November 18, 2017

The Cruelest of Teachings

Grieving Magdalene, Fritchman

Grieving Magdalene, Fritchman

Kate Bowler is an assistant professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School. She has written an informative book which has put a lot in perspective for me about the origins and development of the “prosperity gospel” in the U.S. I highly recommend it; it’s called Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.

What drew my attention to this book, however, wasn’t just its subject matter.

Just a few months ago, at age 35, Kate Bowler learned she had a massive abdominal tumor — stage four cancer.

Her excellent, moving article in the New York Times, “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me,”  shows more humanity and insight in a single sentence than all the health and wealth sermons that have been preached over the past 125 years or so.

Bowler’s story has made me realize afresh that there is little which is more culture-bound and cruel than this perversion of the Christian faith, which is so prominent around us.

s200_kate.bowler[A] neighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that everything happens for a reason.

“I’d love to hear it,” my husband said.

“Pardon?” she said, startled.

“I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has.

My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee. But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos. Because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else. (NYT)

The false promise of the prosperity gospel is that we get to escape our humanity. We get to control how it goes. We get to rise above the herd. And, most damning of all, we get these blessings not because God sovereignly and graciously bestowed them upon us, but because we somehow got in on God’s “secret” and said the right things, did the right things, and planted the right “seeds,” guaranteeing a good “harvest” in our lives.

Bowler’s research led her to understand that the prosperity gospel is “composed of three distinct though intersecting streams: pentecostalism; New Thought (an amalgam of metaphysics and Protestantism…); and an American gospel of pragmatism, individualism, and upward mobility” (Blessed, p. 11). The theological father of the movement was E.W. Kenyon (1867-1948), who defined faith as a “confident assurance based on absolute knowledge that everything is already provided through the operation of certain immutable laws.” One main key to unlocking the power of this faith to bring blessing is for a believer to speak the word of faith, to give a good confession, to put faith into positive words. As God spoke creation into existence, so the believer may speak blessing into existence when his/her positive confession activates faith.

New Thought uncovered the hidden truth that Americans longed to hear— that divinity was lodged somewhere in their beings and that their secret powers demanded expression. It represented a powerful combination of two spiritual conclusions, “inner divinity” and “outer power” (p. 36).

New Thought ideology has worked itself out in many ways — both religious and secular — in the subsequent history of the United States.

For example, as New Thought ideas intersected with Pentecostalism, Bowler writes, “the resulting messages combined a Christological framework with the mechanism of mind-power, guaranteeing believers the ability to change their circumstances by tapping into new spiritual powers.” Over the course of time, business people were also encouraged to tap into this power through “positive thinking,” and “leadership secrets.” Today, Kate Bowler writes that her scientific friends seem to attribute a certain power to out-witting one’s disease through research, while her hippie friends keep pushing kale salads on her as the answer.

In other words, all this positive thinking and unleashing of inner power is as American as apple pie. In its Christian forms it brings together a lethal combination of evangelical doctrines and symbolism, a certain gnostic pride in having the “answers,” and following the secret rules, and a puritanical kind of separatism and self-righteousness that refuses to admit fear or any identification with the struggles of our lower nature (or those of our neighbors).

The prosperity gospel popularized a Christian explanation for why some people make it and some do not. They revolutionized prayer as an instrument for getting God always to say “yes.” It offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules, and God will reward you, heal you, restore you. It’s also distressingly similar to the popular cartoon emojis for the iPhone, the ones that show you images of yourself in various poses. One of the standard cartoons shows me holding a #blessed sign. My world is conspiring to make me believe that I am special, that I am the exception whose character will save me from the grisly predictions and the CT scans in my inbox. I am blessed.

The prosperity gospel holds to this illusion of control until the very end. If a believer gets sick and dies, shame compounds the grief. Those who are loved and lost are just that — those who have lost the test of faith. In my work, I have heard countless stories of refusing to acknowledge that the end had finally come. An emaciated man was pushed about a megachurch in a wheelchair as churchgoers declared that he was already healed. A woman danced around her sister’s deathbed shouting to horrified family members that the body can yet live. There is no graceful death, no ars moriendi, in the prosperity gospel. There are only jarring disappointments after fevered attempts to deny its inevitability. (NYT)

Kate Bowler has to be one of the most gracious and understanding of people. Thankfully, she seems to be grounded in a more realistic and Christ-centered faith. This shows when, at the end of her article, knowing all that she knows about this crazy and crazy-making amalgam of spiritualism and American moxie, she still praises the stubborn resolve of many of the people who have bought into these teachings, recognizing in the end that in some ways we all are in this together, and that we have all been affected by “the American God” we’ve created.

At age 35, dying of cancer, with a young family she knows she’ll leave behind, she is big enough to look at life and say, “Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard,” and not express any bitterness toward a very popular system of teaching that considers her a loser and a failure when it comes to faith.

So I guess I get to state my anger about it today.

When I look at her beautiful face and try to imagine what she and her family are going through, I am so ashamed to be called a “Christian” when that designation is associated with the likes of this, the cruelest of teachings that has nothing but false hope and empty “principles” to offer her.

