The God of Victory.
There is nothing to mark Osteen’s Lakewood Church, which I visited in the summer of 2008, as sanctified territory-no crosses, no stained glass windows, no images of Jesus. From my hotel room window, just across a six-lane highway from the church, it’s a squat, warehouselike structure completely at home among the high-rise office buildings surrounding it. In fact, it used to be the Compaq Center, home of the Houston Rockets, until Osteen acquired it in 1999 and transormed the interior into a 16,000-seat megachurch. Entering through and underground parking lot, I arrive in a cheery child-area decorated with cartoon figures and lacking only popcorn to complete the resemblance to a suburban multiplex theatre. Even the sanctuary, the former basketball court, carries on this godless way. Instead of an altar, there is a stage featuring a rotating globe and flanked by artificial rocks enlivened with streams or what appears, at least, to be flowing water. I can find nothing suggestive of Christianity until I ascend to the second-floor bookstore- a sort of denatures and heavily censored version of Barnes and Noble, prominently displaying Joel Osteen’s works, along with scores of products like scented candles and dinnerware embossed with scriptural quotes. Here, at last, are the crosses-large ones for wall hanging and discreet ones on vases, key chains, and mugs or stitched into ties and argyll socks.
The Osteens- Joel and his copastor and wife, Victoria- when they step forth on the stage for Sunday service to a standing ovation, are an attractive couple in their forties, but Joel is not quite the “walking advertisement for the success creed” I have read him described as. He is shorter than she is, although on his book cover he appears at least two inches taller; his suit seems too large; and, what is also not evident in the book jacket photos, his curly, heavily gelled black hair has been styled into a definite mullet. She wears a ruffled white blouse with a black vest and slacks that do not quite mesh together at the waist, leaving a distracting white gap. In one way, the two of them seem perfectly matched, or at least symmetrical: his mouth is locked into the inverted triangle of his trademark smile, while her heavy dark brows stamp her face with angry tension, even when the mouth is smiling.
The production values are more sophisticated than the pastors themselves. Live music, extremely loud Christian rock devoid of any remotely African-derived beat, alternates with short burst of speech in a carefully choreographed pattern. Joel, Victoria, or a senior pastor speaks for three to five minutes-their faces hugely amplified on the three large video screens above and lead singers move to center stage. All the white lights on the ceiling change color, dim and brighten, and occasionally flash, strobelike, to the beat. It’s not stand-up-boogie music, but most of the congregation at least stands, sways, and raises an arm or two during the musical interludes, perhaps hoping to catch a glimpse of themselves on the video screens as the cameras pan the audience. “Disney”, mutters the friend who has accompanied me, the wife of a local Baptist minister. But this is just a taping, and the twelve thousand or so of us in the sanctuary (the seats do not fill at either Sunday morning service) are only a studio audience. The real show, and edited version of what we are watching, will reach about seven million television viewers.
Inadvertently, I have come on a Sunday of immense importance to the Osteens, one of the greatest turning points, they aver, in their lives. In the preceding week, a court had dismissed charges against Victoria for assaulting and injuring a flight attendant. The incident occurred in 2005, when they boarded the first-class cabin of a flight bound for Vail, the ski resort, only to leave-or be thrown off-the plane after Victoria raised a fuss over a small “stain” or “spill” on the armrest of her seat. She demanded that the flight attendant remove the stain immediately, and when the flight attendant refused because she was busy helping other passengers board, Victoria insisted, allegedly attempting to enter the cockpit and complain to the pilots. Victoria ended up paying a $3,000 fine imposed by the FAA, and the matter would have ended there if the recalcitrant flight attendant had not brought suit demanding 10 per cent of Victoria Osteen’s net worth in compensation for alleged injuries, including haemorrhoids and a “loss of faith” due to her mistreatment by a leading evangelist.
My friend’s husband, the Baptist minister, had predicted when we had coffee on Saturday that the Osteen’s Sunday service would make no mention of the whole ugly business. Why would they want to revive the image of Victoria behaving, as another attendant on the plane has testified, like a “combative diva”? He was wrong. Both Sunday services are given over Victoria’s “victory” in court. When Joel steps forth at the beginning of the service, he covers his face with hands, peekaboo fashion, for several seconds, and when he removes them his eyes are red and his smile is in temporary remission. He then takes a large white handkerchief from his pocket and rubs his eyes vigorously, although no tears are visible on his magnified video image. “It’s not just a victory for us”, he announces. “It’s a victory for God’s kingdom,” hence the entire service will be a “celebration.” As the service proceeds, he tells us that he spent his time at the trial writing out scriptural quotes and shows us the yellow legal pad he used. He shares a long, muddled anecdote about how he had ended up wearing the suit he intended to testify in although he hadn’t known he was going to testify on that particular day, because he couldn’t “find another suit”, leaving us to think that he owns no more than two. More ominously, he tells us that God “is against those who are against us.”
When Victoria takes center stage, she’s a triunphant as David doing his victory dance though the streets of Jerusalem, even briefly jumping up and down in joy. The “situation”, as she calls it, was difficult and humiliating, but “I placed a banner of victory over my head”-figuratively, I assume, and not as an actual scarf. Oddly, there are no lessons learned, no humility acquired though adversity, not even any conventional expression of gratitude to her husband for standing by her. (…)
But for Victoria, the only takeaways are that “we can’t be bogged down by circumstances” and “don’t lick your wounds,” which echo Joel’s constant exhortation to be “a victor, not a victim.” In fact, sometime in the interval since the incident, God had revealed that he wanted her to write a book, and-good news!-it will be coming out in October, followed by a children’s book a few months later(…)
So the seeker who embraces positive theology finds him-or herself in a seamless, self-enclosed world, stretching from workplace to mall to corporate-style church. Everywhere, he or she hears the same message-that you can have all that stuff in the mall, as well as the beautiful house and car, if only you believe that you can. But always, in a hissed undertone, there is the darker message that if you don’t have all that you want, if you feel sick, discouraged, or defeated, you have only yourself to blame. Positive theology ratifies and completes a world without beauty, transcendence, or mercy.
Smile or Die, Barbara Ehrenreich.