Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Way of Prosperity!

It’s not easy for me to write a blog about the Pro$perity Go$pel and the folks who sell it.  Everytime I try I tend to black out and then wake up in front of several pages of angry, expletive heavy ranting.  I’m going to try and keep it together for this blog though in the hope that maybe, just maybe I can convince one naïve soul out there to think twice before sending that guy with the weird hair on TV their money. 

For the sake of full disclosure, once upon a time I was that naïve soul “sowed” my “money seed” and waited for my “harvest”.  And waited.  And waited.  And waited.  It still burns my ass everytime I think about it!  So maybe this blog is not so much to the hypothetical naïve soul who is about to send off his/her money – because let’s face it, the odds of such a person reading this blog is slim to none.  This blog is probably more directed to my much younger, incredibly gullible self.  Don’t knock it, blogging is cheaper than therapy.

The thing about the Pro$perity Go$pel is that it’s rotten to the core.  There is so much wrong with it on so many levels I’m not sure where to start.  

For starters, the entire system is predicated on a horrible – and incredibly unchristian – set of foundational beliefs:

1 – You can have it all.  Fabulous wealth, total life long health, a perfect spouse, wonderful children, your dream home, dream job, dream everything.

2 – You can have it all because God desires nothing more than to give you the most awesome, comfortable and pleasurable life imaginable!

3 – HOWEVER you may have noticed that you don’t in fact have it all and that your life looks nothing like the ideal.   This is because while God wants to give you all these things He can’t.  (Also He is very sad about that, but what can He do?  It’s not like you can expect the Almighty to be all-powerful or anything… )

4 – BUT there is a way that you can untie the mighty hand of God!  You can sow a seed!  The seed will release a harvest of blessing!!  (Just so we're clear, by “seed” I mean money and by “sow” I mean give to the Pro$perity preacher)

5 – If you are skeptical, just look at the Prosperity preacher!!  He is living proof that this system works every time – he is after all fabulously wealthy, money keeps finding him, he has the adoring and perfectly coiffed wife and the house of your dreams!  Clearly it works!

I have to concede on point 5.  The Pro$perity Go$pel does work fantastically BUT the trick is that for it to work you have to be a Pro$perity Go$pel preacher.  See the Pro$perity Go$pel is a one way street where everything flows to the man at the top.  The reason the Prosperity preacher has so much money and stuff is because people give him money and stuff and the reason they do that is because he tells them to (in order to get more money and stuff for themselves).  Your greed feeds his.  The Pro$perity Go$pel doesn’t actually work*, but preaching the Pro$perity Go$pel works incredibly well!

Now regarding these preachers, there are three things you need to know.

One, these are not the kind of people you should be taking advice from.  They have been too wealthy for too long and have become too used to people throwing money in their direction for them to have any relevance in the real world.  They may occasionally vacation in the real world but they certainly do not live in it.  Case in point (as well as the inspiration for this blog): this letter from Benny Hinn.  Basically his advice to people suffering due to the recession and struggling with debt is to send him more money.  Don’t change your spending habits, don’t try to budget better, don’t go for debt counseling, just send pastor Hinn more money and all will be well.  These are not good people!!

Two, calling them pastors** would be inaccurate.  Calling them wizards would be far more accurate.  Think about it, in their theology God is a well meaning but slightly retarded cosmic force that can be bound and harnessed by speaking incantations from their spellbook (the Bible) provided of course that you speak these magic words with the proper amount of spiritual energy (faith).  They don’t treat Scripture like a narrative that has something to say about life in the world.  Instead they encourage you to use individual verses as charms to ward off evil and attract good fortune.  Case in point:  Benny Hinn’s debt cancellation stickers.  Yes that’s right, if you are struggling financially you just stick these verses and exhortations by the Great Wizard Hinn on your bank statements and bills and let the special Jesus Magic do all the work for you.  It’s like magic beans, only more useless.

The third and most important thing you should realize about Prosperity preachers is that they don’t actually believe a word of what they tell you.  Oh they may claim that it was these “laws of prosperity” that made them rich but it obviously wasn’t.  God didn’t give them a cent, all their money came from people who bought what they were selling.  Their actions speak much louder than their words.  What do they do when they need money?  Do they “sow a money seed”?  No.  They send letters and do television broadcasts asking people to send them money.  If they really believed any of what they taught, why don’t you ever see them “sowing” their vast fortunes?  (They would claim that they do but unlike them I don’t count buying bigger church complexes or more tv stations as “sowing”)  Surely if it worked the way they claimed they could be busy turning their millions into billions – all it would take would be for them to do all the things they tell others to do.  But they never do that, do they?  In their heart of hearts they must therefore know their magic doesn’t work as claimed.  I think the Naked Pastor summed it up best:

* I say this not for theological or intellectual reasons – though there are plenty of those – but because I personally tested it on a level most of the faithful never dared.  I am living, empirical proof.
** Pastor means shepherd.  Shepherds sole reason for existing is not fleecing their flocks.  Just sayin…

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Breaking the Salvation Spell

Let me tell you about my landlord.