Comments

  1. I mentioned here about a week or so ago that I watched a man die while everyone around, including a young deluded me, stood and claimed his healing. No one did CPR. The man was nicknamed Eggy, I think because he looked like a big egg. He probably had an eighth grade education at best. It was at a Christian coffee house that I ran once a month in the early eighties that he had a heart attack and fell on the floor right in the middle of a performance. I ended up at the hospital or the morgue that night, I don’t remember. I was in a full fog. I laid my hand on his dead body and said goodbye to him and to any shred of prosperity gospel and claiming this or that that I may have ever fallen for. There is always a kernel of truth in the big deceptions or we wouldn’t fall for them. The concept is perfectly logical with scriptures to back it. Whatever you ask in my name…. If you had faith as a mustard seed… The blessings of Abraham… Whatever! Hey, I’m doing ok economically.. I run a small business and my wife has a good job. I could run around and claim all that bullshite (that’s Gaelic I think) but the Christian life is not based on logical assertions and ordered propositions with attendant supporting scriptures. It is a hidden thing of heart and intention buried in love and outward flow, even from the most introverted, not a story of accumulation and showiness. Basically I came to understand that Jesus was definitively absent from that table in my real life experience no matter how many scriptures there were to justify it. I just couldn’t find him there. So God bless Eggy, and freedom and expanse which ironically come from poverty of spirit, and straight to hell with the prosperity gospel. The topic touches a big crossroads in my life. It’s when I left the evangelical circus and headed into years of wilderness. There was more to leaving than just prosperity gospel but anyway it seems so far away. What a shame that that pernicious fallacy is still going strong more than three decades later. It has appeal but perhaps not to our better angels.

    • “I’ll be a big noise with all the big boys, so much stuff I will own
      And I will pray to a big god, as I kneel in the big church

      Big time, I’m on my way I’m making it, big time, oh yes
      Big time, I’ve got to make it show yeah, big time
      Big time, so much larger than life…”
      Peter Gabriel

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I mentioned here about a week or so ago that I watched a man die while everyone around, including a young deluded me, stood and claimed his healing. No one did CPR.

      Remind me to never have a heart attack among Christians.

      The real tragedy about the Prosperity Gospel?
      It’s spreading through Africa — Earth’s hard-luck continent, the Third World of the Third World — like fire through a lake of gasoline/petrol.

      • –> “Remind me to never have a heart attack among Christians.”

        Ouch…LOL! Of course, that should really be “among SOME Christians.” If you find yourself in a church group that you don’t think would try to save your life, time to switch churches.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          I have never encountered a church type who would let me die while “naming and claiming”, but I have run across a couple who would WITNESS to me instead of saving my life so they could Save my Soul(TM).

          I remember that being a trick question on Christianese talk radio — “What would you do? Save his life or Save His Soul(TM)?” with the distinct implication what the Only Christian Answer Would Be. My response always was “What prevents me from doing both?”

          • Pellicano Solitudinis says:

            That’s like the whole, “Bread or Bibles” question.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            “Bread or Bibles” sounds like “Social Gospel without personal salvation” or “Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation”.

            I had enough of the latter in-country in the Seventies.

        • Richard Hershberger says:

          I have this reaction to many of the excesses and idiosyncrasies of (some) Christians. I wonder why any sensible person sticks around. Occasionally there are good reasons for this, but often it seems like a failure of the imagination.

    • Thanks for sharing your story and a glimpse into your journey and walk with Jesus. He is a gracious, patient God.

  2. doubting thomas says:

    It is tempting to believe that I can somehow control life if I know the magic rituals to perform. In my misspent youth I was part of a charismatic group. We followed the teachings of a name it and claim it teacher. It felt good to have this secret knowledge. From time to time a heretical thought would creep into my mind. “I don’t really know anybody who ever was healed this way”. The teacher ended up dying young of an illness that didn’t get healed by positive confession.

  3. Life may be so beautiful (this is something I’ve always had a hard time seeing and accepting); but it’s the hardness of life, the inexorable and relentless suffering that drives people to whatever panaceas they can find, with whatever resources they can muster. Before the development of medical science, magic and magical thinking was not that much different from the existing practices of physicians, and probably had just as much “success”, or lack thereof.

    Old habits die hard, and some just won’t die. Where medical science cannot offer people adequate help in their time of need, they will fall back on the old habits, because even snake oil seems credible and preferable in the face of suffering we just are unable to cope with. It’s not just Christians who fall prey to this habit; belief in magical cures is widespread throughout our culture, and other cultures, and is strangely mingled with the religious reverence given to medical doctors and medical science. No one wants to die, no one wants to suffer, and on one wants to lose control of their life to illness and death; it will ever be so, and there will ever be a market for snake oil.

    • It’s extremely lamentable that many people, Christian and non-Christian alike, develop religious loyalty to their snake-oil of choice, and consider those who reject it because it has not worked for them to be traitors and infidels. Suffering then breeds more suffering. God help them, and us.

    • “…belief in magical cures is widespread throughout our culture, and other cultures, and is strangely mingled with the religious reverence given to medical doctors and medical science.”

      Agreed. Stanley Hauerwas says, ““Modern medicine has become a god to which we look (in vain) for deliverance from the evils of disease and mortality.” And it is because, as you write, “No one wants to die.” But, isn’t Christianity positioned to give people hope in the face of the inevitable, whether it be death or suffering of any kind? Not by denying the reality of these things, or avoiding them, but by pointing to a God, in the person of Jesus, who willingly entered into this world of suffering and took that same suffering upon Himself, that through His own death He brought us into communion with God the Father so that, in life and in death we belong to Him, both body and soul?

      • But, isn’t Christianity positioned to give people hope in the face of the inevitable, whether it be death or suffering of any kind?

