I'll tell you what I like about Joel Osteen. He never seems to be concerned with answering his critics. I've seen him interviewed a handful of times on news programs and every last journalist, regardless of the subject at hand, wants to bring up the differences other people have with Osteen's message and get a feel for his response. It's an obvious bait. But he never falls for it. Yet it's not the type of silence us cool emergents give, almost as if we are above being pulled into futile arguments over "old questions" that will have no resolution and will prove that no one will ever understand us. His restraint seems (to me, anyway) to be solely out of a conviction that goodwill should exist among people with differing messages.
I've been reading up on the Baha'i faith. Followers of Baha'i don't worship a deity per se, but rather celebrate an amorphous idea of diversity. Unity seems to be the object of their affections, a shared table where every idea is equally valid the goal. I'll never be a Baha'i an. I'll always believe there are some ideals and beliefs (including many espoused by Joel Osteen) that deserve to be questioned and spoken out against.
With that said, I still think that we spend way too much time defining ourselves by pointing out the chasm between ourselves and others. We are not, to loosely quote from Chocolat, defining ourselves by what we embrace, but rather by those we disagree with. It happens in pulpits across America, even those seeking to hover "above the line." In an otherwise meaningful and substantive sermon I have heard recently, the speaker used a clip of a well-known fundamentalist pastor in a debate with a well-known emergent pastor over the practice of churches offering yoga classes to their congregants. Both gave compelling arguments from their epistemological and theological backgrounds, ones that would have one over their respective followers. It's no secret which side the speaker (and myself, for that matter) fell on the debate. From my perspective, the fundamentalist was made to look foolish. From the perspective of some of my friends, he probably looked as intelligent as he could possibly be. But, in the end, was this device necessary? The obvious intent was to use an easy target to hit a bulls eye in front of friendly listeners.
I've recently read A.J. Jacobs' book The Year of Living Biblically. A writer for Esquire, Jacobs is one of the millions of Americans who, since the beginning of the Bush presidency, has become fascinated with the influence the Bible has on so many. He sought to get inside the world of the Bible and live out all the laws and rules, including the ones that time has made irrelevant, as close as possible. To do this, he found several different groups of people who follow certain precepts to the core, and he hung out with them. He visited numerous Orthodox Jews, a Creationism museum, Amish, and Jehova's Witnesses.
On a trip to Tennessee, he visited Jimmy Morrow, the pastor of a snake handling church in rural Appalachia. An agnostic, Jacobs could have said any number of divisive and contentious things about these people who occupy the far margins of our society, but he didn't. He was kind and respectful. His conclusion was extremely moving. He said when he was safely back in Manhattan he began to have this great concern for Jimmy Morrow. He had a great urge to call Morrow up and tell him to stop handling snakes. Of all the religious people he had met during the previous year, Morrow, an uneducated man with a vastly different worldview, was by far the one he liked the most. An he put his life on the line every time he handled a snake, and Jacobs wanted to protect him.
How many of us, followers of Jesus, can say we possess this kind of goodwill for those we disagree with? What would happen if we spoke out against the televangelists of our day not because they are silly caricatures, but because we genuinely are concerned with the damage their theology does, not just to their followers, but to themselves? I know this gets into murky waters with the dangers of patronization lurking on every corner, but it seems like a healthy ideal to shoot for.