UPDATE: Hi! I get a lot of drive-by commenters on this particular piece so I wanted to say something to them before we get started. No, I’m not Christian, but respectful Christians are quite welcome here. Here’s my About Page and here’s why I blog. Here is my “biography” tag if you’re wondering why I’m not Christian (start at the beginning, is my suggestion). Here’s the “Christians Behaving Badly” tag, which I use to discuss hypocrites at large–Joyce Meyer sure isn’t the only one I cover here. Should someone desire to comment, these are the rules my blog follows in moderating.
Today we’re going to talk about one of the biggest and most pernicious influences on mainstream Christian thought: Joyce Meyer’s particular brand of need-destroying, self-effacing, wealth-glorifying, illusion-cherishing, narcissistic-to-the-max women’s theology.
Before we get started, though, I saw this thing about a Unicorn Museum yesterday and thought it was beyond awesome. I just had to share it. Yes, it’s a slap in the face to creationists who insist the Bible is true and literal, but I’m a unicorn fiend, as I think I’ve mentioned before, so this rocked my world. Okay, moving on with the regularly scheduled post:
Let’s start here, with just the facts: Ms. Meyer was born the very same year my mother was, which puts her at about 70 now. Her only formal education seems to be a degree from one of those unaccredited Bible colleges. She’s been involved in church ministry, but left it to do a TV show and write books. She’s been on the speaking and writing circuits ever since the 90s or so. When the US Senate decided to go after some of the more lavishly-living evangelists, she was one of them, though she managed to squeak through without being charged or getting in serious trouble. She talks a big game about financial transparency but has earned a “C” from one watchdog group.
Because she got started in the 90s, when I was more or less out of the country on my various escapades, she really slipped my radar until fairly recently, when I realized how many Christian women really adore the particular brand of glurge she employs all the time. I didn’t pay a lot of attention even when the Senate inquiry was going on; she seems fairly harmless, all things told. But see, that’s the stealth batshit-crazy operating right there. In truth, now that I’ve had a chance to really look at what she does, I come away with that “ewww” look that cats wear so well. So today I want to talk about why I think Joyce Meyer is not a good person for Christian women to idolize and why she is not a good representative of Christianity. And by the way, I’m not writing this piece to pick on Ms. Meyer, but more to illustrate the trends she embodies, because–let’s be fair here–she’s an incredibly shrewd person who has leaped upon the opportunities those trends have allowed her. I’m realistic enough to know that if it wasn’t her taking advantage of these opportunities, it’d be someone else.
First, let’s talk about her take on prosperity gospel, which is the rather startling idea that the Christian god materially rewards those who obey him the most and please him best. The more obedient and pleasing the Christian, the more “blessings” this god heaps upon that person. Now, I’m not totally sure exactly where this idea came from, because the New Testament is quite clear about just how Jesus felt about wealth. The Old Testament makes equally clear that wealth, possessions, even someone’s very own children and freedom and homeland, are all just stuff that can be taken away in a heartbeat to prove a point (sort of like how super-abusive parents will get their victims pets so if the kid misbehaves, they can threaten to hurt the puppy). I will however say that it is surely just a coincidence that these material rewards come most often to those who materially support the preachers of prosperity gospel and do whatever those preachers say they ought to do. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence.
In the hands of a prosperity gospel preacher, wealth becomes a barometer that shows how high up Christians are in their god’s eyes. As Joyce Meyer herself puts it,
“We teach and preach and believe biblically that God wants to bless people who serve Him,” Meyer said. “So there’s no need for us to apologize for being blessed.”
Really? Because Jesus thought that wealth had nothing to do with how blessed someone is. When the widow tossed in her two tiny coins, did he tell her to go home and enjoy her new lakefront mansion, her boats, her new custom-designed wardrobe, and her new private plane? No, he didn’t. The story ends with her tossing in her coins and leaving. He praised her, but there’s no word that he gave her stuff to make her poverty more endurable. Mark 12 ends with him telling his disciples that he valued her contribution even more than he did that of more wealthy people because it meant more to her. Mark 13 takes up at the end of the lesson with Jesus leaving the temple. At no point does he engage with the widow at all beyond praising her sacrifice. And I don’t reckon the widow herself in this tale really expected anything at all, not even praise. Even though she’s one of the people Jesus praised the most in the New Testament, there’s no indication she got anything material out of his high esteem.
Compare and contrast with the current evangelical entitlement mentality.
