Who will save us? Who will lift us up from crushing credit-card debt and resetting mortgage payments and impending foreclosure, from increasing gas prices and decreasing health-insurance coverage? We are a nation stumbling through our worst financial crisis in a generation and our worst housing market in a lifetime. And so we come, seeking gentle salvation, inspiring prayers, steadying words, soothing notions, and calming thoughts that will allow us to become, in Joel Osteen’s words, “victors, not victims.”
We are in Greensboro, North Carolina, making our way into the downtown arena through the hot, buggy air, to worship with the pastor who will save us, the man anointed, by one of his congregants, as “Reverend Feelgood.” Sixteen thousand will file in this evening, as have millions more to coliseums, concert venues, and baseball stadiums around the country—all, in a way, his churches. (View a slideshow that tallies the budgets of some of the biggest churches.)
We are a diverse, representative swath of troubled America: families struggling under debt, husbands and wives seeking reconciliation, young couples on first dates, children dragged by pious grandparents who promise them popcorn and BibleMan action figures. It is religion as escapism, criticized throughout the Bible Belt as “Christianity lite” or “prosperity gospel.” But this murmuring crowd, slouching toward a kinder, gentler salvation, is a more telling indicator of the state of our union than consumer durables purchased or capital goods ordered. Unemployment they know; they don’t need to wait for the Bureau of Labor Statistics to publish a monthly number. O, but come to Joel, lift your hands to Jesus, banish your negative thoughts, and you can find in these dark times a beacon.
If, in this country, there is great hurting, then Osteen is here to soothe that suffering. He does not wish that pain on any of us, and the sight or thought of it will bring forth from him great torrents of tears—his eyes clamped shut, his fingers pressed into narrow eye sockets, his lips pulled back over pink gums as he grimaces. The crying has become a visual touchstone of an Osteen sermon, the born-again equivalent of James Brown’s pre-encore collapse from “exhaustion.”
Joel feels our pain and has made himself wealthy (reportedly earning $13 million for his last book advance alone) and his church prosperous ($75 million and counting in annual revenue) by urging us to let go of it, to turn it over to God, to accept God’s favor so that we may be as prosperous as Joel.
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