Posts Tagged ‘Prosperity Gospel’

Of Gospel and Heresies

June 7, 2017

Of Gospel and Heresies; or, How the Religion of Peace, Love and Justice Led to This Mess

 

And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

—-Luke 18:8

 

In the days of Moses, the people grew impatient. Sure, he had led them out of slavery and put them on the road that would, eventually, lead them to a land of milk and honey; but it was taking too long. So they chose to throw aside Moses and the LORD, and follow a golden calf (Exodus 32). This god was to be powerful and strong, and to lead them back to the lands they had left, the lands of Egypt, which had brought them such misery and poverty but now, for some reason, they thought would be their salvation.

In the days of Barak, the people grew impatient. Sure, he had led them out of the greatest economic disaster that most had seen in their lifetimes, and put them on the road that would, eventually, lead them to 5% unemployment, a record-breaking stock market and the admiration of the nations; but it was taking too long. So they chose —- well, not golden, exactly, but an orangey bronze—- and not a calf, exactly, more like a bull, given what he produced whenever he spoke. He was to be a strong leader, the only one who could save them, and he would lead them back to the lands of the GOP, who had caused them such misery and poverty in the Great Recession of 2008 but now, for some reason, they thought would be their salvation.

Many people, looking on, were perplexed. Why would self-proclaimed godly people, mostly Christians who followed a Messiah who loved the humble and the poor and who taught that even lawful divorce was wrong, embrace a thrice-married self-proclaimed philanderer, who boasted of his skills in dishonesty, and who had left a seemingly endless stream of unpaid bills, unpaid employees, and defrauded customers in his wake? Why would self-proclaimed patriots embrace a man who boasted that he didn’t need to borrow from American banks because he got so much of his money from Russia? Onlookers observed Jesus, poor, humble, weak, afraid to lean on a bent reed lest it break, friend to tax-collectors and beggars and sinners, and they looked at Donald J. Trump, born to riches, boastful, swaggering, bullying, shoving everyone out of his way, world-renowned, more like the description of the Antichrist; and they wondered how so many who said they followed the Suffering Servant had turned for protection to the one they called The Strong Man.

In fact, the answer was always obvious. “Christian values voters” embraced a leader who reflected neither the Christian religion nor its values in his life because they themselves are not, in fact, Christian themselves. Christianity has been supplanted; the Abomination of Desolation has been set up in the Holy of Holies; other gospels have been proclaimed (2 Cor. 11:4).

How did this happen? To answer this, we must go back to the beginning of the Religious Right—- not the myth they have concocted for themselves, but the actual historical truth of their beginning. Christianity is polarized today, but this is not the first time in our history that this has been true. In the 1770s, the 1860s and the 1960s the churches reflected the divisions in their society. People had disagreements about what was right or wrong, and what to do about the ills they saw; the churches, like other social institutions, were made up of people who disagreed and hence reflected those disagreements. Since the late 1970s, by contrast, Christian churches and leaders have actively worked to create divisions and cause conflicts. For example, abortion and birth control used to be a bipartisan issue. Barry Goldwater, one of the most conservative mainstream political candidates of the second half of the 20th Century, was an early supporter of Planned Parenthood. Dr. W. A. Criswell, one of the leaders of the fundamentalist movement that took over the Southern Baptist Convention, himself said that he never thought a fetus was a full person until birth, following Biblical statements that equated life with breath.[1] But later, purely to gain a “wedge issue” to help energize their political efforts following unsuccessful attempts to block desegregation, the leaders of the emerging Religious Right decided to manufacture a controversy about abortion, to stir up their congregations about this great sin (which many had not considered a sin at all until they chose to do so), and to divide the nation and their congregations in order to wield greater political power.[2] The question of abortion was turned from being a legal and metaphysical question to be reasoned out into an emotional holy crusade incapable of rational solution, which could only be “solved” by the religious cultural warriors beating everyone else into submission. Without this cynical maneuvering, we might have long ago settled on ways to keep abortion safe and limited, respecting the legitimate interests of all interested parties, including those who wish the State to protect potential life. At the very least, without the activities of these holy warriors, we might have been spared multiple acts of anti-abortion terrorism and murder.

The pattern set in the abortion debate has been repeated again and again. Jesus taught his disciples that true religion was about self-reform. You must take up your own cross and follow. You must take the plank out of your own eye before you can help another remove the speck of sawdust from his or hers. You must not, under any circumstances, bind huge burdens on the shoulders of others, which you yourself will not lift a finger to bear. That may be a good way to win the Kingdom, but it won’t win any votes.

