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.
Osteen is slick, but he doesn't look slick. He has a goofy, toothy smile and wavy black hair that flows a little too far down the back of his neck — a corporate mullet. He would almost be too creepy-looking to be the most popular pastor in America were it not for his Texas accent, which suffuses his words with a warm, down-to-earth, Clintonian charm. When he tells a joke or makes an exactingly timed self-deprecating remark, it is impossible not to like him, at least a little bit.
"A Night of Hope" is a family tour, with Osteen's mother; his wife, Victoria; their son, Jonathan, 17; and their daughter, Alexandra, 13. The kids came out early on and performed a praise song. Alexandra sang (kind of), and Jonathan stood beside her, wearing khakis and a slick vest, rocking out on a Stratocaster. In the darkened corner of a stage, a much larger band did the heavy musical lifting. Above, a massive screen projected mundane images of everyday kindness. Song lyrics — God is with us, God is on our side, He will make a way — ran along the bottom of the screen like at a karaoke night.
Osteen spent 10 minutes working the local angle, giving handpicked area pastors a minute to spout platitudes onstage. We watched a video about poor kids in the Dominican Republic and Africa. White donation buckets were passed around. I ventured out onto the concourse. "I guess you guys probably aren't serving beer?" I asked the concession person, who shook her head sternly. Doughnut sales at the pop-up QuikTrip appeared robust. I did a lap and returned to my seat.
The theme of the entire evening was a variation on the old chestnut that everything happens for a reason. God has a plan for you. Your shitty life? There's a reason that it's so shitty. You just can't see it yet. The neighbor's kid who got run over by a bus? That's just a part of his journey, and passing over into heaven is just the next part of that journey. Osteen spoke to modern plights: health problems, financial difficulties, legal issues. Watery piano notes trickled along in the background.
"This is the year you are released from your debts, your worry, your fears, everything troubling you," he said, and everyone nodded.
You cannot argue with a statement like this, not really, which is the genius of motivational speaking. Osteen and his wife told a story about how, when they were a young couple, a tax attorney had screwed up their returns. It was a financial setback. They ended up hiring a new tax attorney. He straightened them out, got them back on track. Years later, that second lawyer was instrumental in Osteen's expanding his church. So, you see, if there hadn't been that initial hardship, which looked like bad luck at the time, Osteen wouldn't be prosperity-preaching on Hakeem Olajuwon's old basketball court today. Case closed. God exists. All bad things are actually good things in disguise. Keep on eating shit every day. At some point, your life won't suck anymore.
At 10 p.m. on the dot, following a different, 25-minute story rehashing this same idea but with different metaphors, the Osteens bid us goodnight. Outside, the cyborg preacher was gone, and the temperature had dropped. A Bon Jovi song was blaring from McFadden's, and I was so desperate for anything resembling fun, I almost walked up to the door. But then I figured, Why not suffer just a little longer?