August 30, 2017
Joel Osteen at the Drowning Point
by Chris Lehmann
“In this republican country, amid the fluctuating waves of our social life, someone is always at the drowning point.”—Nathanael Hawthorne
Joel Osteen, the sunny New South avatar of America’s new millennial prosperity gospel, appears to have been struck uncharacteristically dumb by the act of God known as Hurricane Harvey. As Houston, the seat of Osteen’s 40,000-strong Lakewood congregation, reckons with the ongoing devastation of the storm, which is poised to dump more than fifty inches of rain on the city, Osteen has offered only gnomic words of scriptural comfort. Far more eloquent has been the failure of Lakewood to open its doors to flood refugees, in rank violation of virtually all the elementary injunctions of Jesus’ preaching. (On August 29, four days after Harvey’s initial landfall, Lakewood finally opened its doors to flood refugees, after social-media outrage over the church’s negligence continued to swell. You all know that old Christian maxim: Do unto others once you’ve been hounded by the specter of adverse publicity that won’t go away on its own. Meanwhile, for a true study in Houston-based Christian charity, see the downmarket good works of local furniture mogul and TV fixture Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale — a conservative Catholic with no evident use for Prosperity gospel bosh.)
From a narrow theological standpoint, it’s not hard to see why the might of Harvey has silenced the pusillanimous Osteen. The megachurch preacher has made a career of hymning God’s special plan to “prosper” all true believers — and to rescue them from the snares and cruel limitations imposed on the workings of high-capitalist grace by the forces that Osteen and his fellow apostles of Word of Faith Pentecostal uplift scornfully dismiss as “the natural.”
Now Harvey has come forth with a bracing, Job-like case study in how “the natural” engineers the last word in human affairs regardless of our own puny efforts to mythologize ourselves in its face. More than that, though, the storm has also blown away nearly every vacuous homiletic conceit Osteen has been regaling Lakewood crowds with, in his aw-shucks mien of managerial wonderment, for more than two decades now. Recall that Osteen has ecstatically descried the hand of God in virtually every mundane commercial and market transaction that has propelled him into national prominence. He’s praised God for saving his life as his car fishtailed on a Houston expressway. He’s claimed that God engineered the lucrative flipping of his first Houston townhouse. And he’s descried the divine hand in a crucial Houston zoning vote that delivered unto Good Sheperd Osteen the present site of Lakewood — the former Compaq Center, where the Houston Rockets used to play.
Since Osteen’s own Houston success story is the chief prooftext of his preaching, there can be no remotely persuasive prosperity message to be wrested from the ruination of Harvey. If God has so prominently shaped the Lakewood saga, down to the smallest parking-ramp abeyance for the facility, how is a stout interpreter of health-and-wealth Pentecostalism to interpret the sinking of the city that now serves as its intellectual capital as anything other than the sternest possible rebuke from an angry God? Given the range of theological explanations for the catastrophe forced on Osteen by the logic of his own preaching, is it any wonder that the megapastor has retreated into a Sphinx-like silence — and a Charles Foster Kane-style retirement from a horrible calamity afflicting the earnest believers in his adopted hometown?
So acute is the money prophet’s evident spiritual distress that he couldn’t even stir himself to arrange a meeting with his secular doppelganger, President Trump, during Trump’s obscene Houston driveby yesterday. On paper, it would have been just what the Word of Faith doctor should have ordered: The two men are old friends, after all—with strikingly parallel personal biographies and a shared conviction in the cosmic righteousness of their success that renders them something close to spiritual soulmates.
And really, what better American gloss could there have been on the raw tragedy of Harvey than the spectacle of two tireless prosperity hucksters exploiting the suffering of thousands upon thousands displaced, bankrupt, and homeless Americans to further flog their personal brands? Avant les deux, le Deluge!
Chris Lehmann is the editor-in-chief and a columnist at The Baffler, and a book review columnist for In These Times. He has written for Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly, the Washington Post, the New York Observer, Yahoo, Slate, Salon, The Awl, Raritan, The Nation, Mother Jones, The Washingtonian, The Washington Monthly, Lingua Franca, Reason, and Democracy. His most recent book is The Money Cult.