Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Prosperity Gospel

Today's lectionary lessons from both the Second Lesson and the Gospel focused on the problem of putting our focus on earthly desires. I think the Gospel lesson is worth looking at in full:

Luke 12:13 (NRSV) Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." 14 But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" 15 And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." 16 Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, "What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' 18 Then he said, "I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, "Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' 20 But God said to him, "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

As I listened to the lesson, and to Father Knisely's typically thoughtful sermon on the lesson, it struck me that these lessons are important in describing why the popular Prosperity Gospel, which seems to dominate TV evangelism, is so wrong. Simply put, Prosperity Gospel is a heresy precisely because it tells us to focus on our own wants and needs in material terms, rather than focusing on what God wants of us. Indeed, you can almost imagine a Prosperity Gospel preacher using the Rich Fool as an example of what God can accomplish: "There is a farmer in this congregation who prayed hard and believed in Jesus. He was rewarded with so many crops that he has to build a new grain elevator, and he can now retire from the wealth from his crops. This, my friends is what your faith in Jesus can accomplish."

Of course, as today's lesson from Luke points out, such a focus on earthly material success entirely misses the point of the Gospel.

Lest you think that I exaggerate, read this interview with Bishop Bernard Jordan, who, without any shame, teaches the Prosperity Gospel:

"The Laws of Thinking" is [about] 20 secrets to using the divine power of your mind to manifest prosperity. I’ve taken the principles that have helped my life to become empowered, to become strengthened. We began teaching it to people and finding people coming out of homelessness, getting back on their feet, becoming entrepreneurs, purchasing their own homes, getting off of welfare.

Reverend Run from Run-DMC came to our church bankrupt. Was at the end of his career. Took him and mentored him and brought him through these same principles. And today, we see his family on "Run’s House" [on] MTV. All of that happened through working these principles out of the laws of thinking.

He came to us with the strings out of his sneakers, got saved. Then turned around after he got saved, sat in the front row with a big family Bible reading the Word of God. Reverend Run knows this book, "The Laws of Thinking," backwards and forward. And after that, he became an usher in the church. People couldn’t believe it. After that, he became a deacon in the church. Then years after that, I made him a minister. And when he became a minister the industry laughed. They thought it was a hoax. Reverend Run a minister. Yeah, right.

He kept on, and I taught him these principles until the point was that he’d get a sneaker line that had been successful. He became the president of Run Athletics. Now he has a reality show with a collar on his neck.

Read it all here.

Patton Dodd has a thoughtful essay on how the Prosperity Gospel can cause great spiritual harm, and on how it distorts the messages of hope found in Scriptures:

It was 1994, I was a new Christian, I was tender of heart, and I was impressionable. At the Pentecostal university I attended, not everyone embraced what is known as "the prosperity gospel," but somehow I was drawn to people for whom prosperity teaching—the idea that God wants us healthy and wealthy—was part and parcel of the life of faith.

So, I carefully considered the counsel of a fellow student who told me that if I had faith, I'd never have another cold. I prayed alongside a fellow student who "claimed in faith" that God would provide him with a new Toyota 4x4. Passages like Mark 11:23-24, where Jesus says that anyone who has enough faith can cause a mountain to leap into the sea, began to haunt me as standard-bearers for whether I had faith at all.

And then I lost my faith. I'll not blame prosperity teaching alone for my years of pained spiritual searching. But it was a lie that was hard to shake. To this day, when I have a bad day or a great need, somewhere in my mind is a voice accusing me of not having enough faith.

That is the legacy of the prosperity gospel. It's a perversion of Christianity that encourages empty optimism and false faith. I hope it fizzles out before the end of my lifetime, but indications are that it will only grow.

The prosperity gospel goes by various names (Word-Faith, Word of Faith, and more) and many forms, from Joel Osteen's squishy "Just smile and receive happiness" approach to Creflo Dollar's direct name-it-and-claim-it approach to Bishop Bernard Jordan's "laws of thinking" approach. No matter its guise—and some practitioners, like Osteen, don't admit to being practitioners—Christian prosperity teaching emphasizes one or more of these doctrines:

- God wants to bless you with health and wealth;
- Health and wealth are a sign of God's favor;
- Having the right thoughts and professing the right beliefs are the keys to receiving God's blessings.

In other words, you gotta believe it to receive it. And in still other words, the opposite is true: if you confess the wrong beliefs or think the wrong thoughts, you can expect to get the wrong stuff. What you think and say is what you get.

. . .

The message of the Bible is not that there is power in positive thinking. The message of the Bible is that sometimes we have power, and sometimes we don't. Sometimes we have plenty, sometimes we have little. In both states, God is sovereign.

The Bible is not a guide to optimism. It is a guide to hope.

What's the difference? The philosopher Cornel West has marked it as well as anyone. West says that optimism is a belief that things will turn out as you want them to—we might say it is faith in the law of attraction. Optimism begins in the self—desire for what you want is the basis for belief and action. Hope is different—it's a conviction that something must be, because it is right and it is just, and you are prepared to fight for it regardless of the circumstances. Hope makes claims on you and pushes you beyond yourself.

Hope is neither optimistic nor pessimistic: it is realistic. With hope, you can acknowledge your current circumstances—Jesus suffering in anguish in the garden—you can want for something better—Let this cup pass from me—and still know that your life has meaning and value beyond your pain—Not my will but yours be done.

Optimism doesn't let you acknowledge what's wrong with your life; it encourages you to lie to yourself, and over the course of the years, to live in willful blindness to your real problems. Optimism tells you to be positive no matter the circumstances—which, if you can't keep it up, is a recipe for depression. Hope lets you be honest about the circumstances, and still urges you to look toward something better. The testimony of the Apostle Paul, Augustine, John Calvin, Flannery O'Connor, Dorothy Day, and many other Christian saints attests to the power of hope.

Hope is part of the longstanding tradition of the Christian faith because it allows you to admit the condition of your life, warts and all, and trust that God can recreate that condition. That's the story that we're invited to participate in: God is at work renewing all things. Some of his work is now, and some of it is eventual, but we're called to have hope and join in that work. That—as I learned in those years of spiritual searching—is what it means to believe. Faith is found not in getting your best life now, but in having hope.

Read it all here.

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