Monthly Archives: March 2015

New Book on Joel Osteen Forthcoming from Phil Sinitiere


Love him. Hate him. To say Joel Osteen is a controversial figure in American Christianity is to substantially understate the case. Here in Houston, Osteen is a fixture in the religious life of the city. Phillip L. Sinitiere, co-editor of Christians and the Color Line, co-author of Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace, and co-editor of Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. Du Bois, the Crisis, and the American Marketplace has written a history of “how Joel Osteen became Joel Osteen.” His book traces the history of the Osteen family as well as that of Lakewood Church, and it will be coming out in the next five months or so from NYU Press.

Phil is the inimitable “Baldblogger.” He will be writing posts in the months ahead as the book goes through the final stages of production and hits the shelves later this year. If you are interested in Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and how they fit into the larger context of the history of American evangelicalism, you won’t want to miss this book.

Go over to “Baldblogger” to see what Phil will be doing to lay the groundwork for his book. Here is a taste:

Salvation with a Smile is the first critical, scholarly book-length study of Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church. Over the course of eight chapters, I explain how Joel Osteen became Joel Osteen and how Lakewood Church became the nation’s largest megachurch with over 40,000 members. This study is a deeply historical investigation of these questions, while in the book I also use oral history sources and ethnographic observation to develop a profile of Lakewood in contemporary times. I track the history of Lakewood from its origins with John Osteen and run the story up to the present, in which I examine Joel Osteen’s expert approach to televangelism and historicize the numerous critics who have spoken and written denunciations of the “smiling preacher.”


Luther and Calvin on the Third Use of the Law


Departing briefly from my normal obsessing over American exceptionalism, I contributed an essay today to Nomocracy in Politics. In this essay on historical theology, I wrote about how magisterial reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin interpreted the meaning and application of the Mosaic law in the life of the Christian. While both acknowledged that the function of the Mosaic law was to reveal sin to the sinner and restrain wickedness in society, Calvin explained that there was a third use of the law. That is, the law is a tool for the sanctification of the believer in Christ. This usus renatis is an aspect of God’s grace, as he draws believers closer to himself and conforms them more and more to the image of Christ.

Here is a taste:

Up to this point, Luther and Calvin present similar views on the functions of the law. For Calvin, however, the primary use of the law for the Christian is neither the usus elenchticus nor the usus politicus. The third and primary use of the law is the usus renatis. Herein, the Holy Spirit does His work of guiding the Christian into renewal of spirit and conformity with the will of God using the law. Calvin wrote, “Again, because we need not only teaching but also exhortation, the servant of God will also avail himself of this benefit of the law: by frequent meditation upon it to be aroused to obedience, be strengthened in it, and be drawn back from the slippery path of transgression. . . . The law is to the flesh like a whip to an idle and balky ass, to arouse it to work. Even for a spiritual man not yet free of the weight of the flesh the law remains a constant sting that will not let him stand still.”The role of the law in justification is important to Calvin, indeed it is central. In his discussion on the three uses of the law, Calvin carefully shows how valuable the law is in driving the sinner to Christ. Yet his emphasis on the value of the law in sanctification is found in his discussion on the third use of the law. For Calvin, the usus elenchticus and the usus renatis occur simultaneously, because the sinner must know God both as Judge and as Father in order to benefit from grace. Recall that Calvin viewed the law as the foundation of the whole Christian faith. Calvin wrote, “Moses was not made a lawgiver to wipe out the blessing promised to the race of Abraham. Rather, we see him repeatedly reminding the Jews of that freely given covenant made with their fathers of which they were the heirs.”Thus, according to Calvin, the law is an integral part of God’s covenant of grace, and because of this, the law is most beneficial to those who are adopted as children of God.

The Power of a Faithful and Beautiful Hymn


Faithful readers of “To Breathe Your Free Air” (hi, Mom!) know that Christian hymns hold a special place here. Hymns connect us who live in the present with those faithful believers in Christ who preceded us in times past. When we sing, for example, the Christmas hymn “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” we are singing a hymn that has been enjoyed by the people of God since it was written in the 5th century by Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (d. ~413). It has been sung in English since it was translated by the great hymnographer John Mason Neale in 1854. (One of my favorite hymns translated by Neale is from the 8th century–“Art Thou Weary, Art Thou Languid.” As a children’s hymn, it is simple, reassuring, and tender–a delight to sing and to ponder.)