Yeah, I can definitely relate to how harmful prosperity gospel can be. Nowadays, it seems like there’s this current of resentment Christian women feel when they do all the stuff they’re supposed to do, but somehow they don’t get the blessings they think they should be getting for their faithful service. They upheld their end of the bargain, but somehow the Happy Christian Woman illusion isn’t materializing for them. And Joyce Meyer feeds into that feeling by insisting that her wealth and luxuries are what she gets for being faithful and obedient to her god, like it’s some paycheck or something. As she says, “The whole Bible really has one message: ‘Obey me and do what I tell you to do, and you’ll be blessed.'”
Really? That’s the whole message? That’s the one message it has? It’s just like Amway, like you just have to work the system and the system will work for you? And nobody has any kind of a problem with this sort of blatantly self-centered, narcissistic mentality? All of the Bible’s spiritual messages, all of its insistence on obedience, sacrifice, charity, endurance, and duty, and she thinks it can all boil down to just one sentence about getting stuff from her god? I think she’s saying more about what she wishes Christianity was than anything about what it actually is. And she’s saying it to people who hear it and feel all warm in the cockles of their hearts because she is telling them what they secretly wish were true: that they’re special and deserve to get stuff for being special. In the real world, we call this pandering. In Christianity, they call it preaching.
Why don’t Joyce Meyer’s fans hear this kind of bullshit and immediately wonder what it is she’s doing that they’re not doing to get that kind of “blessing”? Because that’s what she’s trying to say here–that anybody who is as obedient and faithful as she is should be getting showered with the kinds of “blessings” she’s getting from her god. Except it’s not her god doing it, but the donations of her legions of gullible, eager-to-get-“blessed” followers. It’s not hard to think that she wants people to wonder how to get these “blessings,” either; she wants them to buy her books and tapes and attend her lectures to find out what she’s doing that they need to do too so their god will “bless” them the way he has apparently “blessed” Ms. Meyer herself. (If you’re wondering why I use quotes around “blessing” like I do, it’s because I don’t think the Bible considers wealth a “blessing,” and certainly nowhere in the Bible do we find the idea that following Jesus will bring adherents a good life of any sort, much less untold riches like Ms. Meyer enjoys.)
Take a look at Ms. Meyer’s website’s bookstore. She coyly words the prices of her books and DVDs “donations,” but let’s be honest here–people are buying this stuff, not “making a donation.” Why aren’t her followers making the essential connection between a $35.00 “donation” and a gallon of gas for one of her waterboats? Her god’s not giving her money to fill that boat up. Her fans are. The money’s not appearing on her doorstep in a Jesus-shaped basket. It’s appearing in her bank account as people line up to buy her stuff.
Or take a look at her speaking engagements. This one I linked to costs $69 to attend (but you get $10 off if you register early!), which makes it a bargain compared to some of the talks I’ve personally heard about from people who’ve attended. How many hundreds of people are going to be there at this one I linked to? How much do you suppose a pair of custom-designed sensible slacks costs? Every head in her audience is another chip off the cost of a new house, or a new bit of jewelry, or a bookshelf/commode/whatever it was she got for her bathroom that the Senate wondered about–as well they should have as it apparently cost USD$23,000. I want you, personally, my friends, to think about anything you bought lately that cost that much money. Now think about a minister of a savior who preached poverty and hardship having some throwaway bit of furniture that costs that much. But Joyce Meyer apparently deserves this stuff because she’s just soooooo faithful, and she sees no reason to “apologize” for wanting and having stuff that expensive (bonus: she thinks it somehow makes the cost of the object more understandable when she explains it as a “chest of drawers” instead of as “a commode”–because oh, of course, that made it all better, we’ve all been there, we’ve all seen a chest of drawers that we just had to have at any cost–oh wait, no we haven’t; I’ve got a 1930s purple swirl slag-glass camel in my china cabinet that cost me $25 that I’m madly in love with, and it’s probably one of my most frivolous purchases).
Of course, the flip side of prosperity gospel, its real dark side, gets seen when someone is not “blessed” like Ms. Meyer is. If she’s this wealthy and this used to decadent luxury, then what about the poor people who foolishly send in money to her “ministry”? What of the people struggling with bad health or poverty? What of the people who are losing their homes and businesses because they tried so hard to emulate her “blessings”? If someone faithful gets richer than Elvis, then what of someone who is not rich? Are we to assume that person’s doing something terribly, terribly wrong?
