Thursday, October 18, 2007

DeConick responds to Osteen

Well it's Houston and Joel Osteen has released another "inspiring" best-seller. I imagine that my readers are probably familiar with Osteen, and his just-released book Become a Better You. We in Houston have been deluged with Osteen-mania, including five days of excerpts from his new book in the Houston Chronicle. I have been following the excerpts, getting more and more concerned about his "inspiring" message, and reminded about the main pop theology that has irritated me about Christianity since my teens when I watched my mom embrace it.

Osteen tells his audience that if they want happiness they need to be satisfied with where they are because God is in control of things and we are right where God wants us to be. His message:
If you're in a hard place, be encouraged in knowing that God is still in control of your life...

Recall those three Hebrew teenagers in the Old Testament who wouldn't bow down to King Nebuchadnezzar's golden idol. The king got so upset that he ordered them thrown into a fiery furnace.

But the Hebrew boys said, "King, we're not worried about it. We know that our God will deliver us. But even if He doesn't, we're still not going to bow down." Notice, they embraced the place where they were, even though it was difficult, even though they didn't like it.

You can do something similar. Quit living frustrated because your prayers weren't answered the way you wanted. Quit being depressed because you're not as far in your career as you had hoped, or because you have a problem in your marriage, or in your finances. No, just keep pressing forward. Keep your joy and enthusiasm. You may not be exactly where you hoped to be, but know this: God is still in control of your life.
As for bad marriages, Osteen says:
Well, he may not be the perfect husband. But you can thank God that at least you have somebody to love. Do you know how many people are lonely today? Believe it or not, some woman would be glad to have your husband. Be grateful for that man. Be grateful for that woman.
I normally don't get involved in contemporary theological discussions, but the days on end that I have had to put up with reading this message has irritated me enough that I feel compelled to respond. Why? Because what Osteen is saying is not just nauseating, it is downright dangerous. Here is another man in power, telling his flock to be content with all aspects of their lives, because God is controlling those situations. He uses a very violent image - a king executing those who don't submit to him - to inspire his audience to hang in there because God is in control. Does he really think that if any of us find ourselves raped or kidnapped or faced with genocide or war that we should expect God to swoop down and save us like the young teenagers who faced execution by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar?

What about women and children who are being beaten by their husbands, boyfriends, and dads every day in America? Is God in control of them? Should they stick it out because it is what God plans for their lives?

It is just this sort of Christian theology that bolsters abused women, and tells them that it is the right thing to do to stay with the abuser. That they must deserve it in some way, that they are being punished for being bad people, that they need to learn to forgive their husbands and love them unconditionally. I know this from personal experience since my husband has dedicated many years of his life to helping abused women try to get legal protection against the abuser.

Now my reader might think that Osteen can't possibly intend this? My response is that it matters not what he intends, but how his message is received by women in abusive relationships and other people who face terrible things that are beyond their control. His message "you must learn to be happy right where you are" is downright dangerous for them.

So I have another message. If you are in an unsafe place, if you are being hurt, abused, or threatened, get out. No one is going to do this for you - God or anyone else. You have to make the decision to leave.

There is so much in our lives that happens to us that we have no control over - and it is not because God wants those things to happen to us. But there are things we do control and it is our responsibility to use our brains and figure out how to get to where we want to go if we aren't already there. So if you hate your job, don't be content with it and thank God that at least you have a job. Figure out what needs to be done to get the job you prefer or dream about, and do it, knowing full well the risk. It might take years. It might take training. It might take saving money. It might take moving. It might not work out the way you planned it. So have a plan B. My point is this: if you have a dream, you are your own fairy godmother.


Doug Chaplin said...

As a priest who has occasionally had to work hard at helping women to find the strength to reach (and act on) a decision to break out of abusive marriages (which they were staying in partly because that's what the Bible says) I couldn't agree with you more.

Judy Redman said...

I'm with you and Doug on this. Although I wouldn't be so sure that Osteen doesn't expect women to stay in abusive marriages. I don't know Osteen or his work, but I have dealt with a number of women from more conservative churches who have been told by their ministers/pastors that they should ask God to make them better wives so their husbands won't abuse them any more.

Although I would agree that sitting around being depressed about being in a situation that you can't change is not helpful, and that accepting it and working within it is a better option, the notion that God has put you there because that is God's plan for your life paints a very strange picture of a so-called loving God.

Jim Deardorff said...

Osteen is merely accepting Matthew's Sermon on the Mount as if much of it were the words of wisdom or of Jesus, rather than alterations made by the writer of Matthew. I.e., be humble, never get angry, make friends with your accuser, do not resist one who is evil, turn the other cheek, don't worry about tomorrow but rather leave it to God. So maybe Osteen is just trying to be a good Christian?

Phil Snider said...

