Interpreting the enigma of media-evangelist Joel Osteen: an analysis of his contexts, expressive theology and media use
Haire, Earle Ross
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This thesis provides an analysis of one of the leading twenty-first century media-evangelists: Joel Osteen. His popularity is worldwide and has only increased over his seventeen years of ministry. His preaching and teachings enjoy sustained popularity resulting in book sales, internet downloads, radio listenership and television viewership in the millions. He has also created arguably the largest interracial congregation in the United States, boasting around 50,000 members, the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. Due to his celebrity he is simply known to many of his viewers and listeners as Joel. This is primarily due to his expert use of new and social media, promoting his distinct version of Christianity. For all his success and many followers, Osteen himself remains something of an enigma. Decoding this enigma is at the heart of this thesis. Section 1 (chapters 1, 2, 3, 4) outlines the pertinent literature and methodology used in this dissertation to examine Osteen’s various contexts anchored in the spiritual media marketplace. This is followed by a discussion on the different critiques of Osteen as well as his followers’ emphasis on his expressive theology. Critics vilify Osteen, particular the New Calvinists who chide him for his lack of theological knowledge. By contrast, his followers commonly celebrate his ministry crediting him with life changing insights that have blessed their religiosity and reaped healing, fulfilment and a deepening relationship with God. Section 2 (chapters 5, 6 and 7) places Osteen in both historical and theological contexts that include the dawning of televangelism and Osteen’s theological background. Both shed invaluable light on Osteen. Section 3 (chapters 8, 9, and 10) takes into consideration Osteen’s expressive theology in his preaching, writing and media use, and provides insights into the heretofore-ignored strands of his theology present in both his online and offline communication. This section demonstrates how Osteen’s teaching on self-improvement, faith, and what he terms as ‘God’s favour’ are integrated into his works in relation to his approach to historical Christianity. This thesis therefore takes a more comprehensive and nuanced approach than previous interpretations of Osteen. The conclusions of this research provide rich insight into Osteen’s enigmatic theology and approach, while also interpreting his import in the on-going narrative of media-evangelicalism in American religious culture.