Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Mercy and Truth and Osteen and Luther

Joel Osteen and Martin Luther.

Wow.  There's a pair.

Osteen has made himself the king of sound bite theology.  His big, white teeth bulging out of an incessant smile may be dazzling, yet the narcissistic platitudes he pontificates from his Houston pulpit make me wonder if his smile isn't half as disingenuous.  Granted, he has a head of hair bald guys like me can only dream about.  Which, actually, fits with the themes of Osteen's teachings, considering how dreamy and ethereal they are.

Despite its obvious appeal, his is an unrealistic theology of the self, whose god is supposed to make people happy and successful.  Meanwhile, if Osteen's congregation was as happy and successful as he tells them they should be, shouldn't they have found bliss by now after listening for years to his pablum?  The fact that everybody who likes Osteen seems hooked on his schtick, instead of fulfilled and content in their god, should be proof enough that the prosperity gospel he's made mainstream doesn't work.

It's hard to tell if Osteen is saved or not.  He knows just enough orthodox theology to make it sound like he is, but his "ministry" leaves gaping room for doubt.  It's hard to match the Gospel that sometimes peeks out from his motivational jargon with the entirety of Scripture, which is replete with people who are blessed with the Fruit of the Spirit despite being financially poor and materially lacking.  Some were slaughtered for their faith in God, others imprisoned, deprived of their civil rights, or forced to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.  But Osteen doesn't like discouraging his congregation with negativity, suffering, or sin.  He doesn't like pointing out that there is a real Heaven and a real Hell.  He doesn't like talking about Christ's substitutionary death on the cross.  He sees himself as an encourager, even though a true encourager doesn't pick and choose from the realities of God's sovereignty to the detriment of the true Gospel's integrity.

So Osteen sells his followers a slickly-edited, carefully-cropped, heavily-teased, dangerously-nuanced, and heretically-laced faith in some deity's ability to make life on Earth wonderful for us.  Maybe that explains why Osteen's dazzling smile seems more used-car-salesman than peace-despite-circumstances.

If I'm wrong, and he's genuinely a follower of Christ who has been getting some really terrible advice about sermon topics, I pray that the Holy Spirit will convict him sooner rather than later.  For his own good, and the good of those who absorb his treacherous teachings.

Pretty harsh words, right?  Pretty cynical and condemning, right?  Just the kind of stuff Osteen tells his followers not to listen to.

But consider this humorous compilation of selected Twitter feeds from Osteen, matched with quotes from Martin Luther, the famous reformer, and see if you can detect a difference between what I've said about Osteen, and what Adam Ford, an evangelical humorist who put together this exercise, says about Osteen:
  • Osteen really tweeted:  "Life is too short to hang around cynical people.  Find people who will believe in your dreams and celebrate your victories."
    Ford's quote from Luther (as a reply to Osteen):  "You are a toad eater and a fawner."
  • Osteen really tweeted:  "God has already lined up the right breaks, the right people, the answers you need."
    Ford's quote from Luther (as a reply to Osteen):
      "This new thing you have devised is the vilest cesspool the devil has on Earth."
  • Osteen really tweeted:  "You have too much in you to stay where you are.  Your destiny is too great to get stuck."
    Ford's quote from Luther (as a reply to Osteen):
      "You are a bungling magpie, croaking loudly."

Now, hopefully, you can see the difference between the way I've written about Osteen, the way Ford has poked fun at him, and the way Martin Luther treated people with whom he disagreed.  I've tried to speak the truth in a form of love I'll call "blunt concern."  After all, love doesn't have to be wishy-washy, does it?  Otherwise you can get the overly-diluted stuff with which Osteen thinks he's fortifying his followers.

Christian love does have a place for humor.  However, it's popular within evangelicalism to actually make fun of people with whom we disagree, forgetting that deriving amusement from someone else's perceived faults isn't a very edifying form of humor.  For all I know, the humorist Ford created this modernized back-and-forth between a current Christian figure and a long-deceased without intending for Osteen to ever see it.  But I saw it, and now you have.  Posting anything on the Internet doesn't exactly limit its viewership, does it?

Adding a false legitimacy to Ford's humor is the fact that a lot of Christians like to enshrine Luther for his contributions to Protestantism.  However, when we do so, we forget that Luther was hardly perfect (and would likely be horrified to learn he's been elevated almost to the level of a Roman Catholic saint by his Protestant heirs).  A bigoted anti-Semite, and likely both a glutton and a drunkard, Luther had a lot of faults.  And not surprisingly, a few of them were more typical of his era (the 16th Century) than they are appropriate in the broader context of how God has taught His people to interact with one another and the world around us.  For example, he argued his viewpoints and convictions with deeply crass insults, something scholars say was a widely-used colloquial tactic in his day.  But does that make doing so Biblically appropriate, either then, or today? 

It's one thing to be convinced of the truth, as Luther obviously was, but isn't it another thing to still speak the truth in love?  In Proverbs 3:3-4, King Solomon teaches, "let not mercy and truth forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart, and so find favor and high esteem in the sight of God and man."  Mercy and truth together, right?

Ford got Luther's insults from, of all things, a tongue-in-cheek website, Lutheran Insulter, that has a bunch of them to illustrate how, um, colorful arguments must have been in Luther's time.  But even the Lutheran Insulter doesn't recommend the use of these insults in the course of respectful, God-honoring apologetics or evangelism.

Unfortunately, however, many evangelicals don't understand that just because Luther got away with saying this kind of stuff back in the 16th Century, he also honored God by doing so.  After all, how often does God receive glory despite the things we say and do, not because of them?  Luther was no more perfect than you or I, and just like the things you and I say and do are open to evaluation in comparison to Biblical standards of conduct, so are Luther's.  Does the fact that much of his theology happens to align tightly with Scripture give him a free pass on stuff he did that doesn't?

Of course, evangelicals aren't the only ones slinging mud towards, making fun of, and otherwise being contemptuous towards people with whom we disagree.  Plenty of this is going on in our political landscape, regardless of political party.

Judging by Luther's enthusiastic use of what lawyers today would probably call slander, he'd likely have been right at home in the thick of things, and maybe with a radio program more popular than Limbaugh's.

However, whether it's left-wing liberals or Joel Osteen, the people with whom believers in Christ have differences of opinion need to let God's Word be our guide.  How likely is it that the Holy Spirit is leading any of us to negate either mercy or truth in our conduct?

According to Solomon, they both go together.

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