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Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity Hardcover – November 13, 2015
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“Sinitiere presents us with an intriguing mediation on what religious authority is in the twenty-first century, especially in evangelicalism.”-Journal of the American Academy of Religion
"The best possible book on Joel Osteen and his place in American religious history. Well researched and well written, it uses Osteen’s own words to portray the man who can now rightfully be called 'America’s Pastor' as Billy Graham passes from the scene. . . . What emerges is a positive yet objective picture of the popular preacher with the big smile who has built the largest congregation in the history of the American church."-Vinson Synan,Dean Emeritus, Regent University School of Divinity
"Sinitiere takes Osteen seriously, painstakingly explaining how he became 'America's most notable evangelical preacher.'"-Texas Monthly
“Well written and very readable, this thoughtful book places Osteen in his intellectual, political, and theological contexts, shedding light on the forces that make him one of the most prominent pastors in US Christianity. Students of Christianity in the US will find it an indispensable read.”-CHOICE
“[Sinitiere] provides an enjoyable read and invaluable work for anyone interested in the intersection of prosperity theology, televangelism, the megachurch movement, and American Christianity.”-Pneuma
"Combining historical research, documentary investigation, and the observations of participants, Sinitiere situates the stirring success of Lakewood Church (the U.S.'s largest megachurch) and Joel Osteen Ministries within the broader American evangelical and neo-Pentecostal context." -STARRED Publishers Weekly
"Sinitiere has written a remarkable and trenchant study of Joel Osteen, senior pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston...Osteen’s sunny message has attracted much controversy, not least from other conservative Christians, but his megasuccess, Sinitiere brilliantly shows, says a great deal about the state of religion in America. A fascinating, illuminating, and at times disturbing account from a shrewd observer."-STARRED Library Journal
"Sinitiere's outstanding book on Joel Osteen and his Lakewood Church combines the best of historical narrative, ethnographic observation and analysis, and an empathetic but critically acute scholarly understanding. The result is a work that explains and interprets one of America's foremost religious celebrities, the `charismatic core’ of his church, and the combination of positive thinking and positive confession which form his message."-Paul Harvey,University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
"Salvation with a Smile is necessary reading for all who want to understand contemporary American evangelicalism, and the two Joel Osteen sermon transcripts included in the appendices are useful resources for the classroom."- Sociology of Religion
"Charismatic Christianity is increasingly the face of American evangelicalism, and a smiling one at that. Joel Osteen is a major reason why. In this deeply researched and richly contextualized study, Phillip Luke Sinitiere nominates Osteen as America’s new pastor. No fair-minded reader will come away doubting Osteen’s significance and genius. Anyone interested in the nation’s protean religious landscape will benefit from this scholarly labor of love."-Steven P. Miller,author of The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years
About the Author
Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Sam Houston State University (TX).
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The book starts with the story of John Osteen’s background, his transition from Southern Baptist into neopentecostalism, and his philosophy of ministry at Lakewood. It then goes on to describe how Joel stepped into the senior pastor position upon his father’s death in 1999, and his own distinctive philosophy of ministry.
Based on analysis of Joel’s sermons, the author says that Joel’s prosperity gospel has four parts: positive thinking, positive confession, positive providence, and the promotion of the Christian body as a site of improvement. It seems to me that there are parts of the Bible which can be used to support each of those themes, but those themes are not an accurate representation of the message of the Bible.
The author did not have access to Joel Osteen or other key people while writing the book, and as a result the book often feels like an academic analysis of writings and sermons rather than a lively personal story. Nonetheless, it does provide some interesting insights into the senior pastor of the largest church in North America.
In "Salvation With A Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, And American Christianity," scholar Phillip Luke Sinitiere explains and analyses Joel Osteen's astonishing success. It is not so much a work of biography - besides the first two chapters which chronicle Joel's father Pastor John Osteen's life and the founding of Lakewood Church, personal details are kept to a minimum and largely confined to one chapter that looks at contributing leaders of Lakewood such as Victoria Osteen and Spanish-language pastor Marcos Witt - but a study of Joel's personality, thinking and ministry. Sinitiere draws upon a rich array of sources, especially Joel's books, broadcasts, media appearances and sermons as well as other scholars such as Kate Bowler, Todd Brenneman and Jason Bivins.
