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In the past decade, however, the new generation of preachers, like Osteen, Meyer and Houston's Methodist megapastor Kirbyjon Caldwell, who gave the benediction at both of George W. Bush's Inaugurals, have repackaged the doctrine. Gone are the divine profit-to-earnings ratios, the requests for offerings far above a normal 10% tithe (although many of the new breed continue to insist that congregants tithe on their pretax rather than their net income). What remains is a materialism framed in a kind of Tony Robbins positivism. No one exemplifies this better than Osteen, who ran his father's television-production department until John died in 1999. "Joel has learned from his dad, but he has toned it back and tapped into basic, everyday folks' ways of talking," says Ben Phillips, a theology professor at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. That language is reflected in Your Best Life Now, an extraordinarily accessible exhortation to this-world empowerment through God. "To live your best life now," it opens, to see "your business taking off. See your marriage restored. See your family prospering. See your dreams come to pass ..." you must "start looking at life through eyes of faith." Jesus is front and center but not his Crucifixion, Resurrection or Atonement. There are chapters on overcoming trauma and a late chapter on emulating God's generosity. (And indeed, Osteen's church gave more than $1 million in relief money after Hurricane Katrina.) But there are many more illustrations of how the Prosperity doctrine has produced personal gain, most memorably, perhaps, for the Osteen family: how Victoria's "speaking words of faith and victory" eventually brought the couple their dream house; how Joel discerned God's favor in being bumped from economy to business class.
Confronting such stories, certain more doctrinally traditional Christians go ballistic. Last March, Ben Witherington, an influential evangelical theologian at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, thundered that "we need to renounce the false gospel of wealth and health--it is a disease of our American culture; it is not a solution or answer to life's problems." Respected blogger Michael Spencer--known as the Internet Monk--asked, "How many young people are going to be pointed to Osteen as a true shepherd of Jesus Christ? He's not. He's not one of us." Osteen is an irresistible target for experts from right to left on the Christian spectrum who--beyond worrying that he is living too high or inflating the hopes of people with real money problems--think he is dragging people down with a heavy interlocked chain of theological and ethical errors that could amount to heresy.