Joel Osteen in Washington Post Book Review

Joel Osteen’s new book, Become a Better You, is reviewed by Marcia Z. Nelson in today’s Washington Post Book Review.  Nelson places Osteen within the continuum of the burgeoning genre of self-help spirituality, a genre that ranges from Chicken Soup for the Soul to Prayer of Jabez to Purpose Driven Life.  And rather than taking the easy shot at Osteen’s thin theology, she points out that Osteen does indeed have a theological foundation. 

The pejorative label most often thrown at him is ‘Christianity lite,’ and it is true that his core message of self-acceptance seems, at first glance, to be more psychological than theological.  But the book also has a strong scriptural flavor, with frequent references to biblical figures and 66 footnoted citations from the Bible.  And Osteen insists that self-acceptance flows from God’s acceptance of humans, warts (or sins) included.  So maybe it is simple but solid theology, after all.

I’m not sure that 66 footnoted citations from the Bible in a 379-page book qualifies as substantial for an author who is writing from an intentionally Christian perspective (that’s only one reference every 5.7 pages).  And surely there is no end to the valid critiques of Osteen’s navel-gazing, self-help message. His words of holy encouragement and God’s acceptance are hardly a comprehensive Gospel message.  There’s much more to God, the Gospel, and Christianity than self-help.

But I appreciate that Nelson stuck with Osteen long enough to find something of value, something of solid theology in his new book.  After all, this is not the kind of book that I would read, but it surely is the kind of book many folks in our pews and communities are reading (after buying it at BJ’s, Wal-Mart, or Target), whether we like it or not.  And finding some good in it is more helpful than slinging arrows.  It might not be a book on my suggested reading list in my adult education program, but if our folks are reading Osteen’s books and watching him on television, it is good to know that there is something, if partial at best, of the Gospel in his message.  For ours is a world and a church of decreasing spiritual and religious literacy, and better someone read this book than no religious book at all, it seems to me.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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6 Responses to Joel Osteen in Washington Post Book Review

  1. Bill says:

    Chris, in the interest of full disclosure, I feel it is necessary to inform you that I am commenting on your post from a very familiar little CPE office. That being said, here is my comment:
    I like your review of a review. Well done indeed. Perhaps someone will now review your review, and the level of remoteness will again grow.
    You are exactly right, on many accounts. There are two I’d like to mention:
    1) For a 379 page book, 66 biblical references does not a well founded biblical argument make. Calvin had at least 2 per page in the Institutes; I imagine Luther could top that on most any day. They also were in conversation with a millenium and a half of Christian theology. To believe that we know so much more than our predecessors that they aren’t worthy of conversation takes a particular kind of arrogance.
    2) Many people we meet on our Christian journeys will be reading the material of Osteen and many other poorly theological inspirational gurus. Undoubtedly. Such material is nearly always high on American bestseller lists.
    However, I would like to suggest that you go beyond the not on my suggested reading list attitude. While I am not a “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” preacher, I do think there is a considerable amount of clarification that pastors and congregations should seek in our cultural Christianity. Those waters are extremely murky. And the likes of Osteen and Dobson are doing their best to keep them dark. Osteen’s Gospel of Prosperity leads to some obvious contradictions in the Christian life, especially from a Lutheran view. Dobson’s Focus on the Family leads to some obvious idolatries for the Christian life, and we see those idolatries writ large in Washington and in the pop-culture church.
    I think pastors and congregations are on a journey together, a journey of growth and discernment. If you have a problem with the theology of a book such as Become a Better You, I believe it is important to red flag it, and discuss that with congregation members. Maybe you will be convinced otherwise, and maybe not. But it is assuredly a moment of discernment for how are to live.

  2. Chris says:

    Hey Bill,
    Thanks for the comment and the memories. I wouldn’t give up my year in CPE for the world.
    I hear you . . . my point is that – believe it or not – there is something of the Gospel in this stuff. We cannot simply black-list Osteen (or Dobson) with our we’re-smarter-than-you zealous self-righteousness. In Christian Century and on blogs galore I’ll read critique after critique of Osteen. I’ll even catch a few minutes of Osteen on television and I’ll see right through his telegenic smile and theologically thin words.
    Meanwhile, most Main Line parishioners do not have the luxury of a seminary education to help them see Osteen for what he is. Their religious education consists mostly of what they’ve learned in their congregation (Lord help us!). Most Main Line parishoners do not read The Christian Century or the moderate/liberal Christian blogs in my Google Reader. Rather, they glance at the best seller list and see Osteen’s book there, they see his book while shopping for the kids at a Big Box Store, and/or participate in a book club convened by the well-meaning, kind-hearted, non-denominational neighbor. Our people are reading this book – and railing against it is not enough. Until we start preaching, teaching, and otherwise offering our people some real substance, some real life to go along with the Real Presence and Living Word we claim to proclaim, I’m not sure we’re in a position to sling arrows at the Osteens of the world. We can’t just be anti-Bush democrats. We have to have a clear message of our own. Until we reach that point, I’ll struggle to find the nugget of wisdom – however small – in the crap that our people are reading, because we’re not giving them any good alternatives.

