Victoria Osteen, co-pastor with her husband Joel of the massive Lakewood Church of Houston, is catching flack for something she recently said that was posted on YouTube. Here’s the juicy bit:
When we obey God, we’re not doing it for God…we’re doing it for ourself. Because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. Do good ’cause God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God, really. You’re doing it for yourself because that’s what makes God happy.
And here is the video:
And boy howdy, have we ever come a long way from Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Other Christians were shocked at Mrs. Pastor Olsteen’s words. An op-ed in the Christian Post slammed Victoria Osteen and Her Joy-Robbing Brand of Cheap Christianity, for example. And this is from the Houston Chronicle:
At Christian News Network the sermon was labelled indicative of a “me-centered” church.
“She honestly believes that God exists to make us happy rather than holy,” Pastor Steve Camp told the network, “She honestly believes that worship is about our fulfillment rather than His glory. That’s the bottom issue here.”
Note that I do not endorse the positions of the Christian Post or the Christian News Network, either. But American public religiosity has long been a content-free celebration of Me Me Me.
The late Susan Sontag said that religion American style is “more the idea of religion than religion itself.”
True, when, during George Bush’s run for president in 2000, a journalist was inspired to ask the candidate to name his “favourite philosopher,” the well-received answer — one that would make a candidate for high office from any centrist party here in any European country a laughing stock — was “Jesus Christ.” But, of course, Bush didn’t mean, and was not understood to mean, that, if elected, his administration would actually feel bound by any of the precepts or social programs expounded by Jesus….
… This modern, relatively contentless idea of religion, constructed along the lines of consumerist choice, is the basis of American conformism, self-righteousness, and moralism … . [Susan Sontag’s acceptance speech for the Friedenspreis peace prize, Frankfurt, Germany, October 12, 2003]
For many, it is enough to declare oneself Christian, and one is Right With God. No sacrifice is required, no personal struggle or self-examination, none of that dark night of the soul stuff. Just say the name Jesus and all the rewards of tribal membership and smug self-righteousness shall be thine.
Of course, through most of the history of Christianity that’s not how it worked. This is one of the reasons I wrote a book about religion.
I wrote in Rethinking Religion that the megachurches appear to have turned Christ into McJesus — God rendered into a consumer product designed to validate, affirm and gratify ME. This is what they’ve been selling for a long time. Mrs. Pastor Olsteen is just being honest about it.
This column from the Houston Chronicle is a few years old, written by a Unitarian Universalist minister who visited Lakewood Church:
So, imagine 10,000 people (at least) standing for almost an hour dancing and singing, hands in the air, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying, with loud pop music playing (including a very strong bass beat that literally shakes your insides). Three big screens project the performers and the lyrics to the songs, which are simple and repetitive. No, this wasn’t the Jimmy Buffett concert at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion last week (I went to that too), but it might as well have been…I’ve never left a church service before with temporary hearing loss…Lakewood was LOUDER than Jimmy Buffett.
Many of my readers know that I was a professor of educational psychology prior to switching careers to ministry. I have a PhD in educational psychology, am a member in good standing of the American Psychological Association, and teach a seminary course on psychology and religion. From a psychological point of view, worship at Lakewood is basically intentional desensitization, stimulating natural endorphins and dopamine in the brain with extended physical activity and emotional stimulation.
I looked up desensitization, and in the psychological sense, when intentional, it is a treatment approach in clinical psychology used to treat trauma, fears and phobias. I’m not sure how this works, but the point is to make the patient less emotionally sensitive to stimuli. But what are the Lakewood congregants being desensitized to? Life? Themselves? Each other?
This desensitizing went on for nearly an hour, followed by the offering (of course), then prayers, then the sermon. The UU minister, the Rev. Matt Tittle, wondered how long the emotional fix lasted.
I wrote in Rethinking Religion,
Yes, it’s exhilarating to be part of a group having a big, rowdy, cathartic experience, That’s why people like to watch big sporting events like the Super Bowl in groups, because if your team wins — wow. How much fun is that, right? Watching the same game by yourself just isn’t the same experience.
At their peak, such experiences can give you a temporary sense of being liberated from yourself, as some part of your identity forgets itself amid the collective excitement. I’ve been talking about experience or perception beyond the limits of the self, and intense group experiences where everyone gets emotionally high together can give you a fleeting taste of that.
However, a church with rousing services may generate the high every time and attract a huge following, but without also allowing for personal reflection, contemplation and questioning, it’s feeding the congregation spiritual junk food. You might be better off sticking to being a sports fan.
I don’t want to slam the Olsteens too much, though, because at least they don’t seem to have gone the hateful way of Franklin Graham. And does anyone remember Ted Haggard? It could be worse.