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Brad Hirschfield

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Elton John's a Sinner According to Joel Osteen

Posted: 01/25/11 11:12 AM ET

In an interview with Piers Morgan, airing on CNN, January 26th, Joel Osteen declares that homosexuality is a sin. When Morgan asks him if he thinks that the interviewer's friend, Elton John, was a sinner, Osteen declared that he is. Who cares? Why is this news? Why is CNN releasing this segment of the interview now? What does it say about those who tune in to see and hear the obvious?

Is it a big surprise to anyone that Osteen, an evangelical pastor and biblical literalist, believes that homosexuality is a sin? Did the interviewer think that the answer would be different for a star like Elton John than for a regular guy who happens to be gay? Could it be that he simply wants Osteen to condemn someone famous because he knows that in our celebrity-obsessed culture, viewers are more likely to care about Elton John than about less famous gay people?

Despite saying that he did not "want to bang away at this" topic, Morgan goes on for more than five minutes about Osteen's understanding of homosexuality without surfacing anything new or interesting on the topic. In response to the same question being asked in many different ways, Osteen repeats in many different ways, that he believes that homosexuality is a sin, but that there are many sins and he can't really understand why Mr. Morgan keeps asking about this one.

The more interesting story here is why Morgan spent as much time on this one issue as he did, and what he missed because he did so. At some point around the three-minute mark in the conversation it actually seems that this was mostly about making Osteen squirm precisely because doing so made Morgan feel superior and the audience would get a kick out of it. Is that the best CNN can do on an issue which continues to divide so many people, often including members of the same family?

At the end of their give and take about homosexuality and sin, Osteen says to Morgan, "it's a hard issue and I don't know that I fully understand it." Perhaps shockingly, the evangelical pastor demonstrates more intellectual humility than his journalist interlocutor.

Osteen holds to an unpopular position while freely admitting that he doesn't necessarily have the whole picture. If all conversations around gayness, especially when related to religion, held to that approach, every conversation around this typically divisive issue would be safer, wiser and more productive. Alas, like so much of what we see on TV, even when it purports to be news, it isn't about helping us to be safer, wiser of more productive, it's about entertaining us. I appreciate entertainment, but this seems like a poor form of it, perhaps dangerously so.

I want to know why Osteen wasn't asked if he is concerned about describing gay people as sinners, given the violence which such language can inspire. I want to know why, rather than being fixated on his beliefs, beliefs shared by huge numbers of Christians, Muslims, Jews and the followers of many other faiths, Morgan doesn't ask if Osteen worries about addressing those potential dangers and how he does so. There are thoughtful and reasonable answers to those questions, but they need to be explored.

And if he wanted to raise the specter of Osteen's narrow-mindedness, Morgan misses his biggest opportunity -- Osteen's claim about what constitutes the "biggest sin" -- not having a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Here is a man watched by millions of people each and every week, watched in a world in which claims of religious superiority fuel deadly violence all over the world, and even here at home. What does it mean for Osteen to believe that all those who think about God differently from him, or who don't think about God at all, are sinners? What does it mean to claim to love them? Is that really possible, and if so, how does that work?

I appreciate that if Joel Osteen can offer sincere, intelligent and meaningful responses to these questions; there is less smug self-righteousness to enjoy for those of us who disagree with him. On the other hand, if that is the attraction of such interviews, we are all better off turning off the television and going to bed a little earlier.

 

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