The God of nice things

Time coverTime‘s David Van Biema and Jeff Chu have a cover story about the Prosperity Gospel this week. I can’t wait to read the whole thing, but the full article requires a subscription. So I’m writing based on CNN’s summary. The story appears to take a rather hard look at advocates of the strain of teaching that God wants people to make it rich:

In three of the Gospels, Jesus warns that each of his disciples may have to “deny himself” and even “take up his Cross.”

In support of this prediction, he contrasts the fleeting pleasures of today with the promise of eternity: “For what profit is it to a man,” he asks, “if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?”

Generations of churchgoers have understood that being Christian means being ready to sacrifice. But for a growing number of Christians, the question is better restated, “Why not gain the whole world plus my soul?”

Zing! The story says the movement has been percolating among Pentecostal Christians and goes by the name Word of Faith, Health and Wealth, Name It and Claim It and Prosperity Theology:

[I]ts emphasis is on God’s promised generosity in this life. In a nutshell, it suggests that a God who loves you does not want you to be broke.

The story says that “Prosperity” first blazed to public attention in the 1980s with televangelism. But what about Rev. Ike? He’s featured in the photo essay accompanying the 9,000-word article (1 picture=1,000 words, right?) on the website. He was broadcast all over the dial in the 1970s. And Oral Roberts (shown first in the photo essay) has been a popular preacher for many decades. In fact, many people trace the current incarnation of prosperity theology in America to New England preacher E.W. Kenyon, famous for coining the phrase “What I confess, I posess.” Kenyon was around well before the turn of the 20th century, and numerous other contemporary and early 20th century preachers followed him.

Perhaps the full article has more historical perspective. But the cover is subtitled “The debate over the new gospel of welath.” Too often it seems that journalists write as if the American evangelical and Pentecostal traditions sprung forth 25 years ago when a heretofore unseen group of people came out of the woodwork and elected Reagan.

Also of note is how three of the four biggest megachurces in the country — including Joel Osteen’s — preach prosperity. I’m a bit curious why the editors thought it would make a good cover story. I’m also curious why, with colorful personalities like Osteen and Joyce Meyer, the cover art is so inanimate:

“Who would want to get in on something where you’re miserable, poor, broke and ugly and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven?” asks Joyce Meyer, a popular television preacher and author often lumped in the Prosperity Lite camp. “I believe God wants to give us nice things.”

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  • kerner

    My late mother in law, who was raised as, and worshiped as, a Lutheran until she was in her late 50′s, left her Lutheran church for this kind of church. Why she did so is complicated, but it gave me a chance to become familiar with the “blab it and grab it” theology professed, and I found it wanting. The thrust of their message is that nothing “negative” comes from God. Rather, negative things come from Satan.

    The problem with that is the definition of “negative”. These people have a narcissistic view of good and evil. If God wants to give me nice things, that means things I think are nice, that I want to have or do or experience. I simply couldn’t reconcile a lot of Biblical history with the idea that God would never ask me to go through an experience that I really hated going through (like being sick, for example). In the Bible, believers have to go through trials all the time, and God doesn’t always get the believer out of the situation when the believer wants to be relieved.

    On the other hand, the one positive thing these people was they were not defeatists. So many Christians seem to believe that God’s people can never really have any victories in this life, and I don’t think the Bible supports that either. The one quote from Rev. Ike I can get behind is, “The best thing you can do for the poor is not be one of them.”

  • Michael

    the one positive thing these people was they were not defeatists. So many Christians seem to believe that God’s people can never really have any victories in this life, and I don’t think the Bible supports that either. The one quote from Rev. Ike I can get behind is, “The best thing you can do for the poor is not be one of them.”

    That’s a great observation, Kerner, and probably why so many of the Black megachurches are preaching prosperity theology. If your life isn’t going well and you’ve had so many struggles that are not necessarily of your making, you yearn for a theology that is not defeatist and allows for victories.

  • http://speakingofreligion.blogspot.com Jeno

    I have read the entire article, and I’ve been able to post a link to it in its entirety on my blog (http://speakingofreligion.blogspot.com) for those who want to read it all.
    After reading the article, I thought it was really well done, giving a voice to those in the movement while contrasting it to the traditional Christian view. The article writers don’t make apologies for this non gospel and allow serious voices to dispel its myth while at the same time letting the prosperity preachers defend themselves.
    I was also pleased that Time would tackle such a topic given that thousands adhere to this prosperity religion and that it is infiltrating evangelicalism. Just because prosperity religion seemingly has a louder voice than more traditional views right now, people should be aware of how it differs from traditional Christianity. I think many more traditional Christians would like to have the differences between Christ’s Gospel and the prosperity gospel distinctly spelled out in the public forum so Christ’s Gospel can avoid being lumped into the same category as the prosperity gospel.

