"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
If history is told by the winners, then Joel Osteen — the relentlessly upbeat spiritual caretaker of the national attitude — is history’s designated chaplain. In a marathon Sunday faith rally in the heart of the nation’s capital, Osteen, who presides over America’s largest megachurch congregation, the nondenominational Lakewood Church in Houston, exhorted the tens of thousands of believers amassed in Nationals Stadium to “live in victory,” to seize their “destiny moments,” and to fulfill God’s plan for their personal, financial and emotional success.
The Washington rally — billed as “America’s Night of Hope” — had gone a bit afoul of its own victory plan, however. It had originally been scheduled the night before, but as a persistent afternoon drizzle gave way to some spirited cloudbursts, the event’s organizers rescheduled it for the following afternoon. As I approached the centerfield box office outside Nationals Park on Saturday, the marquee overhead bore what had to be the glummest rainout announcement of the young 2012 baseball season: “Night of Hope postponed until 4 p.m. Sunday.” And since the Osteen message involves a lot of merchandising, the imposing tables hawking T-shirts and other commemorative swag seemed suddenly off-kilter. One prominent Night of Hope T-shirt was emblazoned with the inspirational divine message “I can do all things” — all things, that is, but summon the faithful to stand out in the rain.
But the Osteens were not about to let the intervention of the elements become any sort of setback. As the megachurch pastor — turned out in a blue suit and a beatific grin, looking for all the world like a fitter Tim Allen, fresh out of rehab — took his spot at the second-base perimeter of the infield, before the bank of TV cameras set up on the pitchers mound, he called out, “Isn’t it great to be here? It’s another great day the Lord has made!” He paused to note that, yes, “we had some rain last night,” but that the event’s reshuffled schedule could well mean that some people who couldn’t have made the evening version of the prayer gathering might well have turned up serendipitously today. In any event, Osteen declared his certitude that “God put the right people here right now.”
That confident assertion of — and indeed, identification with — the divine will is one of the calling cards of the Osteen faith. Amid all the spirited self-affirmations and folksy homilies that stud an Osteen sermon, it’s easy to miss the oddly deterministic invocations of divine prerogative summoned up by the preacher, who belongs to the “Word Faith” tradition of Pentecostal belief. Osteen’s serene depictions of God’s eternally uptending designs for the fates of individual believers are a sort of inverted Calvinism. Where the Puritan forebears of today’s Protestant scene beheld a terrible, impersonal Creator whose rigid system of eternal reward and punishment dispatched many an infant and solemn believer to the pit of damnation, Osteen’s God is an intensely personal presence, guiding believers out of pitfalls into inevitable glory and joy — not so much a raging Patriarch as a genial cruise director. “God’s dream for our own life is so much bigger than our own,” went one frequent refrain at the D.C. rally. “Let’s not put any limits on God.” Osteen characterized the Deity as a “running-over” and “abundant” God. “Have you ever been to a fast-food restaurant, and they ask you if you want to supersize this? Well, God is a supersizing God,” who is determined, Osteen assured the crowd, to “supersize your joy.”
It stands to reason, in this arrangement of cosmic fate, that the stubborn human weakness for anxious introspection and downbeat self-doubt is something of an affront to the author of being. “When you are criticizing yourself,” Osteen announced, “you are criticizing God’s creation. The next time you think something negative, turn that around, and say, ‘I am God’s masterpiece.’”
The talismanic faith in positive utterance is another key article of belief in the Word Faith tradition. Some Word Faith devotees are devout believers in faith-healing, and one of the key episodes Osteen cites in his own account of his faith journey is the miraculous recovery of his mother from an apparently terminal case of liver cancer in 1981. Faced with the prospect of losing his mother, the young Osteen — then a communications student at Oral Roberts University with no ministerial ambitions — turned to prayer, saying to God, as he now recounts, “I know you can do what doctors can’t do, what medical science can’t do.” Sure enough, Osteen’s mother, Dodie, went on to be cancer-free, and took to the podium on Sunday after her son’s testimonial. She reprised the story of how she fought off the specter of death by seeking out the “most healing” passages of scripture, which she assembled into a digest she still consults regularly: “Like American Express, I don’t leave home without it,” she said. Then she issued a disclaimer for her listeners contending with severe illness: “I don’t advise you not to seek treatment — get treatment any way you can.” Such cautions sounded a bit rushed and legalistic next to her own account of her recovery: When she and her preacher-husband both sensed the end was near, she recalled, “We lay on our faces … He said, ‘I need you, the church needs you, the children need you … And now, almost 31 years later, I won the battle and so will you!” God, after all, “delights in answering the prayers of his children,” and “loves everybody the same, but he can do for you what he did for me.”