I’ve heard of people who, desiring to “work the system” like Ms. Meyer has, are spending themselves out of house and home to redouble their tithing when they simply cannot afford to do so (and it is doubly sad to know they’re giving their limited and hard-earned money to a snake-oil salesperson who is just going to spend it on something like a set of matching his-and-her Ferraris). I’ve heard of people who were almost brought to suicide because they can’t understand why they keep trying so hard to reach their dreams and their god just isn’t paying attention to them. It is heartbreaking to think about the people right now who are wondering in their heart of hearts what it is their god wants out of them before he’ll finally shower them with the stuff he showers the cool kids with. And Ms. Meyer is responsible for this misery. She is one of the people who are directly, completely responsible for this situation and this entitlement mentality we’re seeing in modern Christians. They’re getting this idea because they’re getting told this over and over again by irresponsible preachers like Ms. Meyer.
She is making millions off of Christians’ gullibility by making them think that there’s some magic trick to getting rich and if they just find the angle, like she did, they’ll get there. She’s also making millions off of encouraging Christians to want wealth and luxury and think of these things as not only within their grasp, not only to think of them as desirable in and of themselves, but to consider them their just reward for being good and faithful servants.
Second, let’s look at what Joyce Meyer does to women’s heads. If you’re wondering, this is where my rage dials up to eleven, and this is how she pinged my radar last time we talked.
Obviously, she takes a heteronormative (which means she takes it for granted that the people she’s talking to are straight rather than gay or bi) and cisgender (which means she doesn’t talk much about transgender or other types of people) viewpoint, but most Christians do that, so while she’s hardly the worst of the lot in this regard, she’s about par for the course.
She’s especially interested with Christian women, and one can see why. Women are disengaging from Christianity at a truly startling rate. A lot of book and internet ink are getting spilled discussing why and what to do about it, but nobody wants to look at the elephant in the room: women are leaving Christianity because it doesn’t work for them in the real world. I sure didn’t find it worked for me, and many women are finding it doesn’t work for them either. The system itself is one massive institutionalized sexist good-ole-boys’ club at this point; a few denominations allow women to participate fully, but most are happy to accept our unpaid labor and our tithes as long as we don’t make a fuss about getting equal representation on pastoral rolls. Mainstream and especially evangelical Christianity’s sexism is butting up against its Happy Christian Woman/Family illusion, where women get told to do this and that, and they’ll be rewarded with a happy family, a good husband, perfect children, and an easy life.
The result is a particularly sappy, soapy fever-dream that doesn’t often actually happen the way that women keep getting told it’ll happen. Look at any shelf of “inspirational” books on any Christian bookstore’s shelf and you’ll see reams and mountains of books about this same sappy, soapy fever-dream. Pray just right. Act just right. Trust. Obey. Have faith. Jesus will do the rest, except when he doesn’t. And when it doesn’t work out, you must have done something wrong.
So yeah, what’s really infuriating about Joyce Meyer is her blithe, chirpy misogyny. She buys into this particularly defanged, de-sexualized, disempowered view of womanhood and family that her audience has been inculcated since birth to idolize and desire for their own lives. Let’s look at what one site calls her inspirational quotes. We won’t examine all of them here, but here are a few that stood out to me:
“Do anything you can do to keep your mind off yourself. Courage is fear that has said its prayers and decided to go forward anyway.”
Do you suppose Ms. Meyer keeps her mind off herself? Or is she somehow totally oblivious to her well-known love of luxury and her private jet? Her first sentence doesn’t seem like it has much to do with the second, does it, for that matter? Is having one’s mind on oneself so horrifying and scary that she thinks people should “do anything” to avoid it? Why? Does she view a healthy sense of self-regard as somehow antithetical to bravery? It sure sounds like what she’s really advising here is that people should disregard that voice in their heads that tells them when something is a bad idea. If something bothers you, just ignore it because listening to your instincts is just such a bad idea. The idea does fit in nicely with the Christian conceptualization of women as invisible and easily negated, and with the evangelical idea that women must always be “selfless,” but it isn’t really very healthy-sounding to me.
Or consider this one:
“You can suffer the pain of change or suffer remaining the way you are.”