        The problem is, people only look to Jesus or the early Apostles. They see healings. They don’t see the inevitable death. So why should they settle for second best when God is clearly capable of giving them the best?

        I think a lot of people tend to forget that the Gospels and the Book of Acts were either written by eyewitnesses decades later, or are testimonies from eyewitnesses told to a doctor turned historian reporting to a local government ruler about what’s going on. Things tend to get legendized.

      • Excellent comment! God never promised that we would not suffer in this life. This is a fallen world and has been since the garden. It is a reality that we don’t want to experience, but do. The promise of God is that he will be with us through whatever the suffering here on this earth, may involve. We are appointed once to die. Some of us may die before Jesus returns. The problem lies in our thinking that this life is our destination but it is not! As Christians, we must live here knowing that we are just passing through on our way to our eternal home with Jesus. If we would live here, with a heaven as our goal, type of mindset, would we fear what we are going to have to go through before we get there? I think we have to live here eternally minded. When you think about it, life is eternal and when we get our call to leave this place there are only two possibilities for where we are headed at that time. We will either go to heaven or hell. I don’t mean to sound heartless in regard to suffering a d dying, because I am well aware of the sadness and grieving involved in the loss of those we love and having to live out our years without them. But I also know that when I have lost someone who I know left here and his goal
        Was to be with Jesus and those who had gone before him, in heave, his real home, it was so much easier to accept him not being here with me any longer. With that being said, I know that God has built within us an incredible desire to live and strive with everything within us to do so, therefore, we must live here hoping and praying for healing and knowing that God may chose to heal and may chose for us to go but we must never give up hope for life that he gives us. As the apostle Paul wrote, to live is Christ, to die is Christ.

        • I pray now Kate, that God would put his healing hand upon you and give you wholeness and a cancer free body, that you would enjoy many more years of life here with your family. May God bless you and yours with comfort, peace and hope and confidence in HIM who is able! Our God and Father, our Lord and Saviour, I ask for you to heal Kate and suit a blessing to her specific needs! In the holy and precious name of Jesus.

  4. Kate will be in my prayers. May God have mercy upon her, her husband and all her family.

    The ways in which the holy Trinity deal with us are almost, but not quite, indistinguishable from chance. The angry and resentful among us would say ‘Well! Let us call it Chance then and be done with it!’ But that is not the whole story.

    God Himself is the reward as He said to Abraham. On two blessed occasions I have been close enough to Him to realize the neurological truth of that, and I lament that the experience is not more widespread.

    • –> “God Himself is the reward as He said to Abraham. On two blessed occasions I have been close enough to Him to realize the neurological truth of that, and I lament that the experience is not more widespread.”

      Yes.

    • Abraham here being a man who almost killed his own son because he believed god was talking to him?

      Call me one of the angry and resentful if you like but, no, there are no gods. Not one.

      • If there is a god – not just any god, but the One we believe is spoken of in the Bible – He loves you very much.

      • I don’t believe there are any gods either, J. Never have been, never will be. Tho it would be fun if it were true, especially if ALL of them had existed, some great American Gods type thing.

        But I do believe in Jesus, as much as I can.

        • I think I’m about in the same place.

        • @StuartB
          @Dr. F

          You might want to check out the theology, or anti-theology, of Death of God theologian William Hamilton. While he like other radical theologians of his time denied the reality of a transcendent god, unlike many of them, he continued to have high regard for Jesus, as he understood him from his own reading of the Gospels. He seemed to consider Jesus a kind of ideal model of what it means to be human, and said that he’d rather be in the company of fellow-travelers of Jesus than among any other.

  5. Dave Denis says:

    I read the NYT Article a few days ago and immediately went over to our public library and checked out “Blessed.” I’m 20% into it — she starts with a historical survey of the development including major personalities, important publications, etc. Some of it would make my hair stand on end if I had any. I have had my own close calls with the secular analog of PG through the “personal development” industry. The cognitive and spiritual dissonance became too great and I was able (thanks be to God) to see it for what it was. This book is beautifully timed for me to get a better grasp on the roots and background behind it all.

    Bowle’s writing is clear and accessible and it seems thoroughly researched. While she makes no bones about the antagonism between orthodox christian belief and the heresies of PG, she seems to have a true human affection and respect for her subjects. I appreciate her distinctively un-hysterical and level-headed approach to the subject.

    Knowing that she is also now facing the dragon of cancer gives the text an added poignancy. Beyond her scholarly contributions, I am grateful for her courage and sheer humanity to write an article like the one she penned for NYT. I am praying for her healing and for comfort and courage for her and her family. May God answer our prayers as he thinks best for us all.

    • Excellent description of her book, Dave. I have tremendous respect for her.

    • Some of it would make my hair stand on end if I had any.

      I can relate to that statement all too well, although my beard may have stood on end a few times.

      I’ll have to put that book on my reading list. I had some exposure to prosperity doctrine in the 1980’s when I attended a church that promoted Robert Tilton’s teachings; this was a few years before the scandal which brought down his ministry.

      I’ve also heard or read the “immutable laws” teaching in several contexts outside prosperity doctrine. For example, Bill Gothard’s “basic life principles” bear a strong resemblance to “immutable laws” teaching; look how well that worked out for Gothard and the 18 plaintiffs currently suing him.

      • If ALL of the Bible is true and came from God…then ‘train up a child’ and all the other lawish type verses are absolutely true. In fact, they have to be true and must be true, 100% of the time. God said it, we believe it, that’s final. Thus, all truth is knowable and actionable.