  • Andrew

    Does writing for GetReligion mean you can’t afford to buy a copy of Time from the newstand?

  • kel

    It would seem that we ought not cast aspersions on the rich for simply being rich; after all, Abraham and Matthew were both wealthy men, and were both called by God — like Peter and Andrew — to drop [everything] and follow Him.

    For Abraham, dropping everything didn’t seem to include wealth at all — rather, his own beloved son Isaac. For Matthew, it meant walking away from the counting table.

    In this way, I think the question, “Why not gain the whole world plus my soul?” is cynical, and added to provoke controversy. Let’s just drop in a little Marxist class warfare, shall we?

    On the other hand, it would seem that “dropping everything and following Him” is an essential aspect Christian life, and ought not be neglected, no matter what tax bracket your congregation falls in.

    As an aside, Rev. Ike seems to have forgotten that Our Lord had no where to lay is head, and began life in this world as a refugee in Egypt. He was “one of them.”

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana

    There’s a great section at the end of the piece on Kirbyjon Caldwell, pastor of the largest United Methodist Church in the US. He’s someone who has prosperity language but also mainline credentials. Van Biema and Chu seem sympathetic to his point of view.

    Here’s the section:

    Kirbyjon Caldwell, who pastors Windsor Village, the largest (15,000) United Methodist church in the country, can sound as Prosperity as the next pastor: “Jesus did not die and get up off the Cross so we could live lives full of despair and disappointment,” he says. He quotes the “abundant life” verse with all earnestness, even giving it a real estate gloss: “It is unscriptural not to own land,” he announces. But he’s doing more than talk about it. He recently oversaw the building of Corinthian Pointe, a 452-unit affordable-housing project that he claims is the largest residential subdivision ever built by a nonprofit. Most of its inhabitants, he says, are not members of his church.

    Caldwell knows that prosperity is a loaded term in evangelical circles. But he insists that “it depends on how you define prosperity. I am not a proponent of saying the Lord’s name three times, clicking your heels and then you get what you ask for. But you cannot give what you do not have. We are fighting what we call the social demons. If I am going to help someone, I am going to have to have something with which to help.”

    I’m from the Jim Wallis side of the evangelical world, so the thought of God giving me a Cadillac isn’t going to fly. But there’s a something to the idea of empowering people to tranform their own lives–which Caldwell seems to capture. And rather than writing a snarky piece, Van Biema and Chu have recognized that.

    It’s a pretty remarkable piece.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    The reporter obviously didn’t dig all that deeply for facts and history. “Prosperity theology” goes back to the Pilgrims and the Puritans who came to America. They believed that true believers were wealthy and the poor weren’t true believers. Thus the “American work ethic” was born.

    It is a deceptive theology. It is rampant. Joel Osteen is popular in these circles as is Robert Schuler. Sometimes I wonder how they interpret the book of Job. Oh, that’s right, Job’s wealth is double after he goes through his trial.

    There is the rich young man whom Jesus commanded, “Go sell all you have and give it to the poor.” Obviously he had a “prosperity theology” bent–but what good did it do him?

  • Aaron Armitage

    The rich folk were Anglicans and Roundheads, not Puritans. Puritans were generally middle class at best.

    Not that John L Hoh will change his mind. (I intend that as an insult.)

  • Jonathan S

    Aaron,
    Apparently you need to read the Comments/Trackback policy. (I intend that as a reproof to bad behavior.)

  • Aaron Armitage

    Hinting that ignorant bigotry might reflect badly on a person is not bad behavior.

  • http://plasticturtle.blogspot.com/ Paul Thomas

    I am a very leary of the “Health and Wealth” Theology. As a local pastor says on his commercial. Jesus came to deliver us from sin, sickness, and disease. Where is that in historical Christianity? Are you saying I am sick because I am not a “True Believerâ„¢ “? Apparently John the Baptist did not get the memo. I do not think getting your head on a silver plate qualifies for this.

  • Tom Kelly

    I don’t currently believe in prosperity theology, but I must confess that it seems to have helped bring me to Christ.

    Raised as a Catholic, I got the idea that the only path to heaven was poverty road. To be acceptable to God, it was impressed upon me that I would have to be like the priests and nuns who had taken vows of poverty.

    When I made a fortune in my first business at a very young age, I was very conflicted- I had stumbled into a very lucrative business and was making huge profits by doing the very best I knew how to do for our customers and employees. I could not comprehend how my new found wealth could be sinful since so much good seemed to be coming out of it for so many.

    Then I discovered prosperity theology- telling me it was okay to be wealthy in this world and that wouldn’t keep me out of heaven. I had a dramatic salvation experience and my life totally changed.

    As time went by and I began to understand the Word better, the problems with prosperity theology became more apparent. I have continually drifted farther away from it- especially after the long suffering and eventual death of my first born teenage son.

