a smile and say nothing.
This is a production, but, Osteen cautions, “we're not really just having a pep rally with this declaration of faith.” Several songs and speeches later, he delivers his closing sermon—featuring a few selections (like “David and Goliath” and “Jonah and the Whale”) from The Bible's Greatest Hits—before the event comes to an end.
I see the appeal and understand the allure. These are heady times. People crave something positive to believe in. For my mother, and many others, that's Joel Osteen. For me, for now, the smile on her face is enough.