        Thus, fundamentalism. You don’t need faith; we’ve got the Bible and The Words of God.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Thus, fundamentalism. You don’t need faith; we’ve got the Bible and The Words of God.

          How does that differ from the Taliban & ISIS and “IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN!”?

    • Ronald Avra says:

      She clearly a talented and balanced person. Tragic loss.

    • ‘Knowing that she is also now facing the dragon of cancer gives the text an added poignancy. Beyond her scholarly contributions, I am grateful for her courage and sheer humanity…”

      Amen. It’s this kind of courage and, dare I add, hope in the face of death that Christians have to offer the world. To quote Margaret Peterson, “What would it look like to reclaim the language of faith, hope, and love in service of the God to whom we belong both in life and in death? What kind of faith, hope, and love might allow us to be people who can beat our swords into plowshares and make peace with mortality? Christian faith places its ultimate trust in God and not in medicine.”

    • I am glad to hear that Kate’s book is being read and enjoyed. It’s a good book, and she has a keen mind.

      In my personal opinion (as a historian), “doing” the history of religion well often involves being able to get just enough distance from your subjects to write analytically, yet get close enough to feel what the world they inhabit is like. Mentally, it’s like toggling constantly, and requires a lot of effort to sustain. Kate excels as it, and I think the quality shows through in her comments.

  6. Peace From The Fringes says:

    Oh yes – as my sister was dying of cancer, a “helpful, godly” member of her church comforted her by pointing out that obviously God wanted someone else to raise her little boys. True story. If I had been there, I would have put aside years of New England-Presbyterian manners and punched her in the mouth. I clearly don’t have a fraction of Ms. Bowler’s strength of character. My prayers (such as they are) to her and her family.

    • That’s despicable. As I’ve seen in many cases, embracing prosperity gospel teachings seems to have an effect similiar to cocaine abuse — it tends to turn otherwise okay human beings into arrogant buttholes who never seem to know when to keep their mouths shut. My sister and brother-in-law were deep into it (PG not cocaine) for several years, and I could barely stand to be around them. Thankfully, they’re both past that phase — though they’re both so burned out on church now that they’ll only attend services on special occassions. And, slowly but surely, I’m starting to get to that point myself. There are very few churches or brands of church out there that don’t throw in a fair share of BS as part of a package deal for being a Christian. Most of the time, I enjoy worshipping and studying and discussing scripture with fellow believers. But is it too much to ask that Christ be exalted and the BS be left as optional?

    • “Oh yes – as my sister was dying of cancer, a “helpful, godly” member of her church comforted her by pointing out that obviously God wanted someone else to raise her little boys.”

      Stop the world; I want to get off.

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    They revolutionized prayer as an instrument for getting God always to say “yes.” It offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules, and God will reward you, heal you, restore you.

    Let the Sorcerer draw the Magick Circle, and through the proper Incantations summon and bind the Spirit to do the Will of the Sorcerer, to grant the Sorcerer riches and health and power…

    • My brother-in-law — who was deep into PG for several years — tells a story of how once, when he thought no-one was looking, he took the pastor’s Bible off the podium and rubbed it against his chest. He says he was hoping that some of the pastor’s “anointing” would rub off on him.

    • >>Let the Sorcerer draw the Magick Circle, and through the proper Incantations summon and bind the Spirit to do the Will of the Sorcerer . . .

      An astute observation. At the same time, you and I and this Universe we currently inhabit were created with a spoken Word, a proper incantation if you will, so there must be a real connection by way of words between idea and manifestation for good as well as ill. Your Sorcerer may be drawing on Astral forces for self-benefit but that doesn’t mean it can’t work. Who benefits, that is the question to be answered.

      Our thoughts and words affect the far reaches of the Universe. If we don’t understand this, we are like a toddler dragging a chair over to open the sharp knife drawer. We can think and frequently say, “Everything I do turns out wrong,” and lo, it does. (I repudiate that thought.) We can think and frequently say, “God is more powerful than my ego,” and lo, a change occurs, perhaps gradual, but a real change. The thought and words need to reflect Truth to be most effective. Saying “I can fly” probably won’t work for you but you’re free to try, and your Sorcerer might have some tips.

      To deny this God given power of creation because some misuse it is to bury your talent, however you choose to understand “talent”. The trick seems to be to distinguish between desires of the ego and desires of God, not an easy task sometimes. The ego is desperately clever at getting its way and wears many disguises, including religious garb.

      • you and I and this Universe we currently inhabit were created with a spoken Word

        No, we weren’t. We can discuss how the Universe was made another time, but if you want to know how you and I were created, there are some websites I can direct you to.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          And I suspect Ken Ham’s AIG website is not among them.

        • Ah, thank you, J, this is probably just one that you and I will have to agree to disagree, preferably over a beverage of choice. Perhaps in a pub or coffee house called Good Vibrations, but you would be welcome in my home as well. I would be curious tho to look at your websites so as to better understand who you are.

        • Just out of curiosity, what do you hope to accomplish here? The clientele here aren’t the “go pick fights with atheists” types, most of us probably aren’t going to spend a lot of time arguing with you here, and there’s hardly anyone here who needs schooling on the flaws of modern American Christian culture. So if you’re just trolling, you’ll probably find easier pickings elsewhere.

      • Good God, Charles, if I believed my every littlest word and action carried that kind of power, I’d be petrified all the time.

        Come to think of it, I am petrified all the time! I probably subconsciously believe what you’re suggesting!

