Joel Osteen: Hope, an Interview

Joel Osteen's Night of Hope was in Oklahoma City last night. I did the advance for the Oklahoma Gazette. As is always the case, I have way more material than could go in the story. This is the full text of the phone interview with Osteen.

What is the purpose of the Night of Hope tour? Can I call it a tour?

We wanted to see some people who watch the television show, to connect with them. Many people who watch the television program don’t attend church. This night gives them an opportunity to take a stand for their faith.

I guess tour is right. We've been doing this for six or seven years, one city each month. We've did New York City, Anaheim, and Atlanta to start. I never dreamed people would come out, but we sold out every venue. The Oklahoma City Night of Hope will be our 120th show.

Are you combining this with a book tour? I saw that Every Day a Friday is now in paperback.

Actually, I will be doing a book signing, but by the time I get there, I'll have a new book out. I Declare: 31 Promises to Speak Over Your Life.

What will the event consist of? Is it like a worship service? And why hope?

It is a night of praise and worship, yes. I'll share my story in the sermon. Victoria will speak about relationships, and my mom will talk about overcoming cancer. The evening is meant to lift people’s spirits.

I think hope is important. We can't live without it. It allows us to move forward from wherever we are.

Your father was sort of a traditional Pentecostal. Is there any of that theology in what you do? What part of his theology did he pass on to you?

My father was really more of a mix of Baptist and Pentecostal, what would later be called Charismatic. Being raised with him for 36 years and traveling and working together every day for many years, I'm sure his theology comes through in what I do. My father was for people; he believed in lifting them up. That's really what I took from him.

You were an unlikely successor. How was that first time at the pulpit?

I was very nervous the first time I preached. I had to hold onto the podium because I didn’t want anyone to see how badly my hands were shaking. I saw a picture of it a while back. I was very young; it was 13 years ago.

Ever watch the video of it?

(laughs) No. I don't think I want to see that. Still, I felt like I was supposed to do it. I did get comfortable over time.

Your critics accuse you of preaching a 'prosperity gospel.' How do you respond to that?

I never liked the term ‘prosperity gospel.' There is only one gospel. Prosperity to me is part of that one gospel, and it means good relation ships, peace of mind, and many other things. When some people say it, they are talking only about money. It comes from this group who believes Christians should suffer and be poor. I don't read the Bible that way, though. The way I read the Bible, I believe we’re to be leaders, be examples, and be a blessing to other people.

You have two children. How old and what are their plans?

Well, Alexandra is only 13, so she's in school. Jonathan is 17 now. He's finishing up high school and plans to go to the University of Texas for film studies.

You've had remarkable success with Lakewood. What do you think your father would be most proud of you for?

I'm sure he'd be proud of me for carrying on the legacy he started. He began with only 90 people, and now we have more than 40,000. Overall, I think he'd just be proud in general, though. I believe he'd say he couldn't be more proud than to see a son take over an do well.

What do you want people to take away from the Oklahoma City event?

You know, we're still amazed at how many people come out. We want to lift them up, give them hope. Whatever they're facing, we want them to have hope. Really, though, I leave more inspired than the people who come. They give me hope and inspire me. I just want them to know that God’s dream for them is bigger than their dreams for themselves.

Dexter on Prayer and Purpose, or Why I Don't Need a Mythological Purpose

As I mentioned in a previous post, Dexter is focusing on god or God this season, and I'm impressed with the ability of the writers to integrate it somewhat naturally into the story. Dexter will always utilize the grotesque—in the Flannery O'Connor sense of the word—so some components of the story will be over the top (e.g., a mutilated man fastened to mannequin parts and riding the Four Horses), but mixed in with the Saw-like puzzle deaths this season has been a pretty good delivery of what might be unbelievable if not acted more than capably by three of the industry's most underrated actors: Mos, Colin Hanks, and Edward James Olmos. All three manage to bring credibility and subtlety to roles that could easily carom out of control. That's not to say they won't as the season progresses, but right now, all is well.