This quote is what Daniel Dennett calls a deepity–it sounds totally profound, but really it’s both trivial and meaningless when you really dig into it (much like another quote from this piece, “Our joy does not have to be based on our circumstances”). In this situation, obviously people are either changing or staying the same; everything is like that. I once read an advice column wherein the writer was looking at an old woman some time ago who was considering going back to college and was concerned about how long it’d take; the columnist advised her something along these lines: “In four years, you can either be 65 and graduated from college, or else you can be 65 and pretty much where you are now.” So no, Ms. Meyer’s statement isn’t new or earth-shattering. It is non-Biblical, of course; the Bible certainly has little to say about our modern values of self-actualization. Even its advice for slaves doesn’t include “get free.” But her deepity sounds really cool to modern ears, especially the ears of Christians who have internalized the idea that their god will richly bless them for obedience. It also assumes that change is always painful (an idea I often encounter in Christianity today), which it isn’t necessarily. Sometimes change is thrilling and enjoyable. But if a Christian is convinced that it’s always horrible and hard, then of course there’s always going to be that element of fear about it and of course staying the course is going to be idealized. Indeed, there is a huge segment of Christianity that is trying its level best to keep things right where they are, and which views their god as purely unchanging. It isn’t hard to imagine them extending that idealization way further than is healthy.
This next one is downright predatory and chilling in its ruthless and shameless pandering:
“When you are tempted to give up, your breakthrough is probably just around the corner.”
Think she tells this to people who are starting to think that giving tons of money to televangelists is a bad idea? Don’t stop now! You were just about to win! That’s so ruthless that my lip is curled back in sheer disgust right now as I type. That’s how you talk to addicts. That’s how you talk to people you’re conning. That’s one of the most powerful and harmful delusions there are: this idea that if you just keep gambling, it’ll pay off any second now. It’s called the sunk cost fallacy and it is based on the well-known and demonstrated concept that people don’t like walking away from investments (a principle known as “loss aversion”). That’s why people continue with bad marriages, with bad streaks of luck at the gambling table, with terrible business ideas, with cars that always seem to break down, with houses that need to just be demolished and started over again. People don’t like giving up on something they’ve invested in. They especially don’t like walking away from something they’ve sunk money and time and energy into over a long period of time. And the very shrewd Ms. Meyer knows this. Don’t even think for a second she isn’t thinking about people giving her money when she writes and says dreck like this. This is how predators talk when they realize the prey might just be escaping.
And this will be our last one from that site:
Jesus died so we can have an intimate relationship with God through him.
Oh, did he? Are we sure of that? I thought he died so people wouldn’t go to hell. Or to take their place in hell temporarily to trick Satan. Or something. But our modern touchy-feely ideas about a “personal god” didn’t seem to enter into it. He actually didn’t want to die, if we remember correctly; he asked for the cup to pass from him and openly questioned why it had to be that way. But nowhere in it do we see him say wistfully, wiping a little tear from his divine eye with a divine hand, “Gee, I sure do want to be the very bestest boyfriend possible for Christians thousands of years from now.” When he did resurrect, he didn’t rush out to embrace his fanboys but instead let the women who found him go deal with that end of things. Let’s also remember that he thought it’d be a hoot to screw with his closest disciples’ minds afterward by traveling incognito with them as they grieved his loss–he didn’t even have the courtesy to tell them that no, they didn’t need to grieve because their prankster god was right there walking with them. And he gave his mother away pretty quickly when he was on the cross. So no, he’s just not a boyfriend/best friend type, and he certainly doesn’t seem to have thought he was dying to give his followers some kind of “intimate relationship” with him or his daddy.
Nobody even seems to have considered Jesus in such an insultingly diminished light until our modern ideas of “Buddy Jesus” and Boyfriend!Jesus came into being. Joyce Meyer is single-handedly not only rewriting Christian theology with her chirpy statement here, but also ignoring that a Christian’s relationship with Jesus is anything but “intimate.” I’m sorry, fangirls: if she says it often enough, it doesn’t magically become true. A “relationship” with Jesus is as one-sided as any relationship a One Direction fan has with the object of her affections–maybe even less so, because sometimes one of those boy-band members will notice a fan’s tweet or Facebook update and respond to it, whereas there is never a single solid sensory-detectable response that Jesus ever makes to anybody. By saying something like this, Ms. Meyer is implying that anybody who doesn’t feel that “intimate” connection is just doing something wrong. I still remember how hurt I was that everybody around me seemed to feel so closely connected to Jesus, but no matter how hard I prayed, I only felt that kind of closeness once in my entire walk with my god–the day I converted the second time around, actually. I was chasing the dragon ever since.
There are other ideas Ms. Meyer puts forth that are really awful–especially as touching relationships. Obviously. Ms. Meyer is an expert on marriage. In her world, women should be “submissive,” not do things from the “wrong attitude,” and that if a partner’s love doesn’t involve some kind of sacrifice, then probably that woman doesn’t actually really love her spouse at all. And as we’ve already seen, “selfishness” is the worst sin a woman can possibly commit in her little world. A marriage simply cannot succeed, in her opinion, unless the couple completely demolishes “selfishness” in their hearts. And of course her god “deals with” all Christians to personally help them cultivate good personalities and submissiveness, because the author of quarks, galaxies, mathematical laws, and quasars just rolls that way and is intensely interested in whether or not Ms. Meyer is a good submissive little wife.