        What a terrible burden, to have my every word and action weighted with the welfare of the universe in the balance. This is an idea that I need to get away from; instead, I need to accept myself as being finite and mortal, having limited power and influence, as a contingent being in no wise like God in power. My likeness to God is that I am capable of loving and accepting my neighbor and enemy, and finding my identity in the crucified and risen Christ, who has forgiven and accepted me.

        That’s quite enough for me, thank you.

        • >>That’s quite enough for me, thank you.

          God thanks you, the Universe thanks you, and I thank you.

          • You are all most welcome.

          • Charles,
            Two things:
            1) When the New Testament speaks of dying to self, I don’t believe it means that our ego is our false self that must be seen through, so that we may connect with and nurture our true Self; I believe it means that our old self must truly perish so that our new self may be resurrected from its remains. Because we are our bodies, not souls inside of interchangeable bodies, the resurrection of the body is the resurrection of the self; the death of the self is made real in baptism, the baptism of Jesus in his life of suffering and dying love, and our baptism into him. It will only manifest its full reality in our physical death and resurrection.

            2) The idea that our every littlest word and thought are so powerful that they affect all of reality seems to me to be an expansion of ego, an exaltation of ego, rather than a seeing through ego to the putative true Self. The idea seems more like the ego’s desperate cleverness in getting its way, which you mention in your comment above a religious disguise it uses to exercise power. If so, this would be the opposite of the death of self that I believe the New Testament speaks of.

          • Regarding number 1): The dying to self that the New Testament speaks of is something that we are enlisted into in baptism; paradoxically, on the one hand it’s a done deal, completed by Jesus, but on the other, we participate in it and experience it as repeated dying, on a daily basis. This is where seeing through our own self-centered tricks is an important skill, and the overlap between your view and mine is here; the ghost of the old self is a poltergeist, and doesn’t keep quiet even after its death. From the perspective of the new baptismal life that we have been given, we can see through the ruses of the old, dead ghost of a self, and avoid the pitfalls it creates, at least to the best of our ability. We may proceed with confidence, and calmness, even in the face of personal failure, because we know that the necessary work has been completed by Christ.

        • Anyone else have youth pastors and evangelists frighten them to death by saying that EVERY word and EVERY deed and EVERY thought will be written across the sky for ALL to see at the Judgement Seat of God?

          Good way to scare young men and women down the aisle into obedience and holiness. And away from God.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            How can you ever trust the God of Jack Chick’s “This Was Your Life”?

            It took Mormon SF writer Orson Scott Card and his novel Speaker for the Dead to put a crack in the Jack Chick Great White Throne imagery.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Good God, Charles, if I believed my every littlest word and action carried that kind of power, I’d be petrified all the time.

          I’ve been there.
          That way lies Madness.

  8. What about the blessings and cursings of the OT covenants? Obey the covenant rules and you will get blessings. Disobey and you get cursings. At least that seems to be how it worked for Israel. Is there no corallary that carries over into the NT? Did not Jesus talk of blessings in the beatitudes? Living a life based on those character qualities will bring blessings? Or not?
    Do the blessings only accrue to the people of the church generally and not individually?

    • Peace From The Fringes says:

      “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. “

    • Yes, living wisely has it’s blessing, and when you live foolishly you can reap the results of that, too. But if the book of Job (among many others) is an example, then you cannot trun that into a corrollary. You can’t say: you looked cursed, therefore you must have disobeyed. Or, you look blessed, therefore you must have obeyed.

      Just yesterday I was reading 1 Samuel 19:18-24. Saul sets out to find and kill David, who is hiding with Samuel. Along the way, the Spirit of God so overwhlems Saul that he has estatic prophecies and eventuyallu falls down naked. The onlookers are amazed that Saul has turned into a prophet. I ask, was he blessed because had murder on his mind?

      (And by the way, in the verses prior to that, David escapes Saul by means of his and Michal’s household idol, Let that sink in for a moment.)

      At best you can say about it, God moves in ways that are not apparent to us. And sometimes it is best to let God prove that himself, rather than to speculate how it will play out.

      • Sorry for the typos above. But hopefully it will all work out to be a blessing. 🙂

      • “At best you can say about it, God moves in ways that are not apparent to us. And sometimes it is best to let God prove that himself, rather than to speculate how it will play out.”

        I agree. We sometimes go to absurd extremes in trying to resolve our theological constructs of who God is (or who we expect Him to be) with the physical realities of the world around us. That square peg doesn’t always fit neatly into the round hole, and we too often do damage to ourselves and others trying to hammer it in. I say let the physical universe be what it is and let God be who He is — and hold to an honest, humble faith that doesn’t insist that both God and reality conform to our expectations.

        • God moves in ways that are not apparent to us

          That is, at best, an observation, not an explanation.

        • Humanslug writes: “I say let the physical universe be what it is and let God be who He is — and hold to an honest, humble faith that doesn’t insist that both God and reality conform to our expectations.”

          Very nicely said – I think I agree. But I want both God and worldly reality to conform to my expectations. I tend to get cranky when they don’t.

          How do I go about letting God be who He is, though?

          • For me, it’s a matter of trying to maintain the attitude and outlook of a student — a student of scriputure and of history and of life who still has a lot to learn — rather than approaching God and reality like an appraiser, measuring everything and everyone around me by my own yardsticks. I try to keep in mind that no matter what I think I know and what I think I’ve learned already, there’s still a lot more of life’s story yet to be written, and I really have no idea what lies in wait on the next page. It also helps to remember that God is a person, and not some perfect theological machine chugging forward on an unbendable set of tracks.
            But sure, I get cranky too when things don’t go my way. I just try to remind myself how poorly qualified I am to be my own or anyone else’s god.

