Home, Watching Joel Osteen
Though I do not completely disagree with Jim Hinch’s central point in “Where Are the People?” (Winter), I would like to point out that the Crystal Cathedral was never an evangelical church. Robert H. Schuller’s congregation was part of the Reformed Church of America, a mainline Protestant denomination.
Schuller started the Southern California church in 1955, decades before evangelical came to be burdened with the sociopolitical connotations it holds today. Evangelical leaders spoke at his church, but Schuller also welcomed non-Christians. Hollywood celebrities, politicians, and others of varying perspectives spoke from his pulpit.
Unlike evangelical leader Billy Graham, Schuller’s mission was not to convince people to “accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.” Instead, the Crystal Cathedral thrived on the message of positive thinking, and its leader was probably the most famous disciple of another Reformed Church minister, Norman Vincent Peale, the founder of the “positive thinking” movement in American Christianity. Schuller did not call masses to repentance of sin. He taught them to have higher self-esteem. If anything, the fall of the Crystal Cathedral represents the decline of that branch of mainline Protestantism.
So where are the people? They are at home, having their self-esteem puffed up by a new breed of prosperity-Gospel preacher, including Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and T. D. Jakes.
TONY TIAN-REN LIN
Christians are called to sometimes make hard and unpopular choices. Robert Schuller was a salesman of religious trinkets and watered-down “feel good” religion that Hollywood types found palatable. Jesus may have hung out with sinners, but he did not just pat them on the head without challenging them to change. He called on them to “sin no more.”
“ARI,” from our website
The apparent decline in evangelical church attendance most likely is because the message of those churches no longer resonates. History indicates that people require belief in some sort of higher being as a way of dealing with the uncertainties of life. Even if they don’t understand the words, they find comfort in the ceremony and theater of worship in a church. However, at a certain point, they come to recognize and to reject the inane drivel of television evangelists.
Palm Desert, California
Family squabbles were the primary factor in the decline of the Crystal Cathedral. When Robert H. Schuller’s son, Robert A. Schuller, was selected by the board to lead the ministry, he had a solid business plan to keep the ministry successful and relevant. But two of his siblings and their spouses felt their positions threatened, so they staged his ouster, in part by taking advantage of the elder Schuller’s declining mental capacity.
The situation was well known to the congregants, who opposed the siblings’ coup and left in droves when Robert A. was deposed. Viewership of the Hour of Power television broadcast dropped severely, and Sunday attendance at the Crystal Cathedral dropped from 4,000 to as few as 600. Thankfully, the board got wise, fired Robert A.’s siblings and their spouses, and began the congregation anew. It’s now growing once again, with more than 1,200 in its new location with a new name—Shepherd’s Grove Church—and the Hour of Power is going strong on weekly national television.
“CENTRALOC,” from our website
Suburbs of metropolitan Dallas-Fort Worth, where I live, enjoy the kind of population and economic growth that characterized Southern California in the 1980s and ’90s. It’s noteworthy that the so-called megachurches of evangelical Christianity, in contrast to the case studies profiled, are thriving here. It will be interesting to see if the same cultural and social dynamic is reproduced over time.
Megachurches try to outdo each other in material ways, for instance acquiring better audiovisual systems than most universities and many high-dollar theaters can afford. At least Robert Schuller wasn’t constantly begging for money like those on Trinity Broadcasting Network and such. The “seed faith” scammers were the worst of all.
“EDRO3111,” from our website
Jim Hinch responds: Tony Lin is quite right to question whether the term “evangelical” fits Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral. But then, the term “evangelical” doesn’t quite fit any other Christian congregation, either. The term has always been imprecise in its meaning, to the point where polls have identified as many as 40 percent and as few as eight percent of Americans as evangelical. Self-identified evangelicals also are among the first to point out one another’s departures from whatever they consider to be orthodox evangelical theology. Orange County’s best-known evangelical pastor, Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, is regularly assailed by more conservative evangelicals who assert that his populist approach strays from core Christian teachings. That same criticism was also leveled at Schuller, who, as several letter writers also pointed out, was an inspirational preacher in the style of Norman Vincent Peale.
