I admit it; I'm not much of a heresy hunter. But there is one that has always rankled me, because, unlike so many heresies that debate or question the nature of Jesus, this heresy devalues his teachings, in favor of a credulous embrace of the world, or, worse, provides a modus operandi for snake-oil salesmen (and women) in clerical collars.
I refer of course to the prosperity gospel:
In the Gospel of Saint Matthew, we are told that Jesus said, "You cannot serve both God and money" and, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."In my unchurched days, after I had left the Roman Catholicism of my youth and before I re-entered religious observance as an Episcopalian, I stood aghast at the antics of these prosperity gospel preachers on television, my fundamental belief in Jesus of Nazareth revolted by the hucksters who twisted his words that he had come to people "that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly" into crass commercialism. In college, I saw its origins in the Calvinist fear that one could not know if one was of the "Elect" (saved), and in the hope that if one was successful in one's calling, that might--might, mind you--be a sign that was one of the Elect.
The "prosperity gospel," an insipid heresy whose popularity among American Christians has boomed in recent years, teaches that God blesses those God favors most with material wealth.
Few theological ideas ring more dissonant with the harmony of orthodox Christianity than a focus on storing up treasures on Earth as a primary goal of faithful living. The gospel of prosperity turns Christianity into a vapid bless-me club, with a doctrine that amounts to little more than spiritual magical thinking: If you pray the right way, God will make you rich.
But if you're not rich, then what? Are the poor cursed by God because of their unfaithfulness? And if God were so concerned about 401(k)s and Mercedes, why would God's son have been born into poverty?
Nowhere has the prosperity gospel flourished more than among the poor and the working class. Told that wealth is a sign of God's grace and favor, followers strive for trappings of luxury they can little afford in an effort to prove that they are blessed spiritually. Some critics have gone so far as to place part of the blame for the past decade's spending binge and foreclosure crisis at the foot of the prosperity gospel's altar.
Yes, yes; The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism per Max Weber gave me some insight, but oversimplified Calvin's teaching. Still, Weber had sussed out a part of American Christianity, and many of the misapplications of calvinist thought.
So, it was with some interest that I read Kate Bowler's recent essay "Death, the Prosperity Gospel, and Me", in which the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (2013). In her article, Bowler describes how her own cancer has led her to reflect on her research into the Prosperity Gospel:
I am a historian of the American prosperity gospel. Put simply, the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith. I spent 10 years interviewing televangelists with spiritual formulas for how to earn God’s miracle money. I held hands with people in wheelchairs being prayed for by celebrities known for their miracle touch. I sat in people’s living rooms and heard about how they never would have dreamed of owning this home without the encouragement they heard on Sundays.I've ordered her book, because someone who can see past the charlatans, the well-meaning cranks, the eccentrics, and gaze into the human hopes that this especially American heresy is trying to support is the right person to write its history. The fact that she can view with compassion as well as objectivity--the double vision of the truly great historian--means that she can see it in the round, not just the shadow side that is flaunted so often.
I went on pilgrimage with the faith healer Benny Hinn and 900 tourists to retrace Jesus’ steps in the Holy Land and see what people would risk for the chance at their own miracle. I ruined family vacations by insisting on being dropped off at the showiest megachurch in town. If there was a river running through the sanctuary, an eagle flying freely in the auditorium or an enormous, spinning statue of a golden globe, I was there.
This is America, where there are no setbacks, just setups. Tragedies are simply tests of character. It is the reason a neighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that everything happens for a reason.
“I’d love to hear it,” my husband said.
“Pardon?” she said, startled.
“I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has.
My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee. But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos. Because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.
The prosperity gospel tries to solve the riddle of human suffering. It is an explanation for the problem of evil. It provides an answer to the question: Why me? For years I sat with prosperity churchgoers and asked them about how they drew conclusions about the good and the bad in their lives. Does God want you to get that promotion? Tell me what it’s like to believe in healing from that hospital bed. What do you hear God saying when it all falls apart?
The prosperity gospel has taken a religion based on the contemplation of a dying man and stripped it of its call to surrender all. Perhaps worse, it has replaced Christian faith with the most painful forms of certainty. The movement has perfected a rarefied form of America’s addiction to self-rule, which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare down our deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder. At some point, we must say to ourselves, I’m going to need to let go.
Which is just the kind of historian I need to understand the allure of the thing, and to help me understand, rather than stand in judgment.