          • Thank you. That is helpful

    • Unsure, the first thing I would say is that we must not interpret the Bible flatly, as though all its passages are written to speak “to me” or that these passages contain “principles” that are true for all time and apply in the same way to all people. Texts like Deuteronomy are written in the form of ancient covenant agreements between a ruler and his people and should be read in that light. They were written (or edited) by later generations to tell the story of Israel, not to give us spiritual prescriptions.

      Second, Jesus did not promise “blessings” in the Beatitudes to those with certain character qualities. Rather, Jesus is proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom and saying that it will bring God’s saving favor to all people, especially the ones the world would never expect to be favored by God.

      The literature of the Bible that has the most to say about “blessings” for the righteous is the Wisdom literature, such as Proverbs. But these are observations about how life generally tends to work, not “spiritual truths” or “laws” or “principles” to be applied. And in Proverbs itself and the other Wisdom books, there is a continual theme that things don’t always work out this way and that life is much more mysterious and incapable of simple explanation.

      • This is very much why I like the shepherd/sheep/flock analogy that pops up often (especially Psalm 23, of course.) I believe my shepherd is a Good Shepherd, constantly looking out for his sheep and his flock – guiding, leading, protecting, moving – but that doesn’t mean the flock won’t get hit with disease, or a flood won’t come and wipe out part of the flock, or that some will wander and get lost, or some won’t be attacked by predators. Living brings with it all those things.

      • Amen!! More of this please!

      • Chaplain Mike – I agree about not reading flatly. But there does seem to be some connection between the kingly covenant language and that used by Jesus – e.g. the beatitudes. Almost as though He is/has created a new covenant. So, I don’t think going back to covenantal ideas is all bad or reading flatly.

        Isn’t Jesus in the beatitudes (and elsewhere) proclaiming that the new King is here now – and He is the new king? If so, then the beatitudes provide a picture of what kingdom living looks like. How should people who call Jesus King live? See the beatitudes. We should be people who are meek, who search after righteouseness/justice, who mourn with others, etc… Seems like King Jesus is writing new rules for how His kingdom operates (versus King Ceasar or King USA or King Power).

        Living out a kingdom life means we are blessed. As I/we are meek/searching justice/persecuted/etc, we are blessed.
        The other side of the coin would be living in a worldly way – after power, control, strength – this way does not bring blessing. Although in this life it sure can seem like it does.

        If it really is a New Testament / covenant / 2nd law, isn’t it fair to expect ideas around blessing and cursing (as all the OT covenant have)?

        Sorry for all the jumbled ideas.

    • I would argue those were all written post-fact. The priestly caste had a vested interest in power or whatever motives they had and would throw up their hands and say “of course these bad things happened to us, we (you) didn’t do this and this, and see, God promised if you had none of this would have happened but the opposite!”

      And I don’t see Jesus talking so much about living life a certain way and blessings will certainly follow. But I do see a lot of living a life a certain way and those things like the Fruit of the Spirit following. There’s no Divine Law that states that if I tithe or give alms, God will return it to me. Wish there was, I used to believe in it, he gave me nothing in return.

    • The Law, with its blessing and curses, was instituted by angels, not God.

      The law has nothing to do with the Promises (Gen. 12) given to Abraham and his “seed”.

      The Christ is the Promise and the Glory of God–who is all Goodness, Blessings, and Love. There exist no curse in the Promise.

      Summary of Galatians Epistle of Paul.

      • The Law, with its blessing and curses, was instituted by angels, not God.

        Those angels are elsewhere in the NT called principalities and powers; the Gnostics would later call them Demiurges. Roughly speaking, they are also sometimes called fallen angels.

  9. >>The false promise of the prosperity gospel is that we get to escape our humanity.

    This would go hand in glove with the Rapture as promulgated in Dispensationalism, the Great Escape. Another factor from the same time period would be Christian Science. It would be a mistake to throw all of these thought systems out without looking for the hidden truths or half truths that give them such strong appeal. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater would be as serious a mistake on the other extreme. Jimmie Carter might have something to say about the benefit of research. Even today’s medical poisoners understand that you are better off eating your kale than a Snickers bar, or at least the younger ones.

    >> . . . a puritanical kind of separatism and self-righteousness that refuses to admit fear or any identification with the struggles of our lower nature (or those of our neighbors).

    It is not just an identification with the struggles of our lower nature involved here, it is an identification with our lower nature itself, or our ego to put it in 21st century terms. We are not our ego. This is the key to unlock the door to the way out of this morass. It is not only ignorant and unlearned folks who want out of these struggles with the ego, it is the human condition for us all, and the ego fiercely resists any and all attempts to dethrone it. It is only now that the way is becoming clear for those willing to entertain the notion that we are not our ego.

    Kate Bowler seems to be doing a pretty good job. It would be interesting if she and Richard Rohr could sit down together for a bit. May God bless her and her family and see them thru this difficult story.

    • Charles, I’ve read your comments regarding “ego” several times, how we are not our egos. It’s an interesting thought and I wonder, is this the concept Paul was getting at when he referred to “the flesh” in Romans?

      • I hope Charlie comes back and gives his thoughts on this.

