I watched Oprah’s Next Chapter yesterday. I saw most of two interviews that she conducted with Joel Osteen and Bishop T.D. Jakes. Oprah said to both of them, though for slightly different reasons, that she grew-up in the Church but that the ministries she experienced then were quite different from Osteen’s and Jakes’s ministries. The churches she had experienced while growing-up were much, much smaller, they were less racially diverse, and the ministers were poorer in comparison. To this last point, Jakes contends that he is far more disturbed by ministers who lead smaller congregations in more depressed circumstances who drive fancy cars than those like him who have streams of income from enterprises outside of the church that account for finer appointments. Osteen confirmed that his luxuries come from the sale of books and not from the church. For my part, I listened to this thinking about Ann Petry’s novel The Street when her protagonist, Lutie Johnson, considers the world of the rich people she works for and thinks, “[i]t was a world of strange values…”
Like Oprah’s experiences of these contemporary mega-churches, my experience of church as a child are distinct from these. I was raised Catholic but I also attended lots of Baptist services with friends. The services that I remember were also very different from what I saw on television of these ministries on Oprah’s show: they were less spectacular, though memorable services. Fr. Kraker was the priest at St. Tim’s and his homilies stayed with me. My favorite was a story about a person who gets a glimpse of life in heaven and in hell. He travels through hell and sees people sitting at a table trying to feed themselves from spoons that are so long they can’t turn them to put the food into their mouths. These people are in agony trying to manipulate the utensils so that they can eat their food. In heaven, the people are also equipped with long spoons and forks but instead of trying to feed themselves, they feed the person across from them. The difference between heaven and hell was not the setting, but the recognition of the needs of others. I was a child when I heard this story and I never forgot it. I remember wanting to live in a world where kindness could matter and be felt forever; where compassion and generosity were without end. I still want to live in a world like that. Going to church gave me hope that I could make a heaven out of the world that I lived in. A good sermon meant that I was inspired to make my world reflect the world that I could imagine. The way that I heard blessings being described on Oprah’s Next Chapter was uninspiring. In the world Oprah, Jakes, and Osteen described, evidence of being blessed was not in being fed, but in the kind of flatware being used; indeed, “it was a world of strange values.”
I don’t know the bible well, that’s why a minister would be useful to my spiritual growth, but it just doesn’t sit well with me that someone who has this understanding would conceive of blessings through materialism. Of course, this was never a direct claim, but when Oprah asked Bishop Jakes to respond to his critics on the issue of material acquisition, she framed her inquiry in terms of blessings and the Bishop did not correct her. In referencing that day’s sermon, she said that she understood that “God doesn’t just bless you and say enough. He allows your cup to runneth over.” For his part, Bishop Jakes believes that he got his stuff honestly and he then wanted to deflect the criticism onto those with smaller congregations who are driving expensive cars. I guess it would have been more satisfying to me to hear my minister talk about the work of conceiving of ones blessings despite having this stuff, but that was not to be. When the Bishop’s wife took the stage and described her walk with her husband, fulfillment of their commitment was discussed in terms of the penthouse suites they can now reside in anywhere in the world. I don’t know the bible well, but I would have thought that following Jesus would have meant having some commentary on what being poor and on welfare taught you about poverty and housing; about poverty and the need for hospitality. Instead, there was no critique, just an uncritical acceptance of what was good in worldly terms. So between husband and wife, there was no critique of stuff. We’re supposed to uncritically accept that a Rolls Royce is a good car and that the penthouse suite means that you have arrived. I don’t know the bible well, but I would think there would be some stuff in there about re-ordering your values so that they align with less worldly things. I guess I would think there would be some stuff in there about avoiding temptation and the seductions of wealth. I guess I would think there would be some stuff in there about finding value in recognizing another’s agony and tending to them and defining the tending and the receiving as wealth; about seeing wealth in the patience we show others who are slow to learn; about seeing wealth in showing compassion and empathy. It just doesn’t seem right, at least not to me, to interpret God allowing your “cup to runneth over” through high sticker price consumer goods.
Joel Osteen did confirm that prosperity means more than just having stuff. But what I didn’t go for was when in one minute Oprah said that a part of his appeal was that he was “just like us” to her later suggesting that the trappings of his success helped to sell his message. She said something like, what good would it do for you to be poor and miserable trying to convey a message. That isn’t a direct quote but I think what I’ve rendered captures the spirit of what I heard: if you are poor, you are miserable and have nothing to offer. Osteen didn’t correct her interpretation. Again, I don’t know the bible well, but I would think there would be some stuff in there about the humanity of the poor. It would seem then that if you are a part of humanity, then you have something to offer. It just seems to me that ministers should be responsible for helping to convey the message that you can be broke and still be blessed. I know I feel that way. I don’t think that God has left me because I don’t have very much money, drive a ten-year-old Ford Escape, and shop at Kohl’s with a 20% off coupon.
I am not a minister nor do I know the bible well, but I have another idea about what it means to be blessed than what I heard last night on Oprah’s Next Chapter. As far as I’m concerned, there is a difference between being blessed and having money. I do not believe that having an expensive car or a high mortgage means that you are blessed. Nor do I believe that being able to go shopping on Rodeo Drive means you are blessed. Nor do I believe that being able to rub elbows with people who have this stuff prove that you are blessed. What you have when you have cars, homes, and material things is money to pay for them. What you have is the power to not be overwhelmed by debt. It seems to me that you are blessed when you have life. Each living moment gives you an opportunity to figure out how to lift the spoon and feed the one across from you. Sometimes you are feeding the needy vegetables and meat, but other times you are feeding them perspective and witness. We are blessed when human beings help one another fulfill their needs.