The thing is that what Osteen is right about is that God is in control and that He does intend good things for all of us. That said, I also question the way he is saying it because, as April rightly points out, it is too easily distorted into suffering for the sake of suffering (courting martyrdom) or reinforcing abuse. He is danger of advocating fatalism, not Christianity, and, while one may sometimes have to suffer for one's faith, one must be a participant in that decision not a mere victim of circumstance. To victims, God promises release and rescue, not continued daily suffering only because of being in an abusive marriage or whatever else. Endurance isn't a Christian virtue, but rather faithfulness. And it is perfectly faithful to value oneself as God's Creation and to walk out of an abusive relationship because the marriage tie has been broken by the abuse itself.

I hope Osteen would concede this. The thing with this Christian pop psychology (I'm not sure I would dignify it with the term theology) is that it is relentlessly positive, making it relentlessly untrue to life. The fact is that Christians find themselves in abusive marriages, addictions, depressoins and grief as much as anyone else do and this kind of blind optimism doesn't help us through those times. More often than not, as April points out, it makes us feel guiltier about being in the first place or condition us to stay in them to show how great martyrs we are. Both of those results isn't what God plans for us.

Sorry, for the preaching off the soap box, but this kind of thing annoys me, albeit for different reasons than April


paulf said...

So let me get this straight. Christianity is supposed to make your life more meaningful. But if it doesn't, then just accept it.

God answers prayers, and when he does, you should be thankful. But if he doesn't, you of course should be thankful.

If God does what you ask, then it is because you were faithful. If God doesn't answer your wish after you throw your coin into the well, er, I mean pray, then it's because he wants you to learn a lesson. But if you were praying in the first place, why do you need to be taught a lesson?

It occured to me after listening to too many sermons that none of this makes sense. Everything good and bad is just proof of God's "concern" for your life. It's a rigged game, like "heads I win, tails you lose."

If there is a God, why in the world would he want to monitor the daily activities of six billion people every day? What positions they have sex? How much money they earn? C'mon, get real.

Judy Redman said...

Looking again at this thread, I feel that I need to add to my comment about being in a rotten position being part of God's plan for your life. The son of a friend of mine who belongs to a conservative Christian church died in a pedestrian accident at the age of 20. She actually wrote a book to help her make sense of it all, and she genuinely believes that this was part of God's plan for her son and finds that comforting. I don't understand this and I certainly wouldn't follow a God who worked like this, but it equally certainly works for her.

Phil Snider said...

I think what may be missing is a sense that God can be found even in the suffering of the loss of a child. What that means is that the actual event is an evil (the premature death of a child), but that God's love/comfort and/or the support of others is a way that God shows his grace. That doesn't deny the suffering or the evil, but can give it some meaning.

I do understand how this kind of thing sounds weird, but, if you accept that evil exists in the world and that we suffer the effects of it, then, God's grace can be found in the good that we find even in the midst of suffering. It isn't that God is making evil things happen (as Judy seems to suggest here), but that evil things happen and God gives us grace to survive them and grow spiritually.

Does that make better sense?


Jim Deardorff said...

In this same vein, here is how someone, like myself, who has studied the past-life literature may view it. For one thing, God's universe has a two-is-one rule built into it, e.g., evil can't exist unless good exists, and conversely. And the same for other extremes. For another thing, there's the law of cause and effect built into it all, which seems to be inviolable.

If it would be any comfort to know, this son who died a tragic, premature death will have plenty of opportunities in future lives to learn lessons missed in his last life plus still further lessons. As will we all, according to voluminous findings of investigators of childhood cases of the reincarnation type, plus findings of many past-life therapists, over the past 50 years.

Judy Redman said...


What you say makes better sense to me. That's how I conceptualise it, but my friend actually articulates her son's death at age 21 as part of God's sovereign plan for his life. In her book, she quotes C Everett Koop, writing about *his* son's death at age 20 in the book Sometimes Mountains Move as follows:

"It is a firm belief that God makes no mistakes, doesn't change His mind, that things don't happen by chance and there is no such thing as luck. Therefore, there can be no such thing as an 'accident'. The Lord never acts capriciously."

I don't find this comforting, myself.

Phil Snider said...

Well, I'm not sure that I'd say Koop was wrong, although that isn't the way I would come at it. I know there has been sometimes when things have happened to me when I have to decide whether I think God knows what he's doing or not, then simply trust that he does. Sometimes when we simply lack an explanation or clear sign of God redeeming the situation, all we can do is to fall back on our faith that, appearences to the contrary, God knows what he's doing. It is a recogntion (at least, this is how I take it) that we simply don't understand everything, but, in situations like this, we need to fall back on our faith about what kind of God we are serving and trust his goodness even amid apparent evil. I think this is what Koop is trying to say, and perhaps your friend as well.