        In the meantime, the best explanation I’ve encountered is N.T. Wright’s: Sometimes Paul simply means the skin that covers our bodies, and that’s fairly evident. More often he uses it as a metaphor for everything that is corruptible and will decay; the referent is our actual skin which does decay after death.

        Dana

      • >> . . . is this the concept Paul was getting at when he referred to “the flesh” in Romans?

        Scott, in my view, yes. It’s an unfortunate use of the word in that it tends to make people think there is something inherently wrong with the body and physical reality, but that isn’t what Paul meant by it. He is speaking of the natural human proclivity for greed and selfishness and looking out for number one at the expense of others. It is an inheritance from a long line of animal behavior that was necessary in order for survival and reproduction long enough to get us to this point in the story. It becomes counterproductive when called to enter the Kingdom of God.

        Paul also spoke of it as the old nature or the old man or the old Adam, all in contrast to the mind of Christ which is meant to replace the old way of thinking. I often call it the ego because I find religious language puts a blockage into people’s understanding of just what’s going on, but I’m not entirely happy with the word. I prefer to call it the self (small “s”) as against the Self (capital “S”), or the lower self versus the higher Self, but this seems to antagonize some people who regard it as “new age gobbledygook”.

        Whatever it is called, I believe getting out from under our ego is our basic task in following Jesus into the Kingdom of God here and now. He didn’t just call us to follow him, he said to pick up our cross and follow him, to deny the self, and the ego naturally responds against that kicking and screaming, or just scheming, whatever it takes to stay on the throne. Not an easy assignment and one we need all help possible to persevere.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      >>The false promise of the prosperity gospel is that we get to escape our humanity.

      This would go hand in glove with the Rapture as promulgated in Dispensationalism, the Great Escape.

      And we all know how that one turned out.

      And there might also be a tie-in with Young Earth Creationism — Scandal of the Evangelical Mind pointed out that where you find Rapture Eschatology you find Young Earth Creatioinism like a package deal.

  10. The Original Sin was not an act that we ordinarily think of as bad (murder, etc.).

    The Orginal Sin was partaking of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

    How can the Knowledge of Good be a bad thing? I think it reflects a desire to have a sense of control – – to be like God. I think there is something about repentance that includes giving up the demand to understand and resolve all of life’s problems, and return to a state of trust in our Father.

    We are transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of His Beloved Son. Not a kingdom of light (enlightement) regarding good and evil, but a kingdom of relationship with Him.

  11. I’ve always wondered how the prosperity gospel accounts for the horrible suffering of so many of the Biblical Hall-of-Famers, such as Paul, Peter, Stephen, and …oh, let’s see …Jesus himself! I mean, for heaven’s sake, what did JESUS do wrong to get himself hung on a cross!?

    It just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It’s a head-in-the-sand interpretation of one-line snippets of the Word. Awful.

    • Those were just the early stages of the fight, but now that those guys have taken the beaches and the old Devil is on the run, we can march forward victorious, stomping on the serpent’s head as we go. After all, we have the complete Bible and the freedom to interpret it as we wish. And we have that pentecostal, Holy Ghost power to build and live BIG. All you need is more faith than you already have.

    • And it appeals to base instincts: greed and pride.

      • But let’s not forget that many of those to whom it appeals, particularly in poverty stricken places around the world, are desperately poor and needy. They don’t have what they need, they don’t know of any way to acquire what they need, and they desperately cling to this and other illusory hopes. It’s not just greed and pride in all cases; in some, in many, it is desperate need, need that many of us have never experienced and have a hard time imagining.

        • Very true. That makes it even sadder. I was thinking more of the people who preach it and collect the money than the people who give the money they don’t really have to give.

  12. The PG mindset comes from the belief that the worst thing that can happen is death; if the point of the cross and our message is “Jesus paid the penalty for our sin” the reality of death can be plastered over with not only our sitting-on-a-fluffy-cloud-playing-a-harp view of “heaven”, but also this kind of gnostic belief. Well, yes, the worst thing that can happen is indeed non-existence. But (since God has already forgiven) if Christ has suffered and has broken the jaws of death and granted us Resurrection – if that is the pinnacle of the narrative and the good news we announce – then the tragedies of life – while remaining tragic – are not the bitter end. Our sufferings are taken into his, and he joins us there.

    Lord, have mercy on your servant Kate and her family and help them.

    Dana

  13. I’ve probably shared this sometime in the past here at iMonk, but it seems appropriate to the current topic.

    I Want a Magic Wand God
    (R. Rosenkranz, 2014)

    My body’s bloated because my heart is weak,
    my cancer’s spreading and all I seek
    is a job that pays enough to pay the bills
    while dark rains lash at my window sill.

    I can’t breathe for my lungs are filled
    with infections, and a driving texter just killed
    my son, and on a cross was hung
    a friend who told me the victory’s been won.

    I want a Magic Wand God who’ll take away the pain,
    I want a Genie-in-a-Bottle God who’ll stop the rain,
    I want a Vending Machine God where all I need are two thin dimes
    to end the suffering, the sadness, the sun-less times.

    But I don’t believe in the God that I want.
    No, I don’t believe in the God that I want.
    There is no God like the God that I want.
    I’ve learned there is no God like the God that I want.

    So what do I do with all life’s misery,
    the hurts I see that can’t be fixed for free?
    What do I believe when there’s no magic wand,
    no Genie-in-a-Bottle, no vending machine from beyond?

