There was a man standing on a yellow milk crate at the corner of 13th Street and Grand last Friday night. It was about 7:30 p.m. Groups of people swarmed past the man, many of them en route to the Sprint Center, where Joel Osteen was scheduled to speak.
"Joel Osteen is not the gospel of hope," the man said to passers-by, his words crackling out of a wireless collar microphone. "Joel Osteen preaches comfort in this world. Joel Osteen is the gospel of despair." He had dull, light-brown skin and a vacant, symmetrical face, and he was dressed blandly, in a gray cotton zip-up and jeans. His generic appearance, electronic voice and doom-speak added up to something vaguely cyborglike. I walked around behind him, half-expecting to see red goo and wires poking out the back of his skull.
"You, young man, are you living a life of faith and repentance?" he asked a guy in a backward baseball cap waiting for the light to change. The guy smirked at his buddies. "We're just going to the bars," he replied.
A homeless-looking man, drunk or crazy or both, approached the man, pointed his finger close to his face and said, "You're the devil!"
"I am not the devil," the man said matter-of-factly and turned away, unbothered. He waved both his arms high and wide, as though he were parting the drapes on some blissful morning, and said more things about faith and repentance. I got bored and walked across the street, where about a thousand people were waiting to file in to see Osteen.
Osteen is pastor of Lakewood Church, the most mega megachurch in the United States. More than 40,000 people attend his Sunday services, which are held in the old Compaq Center, where the Houston Rockets used to play. Globally, via telecasts, 7 million people tune in every week. Osteen is part televangelist, part motivational speaker — a churchier version of the man sent by corporate to inspire the ranks with team-building exercises.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Osteen, 49, is not, as far as I can tell, exceedingly deranged. In fact, extreme Christians, like the milk-crate cyborg, view Osteen's version of Christianity as insufficiently fundamentalist. He prefers positive vibes to hellfire; he welcomes non-Christians, even gays (though he still believes homosexuality is a sin). His success is a direct result of this inclusivity, which is actually kind of encouraging.
I was curious enough about Osteen to walk up and buy the cheapest ticket, $17 (expensed to The Pitch), for "A Night of Hope," as Osteen is calling his touring preachathon. But lo, as I pulled out my wallet at the counter, an angel appeared beside me, in the form of a man with a gray goatee. "Wait, don't buy that," he said, and handed me a computer printout of a ticket. "It's all yours. I got it for free from a friend," he said. A most blessed turn of events! Already, the Lord was looking out for me.
Inside, the Sprint Center was packed to the rafters. Televangelists prey on the lost and the foolish, and I expected an audience of fat, knuckle-dragging idiots gulping Mountain Dew from 64-ounce. plastic cups and grousing about Obamacare. I expected people with their hands raised in the air, feeling the spirit.
What I experienced was quieter and more dignified. The people listened closely, but their eyes lacked the manic glint of true believers. A woman in my row, early 20s, was wearing an outfit straight off the Anthropologie racks. The crowd was diverse in the way a suburban movie theater is diverse on a Friday night. But "A Night of Hope" is not like going to the movies. A hillbilly freak show of hate speech would have at least been amusing; "A Night of Hope" was, while morally defensible, also deeply, profoundly — devastatingly — boring.