Religion, Miracles, the American Dream
Messengers, Followers, Teachers, Edifices, Divisions
If history is correct, humans have never been content to just live in the world. They have consistently yearned for some kind of meaning in their lives. Often that pursuit of meaning has expressed itself in the form of religion.
For those who have chosen to follow groups with any kind of religious or spiritual trademark, the pattern seems to be the same. When a religion begins, one person usually has an idea or believes he (historically, mostly male) has the right message, the truth, or has a special message, powers, insights, given to him from an exterior divinity.
In ancient times spiritual teachers were often wanderers or lived in small villages or towns. Small groups gathered to hear these teachers. Over time, followers began to expand beyond these villages. Official teachings were established based on the words purported to have been said by the founders or, in some traditions, messages or rules given or spoken to an official messenger (or inspired messengers) by an exterior divinity. ( Who becomes an official messenger after the first messengers die often depends on the rules of lineage)
It didn’t take long before religious organizations began to sprout up all over the world. Centuries-old edifices and sacred centers are still standing as testaments of humans’ need for spiritual roots.
Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, all seem to have followed this pattern.
If there is a common motif in most religions, it is basically simple: Followers listened to a first teacher and were convinced, converted, epiphanized, transformed, healed, anointed. Words of the first master, or a divinity surrogate, were recorded or recalled. After that initial following, other followers eventually formalized into institutions.
Over time these institutions divided themselves into teachers and learners. If the hierarchies are rigid, as they often are, those at the top get to call the shots of what is true and moral for their all followers. If they are not, followers are given the latitude to pursue their own individualized versions of their religious cultural heritages. Others just drop out of their inherited religions but still have a kind of cultural/emotional attachment to them.
Other divisions often ensued. These fractures usually resulted in splinter groups breaking away from the original group for any of a number of reasons: practices, interpretations of spiritual texts, inherited rights of leadership, dogma, and the old conflict between tradition and modernity.
Moral Behavior, Rewards (External and Internal), Grace
Religion and spiritual journeys have, historically, been about moral behavior. That behavior is viewed, in some religions, as playing by the rules of an ancient text. But religions have also been about a perception of the world and the human race: Is the world an illusion? Is the eternal world superior to the finite world? Are humans basically good or evil?
Some religions are based on a reward system. If you do good, live by the rules of the religion, follow certain commandments, you will be rewarded—right away, over time, or in the afterlife.
In some religions, rewards are more internal—a metamorphosis, a new perception of the world, some kind of internal transformation.
These two reward systems, I have noticed, are not mutually exclusive.
The reward system of my religious cultural heritage, Roman Catholicism, reached a turning point, historically, when the church gave (even sold) indulgences (time off of purgatory for doing a good deed or saying a prayer for someone).
Indulgences were a refinement of the promises of a joyous eternal life if I played by all the Catholic rules (Many of my Catholic friends, to their credit, walk their faiths, on a daily basis, and, as far as I can tell, don’t really worry about the afterlife; they live their moral lives in the present, rewards or no rewards).
The concept of “grace” within Christianity is also part of the institution’s fixation on something being “given” to a follower. That something—the motivation and strength to do good, to make the right decision, to surrender, to even be successful—is supposed to be given to a religious follower as a gift, often without merit and without any strings attached (One could argue, however, that there is some kind of patriarchal loyalty required to a male divinity who is so benevolent, in rewarding packets of grace to humans, often arbitrarily, I might add)
In my research on this reward system of Christianity, I discovered one particular group which seems to have combined the promises of earthly rewards with a rich and fulfilling spiritual life, or at the very least, a strong faith in a divinity’s grace that will enable you to have the strength to beat a sickness, to own a house, to end an addiction.
JoelOsteen.com, Magic-Wand Christianity, More Rewards
Joel Osteen.com seems to be one of these Christianity-by-rewards schools. Osteen is the pastor of a very large congregation in Texas. His weekly televised services, apparently, reach millions throughout the world (In one interview, Osteen said that most of his Sunday congregation are television viewers)
He has a winning smile, dazzling white teeth, high cheek bones, and is svelte as an Armani model (with tailored, submarine-tight-fitting suits to match).