The Word Faith image of the wonder-working, healing God is discomfiting to ponder, and not just because he might tempt desperately sick believers to go rogue beyond the dictates of medical science. The constant recitation of God’s transcendent goodness and the deference paid to his ironclad ability to lift believers magically out of suffering and woe both subtly downgrade the divine presence into a glorified lifestyle concierge. This God has no real way of accounting for the age-old paradoxes of theology, such as the tolerance of personal and historic evil, or the deeper ironies and unintended consequences of the believing life. Even less does the Osteen family’s success gospel encompass a sustained social ethic — even though the D.C. event featured an appeal on behalf of the World Vision ministries to adopt a needy child in the developing world. The believer’s chief task is to ratify the preexisting divine script of success in his or her individual life — and then to bear testimony to that joyous transformation in a community of like-minded success believers.
It’s a curiously childlike vision of faith — a point driven home in a homily offered up by Joel’s wife, Victoria, who serves as a kind of co-pastor of the separate domestic sphere at the couple’s revival meetings. When she finds herself assailed by cares, anxieties and negative thoughts, Victoria reported, “I visualize a bouquet of helium balloons in my hands, and I literally hold those balloons out and release them to the heavens … And as I release those balloons to Him, I say, ‘I may not have the power to change my circumstances, but God has that power to change our circumstances.’” In a later homily on the properties of unconditional love and forgiveness, Victoria delivered an extended gloss on what was apparently one of the few remotely traumatic moments in her suburban Texas upbringing — a time when, as a freshly licensed driver, she had taken out her dad’s car and negligently instructed a friend to roll down a passenger-side window that was malfunctioning, thereby breaking it once and for all. When she finally summoned the nerve to fess up to her dad, she found him to be disappointed but gloriously forgiving; he “didn’t judge my future from that one mistake” — and neither will the indulgent dad of the Osteen heavens. “You may not have been shown unconditional love in your life,” Victoria announced, “but God loves you unconditionally.” The problem, of course, is that even those of us who did survive unhappy childhoods are no longer 16 — and as a result, we need a God who can meet the challenges of the new responsibilities we’ve taken on as we’ve matured, not a figure of undifferentiated sentiment, handing our forgiveness and love like lottery tickets.
The other childlike quality of the Lakewood account of divine grace has to do with the past — which, together with negative thinking, represents the closest thing to evil in the Osteen’s scheme of salvation. The past is bad because it mires believers in remembered hurts and slights, and thereby obstructs God’s grander design for their lives. “When we hold on to the past, when we don’t go to God, that just puts more baggage in our suitcases,” Victoria exhorted, in a not-altogether-wieldy metaphor.
This spiritual hostility to the past was an all too frequent refrain in the event’s musical selections — a monotonous offering of anthemic, bombastic Christian rock, all composed without the benefit of a single minor chord or any discernible melody. “I’m moving forward,” went the lyrics to one of these intra-sermon studies in Journey-esque hymnody. “I’m not going back / I’m moving ahead / I’m here to declare to you that the past is over.” An American idol contestant named Danny Gokey also offered testimony about how the Osteens had helped him conquer his depression in the wake of the untimely passing of his wife. Gokey then performed a Christian rock number of his own, “My Best Days Are Ahead of Me,” which seemed to make short work of his once-debilitating grief: “I don’t get lost in the past or get stuck in some sad memories,” he sang, rather creepily; the song’s bridge announced that “Age isn’t nothing but a number,” and then resolved on a Successories-style upgrade of a well-known Army recruiting slogan: “If I keep getting better / I can be anything I want to be.”
There’s a term from the psychiatric clinics that neatly captures the outlook of someone possessed of grandiose fantasies about the imperial reach of the self, and a principled refusal to acknowledge anything poised to diminish such fantasies — such as the passage of time. That term is “narcissistic personality disorder,” and it does nothing to detract from the positive features of the Osteen gospel — the injunctions to persevere in the face of adversity, or the appeals for donations to World Vision — to note that this is a system of faith tailor-made to sustain narcissistic delusion. To grasp the overweening self-absorption of the Osteen faith, one need look no further than the frequent recourse Osteen makes to his own success story in sealing the case for God’s providential plan for the believer’s own life. Now, unlike other well-known evangelists, Osteen can’t lay much claim to a hardscrabble Horatio Alger-style life story. His 1920s forebear in Pentecostal media preaching, Aimee Semple McPherson, was a single-mother missionary before coming into fame and fortune as an evangelical celebrity in the Radio Age; Billy Graham was the son of a poor North Carolina dairy farmer. Osteen, by contrast, was a second-generation evangelical leader, who’d been working as a TV producer for his father John Osteen’s growing ministry before he succeeded to the elder Osteen’s pulpit after his father’s death. His personal biography tracks closer to fellow Pentecostal TV preacher Pat Robertson’s background: Robertson was the son of a U.S. senator before finding his own adult spiritual calling.
