Vanity Fair misunderstands American Christianity. Again.

We shouldn't let this annoying magazine article distract us from the fact that this guy is the worst.

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?


10 responses to “Vanity Fair misunderstands American Christianity. Again.

  1. Very interesting take on the article. I like the indiscriminate capitalization. Reminded me of teaching my 4th graders. 🙂

  2. Well put, Ruth. I’m not an Osteen fan either but this is hardly a fair portrayal. I didn’t know that bok choy was an indication of intelligence but I will start quizzing people now. If they don’t know it, our friendship is so over.

  3. Joelsteen Dodson

    Without trying to be difficult:

    Do we care whether or not Vanity Fair gets Christianity? For that matter, is “Christianity” something to be got? Do we want Christianity gotten, at all, by virtue of Joel Osteen?

    Doesn’t the spectacle of one charlatan blessing another charlatan make more sense of the world than Vanity Fair ever could make of original sin?

    Wasn’t I in high school show choir with Rev. Osteen?

  4. Hmm. I’m not asking a one-page article to “make sense” of original sin, or to “get” all of Christianity — I’m just asking it not to make easily avoidable rookie errors when writing about these topics, and ESPECIALLY to not make those errors while snidely insulting their subjects. It’s embarrassing. Or at least it should be.

  5. Brian L. Reilly

    I still don’t know what “bok choy” is.

  6. I don’t like bok choy, even when I pray over it.

  7. In Hebrew there are no capital (or lowercase) letters and the earliest copies of the New Testament books written in Greek were written in all caps. Capitalizing pronouns that refer to God is a later invention to show the importance of and deference to God, which is confusing and arbitrary on a grammatical level. On this point I’m willing to cut Heilpern some slack and say that maybe he was just trying to be politically correct and follow the rules, albeit in a clueless and comical way.

    Also, I read this article ( a while back and enjoyed it. It’s quite critical of Christianity but didn’t seem blatantly condescending. But hey, I’m full of bias so what do I know?

  8. Tennessee, I endorse your endorsement of that Atlantic article, which I thought was fantastic. That writer, Hanna Rosin, is always really sophisticated and fair-minded on these topics.

    I suppose you’re right that Heilpern could be trying to show deference with that You/Your capitalization style, which many Christians do use. But I think a typical VF reader will just absorb it as weird-looking – it IS weird-looking! – and so it just cheaply brands Osteen as “other.” It’s kind of like when writers transcribe every “um” and “uh” in an interviewee’s speech to make them look dumb, even though those tics are technically there. Only in this case it’s more egregious because this was a spoken prayer, so the capitalization wasn’t even there in the original.

    To reiterate, I think Osteen is the worst. That’s why I want to see him taken down smartly and effectively, and this is not that.

  9. This is hilarious – and very true!!

  10. I equate Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes with events like the Iraq war: I can’t believe we’re repeating a grotesque history that we supposedly “learned”. In the case of Powell’s speech to the UN, didn’t anybody remember the Gulf of Tonkin?
    In the case of Glenn Beck, doesn’t anybody remember Joe McCarthy or Father Coughlin?
    In the case of Osteen, doesn’t anyone remember “Acres of Diamonds” and social Darwinism?

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