The Power of Favor 1 | Pre-Thinking

by Glenn on February 18, 2020

I saw a book the other day and I was intrigued. I picked it up and thought I would engage with it, as though I was having a conversation with it. In other words, I would write as I read, rather than read and then review. The book is called The Power of Favor: The Force That Takes You Where You Can’t Go On Your Own (New York: Faith Words, 2019) by Joel Osteen.

Warning: This series of posts (depending on how much of this I do) may be unnecessarily critical. If you are a fan of Joel Osteen and his writings, please do not read this or any of the following posts. I may only irritate you. I have seen Joel Osteen on television briefly a number of times, but I don’t recall ever watching an entire show more than once. As a rule, in our home we tend to avoid televised religious programming. Which is not to say we don’t watch video-recorded religious talks on, say, YouTube or DVD, but somehow a “television show” feels different to me—if only because there is so much money involved—and I’m not sure it’s the best “container” [1] for the good news about Jesus.

I write to think. And when I saw this book it sparked some thoughts, many of them critical. It began with the title: The Power of Favor: The Force That Takes You Where You Can’t Go On Your Own. There are three words that are appealing in there—power, favor and force.

Power seems good. Certainly better than weakness. But power always makes me think of Voldemort in the first Harry Potter book: “There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it.” I suppose that picking up this book could mean I am seeking power. Is that good? Bad? Neutral? The pursuit of power itself seems at least potentially fraught.

Favor is nice. I take it to mean (without having read the book) as some sort of preference. And so the idea of favor is enticing because there is something in me that would like to be preferred and having something bestowed on me. That would be good from my perspective. Of course, from someone else’s perspective, my receiving favor could appear to be unfair. We just watched the documentary Restless Creature, about the ballerina Wendy Whelan. Interesting to think about what she would think about this idea. On the one hand, it seems like everyone needs some sort of break. We need someone to give us a chance. On the other hand, we want the job because we earned the job. We need a break to get the job but we don’t want a break to be the reason we have a job. It feels tricky. I wonder what Osteen will say.

And then the word force is an interesting choice because it conjures up the idea of Star Wars. We live in the wake of the final installment of the films. I wonder if this word was picked deliberately because of this association. (It does appear to be something of a synonym for power, so you could be critical of the subtitle for being redundant.) Since the 1970’s, when the Star Wars saga began, this idea of the Force has been in our cultural imagination, although I don’t know how well-defined the idea was or how coherent a philosophy it is. I do remember Obi-Wan telling Luke to “Use the Force.” This book appears to be defining favor as a force. Perhaps not “the” force, but a force?

I guess the first question that pops up after thinking about the title is What is this force? Then, it’s Where do I get this favor? I know it’s got an inherent power, which can help me. I assume that will be addressed soon in. Another question comes up: To what extent do my actions have something to do with receiving favor? In other words, if there is this thing called favor that comes upon me, did I have anything to do with it coming upon me? If it’s true favor, then I had nothing to do with it. I was simply bestowed with something. But what if the book tells us how we can receive favor? That’s a problem because is it really favor at that point? Isn’t it a religious exercise? I did this to get God to do that. At which point we’re not talking about God’s favor, but my using God to get what I want from Him.

The subtitle says there are places I “can’t go on my own.” That last idea seems to be a bit of a reality check. That without favor’s power and force, I won’t get where I want to go. Fair enough. It also seems to go without saying. Of course there are places I can’t go on my own. Isn’t that the very nature of life? We need to collaborate to achieve in life. How many of us achieve anything without the help of anyone? The whole point of salvation is that Jesus came to do something for us that we couldn’t do for ourselves.

I’m curious to see what I find in this book. Admittedly I find myself wary only considering the title. There are secular books that I’ve devoured that I haven’t questioned. Obviously, there are countless books that I’ve rejected based on the title alone. Perhaps what’s going on here is that for some reason I don’t find myself pre-disposed to a favorable view of The Power of Favor, and while normally that would mean I wouldn’t read. In this case, there was something that made me think I might want to engage with it on some level.

I know very little about Osteen. I have heard people who are critical of his ministry. (Some would not call it a ministry—it would be more along the lines of a delusion.) I remember reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided some time ago. As I recall, her visit to Osteen’s Lakewood Church didn’t generate much empathy from her. Someone I know saw me with this book and said, “I don’t know why you would spend money on that.” I have pastor friends who more or less roll their eyes when his name comes up in conversation. Before the sermon at Lakewood Church, everyone in the congregation says together,

“This is my Bible. I am what it says I am. I have what it says I have. I can do what it says I can do. Today I will be taught the word of God. I boldly confess my mind is alert, my heart is receptive; Ill never be the same. In Jesus name, God bless you.”

And the joke is that what then follows has very little to do with the Bible.

So I have those judgments of others in my mind and I’ve found myself rather suspicious without having really thought anything through for myself. I haven’t read any of Osteen’s books. If I’ve listened to him speak for more than an hour total, I’d be surprised. I think part of it is has to do with the size of his church, which could be my own jealousy. I pastor a small church. He pastors a church of, what, tens of thousands? My feelings could be just sour grapes, although there is nothing in me that desires to trade places. I’m thinking he and I have to have a very different skill set and I wouldn’t be surprised if I was actually overwhelmed by the weight of responsibility that would come with managing such a large organization. It doesn’t seem likely that you would be able to pastor a church of thousands without having some abilities. That’s a given.

And if you are dismissive of Osteen, aren’t you, then, being dismissive of his church members and attendees? You see all those people packed into the arena to hear him speak—there’s got to be something there there that they are seeking. It’s hard to know the significance of crowds. Do they recognize goodness and greatness? Are they deluded? Who am I to sit on judgment on any of them. Shouldn’t I rejoice to think about so many people gathering together as a church. Imagine so many people singing to God as an act of worship. That must be something. But do numbers mean anything inherently?

This also is tricky. I mentioned the Harry Potter books early on. Everyone was reading them and so I avoided them for quite a while assuming that something that popular can’t be that good (or good for you). And then I finally read them when I saw a high school student with serious reading deficiencies and struggles absolutely devour them and transform himself as a student. So I read them and found them utterly compelling. (I’m on my fourth go-around—at least—at this point.) I would say they are good and popular. That has to be a possibility for Osteen and his church. But crowds can go crazy, too. Crowds make Ponzi schemes possible. Ponzi schemes are popular, but you can’t call Ponzi schemes good. In fact, the more popular the Ponzi scheme, the worse it will go for the late arrivals. Fast food restaurants generate a lot of profits. The crowds are going there every day. Is fast food good?

If you write a book, part of you has to be delighted if it sells. You must be thrilled if it becomes a best-seller. But I’ve heard a number of authors who are suspicious of fame, too. They want to sell books and they worry if they sell books. Popular doesn’t necessarily mean good.

So, I think I need to keep an open mind. It doesn’t seem fair to be critical just to be critical. At the same time, there were things in the title that were eyebrow-raising. That might not be simply bias. There may be good reasons for being critical. We’ll see what we will see.

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[1] Thinking about the idea that “the medium is the message” that Marshall McLuhan created, but that I have picked up through the writings of Neil Postman.

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