"I Like to Start With Something Funny": The Made-For-TV Liturgy of Joel Osteen
OK, I'll admit it: I've become a semiregular viewer of Joel Osteen (of the clan Osteen!). He's on TV every Sunday right after The Chris Matthews Show--like, right after, without commercial interruption. No sooner has Matthews's round table each told me something I don't know than Joel and his pearly-white family are inviting me to "discover the champion in you." And before I have the chance to shake that catchy jingle out of my head he's right there smiling at me, inviting me to Houston, Texas, and telling me a joke. "I like to start with something funny," he says, week after week after week. It's the third element of his televised liturgy: jingle to "Join us" to joke. It's his version of "Tinkers to Evers to Chance," its emphatic sequence winning souls for him time after time after time. my first book. I remember walking around a trade show trying to drum up some interest--any interest whatsoever--in Comic Book Character, then turning a corner and seeing Osteen, sporting that toothsome grin, signing books for several hundred people. Your Best Life Now! the book shouted at each person standing in line, and I'll be darned if they didn't every one of them believe their best life was right there tucked in its pages. I didn't join them in line, but I've had my eye on Osteen ever since. All this to say, I'm not entirely objective about him, because I'm human, and to be human is to be insanely jealous of other humans. Or something like that. Anyway, Osteen is controversial for all sorts of reasons, but mostly because he's so safe. His messages are so much sanctified sensibility--common sense with a therapeutic sensitivity and a gospel gloss. There's nothing wrong with them, although theologically speaking, there's nothing especially right about them either. But you probably know that; what interests me lately is not the content of his sermons but the medium in which he presents them. I'm interested in his made-for-TV liturgy. Osteen has tens of thousands of people in regular attendance at his church in Houston, and he occasionally travels the country filling out sports stadiums with eager audiences. But he's known above all as a TV preacher. A half-hour every Sunday he's right there in your living room, flashing that grin, offering you your Best Life Now! No commercials, unless you count the intermittent invitations to buy books or videos or audios, but even those are put forward by Joel and his wife. It's a half-hour of uninterrupted Osteen, week after week after week. Here's how the half-hour unfolds: (1) Welcome to Lakewood! Y'all come see us! (2) I like to start with something funny. (3) Hold up your Bibles; say it like you mean it . . . I'll stop there for a moment to expand on this shared recitation: all the gathered throng speaks the following in unison, led by Osteen:
This is my Bible. I am what it says I am, I have what it says I have, I can do what it says I can do. Today I’ll be taught the Word of God. I boldly confess my mind is alert, my heart is receptive, I’ll never be the same, in Jesus name.This is tantamount to a creed, a statement of faith. There's a presumed faith in a triune God, which the Bible affirms, but the main focus is on the relationship between what the Bible says and the individual person. Which leads to . . . (4) The sermon. The sermon is fast-paced and packed with hooks--sensible advice in alliterated short sentences, illustrated by stories from the Osteen family and people one degree removed thereof. My wife is a therapist, and she hears lots from Osteen that she would be comfortable sharing with her clients if they weren't from Osteen's lips. He's good at gently prodding his followers out of self-defeating attitudes. It's hard to be afraid of life when you're listening to Joel Osteen; it's easy to think that anything is possible. The most remarkable thing to me, however, is the cadence of it. "La la lala la laaaaaa; la la lala la laaaaa." Something like that.
"God doesn't ____ ____ _______________; God _____ ___ ______ _______ __________________. . . . You're not ___ ______ ______ __________________; you're _____ ___ ______ _____ _______________."These are the things that a congregant might right down on a church bulletin, and there's a startling number of them in one thirty-minute period. This sort of thing is, I think, ideally suited to television, which has taught us to expect pithy proverbs and tidy turns of phrase. You know you're on the clock during a Joel Osteen sermon, and you're fine with it: you've got a full day ahead of you, and you can't fritter the day away watching TV. God doesn't want you vegging out; God wants you sucking the marrow out of life. Or something like that. Anyway, before you know it Osteen has made his last point of the week, your self-confidence is topped off and you're ready to face the day. Only one thing remains: (5) The invitation. Every episode ends with an invitation to give your life to God. It's a happy moment, and we're left imagining hundreds of hands being raised in Houston, and thousands more throughout the country. That's the magic of television: the viewer is a full participant, even though what the viewer imagines may well have nothing to do with reality. It's worth noting that there's clearly stuff that happens in Houston at Osteen's church before and probably also after the broadcast. I suspect there's some congregational singing, maybe some announcements, undoubtedly an offering. We forget that happens when we're in Osteen's thrall from the comfort of our living rooms. Osteen and his people have figured out what elements of a church service as we've come to understand it translates to his chosen medium. He's found the product within the phenomenon of the gathered body of Christ, and he's packaged it up nice and brought it to market. I find myself less and less put out by Osteen. He's harmless and even, I daresay, sometimes helpful. I'm more concerned, frankly, by his medium than his message: if what he's selling is what church is, how long will it take before the whole world changes the channel?