Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Joel Osteen’s Rhetoric of Hope

“Victor, not Victim”: Joel Osteen’s Rhetoric of Hope by Helje Kringlebotn Sodal. Available at EBSCOhost: http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=7&hid=24&sid=5d2a347b-8099-4d90-ac14-1c7fa123ab44%40sessionmgr12&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001774365
Accessed 07/12/2012

     I must admit the title of the article intrigued me, if nothing else did. Sodal’s examination of the preaching at rhetoric style of Joel Osteen seemed to be an opportunity to review Osteen himself. Especially because I find his theology suspect at best, and heretical at worst, reviewing an academic take of his preaching style seemed more challenging than that of a more conservative preacher such as John MacArthur.

     Sodal’s examination of Osteen’s faith and doctrine as well as that of his church (Lakewood Church) places an emphasis on the fact that Osteen shies away from the “Health and Wealth Movement.” While he does not refer to himself as a “prosperity preacher,” Sodal places a strong association between Osteen and other “Word of Faith” preachers such as Kenneth Hagen and Oral Roberts. Osteen; however, is also heavily influenced by liberal theology and the concept of freedom. This should not be confused; however, with freedom from sin, per se, but as a freedom from mediocrity. Osteen preachs the realization of the “American Dream” of a big car, fat bank account, two-and-half kids, and a nice home. All of this dream is yours for the taking...if you remain positive, your best life can be today.

     The bulk of the article is dedicated to showing Osteen’s rhetorical style, and how that style has helped him become a leading American orator. Sodal sees Osteen’s preaching as having two main paths. One is an intense repetition of his major themes. One of these is the theme of freedom or victory. Osteen constantly uses the image of the Statue of Liberty to reinforce his ideology of Victory or Freedom through Christ. He is also a master story teller, and uses illustrations and examples as a major part of his deliberative rhetorical style. Sodal writes that, “Osteen’s examples support his relational prosperous theology. They are closely linked to an American context which is optimistic, non-pietistic, and a mobile melting-pot. Most of the examples have a happy ending and relate to a great variety of human characters and situations.”

     The second is his profound sense of positivism. This, from his theological perspective, would be called “positive confession.” Osteen carefully crafts his messages, books, speeches, and lifestyle to omit anything remotely negative. Sodal points out that Osteen weaves in his sermons the message of hope and uses many illustrations and embellishments to his great advantage. His embellishment fits in with his low key and down to earth style of his preaching. In other words, Osteen uses ordinary vernacular, but with stylistic embellishments that elicit a favorable audience response. He is known for over alliterating and a sign-song rhythmic effect. Sodal gives examples as; “dye it or buy it,” and “to live to give.” Osteen also postulates that God will compensate ‘‘double for your trouble’’ and that his audience was “made to soar; you were made to more’’ He also tells his readers that “You’re gonna fake it [success] until you make it.” Tie this in with his deliberate mannerisms and exquisite dress, that award winning smile, and Osteen becomes a master at rhetoric, and subsequently growing his congregation.

     Unfortunately, that last line is all too true. It is his congregation, not His church. Osteen has simply mastered the craft of scratching itching ears and turning them aside to fables. Yet the Christian minister can abscond with a few of Osteen’s better points and use them for the proliferation of the true Gospel. All in all; however, it would seem evident that the true Gospel, true preaching and Christian Rhetoric remain foolishness to the world.

     Sodal’s takes Osteen to task for his shortcomings and gives him well deserved praise for his stylistic choices and audience connectivity. Having said that, any student of preaching and rhetoric could benefit from reading this article. If for no other reason than to understand what exposition, Christ honoring preaching is not.

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