Last week on the el (what we call a subway/elevated mass transit train here in Chi-town) I saw an older Latina woman reading a Spanish-language translation version of Love Your Life: Living Happy, Healthy and Whole, by the reigning queen among American tv preacher’s wives, Victoria Osteen.
I first found out that Joel and Victoria Osteen were big in the Latino community two years ago through a part-time evangelical pastor I used to work with, an American-born Mexican who was a fan of their widely syndicated tv show. (This pastor also happened to listen to Rush Limbaugh a bit… but we won’t talk about how Rush would require half my colleague’s congregation be deported if he had his way…).
I do sort of get the Osteens’ popularity. They present the classic Barbie and Ken doll faces and good salesmanship that American evangelicalism has been about for years now. Plus, it’s also a Texas thing. They’re from Houston, and their Lakewood Church has the reputation of being ethnically and economically diverse. And if one thinks quantity equals quality in ministry, then Lakewood is huge and getting bigger. Thus the Osteens are part of the new “big tent” thinking that political neo-conservatives now realize they have to start building, in the era of Obama. Liberals and centrists have finally taken the “God” trump card away from conservatives a little bit… at least for now. And there may be some more theologically conservative folks who critique Joel’s self-help/cheap-grace sort of style and attitude about scripture, but that doesn’t make Osteen a liberal. Far from it.
As far as Latino statistical trends, this movement to the right, religiously and sometimes politically, is actually part of an older trend. Ex-Catholic Mexican-Americans –most of them Pentecostal (Osteen’s background)– have been the largest growth sector of the Protestant church for the past decade. I think this population has enjoyed participating in a faith tradition that encourages a more public and emotional engagement with God… an approach that Catholicism and stodgy mainline Protestantism–with their more private, quiet, inner experiences and expressions of faith– do not always explore enough.
So up to a point, there’s nothing wrong with emotion in religious experience, in my opinion. The drama, enthusiasm, healing, gratitude and tears of the charismatic or Pentecostal approach to worship does have its place in our society. I myself have partaken of that cup at times, and been nourished. Also, I believe that faith dominated too much by clenching the bible, left only with cold reason and abstract intellectual arguments, can turn out dry and come up short, especially in times of personal crisis.
However, I must offer a disclaimer at this point: I myself am not Latino. I am white, upper middle class, suburban, have a Masters degree, and in dozens of other ways cannot pretend to “speak” for the Latino community. I have worshipped alongside them, worked with them, taught classrooms full of them in schools (from kindergarten up through college), read their literature and folklore, enjoyed their musical and artistic traditions, and in various ways gotten glimpses into the norms of Latino culture. As an Italian-American, I even strongly identify with them –with the balqanced, relaxed energy and friendly, fun-loving, uncomplicated spirits I’ve seen among my friends. I have even lived in the same communal house with Salvadorans and Mexican-Americans, for years at a time. But I know I am not one of them. And I’ve only been to Mexico as a short-term gringo tourist — never an employee, church worker, or anything of that nature. So I will admit right here that I’m looking at all of this as an outsider. Thus I may be stereotyping a bit, or only seeing only part of the picture. Nevertheless, I hope I have at least a little perspective, as an avid watcher and participant in the North American religious experience.
A possible reason for this Latino “born again” trend: with all the “pro-family” rhetoric that the religious right has put forth in the era of Dr. James Dobson, the traditionally pro-family aspects of Mexican and Central American culture (e.g. a pro-life stance, lower divorce rates) have to some extent found a home away from home within the conservative movement. Thus, Latinos seeking assimilation have found at least one large, mostly white subculture in the U.S. that accepts them and even implicitly praises what they are already inclined to do: get married, stay married, have babies, work hard to support them, etc.
Another reason Latinos may have bought into evangelicalism: the male “headship” message –one that conservatives strongly recommend in both family decision-making and in church leadership– coincides quite comfortably with the humility (or malleability) that Latin-American families often train girls in from a young age. Not saying this is good or bad, just something I’ve noticed.
As an educator, I have seen firsthand the tendency of Latina girls in the classroom to hang back and let the boys run the show. They often don’t want to be seen as smart. They like being supportive and involved, but it’s a rare Latina girl who is ready to step up and take charge, to exercise real intellectual or spiritual authority or assertiveness among her peers (especially over the boys). In other words, Latinas don’t mind being in the background — or at least they don’t seem to mind, though they may find other more subtle ways of gaining power in the family, church, school or workplace. Meanwhile, the famously paternalistic religious and political conservatives in the U.S. — the “boys club”, if you will — are perfectly content to let Latinas stay in the background, for obvious reasons.
