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2016-08-05 (3)“Joel Osteen’s Fake, Heretical ‘Christianity’ Isn’t Any Better Than Atheism.”

That’s the title of an article from blogger Matt Walsh published yesterday on The Blaze. If Matt Walsh ever does have a thought worthy of publication, he will no mistake it for a bad cold, and there is certainly no chance The Blaze would publish anything that challenges the grade-school level reading skills of its founder, Glenn Beck. Still, sometimes even soft-heads and soft-targets merit a response of some kind.

I can think of all kinds of criticisms that Joel Osteen deserves, but this is a case of praising with faint damn. No better than atheists? It’s amusing to be the on the as end of a justazzy equation for a change, but one could do worse than to do no better than an atheism. The problem here is of course that Osteen certainly does worse than we generally do in at least one very significant respect. Just as every other televangelist I can think of, Osteen rakes in millions off the gullibility of his followers. There is no telling how many elderly couples are going right now without basic comforts or even important medication because they choose to contribute to Osteen’s cause or those like it. I know of no comparable movement within atheism, certainly none with anywhere near the impact of the many financial empires sailing under the banner of Christianity. So, it’s damned odd to find out that what’s really wrong with this Huxter is that his message is just like ours, which it simply isn’t. We have our faults, to be sure, but this doesn’t seem like one of them. Hell, it’s not even close.

But let’s be clear. I would find his message would be no less disturbing if Walsh’s title didn’t involve a swipe at people like me. Once again, people like Osteen consistently make their money off the backs of people who cannot afford it. But Walsh’s problem with Osteen isn’t the exploitation of people of others in the name of God; it’s his theology. Ironically enough, what Walsh takes issue with is Osteen’s advocacy of something called “the Prosperity Gospel.” Loosely speaking, this is the notion that God may convey blessings in the form of material wealth on his faithful. So, you can see that questions about the relationship between money and spirituality are at the heart of Osteen’s ministry, but Walsh’s never seems to address just how serious these questions really are.

Walsh  is concerned that Prosperity Gospel  is teaching people to value wealth in this life too much. Indeed, Walsh suggests people would be better off hungry if that’s what it took to get them to the right message of Christianity. What Walsh misses is the fact that doctrines like the Prosperity Gospel can get people to hungry status just as effectively as any doctrine he imagines to be more scripturally sound. Osteen’s message of wealth is lost in one very important sense on Osteen’s own followers, they aren’t going to get wealthy  off his message. Indeed, a good number of them are going to lose a portion of whatever they do have buy pouring it into his empire. Far from being ‘no better than atheism’, this is a problem that resides almost entirely within the halls of big business evangelism.

Walsh begins his criticisms by pressing Osteen’s ambiguous use of language. He thinks Osteen’s blend of self-help nonsense if largely meaningless. Walsh likens it to a kind of ‘verbal smoothie’ filled with meaningless cliches. Fair enough on that account (I do not disagree in the slightest) but what would make things better? Walsh wants to hear more about Jesus:

But there are some words that never seem to make it into the smoothie. If you listen closely to all the self-help mumbo jumbo spewed by these heretics, you may notice the glaring absence of certain crucial terms; terms that any pastor ought to be shouting proudly and with great regularity. For one thing, you won’t hear ”Christ.” Neither will you hear “sin.” Or redemption, sacrifice, atonement, repentance, Bible, etc. Prosperity preachers are notoriously hesitant to share the spotlight with Jesus. They’d rather keep all the attention centered on the self — their own selves, specifically – and some vague “god” character, who, according to their mythology, is a genie-like figure who shows up to grant wishes before returning to his magic lamp.

This is really fascinating, actually. The Prosperity Gospel is a message calculated to present donations to the church as a means to financial success. It enables preachers to imply a quid pro quo without stating it outright, and that makes it a highly effective tool for con artists. One con-artist after anotherhas used it to separate people from their money, even from their life-savings. With all that could be said about this particular message, what Walsh thinks is bad about this is that they don’t mention Jesus enough.

But what if they did?

More importantly, what about when they actually do?

The Prosperity Gospel was all over the ministries of Jan and Paul Crouch, and it never crowded the name of Jesus out of their conniving mouths. There is a good deal of Prosperity Gospel in the messages of Pat Robertson as well, and that doesn’t stop him from invoking Jesus. Jim and Tammy Fae Baker never had any trouble mixing Jesus into their own version of the Prosperity Gospel. I could go on of course, but the point is obvious enough. The name of ‘Jesus’ is all over the Prosperity Gospel. In fact, the connection between devotion to Jesus and hopes for material blessings are at least as old as the Puritans. Contemporary New Age spokesmen and countless motivational speakers (even some secular ones) are merely a minor variation on this old theme, but few have had more success with that theme than those who kept Jesus front and center in the message. The Prosperity Gospel is a message that flourished in Christian churches long before it ever escaped the pews for more ambiguous theological settings.

Walsh has his own scriptures, to be sure, scriptures he thinks will refute the interest in wealth, but of course the Prosperity crowd has their own. They can go back and forth all they like, but neither will resolve anything to anyone except themselves. And here is where atheism may well matter after all in this equation, because I for one don’t give a damn what the scriptures have to say about it. What I see when I look at someone like Osteen is a con artist depriving countless people of essential financial resources so that he can enjoy wealth they can only imagine. That the Prosperity Gospel uses the image of wealth to part people from what little they have is the problem with people like Osteen. I have known many Christians who could see that problem. There is little evidence that Walsh does.

Simply put,the problem with the Prosperity Gospel is NOT one of theology; it is one of economics. I’ve known many community pastors and priests worthy of respect, but I’d be hard pressed to think of a televangelist who struck me as anything else but a thief. The former deal with real people and their problems, some wonderfully and some disastrously. Televangelists provide the face of money-making machines. These people are in business, and unfortunately they are in business with the full benefits of non-profit status. It simply should not be an option to sell false hope, and we ought not as a nation to sit idly by as people like Osteen and countless other huxters make themselves filthy rich off the waning judgement of people heading into retirement.

It is the cover of spirituality that makes Osteen’s con possible. His message may no better than atheism to the likes of Walsh, but it is not atheism that empowers his exploitation of others. To find the source of that empowerment, we have only to look at those who quibble over matters of theology while saying little to nothing about the outright larceny that is modern televangelism.