Christians are not the only religious people to sing, to be sure. But Christians have always been a singing people. The Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, taught us to “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5.18-19). And in singing the great hymns of the faith, we are empowered to fulfill the verse in Hebrews 12.1–“since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”

Martin Luther, who of course is known as a great reformer and theologian, was also a great musician. He was a prolific hymnographer, his most famous hymn being “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Kurt J. Eggert wrote that “Luther thought of music as a truly wonderful, mysterious and powerful gift of God’s creative hand.” He cited a letter Luther wrote to Ludwig Senfl, a Catholic composer, in which he said,

There are, without doubt, in the human heart many seed-grains of virtue which are stirred up by music. All those with whom this is not the case I regard as blockheads and senseless stones. For we know that to the devils music is something altogether hateful and unbearable. I am not ashamed to confess publicly that next to theology there is no art which is the equal of music. For it alone, after theology, can do what otherwise only theology can accomplish, namely, quiet and cheer up the soul of man, which is clear evidence that the devil, the originator of depressing worries and troubled thoughts, flees from the voice of music just as he flees from the words of theology. For this very reason the prophets cultivated no art so much as music in that they attached their theology not to geometry, nor to arithmetic, nor to astronomy, but to music, speaking the truth through psalms and hymns.

My favorite Luther hymn is “From Depths of Woe I Raise to Thee,” which is based on Psalm 130. So wonderful and profound.

Of course, not every hymn is faithful or beautiful. Several come to mind. One example of a bad hymn is “Softly and Tenderly.” This hymn is bad because it does not represent Jesus accurately. I know I am treading on thin ice here with some of you. But the hymn presents Jesus as pining for lost sinners and wayward children. While Jesus certainly loves everyone and came to seek and save that which was lost, this is very different from pining for the one who got away, like a spurned lover. Jesus isn’t a loser, holding out his arms weeping for those who will not come. As the Apostle John tells us in John 6.66-67, “many of his disciples withdrew and were not walking with him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘You do not want to go away also, do you?'” Contrary to the belief of some, Jesus can definitely live without us.

Worthy hymns are faithful to historic Christian theology. They exalt all three Persons of the Godhead. A good hymn is didactic–it teaches biblical and theological truths. We should learn something about God when we sing a hymn. And a good hymn, while appealing to human emotion, is not driven by emotion. Unfortunately, this is another problem with “Softly and Tenderly,” and it is a problem with a great many hymns of the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century, influenced as many of them were by Romanticism and liberal Protestant theology. It is also a nagging problem with so much of what passes as Christian music that has been produced since the 1950s in America.

Well, I could go on and on. Let me close this out by pointing you to an 1846 hymn by Horatius Bonar, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” The lyrics are:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto Me and rest;
Lay down, thou weary one, lay down
Thy head upon My breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was,
Weary and worn and sad;
I found in Him a resting place,
And He has made me glad.

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Behold, I freely give
The living water; thirsty one,
Stoop down, and drink, and live.”
I came to Jesus, and I drank
Of that life-giving stream;
My thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
And now I live in Him.

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“I am this dark world’s Light;
Look unto Me, thy morn shall rise,
And all thy day be bright.”
I looked to Jesus, and I found
In Him my Star, my Sun;
And in that light of life I’ll walk,
Till trav’ling days are done.

Here is a video recording of Anthony Way singing. Watch and enjoy.


Obama’s Selma Speech: Self Examination as American Exceptionalism


This post appeared at Then and Now on March 11, 2015.

This past Saturday, March 7, 2015, President Obama spoke in Selma, Alabama, marking the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”–the assault by Alabama state troopers on marchers from Selma to Montgomery for equal voting rights for African Americans.

His speech is remarkable for many reasons, but one of the things I find really remarkable is that it ranks as a singular example of presidential exceptionalist rhetoric.

There’s nothing new in all that. We’ve come to expect our presidents to use exceptionalist rhetoric in their speeches. Ronald Reagan was particularly skilled at portraying America in exceptionalist terms, being fond of quoting Thomas Paine, who famously said of Americans that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again” in Common Sense. He also liked to use Abraham Lincoln’s descriptor of America as the “last, best hope of earth,” although Reagan often substituted “earth” for “mankind” in his use of the phrase.

But President Obama is considered by many to lack love for his country. Early in his presidency, at a press conference in Cherbourg, France on April 4, 2009, Obama himself watered down American exceptionalism by saying, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” But Obama’s views on exceptionalism have evolved over the course of his presidency. In September 2013, in his address to the nation regarding a possible US military intervention in Syria, President Obama embraced exceptionalism by saying, “But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. . . . That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.” And speaking at West Point’s commencement in 2014, the President said, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.”

Unlike Reagan, Obama’s view of exceptionalism subtracts the idea of American innocence. Central to Obama’s patriotism is the notion that true love of country entails national self-examination in order to more sincerely pursue the highest ideals of the American liberal tradition. This notion comes through in most, if not all, of President Obama’s articulations of American exceptionalism.

