Salvation with a Smile in the Classroom

9780814723883_FCPhillip Luke Sinitiere, author of Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity, has been a featured guest blogger on From the Square leading up to his book’s publication. The posts have unveiled certain aspects of the project and provided selected snapshots of the book’s backstory, including the research he conducted, the writing process, and his hopes for Salvation with a Smile in the classroom. In case you missed it, read his earlier post about encountering Lakewood Church here, the third post about the project’s origins, and a recent post about researching the book. The initial post about Salvation with a Smile, which revealed the book’s cover, is over at Baldblogger. For this final post in the series, the author addresses using Salvation with a Smile in the classroom.

Salvation with a Smile is a scholarly monograph designed to advance historical arguments about the meaning and significance of Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church within American religious culture. As I wrote the book, I thought extensively about audience—fellow academics and scholars, the reading public, journalists, Lakewood members, and students—and wrote with these constituencies in mind. Readers will decide the extent to which I succeeded, or not, in reaching a wide audience through scholarly argumentation, historical narrative, and I hope compelling prose.

As I neared the project’s end, I picked up Lerone Martin’s Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of African American Religion, one of the best of NYU Press’s recent religion books I’ve read (and there are many, many good books!). Martin tackles an understudied subject and brings it to life through expert research and innovative argument. As I learned more about the project, I discovered that Professor Martin created an Instructor’s Guide for Preaching on Wax. I was immediately excited and intrigued. Having spent eight years as a high school history instructor before joining the college teaching ranks, I always think about my formative years in light of the continuing quest to offer engaging and interesting instruction through innovative pedagogy. For me, Professor Martin’s teaching manual demonstrated an attempt at innovative pedagogy that I decided to replicate for my own book. So, hat’s off to Lerone Martin and NYU Press for continuing to exemplify innovative scholarly publishing.

It was also my good fortune to assign Preaching on Wax in a recent summer course on African American religion, and put the Instructor’s Guide to use in the classroom just as I was in the process of contemplating what my own Instructor’s Guide would look like for Salvation with a Smile. It worked very well in my class. The questions and exercises in Professor Martin’s Instructor’s Guide not only helped to steer my students through the book’s content, but it also encouraged them to connect the historical dots between the different eras in African American religious history, and how modern technology has indelibly shaped multiple expressions within black religious culture. Professor Martin’s willingness to Skype with my class after we had read and discussed the book not only exhibited an exemplary professionalism, it further helped to bring the book to life via the Instructor’s Guide.

I thought about all of this as I put the finishing touches on Salvation with a Smile’s Instructor’s Guide in the fall of 2015. Based on nearly 15 years of secondary and post-secondary teaching experience, and in consultation with a number of friends and colleagues (including Professor Martin) I sought to design a user-friendly classroom resource that highlights the book’s major themes and arguments as well as challenge students to connect the book’s content with relevant factors of social, cultural, religious, and historical context. I designed questions mostly for history and religious studies courses, but it is my hope that the questions might also work, or be adapted, for classes in theology, sociology, ethnography, and literature. Using Professor Martin’s work as my guide, I wrote Summary section recaps of each chapter’s contents, and created Discussion Questions to prompt reflection on how the book’s themes tie into the broader history of American religion. For each chapter I also crafted a Classroom Enrichment section that offers videos, audio clips, or digital materials that bring the chapters to life, or allow instructors and students to engage the book’s contents in more visual and auditory ways.

There’s no doubt that the possibility of digital explorations are perhaps more abundant for a book that deals with contemporary history; I earnestly tried to exploit this opportunity fully as I designed my Instructor’s Guide. Let me illustrate what I mean. The fourth chapter of Salvation with a Smile explores the contents of Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel. It compares his teaching on positive confession and positive thinking to that of his father John Osteen while it also relates Lakewood’s prosperity message to that of other megachurches. With this in mind, the Discussion Questions try to flesh this out interrogatively while the Classroom Enrichment assignment proposes an exercise that would allow students to compare Joel to John, and assess Lakewood’s megachurch status to those of other large congregations. Here are two questions from the enrichment section on chapter 4 in the Instructor’s Guide:

  1. Using data from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research (HIRR), chapter 4 quantitatively compares Lakewood to other megachurches. Encourage students to conduct their own research and analysis from the HIRR’s online database of megachurches. They may wish to compile a list of megachurches in Texas and find the cities in the Lone Star State with the most megachurches, and/or compare megachurch data in Texas to that of other states.
  2. A key example of Joel’s teachings on positive confession come from a 2001 sermon “The Power of Words” (discussed on p. 83). For comparison with John Osteen’s concept of positive confession, see his sermon also titled “The Power of Words” from 1988 (discussed on p. 49). While both sermons are nearly 30 minutes in length, sampling particular sections will be useful in comparing Joel’s teachings on positive confession with that of his father.

These questions, in conjunction with reading chapter 4 of Salvation with a Smile, seek to engage students through comparative thinking, expose them to very basic quantitative data, analysis, and comparison, and invite them to consider the power and performance of religious programming, language, and ideas. This exercise allows students to locate megachurch data on their own, and draw out their own comparisons and conclusions. It also compels learning about the content of sermons as well as the performative aspects of contemporary American religion in connection with the prosperity gospel. An exercise like this is due to the stupendous efforts and excellent work of Scott Thumma and his team of megachurch experts associated with the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, and dependent upon the large amount of John and Joel Osteen sermons uploaded to YouTube.

With all of this said, I hope my Instructor’s Guide works well in classrooms to the extent that instructors assign the book. Lerone Martin’s work in this regard paved the way for me. I hope other authors who study the countless dimensions of religion and cultural follow the trail he blazed with his Instructor’s Guide as we collectively ponder religion’s significance and meaning in our contemporary moment through academic argument and pedagogical engagement.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Sam Houston State University. A scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, he is the author or editor of several books including Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace.

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