Beliefwatch: The Osteens As Spiritual Midgets

In her new book, "Love Your Life," Victoria Osteen tells the following story. When she and her husband, Joel, were courting, he came over to her house for dinner. She knew he was the son of a prominent Houston pastor and she, a nice Christian girl, was hoping they could talk about Scripture while she prepared the meal. "Joel began flipping through the pages, but before long, he put the Bible down," she wrote. Victoria was disappointed and complained, "I thought you'd be a spiritual giant."

"Joel said nothing and just grinned at me as we carried on with the evening." Later, he joked with friends that she'd called him a "spiritual midget."

With that story, Victoria unconsciously articulates the problem so many outsiders have with Joel and, by extension, with her. Joel Osteen is one of the most popular pastors in the country, but both he and Victoria seem, from the outside at least, to be spiritual midgets. More than 40,000 people come to hear them preach each week in a sanctuary that used to be the home of the Houston Rockets. Millions more watch them on television. Joel's books are best sellers, and Victoria's new one, though arriving in stores this week, is already high on Amazon's spiritual book list. But the theology driving all this success is thin. Over and over, in sermons, books and television interviews, the Osteens repeat their most firmly held beliefs. If you pray to Jesus, you'll get what you want. In a conversation with NEWSWEEK, Victoria defines her Christian belief this way. Religion "is about appreciating what God's given us. He's given us this life, and he wants us to live it to the fullest." (I interviewed her early one morning when the stock market had already plunged 200 points, and she referred to a recent sermon of Joel's in which he said people were like palm trees: "We have a bounce back on the inside of us." That seemed an inane sort of comfort.)

Prosperity preachers are neither new nor unique in America, but the Osteens' version seems especially self-serving. Victoria's book betrays her interest in the kind of small gratifications that rarely extend to other people, let alone to the larger world. She recommends that women take "me time" every day, and indulge occasionally in a (fat-free!) ice cream. She writes repeatedly about her love for the gym. Her relationship advice is retrograde dross: submit to your man, or at least pretend you're submitting, and then do what you want anyway. "I know if I just wait long enough," she writes, "eventually my idea will become Joel's idea, and it will come to pass." When I asked her how she kept her two children interested in church, she answered that even though they were a broccoli and lean-meats household, she gave them doughnuts as a special treat on Sundays. All this is fine, in the pages of a women's magazine or a self-help book. But what has God got to do with it?

Perhaps this discomfort with the Osteens' message is what drove all the media attention over the summer. In August, Victoria was the defendant in a lawsuit alleging that she struck a Continental Airlines flight attendant after that flight attendant refused to mop up a spill on Victoria's first-class seat. (Osteen had already paid a $3,000 fine to the FAA.) Osteen was acquitted, and some members of the jury said they thought the suit was frivolous, but on the Internet, at least, the story played badly. Secular observers call her a "diva," and conservative Christian detractors call her (and her husband) "heretics." ("You know what?" Victoria says, "I don't read that stuff, I truly don't.") Victoria says she's happy and relieved the suit is behind her. And in fairness to her, the anecdote in her book concludes by saying that Joel was, in fact, the furthest thing from a spiritual midget. "He had read his Bible every day since he was a little boy and knew more about Scripture than I ever imagined," she wrote.