Illustrations by Joel Benjamin
It is early evening on a Saturday in the middle of July. I am sitting in the highest tier in Yankee Stadium. Fifty thousand people are staring down at Joel Osteen, America’s Most Impeccable Windsor Knot.
The sky is flawless, blue like an IT’S A BOY ribbon. Like, if there were a God, who had a passing inclination to conceive of something inexplicably perfect and present it for the heathens as proof of His might, it would look like this, probably. Of course, the woman two seats over from me—bubbles of fat on her elbows and ankles, sweat shining from every concave surface on her body—is eating her remaining nacho cheese directly from the container, with two curled fingers, and He would have to claim responsibility for that, too, so we’ll just say that it was nice out.
Joel Osteen is equal parts Tony Robbins, palm reader, and late-night radio DJ. Osteen is Senior Pastor at the Lakewood megachurch in Houston, the largest Protestant church in the United States. He lives in a spectacularly generic $10.5 million mansion in one of Texas’s wealthiest suburbs. He is an advocate of prosperity theology, a nontraditional, frequently criticized interpretation of the Bible in which God wishes for us to prosper financially and donating to the church will help fulfill that wish.
If you are sleepless or lonely, you can find him on cable, almost whenever, beaming into your brain at maximum voltage, rescuing you from yourself.
His sermons include almost no religious parables. They are instead fueled by vaguely empowering solutions to human strife, inflated with the heft of God: Greatest Hits. He recites passages like, “We are masterpieces, fearfully and wonderfully made,” and says, “You are fully loaded and totally equipped to fulfill your dreams.” He wants you standing in front of the mirror beating your chest, calling her back, never giving up. He is selling limitless positivity with no strings attached, mirages for the hopeless in the form of fortune-cookie bromides. He is a man with perfect posture, perfect abs, big white teeth, a family that seems impenetrably happy. On stage his children bounce all over like cartoon animals. His son’s Twitter feed is an ongoing G-rated celebration of moms, feeling awesome, and One Direction. His wife talks like she is permanently on an infomercial for LOVE. Not loving anything in particular, just LOVE as a concept, love as unbridled happiness. Osteen is saying this without actually saying this: “We have won, we are proof, we are the manifestation of the wisdom I have shared with you. God has steered us and now here we are, standing in Yankee Stadium, wearing khaki pants and gaudy watches. One day, if you work hard enough, maybe you can wear khaki pants too.”
Humans mumble; humans piece together sentences as they’re going. Osteen doesn’t. There is no apprehension or doubt.
Osteen is a maestro of American consumerism. His ministry—from the pastors on stage at the Compaq Center to women in call centers in Ohio—has achieved near-total homogeneity, from ideology to tone of voice. They speak in a way that is both calm and uplifting at the same time. Every word of conversation seems scripted, practiced. They are selling you this worldview in a way that is so patient and unflappable it is as if it’s a recording. They are nice to us. They listen. They are telling us we’re big and brave. We are masterpieces.
I first spoke to Andrea Davis, one of Osteen’s PR representatives, over the phone, early on a Tuesday evening in May. There is a discipline in everything she says, a restraint and a sweetness that is so unflappably consistent it seems synthetic. From call centers in Ohio to Houston, his subordinates are disseminating not just His word but also a melodic niceness that washes over you like an ocean current. For every question you might stumble through, every request or concern, they respond with a pause of the perfect length, like it were calculated by scientists, not too short like they are aggressively trying to convert you, and not too long like they are disinterested. Just long enough for them to take a seemingly real, honest consideration of what you are saying before trying to assuage you.
Humans mumble; humans piece together sentences as they’re going. Osteen doesn’t. There is no apprehension or doubt. In interviews, there is no opening for interruption. There is just a continuous flow of words and bromides and affectations and smiles. Thoughts unspooling like an audio cassette. He is a delivery vehicle for GOD, almost. It sounds ridiculous to say, but if you were GOD, and you were running GOD CORP., this is what you’d want your salesmen to do. He is the VP of Faith and Healing, Earth Bureau. His happiness and composure are relentless. You don’t have time to consider the plausibility of what he is preaching; there is just an assault of powerful rhetoric you can feel settling onto your arm hairs and the back of your neck.
If a sermon seems vague or preposterous, it is simply punctuated with quotes from the Gospels, inflated by the heft of His word. His audience wants someone rubbing their back and Liking their Facebook photos, inspirational Tumblrs to re-blog, someone telling them she’s going to text you back, she probably just has no service. There is an explanation for your plight, your sadness, and it is His complex architecture.
On November 28, 2014, Osteen tweeted, “You were created to make somebody else’s life better. Somebody needs what you have—your smile, love & encouragement.” Joel Osteen detonates his words in your subconscious like a Beyonce GIF. He straight DGAF, baby: You are the one; you are in her wet dreams. In Joel Osteen’s world, God is an exclamation point, a dubstep bass drop. God is steroids, God is your hype man, He is Cialis, He is the boombox you are holding outside her window.
In our hearts, we don’t want enlightenment, we want tall tales. We want the myth. The myth is easy.
At his church in Houston and in the bleachers in the Bronx, on couches in desolate suburbs, these people are consuming a worldview, an optimism, an artificial hope funneling directly into the side of their necks like a USB port. Osteen is saying that you can have bad credit, bad blood pressure, bad skin, bad pants, bad morals, bad ethics, but here it is, salvation, in the form of a shiny man whose face is permanently fixed to a smile setting on his CONVERT-meter that could smash mountains to cracker crumbs. This is what he does, his persona, his accessories, his beautiful white children and beautiful white wife. He makes a horizon of humans believe deep in their souls (because they are the sort of people who believe definitively that souls exist) that he is the answer.I don’t know if God is real, but Joel Osteen is; I can see him with my own eyes. This is the response emanating from every person standing in the audience. He is evidence.
People have never seemed so obedient; celebrating little axioms like Osteen is in a rap battle with Negativity and Being a Loser. People shouting back “Tell ’em, Joel!” and nodding slowly, eyes closed. People want to participate in rituals, to belong, to know the punch line and the commercial jingle. Singing choruses and saying Amen and mmhmm, clapping and stomping, lost but now found, sitting beside other people who were lost but are now found, in Yankee Stadium, America’s official palace of sanctimony and empty virtues.
America is a nation that loves violence but also loves to mourn. We are a country that dares to be provocative and sinful but that cherishes chastity. We are a nation of bullshitters and liars, deceivers and magicians. Reality is something that horrifies us, something we can gawk at. In our hearts, we don’t want enlightenment, we want tall tales. We want the myth. The myth is easy. The myth is puffing its chest and fixing its tie and congratulating us just for getting here, sitting wide-eyed before a slick-haired man.
You recognize the American proletariat’s obsession with the fantasy of something stupendous materializing from the ether—scratch-offs and Powerball, microwave dinners and five-minute abs. We are a people desperate to escape our plight as quickly as possible. Religion is the greatest marketing scheme ever devised because it sells the impossible by touting its impossibility. YOU WON’T BELIEVE IT. We want solace for no money down, no investment. We live to stand in awe of something. Osteen has said before, “People respond when you tell them there is a great future in front of you, you can leave your past behind.” He commits to unverifiable principles with such fervency it is almost admirable. It works. He is telling us that the us we used to be does not have to be the us we are tomorrow. That our lives are perpetually in a state of reevaluation. That we can be illusionists, duping ourselves so that we can be a different self. That we can amputate our flaws, watch them come dislodged in the rearview mirror, and cruise to prosperity with the top down and a blond woman licking her lips in the passenger seat.