Instead, the Religious Right has embraced heresies. A heresy is not, usually, an utter lie; rather, it takes a religious truth, pushes it beyond its original bounds, ignores other religious teachings that might limit it, and proclaims that pared-down, simplified message as the absolute truth. Four heresies in particular are embraced by the Religious Right today: premillenialism, dominionism, capitalist libertarianism and the Prosperity Gospel.   Together, they add up to one central message: the task of the Christian is to punish and suppress sin in others, so that the good and faithful punishers can be rewarded with wealth, ease and power in this world and eternally. All the xenophobia, militarism, sexism and despising of the poor that we see in Evangelicalism, and which is so confusing to those who look from Jesus to his disciples and expect some sort of conformity, flows from some mixture of these influences. Each heresy sees the Scriptures through its own tinted lens, making some parts brighter and larger than they would be otherwise, while rendering other parts invisible. And it is a seductive vision, promising everything Christ promised to his faithful followers, without all that servile, suffering humility that humans find so difficult.

My goal in these next essays is to make visible what has been obscured by these heresies, so that all may be seen in its true light. There is some truth in heresy too, and I hope not to reject any truth no matter its source; but truth is one and truth is whole and must be accepted whole (John 14:6). As long as there is only one God the Creator, there can be only one reality created by God, and therefore only one truth; while it may be that no one of us has all the pieces, they must all fit together into one truth, even if it is knowable by God alone. There are either pieces of truth, that fit together even if it would take eternity to assemble them all, or there are lies, that do not fit at all. But if anyone should say he or she has “alternative truths,” as if reality meant nothing and there were no God and every individual were free to make up his or her own truths and impose them by force or trickery, then let that person be anathema!

 

[1] Randall Balmer, “The Real Origins of the Religious Right,” Politico May 27, 2014 (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133#.U4d_e_ldW2E)

[2] Randall Balmer, “The True Origins of the Religious Right,” lecture given at Emory University (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Gf4jN1xoSo) uploaded May 11, 2009

Trump, Falwell, and the Siege of Christianity

January 19, 2016

So, Donald Trump went to speak to the students at Liberty University, who ironically were not at liberty to not listen since it was a mandatory student assembly.  And he was warmly received by the school’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr. to put it mildly.  Trump promised to win the War on Christmas by making sure that every merchant and business says “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” when he is President.  It has often been pointed out that Evangelicals feel as if Christianity was under siege.  Some are looking to break that siege, by finding some valiant knight to lead the counterattack to drive off all the armies of secularity and liberalism.  The Atlantic reports that while some evangelical leaders, and many of the students listening that day are unimpressed or even disturbed by Trump, many others are quite enthusiastic.  They report:

“Spirituality is a big issue, but we need somebody who’s strong,” a Kentuckian named Charles E. Henderson told the New York Times. “Lots of times the preachers and everything, they have a tendency to be just a little bit weak.” http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/01/the-religious-rights-donald-trump-dilemma/424575/?utm_source=yahoo

For his part, Falwell equated Trump to Martin Luther King Jr. and said that while he couldn’t endorse Trump, a Trump presidency would be a truly marvelous thing.  After all, he pointed out, Trump cannot be bought by special interest lobbyists, simply because he has so much money that he has no reason to accept a bribe.  Apparently, JF Jr. never heard the proverb: A Wealthy Man Can Afford Anything Except a Conscience (Rule of Acquisition #261). If he had even as much wisdom as any Trekkie, Junior might be a little less confident in The Donald.

WWKD?  What Would Kierkegaard Do?

In his day, Kierkegaard too felt that Christianity was under siege.  He told this parable:  Once there was a fortress, strong, well-defended, well-provisioned, capable of standing against the enemy for a thousand years.  Long it stood firm against the attacks of all its foes.  Then one day a new commander came, who did not quite understand the nature of the defenses and his task.  He wanted to do something bold and new.  Thus, he ordered the gate unbarred, and led his army out of the fortress to attack the enemy on their own ground.  The fortress fell within days.  So too, Christianity is folly to the philosopher and a stumbling-block to the religiously self-confident, a message that could never have arisen in any human heart:  that humans were utterly estranged from God by their own choice and sin, incapable of any action towards their own salvation—but God, for no reason except love, came down to the level of the lowest of the low, was born, lived and taught as one of us, and finally died in weakness and agony, all so that we could regain the strength to live in joy with God again.  This message is so counter to all that normal experience or reason would suggest that it was always going to be alien in the world, besieged by the forces of society; but this faith would stand, if it were faithful enough to rely on God’s grace alone.  Then one day men took it into their heads to build a bridge between Christianity and the world so that Christianity might conquer the world and make it Christendom; and once the gate was opened and the drawbridge lowered, the world rushed in to conquer Christianity.