He is very wealthy, claims that he takes no church salary, and lives, allegedly, off the sales of his books. This claim is not exactly accurate since ads for his books and his Website keep popping up on the utube videos of his sermons. So there is a definite connection between his church services and his income.
His sermons (or motivational speeches) are a homespun collection of Bible stories, personal anecdotes, and you-too-can-win-against-any-situation messages of hope, optimism, and what one might call magic-wand Christianity—believe, and you too can overcome anything. Anything, my friends (In one of his sermons, Osteen raised his hands and actually said that faith, coupled with a positive attitude, would make you victorious in finding a job, ending a sickness, or getting a mortgage).
Some traditional mainline Protestant clergy have referred to his sermons as cotton-candy. Others are not so kind.
Osteen is popular and, obviously, has a very large following. Part of his charisma is that his public persona exudes a kind of rural, John-boy charm. He appears to be without arrogance or malice. He also has a kind of shy innocence. His slight tenor voice is calibrated not to startle, but to soothe. He has confidence. And he likes to tell a down-home story.
There is no doubt that he is a very, very intelligent businessman who has trademarked himself as the boy-next-door who would never deceive you or do you any harm.
On the other hand, some would say that he is nothing more than a pretty package, charming on the outside but shallow as a wading pool (No one has done a reading level of his sermons. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that depth and subtlety are not Osteen’s strong suits).
Two things strike me about Osteen’s overarching messages of hope and his conflation of belief and rewards.
Miracle-School Christianity and The American Dream
First of all, Osteen is steeped in the miracle-school of Christianity. He consistently says that with belief and “God’s grace,” anything in your world can happen or be accomplished, in spite of the odds.
The active pursuit of miracles has had a long tradition within Christianity. Many Catholics, for example, still make pilgrimages to Lourdes, hoping that they can be cured of a terminal illness or some other profound disability. Christian healing services are still popular on any Sunday throughout the United States. I recently came across one Christian tv show where people could call in with a donation and receive “healing” prayers.
At the root of Osteen’s belief in miracles is his belief in a divinity that can actively intervene to change the course of any direction in one’s life—medical, educational, financial, emotional. In this sense, Osteen takes on the role of an anointed messenger coming to his viewers and congregation with a promise that their worlds can change, that miracles are not only possible, they are inevitable if we just pray for them and have the right attitude.
And, since he has strong support from his followers that his promises of miracles cannot be broken, his popularity doesn’t look like it will end soon.
Secondly, Osteen’s message has a strong American cultural component. Many Americans still believe in the American Dream. That dream is often about optimism, accomplishments, and acquisitions.
If your dream is to own house. “Pray on it” and “prophesy on it,” says Osteen; it will happen (In one sermon, Osteen uses the word “prophesy” to mean say it over and over, as a “prophesy” to yourself that it will happen)
If you want a car. “Pray on it.”
If you want to get a degree, “Pray on it.”
There is also a little bit of new-age intentional theory that has a strong business-like component in Osteen’s message. According to this theory, if you just “intend” something to happen, it will (Business motivational-speaker types consistently spew out this message to their employees and customers in the US).
Americans, as a rule, don’t like to believe that there are some things that just don’t have a solution. Or that there are circumstances over which they have no control. In a word, many Americans still hold on to the belief that if you want something bad enough, the world is your oyster. Go for it. Nothing can stop you. (TV shows continue to pop up parading all kinds of competing talent from magic tricks to dancing to cooking. These competition shows are popular in the US because they all hold on to the notion of some form of the American dream coming true).
One person with a message. Followers. Miracles. The American Dream. Religion. Rewards. Meaning.
The Cycle continues. “The old sins the newest kinds of ways,” as the bard says.