First off, I don’t think “landlord” is quite the right term since we have quite an informal arrangement, but I do pay him for the roof over my head so I guess landlord technically applies.  Anyway, Oom Eddie* is a rather remarkable person.  For one thing he has forever immunized me against the hateful idea preached by some (Alex Jones, I’m looking at you) that schizophrenics are evil, demonic people desiring only torture and murder.  Oom Eddie may be schizophrenic but he is also the kindest, gentlest, most generous soul that I know.  Sure, I feel a twinge of worry when he mentions God speaking to him but then again, God only ever tells him to be good to others and to work on math problems so I’m not losing any sleep over it.  Really the only terrible thing he does is to eat his chicken mayo sandwiches with the chicken on the side!  As you may have guessed he is a deeply religious man, but unlike most of the people often described as “deeply religious” he actually walks the talk.  Despite growing up in church and being among believers for all of my 33 years I have never seen anyone this consistent about practicing what Jesus preached.  No beggar at our gate ever goes away without being fed.  He doesn’t just pay lip service to helping the poor, he actually buys them groceries and clothes.  Also, he doesn’t differentiate between “deserving” and “undeserving” poor people – he helps everyone.  Going by what Jesus taught in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats*, Oom Eddie should be more certain of his place in the Kingdom of God than anyone else I know.  Yet recently he became deeply troubled regarding the subject of salvation. 

See he read the following in Revelation 20:15:
“If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
After reading that he really locked onto the idea that your name has to be in the Book of Life and
so he began to tell everyone that they had to pray God to write their names in the Book of Life.  No substitutes accepted – they had to ask it in those exact words.  There was a note on the fridge and everything!  However as amusing as it was, I realized that what he was doing was no different from what a very large segment of Evangelical Christianity has been doing for years.

Here’s the thing, open a piece of evangelical literature and you will find that everything from The Believers Voice of Victory to a Chick Tract will tell you the exact words you need to say in order to make it into heaven (and avoid hell).  If you are an evangelical Christian you know exactly what I’m talking about – the Sinner’s Prayer.  I had never really thought about it before, but isn’t that kind of weird?  Does it make sense that the same people who talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus (as their personal Saviour) would tell you to start said personal relationship with something so formulaic and impersonal?  Actually no, formula is not the right word for this.  When you have to say just the right words and mean it in just the right way to make something happen that’s not really a formula, that’s a spell!  If you believe God to be real and personal, why would you relate to him via spellcasting?  I’m no Jesus, but I like to think of myself as a person and I have to say that not one of my friendships exist because someone came up to me and spoke specific, preordained, “friendship words”.

Don’t get me wrong, I get why evangelists do that.  When there is a right way using the right terms then you can be more certain of your salvation.  Only it doesn’t really work that way does it?  As I child I must have prayed the sinner’s prayer dozens of times – pretty much one for every new version I came across.  Because that’s the problem with spellcasting isn’t it?  You have to do it just right.  You say your spell wrong and the magic brooms go nuts you might not make it to heaven.

However it was when I was searching the interwebs for examples of sinner’s prayers that I realized the far bigger problem with salvation-by-formula – it’s not Biblical.  Check out this example I found online under the heading:  “What must one do to be saved?”

Believe the Gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) that Jesus died for your sin, was buried, and has risen from the grave. (Mark 16:16) (Romans 10: 9&10)
Confess that Jesus is the Son of God.  (Acts 8:37) (Romans10:9&10)
Repent of the sin in your life.(Luke 13:3) (Acts 2: 38)
Be baptized into Christ for the forgiveness of your sin. (Acts 2:38) (Mark 16:16)

See the problem?  No, I’m not challenging the Theology of it, not in the least.  But did you notice how in order to put that formula together, they had to hop all over the New Testament?  Doesn’t that seem odd?  If there really was a right way, a series of steps to attain salvation, wouldn’t it be in one place?  Shouldn’t it be in one place?  We are talking about Salvation after all, the thing that determines your eternal destiny!  If ever there was need for a surefire formula, this would be it!  And yet scour the Gospels, page through the Epistles, you’ll find pretty much nothing resembling the formulaic salvation spells we ask new converts to pray.

I did however find some really great examples of actual sinner’s prayers.  I even got a Biblical one! The striking thing was that none of it resembled any kind of formula.  Instead they are heartfelt and uniquely true to the people praying them.

There is the restrained account by Dag Hammarskjold:
I don't know Who or What put the question, I don't know when it was put. I don't even remember answering. But at some moment, I did answer Yes.
There is the sacred rawness of Anne Lamott’s account:
I hung my head and said, "Fuck it: I quit." I took a long deep breath and said out loud, "All right. You can come in.
Then there is arguably the most famous sinner’s prayer in the world, the heartfelt plea of the nameless thief on the cross:
Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Now I don’t think you are ever likely to hear any of these after a preacher said “Everyone close your eyes and pray after me”.  These prayers lack a strong theological backbone, they are devoid of Scripture references and they aren’t that eloquent.  Yet they worked (well we know the last one did anyway).  They weren’t much but they were real and honest and stripped of all pretension.  The people who said those words owned them like you could never own a form prayer.  None of those could be mistaken for a spell, instead they sounded like something you would say to an actual Person.  They sound like the beginning of a real relationship.

But OK, maybe you think I’m trying to fix something that isn’t broken and that I’m simply nitpicking so I can have something to blog about.   Alas, much as I enjoy an occasional nitpick, this isn’t one of those cases.  I recently read that studies in the US have shown that for the past 40 years or so, the number of evangelical Protestants has remained stable.  Think about that.  The same people who report constant good responses to outreaches and altar calls have not been growing in number.  This means that we are losing converts at the same rate that we make them.  Now there are probably many reasons for this but maybe it’s time to start admitting that the formulas aren’t working.


*For those unfamiliar with Afrikaner culture – it is customary to refer to all our elders as Oom (uncle) or Tannie (aunt) regardless of actual relation. 
**  That’s one teaching you never seem to hear used during evangelistic outreach, even though it explicitly deals with the subject of salvation…  Is it just me or does Jesus appear to be implying that faith without works is dead but that works (Without faith?  It never gets a mention...) is pretty much good enough?