One of the more bizarre offshoots of fundamentalist Christianity that has been making headway in recent years is the “prosperity gospel”, also called the “Word of Faith” movement. Devotees of this theology believe that God, far from the dour, gloomy Puritan deity who expected people to deprive themselves in this life to be rewarded in the hereafter, is actually more like a rich uncle who can’t wait to shower us with riches and grant us financial prosperity. In this movement, wealth and fame in a Christian is not a hindrance to salvation but a sign of God’s favor.
How does one take advantage of this amazing offer? The central theme of the prosperity gospel is that if you donate and tithe generously to God – which invariably means donating and tithing generously to the specific person telling you this – then God will reward your faithfulness by repaying your investment many times over. Their catch phrase is “name it and claim it“, indicating that the true believer will receive anything they ask for in faith. (Except for its extra helpings of Jesus, the prosperity gospel is almost identical to the New Age movement spearheaded by The Secret, right down to the claim that you get whatever you think about, whether it is good or bad.)
Word of Faith preachers include Creflo Dollar (yes, that is his real name, apparently), Kenneth Copeland, Robert Tilton (whose website advertises a book titled How to Pay Your Bills Supernaturally), Joel Osteen, Jan and Paul Crouch, and others. All of these preachers tout the fabulous, dazzling riches just waiting to be claimed by believers, available now for one easy monthly payment of 10% of your gross income (gross, not net – people who tithe from their net income hate the baby Jesus). Call now, operators are standing by.
The Christian Bible, with its constant injunctions against wealth and privilege, seems like the unlikeliest soil for such an unabashedly materialistic theology of greed to take root. The ludicrously tortured reinterpretations which followers of this gospel put forth should evoke nothing but laughter from anyone with an ounce of rational sense. Consider the following explanation of Jesus’ famous “camel through the eye of a needle” parable from the prosperity gospel organization Flame Ministries:
The “eye of the needle” was not referring to a sewing needle, but to the trade entrance in the city wall through which the merchants would bring in their camels laden with merchandise. If the camels were overloaded, they couldn’t get through the gate, so the merchant would have to unload some of the goods enabling the camels to continue.
Yes, that makes perfect sense! So, when Jesus said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven, what he really meant was that a rich person getting into Heaven was only about as difficult as it was for a moderately laden camel to get through a gate specifically made for the use of camels and other beasts of burden used by merchants to haul their goods. It all seems so clear now!
If you’re not done laughing yet, the site also gives us this howler:
Jesus read this text [Isaiah 61:2] at the beginning of his earthly ministry when he declared that he was anointed to bring glad tidings to the poor (Luke 4:18-30). Good news for the poor presumably meant that the poor do not have to be poor any longer.
Yes indeed, that’s what Jesus was all about: telling the poor that they don’t have to be poor any longer. Oh, wait – anonymous author of the Gospel of Mark, did you want to chime in here?
“For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me.”
I haven’t seen teachers of this theology address other anti-wealth verses, but with a little thought, I’m sure we can help them out by coming up with reinterpretations of those verses every bit as ridiculous as the ones they’ve already put forward. How about this one?
“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
You’ll notice that Jesus never says not to acquire earthly treasures, only not to “lay them up for yourselves”. Clearly, what he meant is that intead of hoarding our wealth under a mattress, we should invest it in the free market. Jesus was history’s first investment advisor!
“No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?”
An easy one. Clearly, what Jesus meant in this passage is that Christians should have their own personal chefs who plan their meals and fashion consultants who pick out their wardrobes for them. Therefore, you can dine on champagne and caviar every night and wear silk robes and Armani suits without committing the grievous sin of choosing them for yourself.
All levity aside, there is one truly repugnant aspect of this movement. Namely, if being prosperous is a sign of God’s favor, then the logical corollary is that the poor – especially poor Christians – are bad, sinful people who must have committed some offense that God is punishing them for, or who do not have enough faith in God’s blessings to be repaid for their efforts.
Law student Vivian Teixeira, 20, was a member of the Born Again in Christ Church — another popular prosperity church — and then the Universal Church for a total of four years. She abandoned them both a year ago, she said, weary of their emphasis on money. “They said whoever isn’t prosperous is in sin,” she said, adding that sometimes she gave everything in her wallet at offering time. (source)
In essence, this is the theology of robber barons. It helps greedy preachers line their pockets with money often taken from the already desperately poor, and then tells those poor people that they themselves are to blame when riches do not magically fall out of the sky on them in return. It panders shamelessly to people’s most selfish desires and exploits the desperation of the gullible. And, in its shameless flaunting of its leaders’ wealth and success and its unabashed proclamations that one should believe in God to get rich, it is an excellent example of why we should tax the churches.