***Spoiler Alert*** Last week's episode featured Dexter's son suffering a ruptured appendix, leading to an emergency surgery. Dexter is comforted in the hospital by his new friend, ex-con turned minister to ex-cons, Brother Sam (Mos). I really don't know if Mos is a Christian, but he delivers his lines with such conviction, I wouldn't be surprised to discover he actually believes this stuff, and kudos to the writers for handling redemption and interfaith friendship with a straight face (flesh and blood pastors could learn much from Mos this season). During the surgery, Dexter goes through the classic "bargain with God" scenario. This is away from the main tableau of the action, at a coffee machine that is refusing to deliver coffee. Once the deal is "made," the machine dispenses the coffee. This follows Mos's story about how a light caused him to change his ways, another seeming coincidence or the hand of God.

The son pulls through just fine (an overwhelming majority do with burst appendix—this is the 21st century, after all). Dexter unwittingly says "thank God," and then immediately corrects himself, thanking the surgeon in front of him. It's a nice device. Mos goads him kindly about it, and the scene ends. The viewer is left to ponder the activity of God in our lives. Are all such activities really theistic tampering or coincidence or just the way shit plays out?

Mos is consumed with his new life purpose, a purpose he has developed once being "called by God." Fine. It works for him. I'm a little weary of the "religion gives me purpose" canard, but I understand that it really does give some people a specific sense of purpose (yet undefined) in their lives. Somehow, they are afraid of purposeless existence, as if the immediate experience of love and kindness and aesthetic pleasures are insufficient. No, life must have a grander purpose in the form of a metanarrative that makes all my actions and all my goodness and all my suffering make existential sense into eternity. This strikes me as weakness of imagination and mind more than a necessary facet of existence. If loving others isn't purpose enough, how is it helped by loving others for reward in the next life? How is this not selfishness on an eschatological scale? If I need a god to have a plan for my life such that my actions have weight and import, it simply means I lack the imagination to conceive how my actions can be meaningful in the moment. All this is made worse by the very real possibility that the purpose I have determined god has for me is a complete fiction, as is the personal god behind it. What then? I live in happy delusion until I cease to exist? Lovely. How is that an improvement?

As for prayer, Dexter illustrates the almost instinctive impulse to cry out for help similar to the "no atheists in foxholes" sort of shit we hear from time to time. Put humans in enough trouble, the assumption goes, and we'll soon cry out to god, even if like Job, we are too craven to curse the "good" god who sends us boils and death and poverty. I rather prefer the response of one my recent students, a veteran of the Afghanistan war. When asked about crying out to god in the foxhole, he phlegmatically replied: "Some people did. I just pulled the fuckin' trigger." Better the mechanism that can be seen and relied upon than the mechanism that may well be a sad and primitive fiction we've created from superstitious fear, I suppose.

God Loves Serial Killers, or Dexter Deconstructs God

I've been a fan of Dexter since season one, and I'm pretty excited that this season is going to feature Dexter's struggles with the concept of god (or God). Not that I'm convinced the show will handle the topic all that well, as I don't think campy serial killer comedy is the place to really parse natural or special revelation, but if last night is an indication, it'll at least be fun.

Dexter Season 6

***Spoiler Alert*** Dexter is about to kill a man who murdered his own wife, the only hot girl who was ever nice to Dexter in high school, and made it look like a suicide. The following conversation ensues:

Dexter: What would Jesus have done? Seriously now. How do you reconcile your belief in a higher power – in a god – with what you’ve done?

Victim: What difference does it make?

Dexter: I’m just curious.

Victim: So, what – I’m supposed to defend my beliefs to you?

Dexter: If you don’t mind.

Victim: Look… I mean… Everyone makes mistakes. They do things they shouldn’t do. And… they’re only human. But God forgives us.

Dexter: Really? It’s as simple as that? You kill someone, and God forgives you for it?

Victim: Yes!

Dexter: So I can kill you, and God will forgive me?

Victim: Well, no!

Dexter: But you just said he would!

