Friday, June 08, 2007

A Quick Response to a Post That Probably Deserves Something More Thoughtful

Tom Gilson, at Thinking Christian, has posted a list of 10 misconceptions that Christians have about their own faith. It’s an interesting post to me partially because, with so many flavors of Christianity and so many different beliefs about what we, as Christians, are commanded to do in the name of our faith, it seems like it would be hard to find consensus on some of these points. In particular, his points 3 and 5 would probably rouse a good deal of disagreement in some churches.

But I’m not linking to argue over those points. What I want to address is his point 9:

9. The health and wealth gospel.
“God wants you to be prosperous! God wants you to be successful! God wants you to be healthy!” There are pockets where this is prominent. Only in America, as they say. It would never have sold in Soviet Russia, and it wouldn’t be believed today in China, Cuba, Sudan, or any of the other parts of the world where the Church is growing in spite of persecution. It’s a huge distortion of God’s intention. Yes, ultimately God has good in store for all his people, but part of that good is to know his power in our lives when we are most desperately in need of it. It’s to build our character through testing. It’s to let us share in the pain--and to share comfort as well--in a fallen world, in which we are genuine co-sufferers.

I certainly don’t disagree with him in reference to those who teach that God wants to shower believers with wealth and tons of stuff. That’s why I wrote, some time ago, Give to God! Act Now And Get These Ginsu Knives 100% Free!.

What I don’t like is the idea that this is some unique American malfunction. Prosperity gospel did originate in the US, but, sadly, it has begun to spread.

Prosperity gospel is beginning to spread through Africa and it abounds mostly in the poorer churches in the US for the same reason that it does sell in some poor nations. It appeals to poorer folks because it gives them something to hope for and makes Christianity something that will reward them here and now. It makes the rewards of sacrifice--the money given, the habits given up--something immediate.

It appeals to the leaders of some churches because it’s a way to grease money out of the masses--if you give now, God will make sure that your giving comes back to you ten fold. Translation to the uncritical mind: give a buck, get ten in return. Give a hundred bucks and get a thousand in return. It’s religion as a ponzi scheme--the type of thing that appeals not to the wealthy (and rarely to the merely comfortable), but to the poor sucker at the wrong end of the economic spectrum who can’t see another path to prosperity.

Mr. Gilson has written a thought provoking list, and it’s a great place to start conversations. Unfortunately, though, his take on prosperity gospel as a uniquely American doctrine is terribly wrong; prosperity gospel is proving a steady hand at converting folks in poor nations who suffer from disease, poverty, and corrupt governments. The psychology--the desire for wealth that leads transactional theology to grip so tightly on the poor--isn’t American, it’s universal. The shame is that the hucksters who sell the stuff seem to be doing a damned good job of spreading the faith.

Now, ask me why I liken prosperity gospel to the almost religious belief in some communities that pro sports offer a realistic path out of poverty even to the extent that sports take precedence over academic achievement…

A Little More Reading:
The Prosperity Gospel in Nigeria: A Re-Examination of the Concept, Its Impact, and an Evaluation
The Prosperity Gospel (A post at Vehement Adventure)


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