As mentioned, the first two chapters focus on John Osteen, his second wife, Dodie and the beginning of their ministry. John was converted as a young man and attended seminary, becoming ordained as a Baptist minister. After his first marriage ended in divorce, John married Dodie who would eventually contract cancer but be miraculously healed. Their first daughter, Lisa, was born with severe health complications but she too would be divinely healed. John became more involved in charismatic Christianity, befriending the likes of Kenneth Hagin Sr., T.L. Osborn and Oral Roberts. John and his son Joel would learn much from these famous charismatic evangelists.
Sinitiere shows that, despite Joel's lack of formal theological education, he had an informal preparation for ministry. Joel began at Lakewood in a behind-the-scenes role. He edited his father's sermons, listening to them 5-6 times, picking up on his father's teaching of the Bible. But Joel would also turn down the volume as he edited the sermons into slick presentations; this allowed Joel to acquire a familiarity with body language; he noted that sometimes, though a pastor was simply being passionate, without audio, they came across as angry. This helps us understand Joel's warm, welcoming smile and calm gestures and tone. It has become so much a part of his personality that as I read this book I couldn't help reading Joel Osteen quotes without visualizing his grin and hand gestures and reading with Joel's measured pauses between sentences. As Sinitiere declares, "he is the only leading prosperity gospel proponent who brought two decades of media production experience into the pulpit" (p. 212). Joel would also associate himself with savvy media specialists and production designers who helped amplify Joel's media presence and performance. Joel has been quick to unleash his ministry on multiple platforms including television, Facebook, SiriusXM radio and apps. His message is also predictable, positive and simple. Though the Osteens firmly believe in the power of divine healing (exemplified by the healing of Dodie and Lisa), Joel avoids the spectacle of faith healers like Benny Hinn and very rarely includes anything such as speaking in tongues in his broadcasts.
Osteen's thought essentially merges and baptises the self-help teachings of "The Secret" into Christianity. He continually emphases positive thinking, positive confession, and a "providence of positive outcomes." He has christened Lakewood Church a place of "new beginnings," affirming individuals as "champions" and counselling them to avoid the criticisms of others and negative things the Enemy tells them. Osteen is a spiritual descendent of Norman Vincent Peale and E.W. Kenyon and indebted to other Word of Faith preachers. He has also been very influenced by fellow evangelist Joyce Meyer and leadership coach John Maxwell. It is little wonder his positive, uplifting and encouraging message that promises hope and success has been wildly popular. Yet Osteen's indefatigable positivity is not unique; my local Christian radio station pledges to always be "uplifting" and "encouraging" and evangelicalism as a whole often seems unable to grapple with and express lamentations (how often is lament featured in worship songs?).
Sinitiere's discussion of Osteen in American religion and culture is incredibly interesting. Osteen, well aware of the scandals that have plagued televangelists such as Jimmy Swaggart, has thus far avoided jeopardizing controversy. Though "functionally conservative" on social issues, Osteen's positive demeanour has served as a useful guise that has allowed him to avoid association with bombastic and caustic figures of the Religious Right. His ascendancy, which Sinitiere places around 2003 near the beginning of his publishing career, came at a time when many Americans had become disillusioned with the culture wars. At the same time, Osteen's uplifting messages have allowed him to develop relationships with the likes of Oprah Winfrey, one of the culture's key figures of social conscience. When interviewed about controversial topics such as same-sex marriage, Osteen has maintained the conservative position but his positive demeanour has disarmed much of the backlash he could potentially face.
Osteen has many critics, particularly among conservative Calvinists such as Michael Horton, Albert Mohler, John MacArthur and Shai Linne (famous for his song "Fal$e Teacher$" that calls out prosperity gospel preachers). But Sinitiere notes that Osteen's functional conservatism allows some commonality between Osteen and his evangelical critics. Additionally, Calvinism's insistence on divine sovereignty hasn't been able to adequately explain Osteen's remarkable success; if God controls all things, why is Lakewood, with Osteen at its helm, the USA's largest church? In response to critics, Osteen has adopted a "piety of resistance," using Scripture to defend himself and not allowing himself to be fazed by his detractors.