Kierkegaard’s primary focus were what we today would probably call “liberals” or “modernists:”  philosophers and theologians who sought to show how the Christian message is really just the same as what all religions and philosophies are saying.  But even in his day, there were other voices, notably N. F. S. Grundtvig, who taught a nationalist-historical version of Christianity.  The truth of Christianity, these said, could be seen in the victory of the Church and Christian culture, in its strength and ability to bend all other elements of society to its own will in Christendom.  But whether building conceptual bridges by denying the uniqueness of the Incarnation, or political bridges by linking the proof of Christian superiority to the material and cultural power of the State, these people were merely opening the door of the fortress to let the enemy in.

The Apostle Paul said that “”I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2).  That is the message that challenges and refutes the world.  As Kierkegaard wrote, Christ is the Pattern that the Christian is called to follow.  From time to time Kierkegaard himself preached at one of the local churches in Copenhagen, where he could point behind himself to a large cross with Christ nailed up.  Come unto me, he invites us, you who are weary and heavily burdened, and I will give you rest—come unto me, up here on a cross!  The Christ who says this is not the King in his glory; it was the historical Jesus, who had no power except the truth of his teaching.  Weak, without a place to lay his head (Matthew 8:20), and finally broken and executed as a criminal by the mighty Roman Empire, a sign over his head to show the power of Rome and its gods over all the promises of the Jewish god to send a messiah (Mark 15:26):  that is the Christ who calls us.

And what does that insightful student at Liberty University say?  “The preachers, they seem kind of weak.  Donald Trump is strong and bold.  Give us strong leaders who can save us from all those bad people who won’t say “Merry Christmas!”  We have had enough of bearing the cross of weakness and ridicule that Christ bore.  We want to be a mighty empire!”

So yes, I agree wholeheartedly that Christianity is under siege.  The Gospel is under siege by the Prosperity Gospel, by the Christian Zionists, by the Christian Dominionists, by all those who want to force Christianity to serve their desire for wealth and power and prestige.  It is under siege from millions of people who say they are defending Christianity, but who are actively rejecting Christ the Pattern to follow some other savior made in their own image.  It is under siege from church leaders who throw out that “blessed are the peacemakers” bunk and “The love of money is the root of all evil” hooey, and preach a gospel that promises military might and personal wealth.  And, according to Molly Ball writing for The Atlantic, many Evangelical leaders and laity are themselves waking up to this threat.

WWKD?  Kierkegaard would tell us that Christianity is under no serious threat from those who claim to be its enemies.  It is only endangered by those who claim to be its friends.  It is endangered by those who follow not Christ crucified, but Christ as he was not when he was among us.

 

Theological Reflections on J.R.R. Tolkien, pt. 1: The Hobbit

December 27, 2014

Theological Reflections on J.R.R. Tolkien, pt. 1:  The Hobbit

 

Tolkien confessed that, if he had been writing an allegory of the modern world, he would have been compelled to make the hellish consequences of war much worse than they are in The Lord of the Rings: “The Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied.”

—from The Gospel According to Tolkien

 

 

Having completed a short study of Tolkien’s work and thought, I now look back and consider how his theology stacks up to the popular theological currents today. It is true that Tolkien was not a professional theologian was not really even “doing theology;” but then, neither are many of the most influential theologians in the U.S. today. In fact, modern American religious history, from William Miller to Billy Sunday to Bill Bright, has often shown the untrained theologian to be more influential than the “scholar;” and why not? Scholars tend to write for other scholars; at best, they teach somebody (a pastor or teacher or judge or whatever) who eventually goes on to translate the esoteric intellectualizing into some sort of life-philosophy or public policy. What is rare, though, is to find an “amateur” (in the true sense: one who practices an art for the love of it rather than for money) who has the insight Tolkien. As I look forward to the release of the final Hobbit movie, and as I anticipate the convening of a new Congress, I am struck by the contrasting theological themes that play out in Middle Earth and The Political Landscape. In brief, The Lord of the Rings can be fruitfully seen as a critique of Christian Zionism, and The Hobbit as a critique of the Prosperity Gospel; and together, they offer a valuable comparison to the dominant strains of The Religious Right.

