Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Prosperity Gospel

Real proof that the post-modern literary critics are right when they say that texts have no inherent meaning is provided by the "prosperity gospel" movement. If Jesus was clear about anything, it was that earthly riches are useless (at best). And yet we have, in America, whole churches devoted to the notion that Jesus wants you to be rich, led by pastors who claim the authority to preach on the basis of their own wealth. Laurie Goodstein in the NY Times:
FORT WORTH — Onstage before thousands of believers weighed down by debt and economic insecurity, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland and their all-star lineup of “prosperity gospel” preachers delighted the crowd with anecdotes about the luxurious lives they had attained by following the Word of God.

Private airplanes and boats. A motorcycle sent by an anonymous supporter. Vacations in Hawaii and cruises in Alaska. Designer handbags. A ring of emeralds and diamonds.

“God knows where the money is, and he knows how to get the money to you,” preached Mrs. Copeland, dressed in a crisp pants ensemble like those worn by C.E.O.’s.

Even in an economic downturn, preachers in the “prosperity gospel” movement are drawing sizable, adoring audiences. Their message — that if you have sufficient faith in God and the Bible and donate generously, God will multiply your offerings a hundredfold — is reassuring to many in hard times.
One of the things I find fascinating about our species is the way we like to turn our innate impulses upside down and assign spiritual value to not doing what comes naturally. Nothing is more natural to us than eating, so no spiritual practice is more widespread than fasting. The desire to acquire status and wealth is widespread and strong, so societies around the world assign spiritual value to voluntary poverty. Admiration of those who can renounce the world is common. And yet renunciation is, after all, very difficult, especially since it leads to being lorded over by those who haven't renounced anything. So even where renunciation is a common and much praised choice -- India, medieval Europe -- it exists in a twisted relationship with societies devoted to material gain.

Which leads me back to the prosperity gospel. This is based on flat-out abandoning the contrary parts of Christian teaching and equating religious values with those of the marketplace. Last will be first, my ass -- make me rich now! Its followers are people who don't want complexity in their moral worlds. They want everything to line up nicely. For them there is no dark side to money, which, after all, buys nice things like cars and boats and designer handbags. They see nothing wrong in wanting to be rich, and they don't understand why God would see anything wrong about it, either. It is, in its way, a very cheerful and optimistic faith. It does not wrestle with either religious questions like why God would give cancer to his most devoted followers or economic questions like whether the prosperity of some is based on the misery of others toiling in sweat shops. It simply lines up everything good on one side and everything bad on the other and urges us to seek God's help in getting the good.

Obviously, not everyone feels the spiritual pull of renunciation. And if you simply don't understand why not having is better than having, why not invent a religion that expresses your view of the world?

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