My blog contains a large number of posts. A few are included in various other publications, or as attached stories and chronicles in my emails; many more are found on loose leaves, while some are written carelessly in margins and blank spaces of my notebooks. Of the last sort most are nonsense, now often unintelligible even when legible, or half-remembered fragments. Enjoy responsibly.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Your Faults Are Perfect

I saw an interview with Joel Olsteen a couple weeks ago and have been stuck trying to figure out this guy. He was voted Most Influential Christian in America in 2006 by The Church Report, operates one of those mega-churches, and all without ever really quoting the Bible or any other religious text. His only educational training is a BA in television production. Nevertheless, he sells millions of books to Evangelicals who want to learn how to live a better life and be the best people that they can. Yesterday, sitting in a cramped room listening to people discussing their futures in tentative somber tones, someone decided to interject a positive aphorism. It was ill-timed and came across as overly fake, but we appreciated the attempt to steer the conversation away from the mournful and back towards something positive. It was in this second that I finally understood Joel Olsteen and his ilk.

What he represents is the logical eclecticism of our time, and this type of person has never had an original thought. They piece together time-worn tricks, give them a new paint job, and are in business. And it is a booming business. It’s a grift called Happiness. The world is a big scary place with a history of suffering and fear. Enter Olsteen, who tells them that they have nothing to fear, this life or hereafter, and that God commands them to be happy. Day in, day out, he keeps pushing it: Don’t be afraid, be happy.

He does so under the auspicious of a higher understanding. He tells people that what they want to do is divine because God wants them to be happy. This is absolute nonsense and is the concept of “altruism” at its worst. People do what they want to do, every time. If it pains them to make a choice, if the choice looks like a sacrifice, you can be sure that it is no nobler than the discomfort caused by greediness. It is the necessity of deciding between two things you want when you can’t have both. The ordinary person suffers every time they choose between spending a buck on some gadget they don’t really need or tucking it away for their kids, between getting up to go to work or losing their job. But they always choose what hurts the least or pleasures the most. The scoundrel and the saint make the same choices on a larger scale.

Olsteen tells people to be happy and the best that they can be by dressing it up in basic Biblical language and hoping that his followers assume the rest. Part is sickly sweet, more is nonsense, and some just hateful. It reminds me of how I was taught about Sodom and Gomorra and why Lot was saved from those wicked cites when Yahweh smote them. Peter describes him as a just, Godly, and righteous man, vexed by the filthy conversation of the wicked. Saint Peter must be an authority on virtue, since to him were given the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. But it is hard to see what made Lot such a paragon. He divided a cattle range at his brother’s suggestion. He got captured in battle. He skipped out of town to save his own skin. He fed and sheltered two strangers, but his conduct showed that he knew them to be VIPs - and by my understanding, it would have counted for more if he had thought that they were beggars. Aside from these items and Saint Peter’s character reference there is only one thing in the Bible on which we can judge Lot’s virtue (virtue so great that Heavenly intercession saved his life). The rest is from Genesis 19:8, in case you don’t believe me.

Lot’s neighbors beat on his door and wanted to meet these blokes from out of town. Lot didn’t argue; he offered a deal. He had two daughters, virgins, and told this mob that he would give them these girls and they could use them any way that they liked. He pleaded with them to do any damn thing they pleased - only quit beating on his door. So these men, “old and young”, gang raped his own young, tender, and scared girls. This is why he is considered a righteous man.

Or the story of Elisha (Al-Yasa in Islam). Elisha was so all-fired holy that touching his bones restored a dead man to life. He was a bald-headed, cold coot. One day children made fun of his baldness, so God sent bears to tear forty-two children into bloody bits (Second chapter, Second Kings). The Bible is loaded with this stuff. Crimes that turn your stomach and asserted to be divinely ordered or divinely condoned, along with hard common sense and workable rules for social behavior. I could point out these type of things in a number of other religions, but I’m not going to blanket condemn all religions based on ancient and outdated beliefs. It is conceivable that one of these mythologies is the word of God. The kind of God who rends to bits forty-two children for sassing His priest, but a God nonetheless. My point is that people like Joel Olsteen preach a sweetened and lightened version of scripture. He’s a good Joe who wants people to be happy. Happy on Earth plus eternal bliss in Heaven. He doesn’t expect you to chastise the flesh. Oh no, this is the giant-economy package. If you drink and gamble and dance and wench, come to church and do it under holy auspices. Do it with your conscience free. Have fun at it. Live it up! Get happy! It’s a Better You!

Of course, there is a charge. Olsteen’s God expects to be acknowledged. Anyone stupid enough to refuse to get happy on His terms is a sinner and deserves anything that happens to them. But this rule is common to all gods and their pitchmen. Their snake oil is orthodox in all respects. Now I enjoy a good uplifting lecture as much as the next sucker, I generally despise crowds, and don’t let snobs tell me where to go on Sundays. But that does not mean that I can’t laugh a people trying to reconcile the Old Testament with the New, the Buddhist doctrine with Buddhist apocrypha, or Olsteen’s happy-love message with anything substantial or credible. His ethic is sugar-coated for people who can’t take psychology straight -- he is simply tapping the zeitgeist. The only difference between his message and a large, yellow smiley face is that he has the assumed a pulpit built on an established belief, perverted as it may be.

So I finally understand his appeal. We live in a time where things are plentiful. People want to hear that gluttony is good and that they are right in their actions. They want justification for doing as they damn-well please. Moreover, they want to be patted on the back for being good at being selfish. Olsteen delivers and is reinforced by repetitive rhetoric, oozing with vacant cheerfulness, and telling everyone that they are the best that they can be. Proving that we are all happiest when someone else does us the pleasure of lowing the bar.

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