America’s Premier Heresy

America’s Premier Heresy June 15, 2012

The “most influential work of popular theology published this century…” What is it? I disagree with Ross Douthat’s answer (in his book Bad Religion) to this question because I don’t think that book has been influential even if it has been wildly popular. The issue here is how to define “influential.”

By now you may wonder what book he had in mind and if you guessed Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now you would be right. We’re only twelve years into the century, so there’s not much to go by … but still, no one can doubt that 4 million sales, plus all the stuff around it, says something about (bad) religion in America.

If you could offer a better theology to proponents of prosperity theology, what would it look like? How does an economic theory work into your critique or your offer?

America’s premier heresy is the Health and Wealth gospel, and Douthat probes here and there in what has to be seen as a violent disregard of major themes in the Bible. But more of that later in this post. Osteen “comes as close to Billy Graham’s level of popularity” and his “cultural empire is arguably larger” and more than “200 million people around the globe tune in to his broadcasts” (182, 183). Comparing him to Billy Graham, Douthat observes Osteen’s message is “considerably more upbeat” and that his “God gives without demanding, forgives without threatening to judge, and hands out His rewards in this life rather than in the next” (183).

Overall, this approach is about “the refashioning of Christianity to suit an age of abundance” and a “marriage of God and Mammon” (183). It’s attractive to many: “millions of believers reconcile their religious faith with the nation’s seemingly unbiblical wealth and un-Christian consumer culture” (183).

Now a quick sketch of his quick sketch: Tocqueville saw it; Russell Conwell preached it and it became “New Thought” — the belief that the mind could control matter and Christianity had to learn to think through this New Thought grid. It led to Mary Baker Eddy and E.W. Kenyon and then came of Christian age with Kenneth W. Hagin and the Word-Faith Movement, and the “name it and claim it” theology … and Joel Osteen’s father bought into this at levels, and we see it in Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Reverend Ike, Creflo Dollar, Fred Price, Benny Hinn … he sees this batch as “enthusiastic to a fault, crassly materialistic, lachrymose, and tacky” (187). And Joyce Meyer, in a more subdued form, and Joel Osteen, also subdued but every bit a health and wealth gospel guy.

What the Health and Wealth gospel does is eliminate the anxiety Christians have about money and possessions and Mammon. Turns it inside out and embraces it and then says use it for God … with no critique, no warning, and no sensing of its potent temptations.

So there are moderations, like T.D. Jakes and Douthat thinks Rick Warren fits in here and also Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez and Larry Burkett and he sees it in the “more money, more ministry” mentality … and James Dobson and Pat Robertson.

He pushes against his Catholic Church too though in a different way. There is the loss of vocations and monasticism and the vision of the purity of poverty and self-denial and asceticism. He weighs in on Michael Novak’s marriage of Catholicism and capitalism.

Douthat suggests the uncertainties of a capitalist economy might make the church and faith stronger; in this he is following such voices as Rodney Stark.

Can the church marry capitalism and wealth to its faith in such a way that the faith still stands?

In one penetrating paragraph, Douthat shows that prosperity theology and Christian socialism are often on the same page: “an emphasis on the social utility of belief, an eagerness to define spiritual success in worldly terms, a hint of utopianism, and an abiding naivete about human nature” (204-205). What do you think? Is the Christian Left and the Christian Right guilty of coming at the same landing spot from different angles?

But what is being lost? “Shorn of these aspects of the faith [renunciation, suffering], Christianity risks becoming an appendage to Americanism” (205). He’s right about the implication; his theory of what it is leaving behind or losing is too shallow. Yes, there is an optimism about human nature in prosperity theology, on that we agree.

Douthat’s perception of Catholicism comes to the surface too easily here, and it is a Catholicism of poverty and monks and nuns but not a theology of the cross, of self-denial, of obedience to the Jesus of the gospels or the sacrifice of gospeling the world that we see in Paul and Peter. But he’s probing, if only a first time, in the right direction.

There’s a nasty problem at work too often in criticism of the health and wealth gospel — it looks like this: The Bible singularly promises blessing to the obedient, and there are thousands of verses about this in the Bible, and there is a lack of an economic theory at work in so much of the criticism. That criticism tends to hold up some kind of life of sacrifice without a robust theology of the cross (and resurrection) and society and kingdom and economic theory and ecclesiology.

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