Regardless of the finer points of Schuller’s theology, he was perceived by most outside observers to be part of the wave of evangelical Christianity that arose in America in the decades following World War II, especially once television and suburbanization created both a medium and a newly displaced population ready to spread and receive an upbeat, media-savvy form of Christianity. And while it’s true that family feuds and financial mismanagement contributed to the downfall of Schuller’s ministry, those feuds and the ministry’s financial condition would not have proved to be such decisive factors if attendance and income had remained as robust as they were in the church’s heyday. The family infighting was as much a product as a cause of the Crystal Cathedral’s decline.
USA, Russia, and Ukraine
I smiled as I read “My Kingdom for a Wave.” In it, Amiati Etzioni complains that he is forgotten. But he himself has forgotten that articulated ideologies repel as much as they attract.
When Etzioni was becoming a household name—well, at least among the Columbia University humanities crowd—our group of graduate students was deeply involved in studying the Russian intelligentsia’s ongoing quest for freedom and justice. We thought that if only the USSR were able to tolerate such thinkers as Etzioni—intellectuals willing and able to make themselves understood—the Soviet Union would be able to change.
For all his frustration, Etzioni’s communitarian ideas, precisely because they did not form an ideology or a movement, seeped into American political culture. That is the beauty of the U.S. system—an ability to reach a major goal through seemingly minor adjustments. Our major demonstrations, even if bloody, eventually lead to some practical results.
In Russia, which Etzioni does not mention in this short piece, there still is no justice. An even weaker Russian intelligentsia than its predecessors is lost vainly looking for freedom and justice. In contrast, in neighboring Ukraine, where the local intelligentsia has not developed the necessary intellectual rigor to formulate a clear-cut attractive ideology, tens of thousands brave the cold to manifest their belief in freedom, justice, and even small business—the type of communitarianism Etzioni seeks to corral into an ideology.
So, Professor Etzioni, remember your high school Latin: Nemo propheta in patria sua. Just look beyond the borders.
Too little attention is given to the problem of student debt. As a 26-year-old, newly married woman with debt totaling more than $72,000 (most of it federal loans at seven or eight percent interest rates), I read as much as I can on this topic. But I have never read anything that resonated as much with me as William J. Quirk’s statement in the Autumn 2013 issue (“Federal Student-Loan Sharks”): “The biggest cost of the student-loan fiasco may not be the crushing debt to the individual graduate but the deflation of that entrepreneurial spirit that distinguishes the United States from much of the rest of the world.”
I was a social justice advocate throughout my undergraduate years, and today I am a published poet and author. I started a support group for women and children in poverty as a junior in college and volunteered around the world from New Orleans to China before I turned 21. I had big dreams for how I was going to change the world through social advocacy and writing. But when I left graduate school, my student loans entered repayment. In 2009, my parents were crumbling under their own debt as the Great Recession hit, and they could no longer make my loan payments. I worked in marketing at a major newspaper for two years but still couldn’t keep up with the payments (usually totaling more than $800 a month). I had to make a change.
Last year I landed a job in software in California, but the recession has hurt my husband’s career too, and even as I make substantial payments on my loans the interest keeps catching up to me. I should be saving for a house and a family. But after the rent and bills, the extra income I make goes to my loan payments. I can’t put money back into the economy because it’s going toward my student debt. The sad truth is that I’m in a better boat than many of my friends, who are unable to make student loan payments at all.
My dreams of writing grants, starting a non-profit organization, making a living by doing something to better my community—all are drifting away. Debt has displaced my entrepreneurial spirit.
NAME WITHHELD UPON REQUEST
Comments published from our website react to articles posted there. To join the discussion, please visit us at theamericanscholar.org. Readers also may send letters by mail to The American Scholar, 1606 New Hampshire Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20009; by fax to (202) 265-0083; or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please indicate a daytime telephone number and the city where you live. Letters may be edited for length or clarity.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.