Monday, June 30, 2008

An evening with Joel and Co.

It was billed as an evening of hope. I knew going into it that a version of positive psychology was a central component of the Osteen brand. And in truth, I had no problem with this. Having attended his show, I still don’t. There is value in an inspirational speaker who encourages people to believe in themselves. My problem with the evening had largely to do with the extraneous packaging. 

We arrived early, hoping to snag a good parking spot. Apparently so had everyone else. We ended up parking in the nether regions of the amphitheatre. Seated, we were treated to a televised review of Osteen’s many accomplishments in poorer countries of the world. Two giant screens flanked the stage. I had read that Osteen has a background in television. He later confirmed this to be true. His use of technology was impressive. 

The show started with a number of pieces by the band, led by a bottle-blonde dressed in a black bustier over a white ruffled top. The effect was at the same time sexy but staid. The music was so loud that it was hard to tell if it was any good. The decibel level could compete with any rock show. 

When Osteen came on, I was for a brief moment surprised by how short he was. But his televised face, massive on the oversized dual screens, quickly distracted me from looking at the real man himself. That remained my struggle for the rest of the show, trying to look at the actual man as he actually spoke, versus being transfixed by the televised images of his attractive face. Osteen has a face that was made for TV. He spent a great deal of the evening with his eyes closed, whether in reaction to the many lights and camera flashes or in pensive prayer, it was hard to tell. 

His initial words rambled from one positive theme to another. They seemed disjointed, distracted, disconnected. I felt a twinkling of disappointment. At several points he seemed to forget that he was not at Lakewood. He seemed to be running on automatic. 

He told us that we would be hearing from his mother who had experienced the miracle of being healed from cancer. Then he started talking about his deceased father who had begged and encouraged him to become a preacher. The next thing I knew he was clutching at his eyes with a white handkerchief. A friend on my left and I looked at each other in disbelief. “Drama”, she mouthed over the excited screams of the believers around us. 

After collecting himself, Osteen introduced his mother, Dodie, who turned out to be a sprightly 76-year-old, radiating the kind of expensive good health that only a lot of money can afford. She rushed through her script, giving the impression that she had said it many many many times. At the same time, there was a feel of sincerity to her words, as if she truly believed in the healing powers of Jesus Christ.

Wife Victoria was introduced. She was well groomed and expensive. Between the pale blue designer suit and the massive rock on her ring finger, I found myself thinking that she would be expensive to divorce. I would have picked different colors for her to wear, but perhaps the intent was to seem deliberately washed out so as not to outshine her husband. She talked about the importance of couples supporting each other. She recalled having practically willed her husband into starting his ministry. As an example of his thoughtfulness, she spoke of his bringing her a morning cup of coffee despite not drinking any himself. She seemed far more intelligent than her prescribed role. 

An Osteen sister was introduced. Her responsibility was to beg for financial donations. She prayed for our collective financial success despite the weak economy. Kentucky-fried looking white plastic buckets were passed along the aisles. Two buckets coming from different directions collided in our row. The music built to a crescendo. Osteen himself was nowhere to be seen. 

The man himself returned to the stage after the money collection was over. He then asked us to give him 25 minutes. I realized then that the disjointed staccato presentations he had made earlier were not his speech at all. That was just the warm-up. His theme for the evening was the importance of picking your battles. He used the story of David and Goliath as the backdrop for making his point. He said that David’s brothers had criticized his wish to fight Goliath, but that David did not allow himself to become distracted by that pointless fight. Instead he focused on the more important battle against the giant Goliath. Osteen talked fluently about remaining positive despite having to face the barbs and criticisms of others. He implored us to remain focused on the battles that mattered. 

It was an excellent speech. The message was brilliant. No Biblical scholar myself, I nevertheless became momentarily distracted by a childhood recall that it was Saul who had not been persuaded of David’s ability to fight Goliath. I did not remember a quarrel between David and his brothers featuring that importantly in the original story. But I could be wrong. 

At some point during the 25 minutes, I fell asleep. It wasn’t Osteen’s fault. I had played four hours of tennis that morning in the blazing sun and was quite simply exhausted.  Osteen’s message of faith and belief penetrated subliminally.  It was the music that eventually woke me up. It was LOUD. Osteen’s daughter sang a tuneless song, the words to which I cannot remember. I got it – suffer the little children. I felt badly for her. If I were she, I would be humiliated to be part of my parents’ dog-and-pony show. Osteen had earlier apologized for the absence of his 13-year-old son who had elected to attend camp. Lucky dude, I thought. 

The music banged and clanged as the show came to a close. We were encouraged to stand if we were ready to declare an affiliation to Jesus Christ. I remained seated. Jesus was a prophet, I thought, as is Osteen. I’d just as soon worship the Big Guy himself. Prophets serve the purpose of bringing a message. Osteen’s message, like Jesus’ before him, is positive and uplifting. It works best in 30-minute televised segments with few commercial breaks. I suspect that Jesus would have been an equally effective media superstar. But I feel no need to worship either of them.