Tolkien was not an ascetic. All the biographical discussions I have read affirm that. However, he does not equate money with virtue, or see comfort as automatically indicative of divine favor. Today, many (not all) of the largest churches are non-denominational megachurches preaching some variation of The Prosperity Gospel: if you tithe, and follow the pastor’s directions on social-political issues such as gay marriage, you will become wealthy and happy; if you are not wealthy and happy, you are sinning, and need to give more money, be more socially judgmental and more stridently anti-intellectual. There is a direct cause-effect taught in many of these megachurches; and this theology is spreading beyond the U.S. to Africa. Tolkien’s heroes, by contrast, know better. Bilbo is not a monk; he enjoys his six meals a day, his pipe and beer and comfortable home and nice clothes. And when we meet him, he probably does believe he “deserves” all that he has, since he has always been a good society man and never done anything unusual. But when he leaves his home, his views on wealth moderate. He becomes like Luke’s “Unjust Steward,” who uses his wealth not to make more wealth, but to make friends. He gives away all of the treasure he has rightfully earned from the dragon’s hoard; and when he is pressed to accept some reward, consents only to take as much as he can easily transport home. It is hard to tell whether he is really wealthier after plundering Smaug or not; he gives away all the troll hoard and spends much of the dragon treasure buying back his own belongings from his “heirs” after he has returned home only to find he has been declared dead. What has changed is that he holds his property more loosely; or rather, it holds him more loosely.

Tolkien’s characters show that some wealth is useful and contributes to happiness; but too much is perhaps worse than not enough. The Master of Lake-Town ends up dying alone in the wilderness with the dragon-gold he has stolen from the town. Thorin too ends up dead as a result of his greed. Smaug has literally absorbed much of his treasure, his skin embedded with countless gems; and in the end they lie with his carcass under the lake, considered cursed by those who know of them. The dragon hoard brings death to those who covet it most; but still, it proves to be a blessing to those who hold it lightly and pass it on freely. It is through trade, not theft or conquest, that prosperity returns to Dale.

Tolkien does not demonize wealth. He does not say that those who have comfortable lives are automatically “oppressors” who need to be overthrown. In fact, he points to the goblins’ hatred of the “prosperous” as one of their many unsavory qualities.[1] He shows none of the Marxist-inspired disdain for wealth and authority, which we commonly see in liberation theology; and he shows little of the Neo-platonic asceticism that appears in much Christian mysticism and monasticism. Pleasure is good, in moderation. His heroes often do renounce wealth, sometimes for many years (as did Aragorn when he became a Ranger); but when they do it is as a means to an end, and when that end is achieved they can enjoy the good things in this life again. What he does reject is the idolization of wealth. And here is where so much of today’s theology leaves the path of wisdom, which Tolkien has marked for us. The central, simple message of the Prosperity Gospel is that if you give up some money, God will give you more money. God becomes little more than a banker who pays extravagant interest on whatever you loan him. You are giving up something in this world, in order to gain something in this world. That’s not faith; that’s trading. When wealth is the primary motivation for worshipping God, the primary means by which you worship God (through tithing), and the primary or sole expression of God’s good will and the state of one’s God-relationship, wealth has in fact become God. This deification of wealth is what The Hobbit warns us against. To that extent, I would say the movies are a loss over the book; the book does not have so many side-plots or exciting fight scenes to obscure this point. Thorin’s lust for the Arkenstone echoes the acquisitiveness of this kin and forbearers who dug so deep that they claimed the fabulous heart of the mountain for themselves. Tolkien suggests that this was the event that drew the dragon to them. Too much wealth and too much adoration of their own wealth summoned the incarnation of Greed, which is what Smaug represents. Lust for his hoard destroys some, nearly destroys others, and is only truly a blessing for those who seem to desire it least. The wise and the good show themselves by surrendering their wealth when it is appropriate. In a material sense, Bilbo’s condition is little changed at the end of the book. While the Prosperity Gospel says that the righteous tither will grow more wealthy, Bilbo takes great risk, suffers great deprivation, and gives up most of his legitimate reward to help others, and in the end is right back where he started: in his own hobbit-hole, smoking a pipe and enjoying the company of Gandalf and one of the thirteen dwarves. Whatever he gained from his adventure, if it is measured in prosperity it was a very bad bargain; so much effort for so little gain! The famous Prosperity Gospel preacher Rev. Fredrick Price said in an interview that God wants us to be prosperous, and that if anyone believes in God and is not wealthy then he or she is “missing the mark.”[2] This is a fascinating phrase, since “missing the mark” is the literal translation of the Greek word “harmatia,” which is the word most translators of the Greek original tests of the New Testament translate as “sin.” Price is saying, essentially, that if you are poor then you are a sinner; that is the essence of the Prosperity Gospel. To be without money shows that you are without God, and to be with God is to be with money. It is this easy equation of God and Money that The Hobbit warns us against, not by thundering sermons against greed but by gently telling us a child’s fairy tale, and in the process showing us how one ought, and ought not, to be oriented towards the material goods of this world.

 

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, chapter 4, “Over Hill and Under Hill.”

[2] Interviewed by Dr. Randal Balmer, in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: a journey into the evangelical subculture of America; pt. 3, “Coming of Age”. Isis Productions, Chicago; 1993