Next Ross Douthat analyzes the prosperity gospel as a form of bad religion or heresy. He starts and finishes with Joel Osteen In between he goes through the history in America of the idea that God gives wealth to the faithful.
This notion comes sometimes in the obviously heretical teachings of the New Thought Movement, Mary Baker Eddy, and L. Ron Hubbard. But it also comes in the television churches of Kenneth Hagin, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, and Osteen. It has Evangelical forms, Pentecostal forms, African-American forms, and Hispanic forms. It even has an analogue in the defense of Capitalism by some Roman Catholics.
Douthat is troubled by the contrast between this message and the denunciations of wealth in the Bible and the Catholic tradition. It doesn’t seem to fit with the practice of asceticism, particularly the vow of poverty in many of the religious orders.
And sometimes the prosperity emphasis is just disgraceful. He gives Hanna Rosin’s account of the marketing scheme some Wells Fargo loan officers came up with during the housing boom, They approached pastors with the proposition of $350 to the church for every member they could sign up for a sub prime mortgage. They sold this by promising that church members would become home owners. They sold the American Dream.
After the bubble burst and mortgage debt ruined many people, Fernando Garey, a pastor entangled in the mortgage business, explained, “Ten Christians will say that God told them to buy a house,,,In nine of the cases, it will go bad. The 10th one is the real Christian.” Douthat, Ross (2012-04-17). Bad Religion (p. 209). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)
This idea–that when things don’t work out your faith just wasn’t strong enough or you weren’t a real Christian–is a staple of this kind of thinking.
Still, Douthat admits that some versions of the prosperity gospel encourage generosity. It is not necessarily about greed. Americans lead the world in giving to private charity and evangelicals are the most generous of all.
“Rick Warren made his name by fusing megachurch Christianity with the science of marketing, but his Purpose-Driven earnings were funneled into a crusade against AIDS in Africa, among other noble causes. T. D. Jakes’s Potter’s House ministers to a well-heeled congregation, but his church is also heavily invested in development work in Kenya. Bruce Wilkinson could have coasted into retirement on the royalties from The Prayer of Jabez, but instead his “enlarge-your-territory” theology carried him to Swaziland, where he announced plans to house and feed the children left homeless by HIV.” (Douthat, Ross (2012-04-17). Bad Religion (p. 204). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)
Douthat admits that the prosperity gospel can be empowering for some people, and that it can be supportive of generosity. But he thinks it fails theologically in that it doesn’t know that the free market remains subject to sin. Traditional Christianity has seen value in self denial, poverty, and suffering. The prosperity gospel devalues these things.
Joel Osteen doesn’t appeal to me. I think its something about his hair. But I know that Dave Ramsey has been supportive of his ministry. Ramsey promotes a practical wisdom. Get out of debt. Buy only what you can afford. If people followed that, it would undermine the economic status quo, which is based on stimulus and consumerism.
I wonder if Osteen ever voices these concerns about the sin of living beyond one’s income. (I haven‘t read his books.) Are Ramsey and Olsteen really on the same page?
Douthat sees that the left and the right come together in wanting to skip on to Easter while avoiding Good Friday. Left wing utopians think we can build the kingdom of God in this age. The right wing dreams of America as a shining city on a hill with prosperity for all through free markets.
I think that spirituality lies in another way. This world is passing away. I am not talking about the Mayan calendar. I am talking about decay and death. Jesus spoke of wealth as something that will fail (Luke 16:9). It is subject to moth, rust, and thieves. Real treasure is something we store up in our hearts.
We all know this. We are anxious about it, though. That is where the prosperity preachers get us.