Nonetheless, Osteen repeatedly cites his own success presiding over the spiritual flock he inherited as the prime exhibit of God’s ready transposition of divine grace into worldly success. When he first acceded to the pulpit, he recalled from his riser above second base, he felt no special aptitude for ministering; he’d heard that Lakewood church leaders were raising doubts about his vocation, and the church needed to move into a bigger, upgraded new facility. “At one point,” Osteen preached, “it seemed like everything was coming against me. The enemy was fighting me not from where I was coming, but from where I was going … He didn’t want Lakewood to be in the Compaq Center” — the former home arena for the Houston Rockets, and now home to the Lakewood congregation of nearly 50,000 souls. The Compaq Center deal is a frequent touchstone in Osteen’s faith reminiscence; it occupies a good stretch of his blockbuster best-selling self-improvement tract, “Become a Better You,” which also finds evidence of divine favor in a home-flipping deal Joel and Victoria struck at the height of the housing bubble, as well as in such mundane votes of divine confidence as setting the pastor up with a premium parking space. Indeed, the steady parade of testimonials from the wider Osteen clan on the Night of Hope risers bespeaks a family-wide penchant for casting one’s commonplace personal biography as a sort of infomercial version of the Christian faith. (In addition to mother Dodie and wife Victoria, Osteen’s brother Paul, who runs a medical charity in Africa, took to the stage Sunday to relate a more responsible story of healing, in which due medical diligence properly preceded the broader appeal to faith; Joel’s two children, Alexandra and Jonathan, are respectively a vocalist and guitarist in the ministry’s Christian rock ensemble.)
Now, it may very well be that in a certain kind of conviction of grace, believers feel themselves suffused with the divine presence, and find their most quotidian activities reflect celestial favor; the 14th-century Saint Julian of Norwich recorded a vision in which she beheld the entirety of creation in an object no larger than a hazelnut, cupped in her hand. Perhaps, in this view of things, a converted sports arena or excellent parking spot is no great stretch when it comes to testifying on behalf of a God for whom all things are possible.
Still, the claustral feel of Osteen’s success gospel paradoxically works exactly the same effect that he warns believers to resist: It imposes limits on God, by largely confining his workings to the dominant American culture of success. If the Osteen-coached believer does not reap abundant and large reward in career, family life or creative pursuits, they are not necessarily going to curse their God, as Job’s comforters had counseled him to do amid his notorious personal setbacks. But neither are they going to make the key connections that earlier Protestant divines have preached, going back to Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin: that the divinity does not, in fact, have your own personal happiness occupying pride of place on his exhaustive to-do list. The universe is ultimately about a larger set of concerns, and faith concerns a much vaster striving toward justice than believers are wont to see in their personal affairs, their social conquests or their annual paychecks. This is why Edwards, for all of his better-known hell-and-brimstone sermons, urged onto believers a stoic “consent to being in general” — not a plan for individual life advancement.
This disjuncture between Protestantism’s more humbling counsel and the feel-good Word Faith gospel became most painfully evident during one of Osteen’s closing perorations. In chilling detail, he recounted the story of a young Tutsi Christian woman who’d hid out in the bathroom of her church pastor’s office at the height of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The machete-wielding Hutu killers who pursued her returned to the pastor’s office every day for 91 days, usually calling out for her by name. At one point, Osteen said, a Hutu militia man was poised to turn the knob on the door to the tiny bathroom where the woman was quartered alongside six other Tutsi believers — but at the last moment, he became distracted and walked away. Finally, when the genocide had been contained, the woman was free, and has been traveling with ministers ever since to testify to the amazing story of her survival. “Nearly 1 million Rwandans were killed in this genocide,” Osteen said as he wound up to the story’s larger moral. “It was very sad.”
Well, no. The Rwandan genocide was something far more than sad — it was a colossal failure of moral and political agency, going back to the German and Belgian colonial partition of the country that set up artificial power conflicts between the nation’s two main tribes. This horror also most certainly came about thanks to the wretched failures of the Clinton administration and other Western powers to arrest a well-documented string of massacres, even as senior U.N. officials such as Lt. Gen Romeo Dallaire, the leader of the agency’s Rwandan peacekeeping mission, implored them to.
For Osteen, of course, the story of this woman’s survival was a divine miracle. But if this one survivor was enjoying the loving favor of an omnipotent God, what are we to conclude that this same God thought of the more than 800,000 Rwandans murdered in the genocide? Was their faith wanting? Was God planning unparalleled new successes and joys for their surviving family members? Are these the people Osteen has in mind when he exhorts his listeners not to be victims, but victors?
It’s something of an obscenity even to frame such questions. Yet they are the inevitable outcome of a theology-free success gospel, pitched exclusively to tales of individual triumph. Osteen’s sermons all begin with a self-empowering chant from believers. “This is my Bible,” it goes in part; “I am what it says I am. I have what it says I have.” But there are legions of dead — now confined by definition, it’s true, in the hated past — who come bearing the testimony that the Bible is not actually about you.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)