Victim: You have to truly repent.

It gets funnier from there, trust me, and the absurdity of God as protector is revealed when Dexter plunges the knife into the man. It's a little too simplified and a little too snarky, but the writers are on to something here. Dexter spends a good bit of the episode trying to understand why anyone believes in this bizarre concept, and he asks sincere questions. Most of the questions are met with utter confusion, ignorance, and answers that clearly contradict. This is truly not unlike asking people about their beliefs, especially those who nominally believe or believe a narrow set of answers that have been provided by a book or pastor or other trusted religious figure.

The question he asks (how do you reconcile...) is one I ask my students, and it's one I struggled with as evangelical and evangelical pastor and not-so-evangelical emergentish leader person. My cynical self claims that most of the people I know do exactly as much as they can safely get away with, especially in areas where they fully intend to be self-indulgent. (Yes, this includes me.) There are areas in all our lives where it's not difficult to succeed at being virtuous. I snarkily posted on fb today that a lack of options does not equal virtue. This was a response to a man who couldn't get laid in a whorehouse with cash in his pocket crowing about his lifetime of fidelity to his wife. If no one wants to fuck you, it ain't virtuous to be faithful; it's the status quo or the longest damn drought since Jezebel and Ahab.  The not so cynical side wants to believe that people can or even tend to be largely virtuous. (I really don't believe this very often.) 

One of my complaints on the way out of the faith was that forgiveness as envisioned in evangelical circles had become an escape hatch. No change of life is required, except in certain unimportant areas (premarital sex being the most notable), and forgiveness is the currency of a therapeutic deism that only wanders into theism when God really needs to fucking show up and answer my prayer. It's the answer the man gives when pushed to consider his own life; it's not necessary for me to truly repent, but if I need my neighbor to do so, I'll reintroduce the binding clause. 

The most amazing disconnect is between what Jesus says and what evangelicals say he means. Clearly, the easiest way to figure out how forgiveness, repentance, virtue, and salvation are related is to simply read the Sermon on the Mount. Rather than take it seriously, though, evangelicals and fundamentalists are taught that it's not really there to serve as a guide; rather, it's to lead us to despair so that we will rely on salvation through Jesus. Wow. I wonder if silly Jesus knew that when he was actually practicing rather successfully the things he "suggested." What then are we supposed to do? How will we know what is right and wrong? If you aren't going to take the words of your Lord seriously, how will I take you seriously? All hermeneutics becomes an exercise in justification of particular desires or the excusing of particular weaknesses. The hard stuff is interpreted away under a rubric of grace, and the answers given to difficult questions become labyrinthine inasmuch as the answerer really doesn't want to wander down the only path that will take him out of the maze of ethical confusion. The asker is left to wonder if the answerer understands what it is he's actually supposed to believe, understands what sort of behavior is actually Christian, and understands how a commitment to the hermeneutics of power and/or convenience has robbed the Church of their only legitimate witness.

Dexter should serve as a pretty good conversation starter in Christian education circles this season. One hopes they actually watch and then have the courage to reach for the difficult answers. After all, if it was me being caricatured like that, I'd want a powerful witness to point to, but the Church has abandoned Jesus because his words are too hard and therby abandoned the only meaningful witness we cynics give a shit about: how do you live?

I am Second. Not really. I can actually do theological math.

This will be brief. When the creepiest marketing agency in the world posted a story about the creepiest Idol winner of the ten seasons, I found it impossible not to make fun of at least one of them. The feel good story is about Scotty "This Smile I'm Wearing Means I Just Fucked Your Mom" McReery (McCreepy) wearing an "I am Second" bracelet during American Idol. I think this statement to the media from the organization is supposed to explain why it's important:

“In a competition where it is easy to get caught up in the greatness of ‘me,’ it is refreshing to see a young man who can remember who really is first,” said Mike Jorgensen, I Am Second executive director. “Though we have never spoken with Scotty about I Am Second, it is inspiring to see him take part in the movement and confidently display his faith to millions each week.”

