Five Traits of a False Prophet

Somehow I’ve had the good fortune until recently not to know who Theresa Caputo, (AKA the Long Island Medium) was. The long and short of it, in case you’ve been similarly privileged, is that she has a reality show and claims to speak to dead people. She also has a book (which I saw in the airport bookstore) and tours extensively (including where we are on vacation). Before I knew who she was, just looking at her book cover and the related press around her, I assumed she was the latest in a long string of prosperity gospel preachers.

Not exactly, but kinda.

It got me thinking about what folks like this have in common, be they prosperity-preaching ministers, self-help “Jesus light” media darlings or channels for the dearly departed from Jersey Shore. Following is a list of traits they all seem to have in common.

False Perfection - All of the folks who take on these personas (yes, they’re playing characters) put on an air of flawlessness that seems kind of grotesque and cartoonish from arms-length. But this is a very necessary part of the formula, because they represent the absence of every problem that you or I seek to escape. Their teeth are whiter, bank account is bigger, and they are never, ever sad. If they just seemed like a regular person, why would we want to emulate their lives?

False Authority - False prophets always claim to have access to information you can’t otherwise access without them. but seriously, if your loved one who died wanted to connect with you, do you think that they’d  do it through a bleach-blond in stiletto pumps? Similarly, if God had a message for you, don’t you think it could be conveyed by a mean other than through a guy with perfect hair, capped teeth and a $5,000 suit?

False Hope - Along with this authority, there is some sort of reassurance or certainty offered. But it’s always transactional or conditional in nature. Buy tickets to my show, purchase my book, come see me on tour or put your check in the offering plate and I’m make sure you get the hope you’re looking for. But that’s another thing about this brand of hope: it’s always hope for something. But God isn’t a vending machine. God doesn’t sit back and wait for us to pray hard enough or earnestly enough before giving up the goods. True hope is independent of conditions or circumstances, just like real love doesn’t require anything in return. Both simple exist for the sake of themselves. Conditional, contingent hope is really just a wish.

False Gospel - Your life could be so much better, more meaningful, more complete, if only (fill in the blank). This kind of good news hucksterism, which is hardly the sole purview of Christian preachers, always suggests that all of the imperfections, problems, senses of lack, want, etc, can all go away if you get the formula right. Ultimately all of these schemes are about chasing a fleeting feeling or some nonexistent sense of total fulfillment which simply isn’t real. And to suggest that Jesus’ primary message was that it’s all about you, and that your happiness is what matters most, is a gross distortion of the Gospel.

False Healing - Along these lines, there’s a temporary sense of fulfillment that comes from throwing yourself completely into the illusion that this person can give you everything you want or need. There’s a rush, not unlike doing drugs, or skydiving or having sex. But just like those things, the good feelings fade and you’re still you in the end, with all the same longings, scars and imperfections. Only now, you still have the lingering realization that the thing you tried to heal yourself from all of these woes didn’t work. So you’re left with trying to chase after the next thing that promises the same kind of healing, or with the knowledge that you’ve been suckered. And by then, the false prophet has already moved on to the next mark.

A true prophet is a truth-teller, one who sees and names things for what they really are, not for what we want them to be. They’re often unpopular for their claims, because they challenge the false constructs of a culture that it tries to use to distract itself from dealing with its real issues. But even if the truths such prophets claim aren’t necessary pleasant, they do present an opportunity for liberation: from the illusion that suffering or pain is your fault; from the misconception that the goal of life is personal satisfaction; from the wasted time, energy and money expended on trying to achieve such nonexistent aspirations.

You can try to be perfectly happy, or you can be free from the suffering that comes with believing you can – or even should – be perfectly happy. And only one of them works.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • Magpie1230

    Hmmmm….I don’t know that I would ever have the hubris to determine that a departed loved one would not communicate to me through a “bleach-blond in stiletto pumps” any more than I would deem that God would not communicate to me through a carpenter’s son wandering around aimlessly through the Middle East. While I understand your point in a general sense, I am not sure, having watched Teresa Caputo in action, that she is the appropriate vehicle for this message. I have never seen her claim to be anything special or better than any other person, nor have I heard her advocate that her readings will fix anyone. I have my doubts about her abilities, to be sure, but I think she offers many people the vehicle on which to ride into the arena of faith, and allows them to feel hopeful about the continuum of life beyond this plane of existence. To me, that is not necessarily a bad by-product of her business.

  • dee

    how about the bible says the dead are conscious of nothing at all, yet she claims to speak to them and for them…. sounds like someone is talking with demons and not spirits… she is mislead and I, myself, would not consider her a vessel God is trying to speak through.

    • Paula DelaFaria

      Who cares what the bible says…..it’s a 3000 yr old book that was written by “who knows who”…Dr. Suess says be nice to everyone….Why not choose THAT book to worship? Anyone that believes there is some floating, bearded dude in the sky needs medication and should not be preaching anything to anyone and is clearly the one that is mislead!

      • JusticeJee

        Wow. The Bible is truly amazing if it was written 3000 yrs ago as it prophecies what would happen to Jesus 1000 yrs later. God in Christ is the way to go. Not sure about the floating bearded dude though.

    • Guest

      totally agree, dee

  • Janel Clement

    Interesting points, Christian. I (think) I agree with your basic message. Finding an *escape* from suffering is not the answer and happiness cannot be obtained through anything outside of ourselves, whether it’s a preacher with white teeth and a guest spot on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday, or a run of the mill preacher in the pulpit Sunday morning. Happiness and freedom from suffering is always an inside job. BUT I will say that there do exist those who help people along the way, or spark something in others that would not have otherwise been sparked. Some people who may not be able to hear your voice can hear Joel Osteen’s. And vice versa. As for Teresa Caputo, I personally don’t like her style, but I do think she helps people in one specific way. Hearing a message from someone who has passed is very therapeutic and healing for some people—it provides some comfort, just as praying with a minister might provide some comfort to another grieving person. If I ever was skeptical about mediumship, any and all doubt is long gone, not because of Ms. Caputo but because of what I have personally experienced and witnessed through my sister’s work. Just as with anyone, mediums are human and fallible and imperfect, but they do provide a service that we can’t completely dismiss because we don’t like one person’s bleach-blonde hair or New York accent.

  • Becky Joyce Reed

    It’s odd and quite fascinating that we so readily believe “someone else” has all the answers…even about parts of ourselves…instead of trusting ourselves and our own beliefs…

  • Flipper

    Interesting 80 billion new planets have been discovered, one must consider that at least 1 percent of these planets have a similar life as we know it, if so , who & what form of G-d do you think they believe in?

  • tearfang

    “A true prophet is a truth-teller, one who sees and names things for what they really are, not for what we want them to be.” Methinks you have a defective view of what a true prophet is. Certainly truth telling is necessary for a prophet label but it is not sufficient. The reason why prophets are distinct from scientists and teachers ect, is that they claim to speak God’s words- thus (if you believe god is good) their sayings must also be true. If truth telling is all that is required to make a prophet, then the world is filled with part time prophets and you have a whole lot of book canonization to do…


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