It is easy to roll one's eyes at Joel Osteen. He is caricatured as a peddler of the prosperity gospel. And while he and his family clearly live in extravagance and opulence (their home is a $10.5 million mansion), Sinitiere's exploration of Lakewood's ministries and church members should give critics pause. Sinitiere discusses the ethnic diversity of Lakewood, its position and community service in Houston, and its various ministries, including extensive support for overseas missions. The author includes personal testimonies of how the Osteens have impacted church members' lives and how Lakewood has provided church members with teaching (a passion of John Osteen that the church has continued), community and opportunities. For instance, "One influential example of Lakewood's religious education is the Champions Club, a cutting-edge program developed for special needs children that began in 2008 and has served as a model for similar developments throughout the United States and the world" (p. 170). Sinitiere discusses Lakewood's advocacy for foster families, including the testimony of a family that provided a home for a foster child. According to Sinitiere, many church members find and undergo the "redemptive self" at Lakewood. While Osteen's critics, Calvinists who rely on a framework of propositional theology, may be correct in identifying problems and errors in Osteen's ministry, the church itself, with the support of its staff, have undoubtedly blessed and discipled thousands of people. There is also the biblical and theological complication of interpreting passages that DO promise blessings upon believers. True, buying a multi-million dollar mansion is not what God has in mind when He declares He will bless His people, but it is easy to see how a literalist hermeneutic supports Osteen's claims. And to Osteen's credit, although his critics insist upon their total fidelity to the Bible, I am only aware of Osteen opening his services with his "Bible declaration" that has become an integral part of the "liturgy" of Lakewood:
"This is my Bible.
I am what it says I am.
I can do what it says I can do.
Today, I will be taught the Word of God.
I boldly confess:
My mind is alert, My heart is receptive.
I will never be the same.
I am about to receive
The incorruptible, indestructible,
Ever-living seed of the Word of God.
I will never be the same .
Never, never, never.
I will never be the same.
In Jesus name. Amen."
This ritual declaration about the Bible instils in the congregation a deep commitment and honouring of the Scriptures.
At the end of the book Sinitiere includes two early sermons of Joel's from 1999. The first is an earnest, evangelical Easter sermon while the second is Joel's vision-casting for Lakewood as he officially succeeded his father. I don't think many Christians can seriously quarrel with the first sermon, but I wish Sinitiere had included a later sermon that would have allowed for an opportunity to compare and contrast Joel's homiletic evolution as he became more emphatic about positive thinking and confession. I also would have liked to have had more biographical information of Joel included. Sinitiere provocatively claims that Osteen is the face of evangelical Protestantism in the USA. While he certainly makes a powerful case and helpfully illuminates Osteen's preaching, teaching and technological genius, he still fails at convincing me. Part of this is because evangelicalism is so fractured, but Sinitiere also doesn't provide another notable figure to compare Osteen to. Osteen may have a larger church and a larger following than, say, Greg Boyd, Timothy Keller or Rick Warren, but is Osteen the best representative of classical evangelical Protestantism?
Here is a young man, a TV producer without training as a preacher, thrust into the spotlight by his father's unexpected death. A young man who has since built his father's Lakewood Church into the biggest congregation in the USA, and doing it without preaching messages of hate or fear. That's pretty interesting stuff.
Osteen himself is pretty interesting too. Handsome, slender, buff, calm, smiling, non-confrontational. Married with children, he shares the Lakewood ministry with his wife and other members of his family. If I ever get to Houston I am going to trot right over to Lakewood.
"Salvation with a Smile" is history with smile. Mr. Sinitiere tells the story of John Osteen, Joel Osteen and others in the Lakewood family in a very pleasant Life Magazine prose. No stresses, no strains, no family bickering. I find it hard to believe that choosing Joel to succeed his father was not without controversy but then I wasn't there.
Mr. Sinitiere was not there either. His biography is unauthorized but we aren't told why. Was he refused access to the Osteens? Did he even ask?
Mr. Sinitiere doesn't analyze or critique Mr. Osteen's ministry, he reports it. The book has loads of references and endnotes, but peer-reviewed sources are few and far between. Mr. Sinitiere lists sermon transcripts and other primary and secondary documents he reviewed, but there is no hint of his analytical framework or methodology. Rather than load up the introductory chapters with the usual scholarly explanations of his own background, his research methodology, and his theoretical approach to the material, Mr. Sinitiere tucks them into brief endnotes where they are not much use. For example, endnote 2 of the Introduction begins, "The work of philosopher Nimi Wariboko helps to explain my conceptualization of Lakewood’s “Pentecost”." The endnote proceeds to quote Mr. Wariboko's work as if that, in itself, explains Mr. Sinitiere. It does not, and offers no useful information on Mr. Sinitiere's conceptualization.
So the bottom line is that if you want an interesting story, this book is fine. If you want rigorous analysis, look elsewhere.
I received an electronic review copy of "Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity" by Phillip Luke Sinitiere (NYU Press) through NetGalley.com.
Buy the physical book, not the digital. I got quite annoyed trying to read the ebook because it is so difficult to read endnotes and to go back to an earlier spot and to jump around cross-checking things.