I could point out that he could have displayed his faith by sticking up for the sweet, fat kid who could actually sing, but he chose to ask forgiveness later, rather than do the right thing when it mattered. (Now there's a rare phenomenon.) Nonetheless, it is Inspiring. Yes it is. In an age of rubber bracelets doing double duty as sacred relics and indicators that people who don't volunteer or give money still give a shit, that black bracelet means you needn't worry that Scotty wooed the cute, dumb, exponentially more talented girl so he could win the competition. (I do realize this is at least partially the fault of vapid teenage girls, but it looked like she threw the competition so as to keep her creepy man's love.) Nope. Scotty is second, not first. Jesus is first. And we know this because he too wore a bracelet...wait...fuck. Never mind. He carried a cross, but a bracelet will do in a pinch.

Anyone else see what's wrong with this? You can read this from the I am Second organization, if you don't know where I'm headed. Doesn't matter, though. You can read the entire website, but you won't be able to figure out why their math sucks. There is no explanation for that deficiency. The campaign ostensibly teaches believers that they are not first; Jesus is. They manage to throw in "others" as well, but by my calculations, that would mean the bracelet should say "I am Third," assuming we count others as a collective noun and assign them the value of 1. If they are actually individuals, a category American believers fuckin' adore, then the bracelet would need to be custom made depending on the specific believer's peer group, church size, school size, and facebook friend count. (Google+ is not an issue at this point.)

For example, I don't have a church, but I have 747 fb friends, roughly 50 students (during this summer term), a family, a handful of friends, and a galaxy of acquaintances. My bracelet, if I was inclined to embrace the Christian ethic, would need to say, "I am 1843." This seems petty, but most commandments that are inconvenient seem petty to people of faith (turn the other cheek, don't resist an evil person, don't have sex with your pet...well, not that one). Mr. McCreery isn't second. Nor is anyone else who wears the bracelet. By their own theological math, their number should be far larger. It's yet another goofy example of how individualistic thinking has invaded the Church, and how practitioners of a faith can utter phrases that are completely contradictory to what they allegedly believe and be completely sure they are speaking some deep, spiritual truth.

Swear Like There's Salvation in the Words Themselves: (Adult Content Warning)

Profanity is in the news. (expletive deleted) I'm a huge fan. People who know me well, and some who barely know me, know you don't want your kids around me. It seems poor Rex Ryan, the coach of the Jets, is in the same boat. (Be patient, sports loathers, this is only an analogy, not the topic.) I love HBO's Hard Knocks. It is perhaps the best sports program available on television. Every year, HBO goes to training camp with an NFL team, films practices, meetings, cuts, contracts, personal anecdotes, slice of life vignettes, pre-season games, etc. It's great television. Year one was Dallas. Year two, the Bengals. Neither coach is ever likely to yell. They certainly aren't going to do much swearing. However, Rex Ryan...oh...a man after my own heart. In week one, he dropped dozens of f-bombs, gds, shits, damns, and some combo swears. It reminded me of, well, of football.

The news the next day was that Rex apologized to his mother because she was upset about his coarse language. Fine. I get it. I don't talk that way in front of my mom either, mostly. But then it became the news de jour. With only baseball going on right now, and with the 32 fans remaining who actually give a shit about the most boring sport since the pro bowlers tour, any football news usurps the lead story spot on all sports networks, even news that isn't really news. Like Rex Ryan saying of his missing safety, "Well, goddamn, he's pretty fucking good." And then Dan Patrick had to go and ask Tony "Is My Halo Straight?" Dungy what he thought about it.

