When last we checked in with Vanity Fair, the magazine’s February issue was making fun of visitors to the Creation Museum. They weren’t nearly as stylish as the British food critic hired to mock them, which made for a totally awesome essay!
Now, Vanity Fair has once again forced me into defending a wing of Christianity I absolutely loathe. This time it’s the “prosperity gospel” movement as dispensed by slick Texas megachurch pastor Joel Osteen, who’s interviewed by columnist John Heilpern in the April issue. To be fair, the fact that Heilpern actually spoke with Osteen is a step forward, since A.A. Gill didn’t really, you know, interview anyone for his story about the Creation Museum. But beyond that, Heilpern puts about as much as work into learning his subject matter as Gill did. That’s disappointing.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Osteen, the author of best-selling self-help books like “Be a Better You” preaches that “God wants us to be prosperous” — essentially, that we’re meant to be comfortable. It’s a blame-the-victim philosophy that fosters greed and complacency, and fundamentally misunderstands the gospel, which is relentlessly focused on the poor. He’s the worst, and I wish he would go away.
But Heilpern doesn’t get it right. Let’s go to the tape.
EXHIBIT A. Heilpern writes:
“Have you ever sinned?”
“Oh, sure,” [Osteen] answered surprisingly.
Whoops! That’s actually not surprising at all. In fact, the concept that no one is without sin — a concept called “original sin” — is pretty much Western Christianity 101. It’s what the story of Adam and Eve is all about. One of the most-quoted verses in the New Testament, Romans 3:23, reads “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” There’s not a single Christian leader in the country who would have told Heilpern they’ve never sinned. This line is a huge red flag.
EXHIBIT B. Heilpern writes:
Before lunch ended, as we were talking about the healing power of prayer, I asked him if he would kindly say a prayer for my chronic backache.
“I want to pray for you,” he responded instantly. …
Joel Osteen took my hand and closed his eyes. “Father, I pray for John,” he said earnestly. “Lord, You see his desire to know You, to understand Our ministry. Lord, I just ask that You reveal Yourself as never before. And I pray, Lord, that You let Your healing flow into John.”
Where to begin. First of all, Heilpern requested this prayer, and then uses it as a chance to mock Osteen’s earnestness. (I’m not sure it’s possible to be anything but earnest while praying, but never mind.) Then he subtly suggests Osteen is a extremist by capitalizing every “You” in the prayer — which was spoken. Even so, though capitalizing You and Your is a jarring punctuation style that will alienate Heilpern’s readers, you’ll certainly see it done in some quarters. But I’ve never seen it done to “Our” — that’s the sign that he’s capitalizing indiscriminately, without understanding what he’s doing.
But, Hey, what The hell.
EXHIBIT C. Heilpern writes:
“What does the chicken come with?,” he asked politely.
“It comes with a bed of baby bok choy and sesame seeds.”
Mr. Osteen looked dubious. “I don’t know what what bok choy is,” he murmured.
Haha, Osteen hasn’t heard of bok choy! Can you imagine walking into a restaurant without having spent even five minutes learning the basics about vegetables? Or, say, walking into an interview with one of the country’s most important pastors and not even learning the basics of his religion?