  3. Chris,
    You got my drift. Thanks for your kind words and for the education in Lutheranism. I didn’t know that Luther quote altho some of my best friends are Lutherans.

  4. Rich/Luthsem says:

    Real Substance-Real Presence and Living Word!
    I love that Chris! Spoken like a good Lutheran LOL
    Osteen and Hagee are big here in the South and we do need to offer a better alternative instead of just criticizing and making fun.

  5. Bill says:

    No Chris, I will still disagree with you because–please excuse the hyperbole–I think you are playing into the hands of the Liberal god named ‘Permissiveness’.
    I don’t have trouble with your there is something of the Gospel in this view of Osteen. There is no doubt something of the Gospel in his work. It speaks to many faithful people and sets them on some right pathways. I am fine with that point of view, and I don’t find fault there.
    Here is my problem:
    Until we start preaching, teaching, and otherwise offering our people some real substance, some real life to go along with the Real Presence and Living Word we claim to proclaim, I’m not sure we’re in a position to sling arrows at the Osteens of the world.
    Now obviously I don’t know what you are teaching and preaching, but the message of the Cross and Resurrection, as I understand it, is that the Living Word and Real Presence are the ‘real life’. And the problem is that Osteen (and Dobson, et al.) is offering people a very comfortable, very self-centered fraction of the Living Word and Real Presence, a fraction that is a distortion because of its willful limitedness. One aspect of our call as Christians, seminary educated or not, is to work hard to show that it is only a fraction. To offer a broader picture of the Gospel.
    Which I don’t think can be done with a not on my reading list attitude. Nor, would I think, in a Christian Century book review.

  6. Stephanie says:

    As someone who is researching the prospects of giving the Lutheran church a try, this is the only subject holding me back. Though a little confusing at first I am trying to understand your views on a few things… but for the most part your beliefs fall into line with mine. But for this subject it really hurts my heart to hear the things you say about this ministry and Joel. As a Christian who listens to him and reads his books and devotionals, my opinion of him is so different. I believe him to me a man with a sincere heart who loves the Lord and wants to share Gods goodness with others. People call him a prosperity preacher… well you need to take that into context. God wants to prosper His children in all areas of their lives. Although there will be hard times in this life, God calls us to trust in Him even in the valleys… and when things come along that we don’t understand. Do I believe God wants his children to be successful… of coarse… but not just financially… he doesn’t want His children begging bread… we are his children… He blesses us to be a blessing to others… and remember that being financially blessed in not a sin. Money is not evil… it is the love of money that is evil because it can take you away from your first love which is to be the Lord Himself. But He also wants us to be successful in every other area of our lives… in our finances, health, relationships, our outlook, our love for others, our willingness to forgive… every area of life. Joel reminds us of this and gives encouragement and hope to those who may have lost it through the hard things we sometimes go through in this life. Sometimes people… even Christians lose their way and find it hard to see God in our world today… I believe God speaks through Joel to remind us that He is there and that He is listening and that if we will trust in Him he will turn things around in our favor… because all things work together for the good of those who love the Lord and seek after Him. That is a message of encouragement and hope that we all need to hear and be reminded of. When I went to His Night of Hope outreach this is what I heard… a message of hope. To me this outreach was not so much to me like an evangelist outreach to the lost like the Harvest Crusades are… this to me was more geared toward those who already know the Lord who need to be lifted up… and if there are those in the crowd who don’t know the Lord… that is an added bonus and they are welcomed with open arms to the family of God. Instead of trying to bring him down and make your congregations feel like they are doing something wrong and against God for listening… maybe you should ask God to help you really understand what your people are really getting out of it. Is it bringing them closer to the Lord? Do they have a more positive outlook on life? Is it making them better Christians? Is it helping them to bring others into a saving relationship with the Lord? In my case… I have to say yes to all of the above. And I am thankful for the blessings that God has given me and my family through this ministry. Stop trying so hard to find every little thing wrong that you don’t agree with and maybe you’ll begin to see the good that is there and how God is using it to turn peoples lives around.

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