Imagine that a shark has a fish literally inside its jaws, but cannot bite down. Prayer is like that. It is like a “toxin” that makes you “invisible” to coronavirus. These are sermon illustrations that Joel Osteen, one of the most influential preachers in the country, broadcast in the midst of the pandemic.
I know this because last Sunday I decided to channel-surf all the televangelists available in my basic cable package while I drank my morning coffee. I wanted to see whether they were social distancing and what they were saying about coronavirus. Most were either airing reruns or refusing to distance; it was not always easy to tell.
Osteen was by far the most interesting. Broadcasting from the stage of his empty church, he came remarkably close to assuring listeners that his combination of Christian prayer and New Age positive thinking would give them immunity to the virus.
He stated, “You don’t have to be afraid of the virus, God has a shield around you” and “God can make you invisible to the virus.”
True, it was not all virus all the time—he spoke about jobs, families, and God’s protection from an all-purpose “the enemy.” Probably he has legal deniability if people die because of his inspirational message. Nor would I say that his advice to cultivate a hopeful outlook is all wrong in all contexts—whether for staying healthy during a pandemic, flourishing in an everyday routine, or whatnot. Still he started and ended with God protecting people from the virus, and this implication seemed 90 percent clear, with only 10 percent wiggle room for switching to other attacks from “the enemy.”
If you think a successful sermon should have one unifying image, Osteen is not for you. This one had God/prayer/positivity defending Osteen against murderers by making him invisible, defending the prophet Elijah against his enemies by blinding them, dovetailing with M.C. Hammer’s rap song “You Can’t Touch This,” defending listeners against generalized smoke and bombs that cannot disturb them, and creating a “hedge of protection” behind which “all you have to do is stay in the secret place.”
The climax was a story, its imagery conflated with the others, about a sort of fish that a shark cannot eat (supposedly, who knows if this is true?) because it releases a toxin that freezes the shark’s jaw and literally makes it impossible to bite down. Osteen explained that prayer is like this toxin, allowing the fish to be fearless and carefree.
Conversely “verbalizing your fears” does the opposite: “negative thought is like bait.”
Usually Osteen’s sermons are tediously the same in logic, week after week—relentlessly chipper, individualistic, and vague. I would not go so far as to say that this one broke entirely with his same old mold. Nevertheless this was the first time—out of the dozen or two times that I’ve checked in on him—that his rhetorical promises had such a high degree of specificity and concreteness in relation to the news cycle.
Presumably, by this same degree of concrete focus, his listeners are now more specifically tempted to risk their lives with “invisibility to coronavirus” as their defense.
Often I have argued that much self-styled “positive thinking” is toxic in practice. To hear this overtly promoted as a “toxin” that paralyzes someone, or walls someone off behind a hedge, to stop them from “verbalizing” legitimate fears strikes me as revealingly evocative. It might be amusing, if not for the grave implications of this application.
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