Review: Salvation with a Smile

Randall Balmer

Randall Balmer is the John Phillips Professor in Religion and Director of the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College.

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Randall Balmer, "Review: Salvation with a Smile," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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Phillip Luke Sinitiere. Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity. New York: New York University Press, 2015. 305 pp. ISBN 978-0-8147-2388-3.

When Joel Osteen assumed the pulpit of Lakewood Church following his father’s death in 1999–wearing his father’s suit, tie, shoes and clutching his Bible–he did so with grand ambitions. Osteen had been the television producer for Lakewood and, according to Phillip Luke Sinitiere in this remarkably informative book, Joel Osteen’s theological training derived almost entirely from editing his father’s sermons.

Sinitiere doesn’t pitch that observation as a criticism. Not at all. The author spends a great deal of time exploring John Osteen’s “Texas Theology," which evolved from garden-variety Southern Baptist to neopentecostal, complete with divine healing and more than a dash of prosperity theology. The elder Osteen's belief in divine healing grew out of the healing of his daughter (now one of the pastors at Lakewood), but such convictions, of course, placed Osteen at odds with the Southern Baptists–his divorce from a youthful marriage didn’t help, either–so he charted a more independent course. John Osteen’s early affiliation with the Full Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship International provided him with both an expanding network of confederates as well as a national platform.

Once in the pulpit, the younger Osteen enlarged his list of influences to include John Maxwell and Joyce Meyer, who in turn was influenced by Norman Vincent Peale–not exactly theological titans, but that, according to Sinitiere, is precisely the point. Osteen’s theology is simple, which, together with his meticulously polished and multi-platformed presentation, accounts for its popularity. Sinitiere believes that Osteen’s prosperity teaching can be distilled into four elements: “positive thinking, positive confession, positive providence, and finally, the promotion of the Christian body as a site of improvement” (61).

Sinitiere contends that, just as Peale's theology of positive thinking offered predictability in the perilous early years of the Cold War, so too Osteen’s contemporary articulation of New Thought principles "provides predictability in an anxious age of global terror, late capitalism’s ferocious economic uncertainty, and dizzying technological change” (96). That formula, the author argues, is much more attractive than “the historically combative cultural politics” of the Religious Right (105).

The book’s most riveting chapter showcases what Sinitiere calls Osteen’s “piety of resistance” to his critics. From E. W. Kenyon to the present, prosperity theology has presented a broad and tempting target. Osteen's evangelical critics pounced on a 2005 interview on Larry King Live, in the course of which Osteen was not sufficiently condemnatory of non-Christians. The harshest criticism directed toward him, however, emanates from the phalanx of so called New Calvinists, principally Michael Horton, John MacArthur, and R. Albert Mohler. (The latter, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, comes from a denomination not known for its fidelity to Calvinism. Carey Newman, a fellow Baptist and longtime Mohler observer, characterizes Mohler's "conversion" as “recent and expedient”; he’s a “calculated convert.”)

These New Calvinists, self-styled guardians of orthodoxy (albeit a peculiar form of orthodoxy), prize theological certitude above all else–which, of course, is what draws them to Calvinism; one you accept Calvinistic presuppositions, you enter a theological vortex that explains everything, that supplies answers to every question. The New Calvinists have been blistering in their attacks on Osteen, accusing him of everything from Pelagianism and heresy to peddling a “cotton candy gospel” and functioning as “an agent for Satan” (189, 193).

For the most part, Osteen stands above the fray, refusing to engage his critics in the kinds of disputations they so adore. The eagle, after all, doesn’t hunt flies; Osteen’s success speaks for itself. Sinitiere finds a paradox here:  "spiritual sensibilities at the root of the prosperity gospel tradition that Osteen represents have long frustrated those whose commitments to propositional theology produce a clamorous resistance to change” (209). Osteen and his critics, in fact, are remarkably similar. “Osteen’s message of God’s favor and goodness,” Sinitiere concludes, “is in the end very similar to the predictability toward which his critics’ propositional theology has aspired” (209).

So where does Osteen belong on the landscape of American religion in the twenty-first century? Scholars dating back to the nineteenth century have talked about the Great Man theory, an approach to history positing that certain individuals, through charisma, wisdom, intelligence, or political skill, embody the tensions, aspirations, and apprehensions of their age. In American religious history, Jonathan Edwards has been advanced as fitting that description, and Charles Grandison Finney must also be part of that conversation. There are perils aplenty to writing a biography of an individual still living, but Sinitiere’s treatment of Joel Osteen suggests that the smiling preacher should be part of any larger conversation about religion in the twenty-first century.