His Selma speech is, at least to me, his most eloquent expression of this form of exceptionalism. Consider these lines from his speech–

And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place?

What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people – the unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many – coming together to shape their country’s course?

What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?

That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience. That’s why it’s not a museum or static monument to behold from a distance. It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents:

“We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

These are not just words. They are a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny. For founders like Franklin and Jefferson, for leaders like Lincoln and FDR, the success of our experiment in self-government rested on engaging all our citizens in this work. That’s what we celebrate here in Selma. That’s what this movement was all about, one leg in our long journey toward freedom.

American exceptionalism is a controversial idea because two political groups at odds with one another claim it–conservatives and liberals. What adds to the controversy is that both of these groups often seem to see their contention as going far beyond a simple political disagreement. They often seem to be at war with one another, with the complete destruction of the other as the shared goal between them. The question of what constitutes a true American? is thus a fundamental, existential question in today’s political and cultural discourse.

For many, a true American is specially favored of God, carrying out a divine mandate to spread the American way of life around the globe, situated on a sacred land, heir to a glorious heritage–and defined by an innate righteousness, no matter by what agency he uses in America’s name. For many, these are the aspects that define American exceptionalism.

But Obama’s conception of exceptionalism is the right one, both historically and practically. It is historically right because it is this vision of exceptionalism that has carried Americans ever closer to their stated ideals of individual rights, democracy, human equality based on innate dignity, and peace since the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. It is practically right because it fosters unity by eliminating the false dichotomy of the “Chosen” and the “Other,” a dichotomy borne out of racial, religious, ethnic, and class prejudices.

Read the transcript of the speech. Obama’s articulation of American exceptionalism is expansive, inclusive, and consistent with the canon of American civil religion: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, to name a few texts in that canon. But most importantly, it is marked by self examination. Without self-examination, Americans cannot live up to their ideals. Without self-examination, America implodes.

Gustave de Beaumont’s Forgotten Abolitionist Novel


I recently joined Ed Blum on the editorial staff at Christian Century‘s religious history blog, Then and Now. I’m looking forward to working with Ed, whom I’ve gotten to know over the past several months through CFH and S-USIH. His religious biography of W.E.B. Du Bois is truly outstanding and I highly recommend it.

My inaugural post appeared today–I wrote about an 1835 novel entitled Marie or, Slavery in the United States. Marie was written by Gustave de Beaumont (1802-1866), Alexis de Tocqueville’s travelling companion on their famous tour of the United States that took place in 1831-1832. Tocqueville is famous for having written Democracy in America, which is an extensive consideration of American “institutions,” as Tocqueville put it. Democracy is much more well-known: it was translated into English for the first time during the 1860s, and has been widely read here in America, especially in the years since World War II. (And for a brief word of shameless self-promotion, I am currently in process of editing a new abridgment of Democracy). Democracy is not an uncritical work, but it is a work celebrating American exceptionalism. It is often appealed to by political conservatives, who are found of misattributing the “America is great because she is good” line to Tocqueville.

But Beaumont’s work, a true-to-life work of fiction that he meant to be read alongside Democracy, is less well-known to Americans. It was not translated into English until 1958, nearly 100 years after Democracy. In contrast to Democracy, there is nothing celebratory about America in Marie. It is a tragic story, and it strikes at the heart of something very central, albeit very ugly, about American culture–deep-rooted racial prejudice.

I hope that you add Marie to your reading list, and that you settle in to absorb its message. Marie is much more than a critique of slavery. It is a critique of the myriad absurdities inherent to racial prejudice, to say nothing of the glaring hypocrisy of racial injustice in America. While the work is set in the 1830s, the book offers us a way to think historically about racism in America, as it also continues to give opportunity to reflect on the abiding reality of white privilege in contemporary times.

Here is a taste of my post

Beaumont’s Marie was a work ahead of its time. It was not the first abolitionist work in America, but it was the first one to go beyond slavery and look squarely at the broader problem of racial injustice in America. Not only that, but it presented racial injustice as being ingrained in American culture, reaching not only to African slaves but also to “mulattos,” those in whose veins coursed the slightest hint of African blood. Beaumont told the story of Ludovic, a Frenchman who migrated to America in search of a new life invigorated by liberty. Ludovic fell in love with Marie, a lovely American girl of 1/32 African descent. Because of this, she was considered “colored,” and she and her brother George were ostracized by society. Ludovic’s marriage to Marie incited a race riot in New York, from which they barely escaped. Ultimately the couple had to flee prejudice to the wilderness of Michigan, where deeper tragedies awaited. The novel ended with a disconsolate Ludovic, having witnessed the destruction of the ones he loved most in what he believed was the land of the free.