Gromotka: Joel Osteen and a puzzling night at the Wells Fargo Arena

BY ADAM GROMOTKA | JULY 21, 2014 5:00 AM

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“Do you two need some tickets?” The middle-age woman in a jacket that read “Juicy” in studded letters held out two printed Ticketmaster tickets, creased from the folding that fit them in her purse. A Night of Hope, Joel Osteen, Wells Fargo Arena, 7:30 p.m. July 18.

“What? No, we’re fine. We’re fine.” I was too uncomfortable to deal with her offer, so I hurried her away. Standing at the intersection of Third and Crocker near downtown Des Moines was a large, bearded titan with a sign and a neon-orange shirt that read: “Trust in, Cling to, Rely on Jesus,” and he was warning the masses of the dangers Joel Osteen brought to the world: “Tickle your ears tonight to tell you smooth things. Don’t tell us the truth; tell us smooth things.” Many of the well dressed, Midwestern Christians around us snarled in honest disgust, either in his direction or to their loved ones. Here? He’s doing that here?

Between the factions of Christianity clashing in the street, the parking lot completely full of event-goers with much more genuine intentions than my own and the song about Jesus that just happened to come on the radio as we found our parking spot, I was feeling uneasy. My companion pointed out that the woman wasn’t some grubby scalper, she was a mother with children, and she genuinely wanted us to enter the event for free. She was being charitable. I needed to relax.

We bought tickets at the south entrance box office, and the lady working the window asked if we wanted seating on the upper level or the floor. An easy answer: the floor, into the heart of it. Not a place for snarky jokes or swearing. Through some miracle, we were six rows away from the stage despite how full the auditorium eventually became — the horseshoe arrangement, capable of seating more than 16,000, was packed almost to capacity during my neck-craning check at 7:35 p.m. 

The event finally started when three singers and the rest of the rock band boomed out a number of songs. The bass was relentless, the suffocating kind that rattles rib cages and confuses pacemakers. It was an extravagant performance like the ones put on during televised award ceremonies, complete with lights and fog. Not bad. I was taking notes about a small child a few rows up who was covering his ears and pulling at his dad’s pant leg, losing his mind like a Dobermann begging for the dog whistle to stop, when Osteen took the stage.

At this point, I must apologize for the lack of any specific, full, and useful quotes from Osteen, but the man spoke so quickly, stringing together clauses and ideas at a rate I had never heard before with repeated transitions such as “because” and “let me explain” that it was impossible to keep up even without trying to scribble notes. We went from an anecdote about his mother to a joke about Noah being a drunk to someplace in the atmosphere over Indonesia in the span of a few breaths.

Speaking of his mother, I need note that she was there to tell her story about overcoming liver cancer in ’81. His wife was there to share a number of anecdotes about her travels and friends. His daughter was there to sing with the perfect, slightly raspy voice that’s so crucial in young-adult Christian rock. His son came out during the same song to bob around in tight pants and strum unheard chords on an acoustic guitar without a microphone hookup. The whole family was in on the performance, The Partridge Family 2.0.

Still, the message was positive. Nothing about abortion, the conflict overseas. Nothing that would lead anyone to really do wrong. Nothing about anything in particular, really. I can understand why the Lakewood Church is so massively popular and why Osteen manages to live in a $10.5 million home in Texas.

He’s a talented motivational speaker who sprinkles in a message about Jesus every third sentence or so — You are strong … you are creative...you are important … and with the power of Jesus you can …” gaining that little extra bit of appeal.

Such blatant profiteering through the sale of hope and Christianity draws its critics. Many traditional Christians are bothered by Osteen’s having received little, if any, formal education in the ways of religion — he never completed a degree in anything, let alone divinity. They also fume over his wealth, appalled by notion that someone truly “Christian” would live so comfortably in a six-bedroom, six-bath estate in River Oaks while developing countries starve and the homeless struggle to find places to sleep on the sidewalk. Atheists, agnostics, and the like snort at the entire notion of mega churches and televangelists while siding with the cries of hypocrisy on a much more contemptuous level.

But considering the pathetic library of trite garbage Hollywood has produced lately and the average cost of a movie ticket, $17 hasn’t bought so much entertainment in a long, long time. These people were genuinely happy, and while I was, and still am, cynical about the whole thing, the performance — a more apt description of the event — had everything.

There were dramatic ups that had the crowd cheering, and there were dark downs that glazed their eyes with tears. It was an emotional roller coaster. It had blunt Texan humor, it had extravagant, meticulously drawn-up musical performances with lights and fog. Concessions even sold popcorn for people to munch on between amens. From a technical standpoint, it was one hell of a show.

Something from Las Vegas found God and made a pilgrimage to the Wells Fargo Arena.

Maybe Osteen genuinely feels that he’s doing good. Maybe he’s a crook. Honestly, in some sick, confusing burst of fairness, as I stared at his shut eyes and raised fists during a prayer I failed to bow for, I couldn’t find a reason for any of that to matter. We left about 45 minutes into the show. I’d had enough.

Most of the audience would probably remain happy for the rest of the weekend, at least until buying the Sunday paper for the coupons and skimming the headlines about the gore in the Gaza Strip.

Outside the arena, neon-shirt guy was still doing his duty, scream-preaching into the ear of a man on a cell phone who walked a little too close to his beard. Once he had crossed the street, the two got into a shouting match about the merits of serious religion:

“I’ve got my own demons. too, brother. You regret those tattoos? It’s in Leviticus 18:26.”

Of course it is.

“Demons? I don’t want to talk to you, man.”

Too late, pal.          

Too late, pal.

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