I worry for couples who try to put her awful advice into action. In the real world, of course, we know that “selfishness” is an accusation often lobbed at women for the crime of not negating themselves for the benefit of others or for not doing whatever it is the accuser wants them to do, and we know that healthy self-respect involves cultivating good boundaries and honoring our desires and needs. When someone denies those desires and needs, do you suppose those desires and needs just wither away and vanish over time? No, they do not. They come out eventually. There’s no god disappearing them for Christians or anybody else. And when we’ve been spending our lives trying to suppress them, these desires and needs come out in potentially destructive ways. Also, I have to admit, if I were a man, I’d hesitate to marry someone who thought that she had to constantly subvert her needs for me. This kind of sexism creates doormats and I don’t think healthy men want doormats.
Overall, are there worse televangelists than Joyce Meyer? Sure, probably. At least she’s not diddling underaged kids or helping African nations murder gay people. But I put forth this assertion: her insidious ideas about marriage, self-actualization, and wealth-as-a-blessing are responsible for a lot of harm in this world. I just really wish her devoted followers would seriously think about who they’re giving their money and energy to when they buy her materials and idolize her words. She’s just a shrewd person who found the angle, that’s all. She saw the trends of misogyny and entitlement and she leaped up on them. She’s smart enough to know where her bread is buttered. And she knows how to tickle the ears of desperate Christians who want good marriages and prosperous lives. She knows how to make Christianity look plausible and good to Christians. She knows how to give advice that makes Christianity sound sensible. She knows how to paint an image of her god and Jesus that sounds appealing to modern ears. Like with other apologists and Christian “life coaches,” her advice really doesn’t have much bearing on reality or on the Bible she claims to love so much, but modern evangelical Christians don’t care about reality much.
And when her advice just doesn’t work, her poor victims are going to think, without a doubt, that they are the problem rather than the greedy, narcissistic, boundary-denying worldview Ms. Meyer espouses. They did something wrong; they haven’t been faithful enough yet. Their god is just waiting for them to prove how dedicated they are, because he’s just that kind of a dick. That’s the worst part of knowing there’s someone like Joyce Meyer flitting about the Christosphere giving terrible life advice to people: that her audience is not self-aware enough to see that they’re being fleeced, nor are they skilled enough at critical thinking to recognize how skillfully she is manipulating their most heartfelt desires.
In summation, can we just use this as a rule of thumb from now on? If a Christian speaker/author/minister has a private jet, that person is just saying whatever s/he needs to say to make money. Joyce Meyer wants to make money, and she found out how to do it. Her angle isn’t even magical or anything. People don’t give kabillions of dollars to people who tell them stuff they need to hear, but they do give kabillions of dollars to people who will tell them stuff they want to hear. Prophets who are saying stuff that people need to hear don’t tend to get rich–in Christian theology, they actually tend to get martyred and crucified. But prophets who figure out what people want to hear? Oh, the sky’s the limit.
Now, I’m not a Christian, so obviously what she preaches doesn’t apply to me at all. But I have to deal with the people who do listen to her and who do think her words apply to them. I have to live in a society shaped by prosperity theology. I have to deal with entitlement-minded Christians who are convinced that their god wants them to own my government, my body, and my sexuality. I have to endure the constant overreach of Christians who think that they should get their way all the time, and who justify their riches and luxury with half-baked twaddle. And I have to see the women–and men too–damaged when trying to follow Joyce Meyer’s theology and ideas backfires in the real world. I care about a lot of people, some of whom are Christian, others of whom are married to Christians, and it pains me to see Christians I care about bash up against the brick wall that is reality with their gauzy notions of prosperity gospel and entitlement and selflessness.
We’ll probably talk about Joyce Meyer again at some point, but this piece will work as an introduction to why I can’t stand her or what she teaches. This theology she preaches is damaging and clearly meant only to line her own pockets, and I wish more Christians were a bit more critical of preachers like her.
PS: Can I just say it’s weird to see someone going on and on about the Bible when she’s dressed like a man and has short hair and makeup on and seems to have enjoyed the benefits of a cosmetic surgeon’s knife? Guess it’s the ex-fundie in me.