    But I still wonder if prosperity theology, on balance, was an effective tool to get me to Christ. Where I was at the time seemed to require a feel good message in order to get me close enough to the light so that I finally saw the Light.

  • http://www.zarathustraandme.blogspot.com Johnny

    I am not really surprised that “prosperity theology” is popular. Who wouldn’t like to believe that a supernatural omnipotent being incessantly desires to make you wealthy. But I just have to laugh even thinking about it.

    Thomas Hobbes said that we tell ourselves useful lies. Prosperity theology is both useful and obviously false. It’s nice to see Time magazine bring this up in a way that the “Jesus for billionaires” club may take seriously.

  • http://wondersforoyarsa.blogspot.com Wonders For Oyarsa

    The problem with the prosperity gospel is that it’s not the whole truth. Yes, God wants to give good gifts to his children, having them experience the full richness and beauty of life in his world. Yes, he also wants to see them being conformed to the likeness of his Son, knowing the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings. Any theology that doesn’t unashamedly and enthusiastically assert both things is unchristian.

  • http://theaccidentalanglican.typepad.com Deborah

    I wonder how this ties in with “OprahAmerica”? I’ll have to check out this issue of Time to see, but I think it’s interesting that prosperity theology and the “pamper yoursef, girlfriend/let the Universe do good things for you” ethic have so much in common.

  • http://www.projectbrasil.com Steve May

    In Brasil the fastest growing churches are the ones that preach a gospel of prosperity. Their pews are often filled with people who live in shacks in crime-filled slums, surviving on less than $2 a day, yet they come each Sunday with their offerings, clinging to the hope that planting a seed of faith (giving their hard earned money to their very wealthy and powerful church) will somehow open the window of blessing in their lives and enable them to have a better life.

    There’s nothing wrong with people wanting to get out of poverty, and there’s nothing wrong with teaching people — even people of limited means — to practice generosity. What I find troubling about the prosperity gospel, both here and there, is the focus on material things, the implication that it is a shortcut to an easy life, and its lack of emphasis on long-term social justice.

    I truly believe that God wants us to be rich, at least in the way that wealth is defined on a global scale. He wants to bless us with more than enough so we can bless others with less than enough. And I believe he gives us as much as he can trust us with.

  • http://www.christianitytoday.com/ctmag/ Ted Olsen

    Time now lets people read its cover stories after watching an ad. So no more excuses, even for you cheapskates and freeloaders.

  • Diana

    Here’s what I don’t get. We keep debating whether God wants us to give up and sacrifice our stuff or amass wealth. Why is that even a question?

    Jesus clearly stated that he wants us to give up our bad selves and follow him. What does money have to do with that?

    We can follow a gospel of prosperity all we want but no matter how much we get, we are always going to want more.

    At what point are we supposed to stop and be thankful and happy with what we have?

  • Aaron Armitage

    Ah, oops. Should be “Anglicans and Cavaliers” above. Roundheads were Puritans, of course.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Ted, thanks for the tip on how a cheapskate/freeloader like me can read the article for free. I agree with Jeno and Bob’s characterization of this cover story as “really well done” and “remarkable”. Writing a balanced article on a controversial topic like this cannot be easy; kudos to David Van Biema and Jeff Chu for structuring the article around numerous quotes and personal stories from people on both sides of the issue. I am *NOT* a fan of Time Magazine, but if Time runs more stories like this then I may have to change my mind.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    As a Catholic I will take the interpretations, teachings, and example of St. Francis of Assisi and of St. Anthony of the Desert (along with all the other desert mothers and fathers) as truly “Gospel” and the best way to touch God and reach the ecstasy of True Faith in Christ (what both the poorest and richest humans, I believe, really want.) I wonder if Time will ever do a cover story on the ascetic side of Christianity and the power it has had in the past and still today.

  • Don in Texas

    I am a believer in Jesus Christ and do my best to live with the mind of Christ. Last year, I made one of the biggest sales of my career. When the deal closed, I sat in my car and I thanked God so fervently that I actually cried (that money meant so much to my family — and, yes, I tithed on it). I doubt that anyone on this blog would condemn me for having thanked God for such a blessing. I find it interesting; however, that because I asked for it beforehand, I should be criticized and condemned. Apparently, some of my fellow Believers think that believing and praying for good things is wrong. That is OK. But for me, I just can’t get my mind wraped around a Darwinian model of God as One who passes out blessings and miracles in a random, chaotic manner to those who don’t ask for or expect them.

  • Bryon

    Does God want You to be rich? I believe yes, but i want to know who YOU are. Are you born again? Do you have a track record reflecting christian maturity, character, love, willingnes, obedience, etc. Do YOU have the character and experience to handle the pressure that comes from having wealth. The rich fool in Lk 12 could’nt. Most prosperity preachers that i hear qualify the message. the reason for wealth is not about luxury but sending the gospel around the world.


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