Here we go. Ask the most outspoken evangelical in football since Kurt Warner what he thinks about cussing. Great idea, Dan. I wonder what he'll say. "Well, shit, Dan, I don't know what to fuckin' make of this. I like profanity like I like blowjobs." Yeah, not likely. He said something to the effect of, "I wouldn't hire someone who talked like that." Convenient. Good thing you're not running a war, Saint Tony. The lie here, and I heard some ex-players say it, is that this is not news. Football coaches swear. Players swear. Dungy might even drop a quiet one occasionally. Dear parents, when we were in high school, our coaches used horrifically colorful, crass language, and we simply didn't tell you. Of course, my father played sports in high school, too, so he'd have been shocked if my coach had led us in prayer rather than tell us to kick some fuckin' ass. And when he did, we yelled like Vikings or Thunderbirds or Celtics or Chieftains with the blood lust on us. We did not go home and tell mom how uncomfortable we were with Coach Sago's language. Nope. Not once.

I've had a long and happy relationship with swearing. I lived in Maud, Oklahoma, when I was in 3rd grade. My dad was overseas. Something about a war. A polite war though. No swearing. I ruled at kickball. We were playing one day, and someone on the other team cheated. I let loose with the longest string of profanity I'd ever used. Not sure if I've ever topped it. A strange desire to make public my fascination with the words my Pentecostal heritage had denied me took hold of me. The effect on my fellow students was immediate. Shock. Horror. Admiration. Fear. Laughter. Even a little mimicry. I landed in the principal's office, of course. He explained why that wasn't appropriate. Paddled my ass. Sent me home with a note. Pentecostal mom wasn't happy about it, but I didn't get any more swats. I've been swearing pretty much ever since.

Even when I was a Christian I had a difficult time understanding the aversion to swearing. Some of the best Bible stories featured it. Unfortunately, the translators chose euphemisms rather than coarse language. When Elijah mocks the prophets of Baal, he is not using polite euphemisms. Alas. It's long lost to Bible people. They think Paul is talking about profanity when he speaks of coarse language or corrupt communication, so they feel free to slander other Christians or atheists or politicians or their leaders, people for whom they are supposed to be praying. But instead of using the redemptive words of prayer, they use the lies of political machination: socialist, fascist, philanderer, radical, antichrist, Muslim... They believe taking the Lord's name in vain is about saying goddamn or Jesus Christ as an expletive. They consistently take the Lord's name in vain by acting like douchebags and telling everyone it's because God has called them to do or say or believe something with such conviction that kindness, meekness, and temperance are subsumed under the rubric of "you can be a dick; just be right." Hypocrites. They assume that gossip and slander said without profanity are somehow justified, but tell the truth with a fuck in the middle of it, and you've sinned mightily. Hypocrites. They repeat the lies and spin of their favorite pundits with no regard for fact checking themselves, and castigate a football coach for saying fuck. Hypocrites.

It's a word. Its meaning is culturally defined. Its status as profanity, culturally defined. The very definition of profanity, culturally defined. It has only the power you give it. It was a lesson we taught the parish teen when she was six or seven, maybe eight. Her then stepmother used it regularly. It traumatized the child. One night before a Christmas concert at Oklahoma City University, we sat in a dark car in the parking lot of the school and made the child repeat the word over and over, at first through her tears. Made her use it in a sentence. Made her shout it. Made her laugh when she said it. Made her say, "Fuck you!" to me. Made her break the taboo, conquer the fear, and demystify the word. It's a word, a goddamn word. Get over it. Seriously. Then we told her to be careful when and how she used it. We had to tell her that certain people will think differently of her if she uses it in front of them. She has a mouth to rival mine now, but you wouldn't know it if you met her in public. That's because we told her some people are so deluded that they believe recourse to profanity is a sign of ignorance or a weak mind, which is ironic, since it seems fear, loathing or offense at profanity would be the sign of a weak mind. Anyway, she's a friend of the language now, too, and she uses it well. And appropriately, and oh yes, there is such a thing.

Still, because I don't want to be a dick, even though I believe I'm right, if you ask me not to talk that way in front of you, I'll respect your wishes, to the degree that I won't swear consciously. As I discovered tonight, habits are hard to break, but I did cut down on my swearing in front of friends who are offended by goddamn. Rex Ryan did better in week two as well. I'm sure your mom is proud, Rex. When you know she's not watching, cuss like salvation is in the words themselves, friend.