So assimilation may be another reason people like the Osteens have gotten popular among immigrants. The “American Dream” still has its appeal, in good times and bad. This is not an altogether new thing, nor is it a matter for undue concern or negativity. For over a century, religious involvement has been the main way for immigrants –and immigrant-heavy neighborhoods– to still offer a sense of “small town” friendliness and safety.
Plus, historically, Pentecostalism is the original grassroots or underground movement within the U.S. religious spectrum. Independent or non-denominational storefront churches and warehouses, urban and rural, are where the charismatic movement was born. (Can you say Azusa?) These lively churches were started by people who may not have been to seminary (or even to college), and are quite common in the American pentecostal tradition, especially in the South. And even this is not automatically a bad thing. College and seminary are sometimes overrated. A degree is not an automatic stamp of approval that one’s theology is solid or that one’s intentions are good, as anyone who’s been part of a pastoral search team will tell you.
Yet -elitist as it may sound — it does conern me that Joel Osteen has no college degree. According to Answers.com:
Osteen has no college or seminary degree. He studied briefly at Oral Roberts University, then worked behind the scenes in Lakewood’s TV ministry until his father’s death in 1999.
Oral Roberts, eh? He who claimed he had a vision of a 900-foot Jesus, who once said God would kill him if his parishioners didn’t help him raise a million dollars for his ministry? He who resigned as president of his own university in 2007 amid allegations of fraud and financial mismanagement?
So yeah, it sticks in my craw that the Osteens –of all people– are emerging as one of the champions of mainstream Christian teaching these days, especially among Latinos. I feel mis hermanos y hermanas have been duped, to some extent (along with millions of others who buy the books and watch the tv shows). It bugs me that the Progressive Christians and social-justice oriented Catholics dropped the ball on this one. They offer U.S. Latinos and people in their international homelands much better prospects for economic and human rights, but their conscientious practices can’t match the excellent marketing plan that the religious right has put together since the Reagan years.
So the Osteens, and Joel’s far-too-smiley persona, just look too much to me like the shiny, shallow, one-dimensional profiteers that we’ve seen in the past. Similar “showmen/preachers” have come through here for years and then been revealed as frauds… the Oral Roberts, the Jim and Tammy Bakkers, the Ted Hagees –all the new Pharisees, who love to be out front telling us how to live, but who refuse to be held to those standards themselves in private. Then they live high on the hog to boot, with money their congregations certainly ought to be getting a better return on.
But wait, there’s more: Remember the court case in which Victoria Osteen was fined $3000 by the FAA, and accused of assault by the flight attendant on that flight in 2006? She may not have done anything more than being rude and self-important. And she did beat the civil suit. But I have serious doubts about Victoria’s alleged “innocence” in the matter, or why would the flight attendant have gone to the effort at all? And now Victoria’s supposed to be the one instructing me how to love well, or how to love as Jesus loved? How quickly we forget…
As for Joel, it bugs me that a guy seen as a hero of the faith by millions of Americans is known for such market-friendly mottos as “Discover the champion in you.” This could just as easily be a Nike slogan. It’s got nothing to do with Jesus. It is not the way of love. For I believe the way to spiritual maturity and spreading the love of Christ is not by succeeding in some rat race, some individualistic religio-economic competition with individual winners and losers, but through cooperation and community.
The kind of selflessness that the church should stand for and practice is not the kind of self-help claptrap (in religious clothing) that millionaire preachers put out in their high-rated tv shows and bestselling books. In this, Joel Osteen is little more than a Tony Robbins type motivational speaker, preaching American triumphalism in a world falling apart around us.
In contrast, Jesus was the one who said “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) . He later said, “Greater love hath no one than this: to lay down his (or her) life for a friend.” (John 15:13) . And Saint Peter, the original pastor and first great evangelistic preacher of Jesus’ church, had this to say about those who would love life: “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech.” (1 Peter 3:10)
Is that the kind of gutsy love, sacrifice, and truthful transparency Victoria Osteen’s book is about, or what she practices in her “victorious” daily life? I doubt it.
Joel and Victoria Osteen may know very well how to sell themselves and their ideas (with help from Simon and Schuster, their publisher). They may even know what makes narcissistic Americans and ambitious, hopeful Latinos tick. But the “life” they are telling us to love may actually be just a hollow, self-involved, consumerist lifestyle… one that often flies in the face of Jesus’ basic teachings to love one another sacrificially, to give our lives back to God, to His people, and to His (or Her) purposes.