Osteen with wife Victoria

I’m not a follower of Joel Osteen, but after occasionally stumbling upon his program while channel surfing, I’ll admit to appreciating his charm. Why would I, who mostly fits the profile of a “secular humanist” who inhabits the Upper West Side of Manhattan–and also identifies strongly as Jewish and occasionally attends synagogue–feel some fondness for a Christian televangelist and mega-church preacher?

I’ve just caught most of his hour on Oprah Winfrey’s program on the OWN network, which taught me a great deal about what he believes. What I learned is that he’s a fundamentalist Christian, as befits the Southern Baptist faith he inherited from his pastor-father, but he’s nothing like the fire & brimstone preacher someone like me would imagine. Why? Because he presents himself and his faith in a relatively non-judgmental way, a stance illustrated by his response to Oprah on whether he believes that gays can get into heaven.

His answer is yes, because who would qualify for heaven if we had to be without sin? And further, why focus upon the “sin” of homosexuality beyond others? Obviously, he sees homosexuality as “sin,” but when asked on exactly this by Oprah in a follow-up, Osteen explains with some evident discomfort that he cannot deny from his reading of the relevant Biblical text that homosexuality is a sin. But the fact that he apparently doesn’t expend energy in condemning this phenomenon marks him off from others of this background. This is how the Huffington Post recaps Osteen on this matter:

“Sometimes we look at gay being a bigger sin than being proud or not telling the truth,” Osteen said. “I don’t think God categorizes sins.” While he sounded almost reluctant to come out and say it directly to Oprah Winfrey, Osteen did confirm that he sees homosexualty as a sin, based on what he’s read in scripture. But his point is, that it isn’t necessarily a bigger sin than so many others, and therefore perhaps it shouldn’t be emphasized and sensationalized as such.
He also said that he believes homosexuals can get into Heaven, just as other people with sin in them can. Forgiveness is a big part, but “To think that we’re all going to be without one sin?” Osteen mused. “I hope that’s true, but I don’t think any of us would make it to Heaven.
“It’s a hard thing in a sense because I’m for everybody. I’m not against anybody. I don’t think anybody’s second class,” Osteen said.

(Click here for a link to the Huffington Post that includes a video clip of this TV segment.)

Of course I disagree with him on homosexuality, but at least Osteen’s not trying to be hateful. He doesn’t condemn or cajole people; rather he attempts to inspire them to overcome their troubles and failings by calling upon a forgiving God. The notion that God wants us to succeed in life and can be a partner in our efforts is seductive.

Is he an evangelist of material success as some critics contend? Not exactly. In his discussion with Oprah, he contends that economic attainment is not necessarily how people should define their goals. But he is attempting to inspire people to attain a level of satisfaction, contentment or happiness. And although he lives well, he claims that his personal prosperity comes from the proceeds of his books and not from contributions to his church (I hope he’s being fully truthful).

In this vein, he tries to get people to transcend their troubles by taking them as opportunities for growth. But he tries not to do this in a mechanical or magical way; he acknowledges that people do suffer from misfortune and tragedy in life.

As appealing as his ministry is, however, it does not ultimately attract me. What distances me from a deep and abiding faith in an omnipotent or omniscient God is the “Auschwitz problem”–theodicy– how to explain God’s coexistence with radical evil or with any kind of profound injustice, not to mention the seemingly arbitrary travails and tragedies of everyday life (why bad things happen to good people, and vice versa).

And then there’s the Jesus thing. Joel Osteen invokes Jesus Christ (although not often) in a way that excludes me as a Jew.

Please don’t mistake me. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t accept Jesus if this is in your faith-tradition or if you are inspired to take him into your heart. The problem that self-aware Jews have with Christianity is not simply theological, but also that even invoking the name of Jesus Christ may serve as a reminder of how Jews were oppressed and often murdered in His name.

I wish this were not so, and that mainstream normative Jews were more accepting of “Messianic Jews” or “Jews for Jesus,” who embrace Jesus as Messiah while retaining a sense of themselves as Jews. But the alienation that many Jews feel toward Christianity is still that of a vulnerable minority looking upon their powerful host, who can expel or do violence against them at will. I hope one day that Jews and Christians will get past this barrier and more fully acknowledge each other in a respectful and power-neutral way. And I’m gratified that much progress has been made in this regard in recent decades, but we still have a ways to go.


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