    Can I believe in a God that’s not one I want to believe?
    Can I believe in One who doesn’t, at snap of finger, bring relief?
    Is it okay to feel forsaken as Christ felt on the cross,
    when there’s no healing, no light, and all appears lost,

    when bodies are bloated and cancer spreads,
    when death is in a text and life’s hanging by a thread?
    Can I believe there’s a God who’s with me in the weather,
    when He doesn’t magically appear to make things better?

    So, no, I don’t believe in the God that I want,
    a void that leads me to a place hollow and gaunt,
    haunted by a cold emptiness, which leaves me with one
    choice: believing in a God who didn’t save His own son.

  14. Randy Thompson says:

    The title of a Kenneth Hagin booklet I’ve kept in my office for years sums up the arrogance, blasphemy and stupidity of the word of faith prosperity gospel. The booklet’s title? “How to Write Your Own Ticket with God.”

    The title of the first chapter tips us off to what’s coming, and puts it well beyond rational discourse: “Jesus Appears to Me.” Then, this “Jesus” who appears in Hagin’s imagination tells him this: “If anybody, anywhere, will take these four steps or put these four principles into operation, he will always receive whatever he wants from Me or from God the Father.”

    Shamanism, as I understand it, is learning the cosmic “laws” by which one can manipulate or control cosmic or spiritual forces. How is the prosperity “gospel” not shamanism? Or, how are the characters teaching and preaching this stuff not witchdoctors?

  15. Christiane says:

    ” . . . for He knows our frailty,
    He remembers we are only dust . . . ”

    (from a reflection of Therese of Lisieux on Psalm 103)

  16. My recollection of this story is fuzzy, but the general gist of it is true…

    About 20 years ago I was giving a sermon on the Book of Job and emphasized that suffering and not receiving relief or healing is not an indication of a lack of faith on the sufferer’s part. Afterwards a woman approached me whom I immediately noticed had a 2″ scar on the lower front part of her neck. She told me that she had her thyroid removed a few years back as a result of a malignant tumor. At that time she attended a Pentecostal church. When she was first diagnosed she was prayed over and told she was healed. But she wasn’t. The tumor was removed by a surgeon, and then she was healed. Her congregation told her that God would have miraculously healed her had she had the requisite faith. Fortunate for her she sought medical attention–and she wisely stopped attending that church.

    But years later she still felt guilt for her “lack of faith.” Through her tears she thanked me for assuring her that her cancer, like Job’s property and family losses–and boils–and “sorry comforters,” had nothing to do with her faith or deeds but with an incomprehensible combination of the will of God and natural processes of living in a broken world.

    May God’s grace be on Dr. Bowler and her family. May God heal her, we pray, and may she be comforted in the hope of the Resurrection.

    • Good to see you drop by, Calvin. I’ve missed ya. And thanks for that story.

    • Thanks, Calvin, that’s a great story.

      • I am still haunted–in a good way–by the look of relief in her tearful eyes when she realized that God pities our miserable condition–sin or sickness–rather than demanding a certificate of virtue or faith from us.

        And to this day I hate the prosperity gospel, for I find it to be no gospel at all but a false and cruel prescription on those who need to be comforted, not lied to and scorned.

        And I am appalled that some of these “preachers” fly their luxurious jets, purchased with the donations of poor, deceived people, over to Africa and preach this crap to poor Christians there, filling their hearts with false hope and taking their focus away from Jesus and onto wealth. And I fear that, as travel restrictions to Cuba are lifted, they will fly their planes down there and pollute a beautiful growing church.

  17. Christiane says:

    I’m wondering how much of the poison inherent in the prosperity gospel IS responsible for the huge crowds that follow Donald Trump . . . do they see him as the Lord’s Chosen One ? all that money, that plane, the silk suits, the entourage, the great visible wealth of the man . . . it’s all too much for the prosperity folk . . . like moth to flame, they are drawn to him and it won’t end pretty

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Donald Trump . . . do they see him as the Lord’s Chosen One?

      Jerry Falwell Junior thinks so.
      Made Pilgrimage to the Trump to give Him the Anointing.

  18. So, the curious side of me wants to know if the prayers of prosperity believers are answered statistically more or less. You can call it cruel and unusual punishment (and in my experience it certainly is), but if the outcomes are statistically indistinguishable, then is any other flavor of faith less cruel?

  19. MelissatheRagamuffin says:

    Isn’t the PG one of the fruits of Calvanism? How can you know if someone is part of the elect? Well, obviously, God prospers that person. So – rich people = good. Poor people = bad. This belief is rampant in our society and in evangelical circles. How else could they fall for the Republican party with their calling poor people “beetle grubbing raccoons.”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I understand that WAS the source of Protestant Work Ethic beliefs, and Prosperity Gospel is just that with Entropy set in for a while.

      Though according to Wartburg Watch et al, these days Calvinists try to PROVE to themselves that they are The Elect by Perfectly-parsed, Utterly Correct, Truly REFORMED Theology & Doctrine. More Theologically Correct than Thou. Purity of Ideology, Comrade.

      I wonder how much of all this is Calvinist one-upmanship, trying to prove I’m Elect (and You’re NOT) in a zero-sum game?

      Martha of Ireland once related to me in private correspondence that Calvin taught in HIS New Scripture that God even plays mind games making the Reprobate THINK that they are Elect, stringing them along until the Day of Judgment/Damnation, so How Do You Know You’re REALLY Saved? And when they took away ALL the folk religion accretions, they left the people with NOTHING other than naked Faith (Predestined, of course), so what did they have left for assurance?

      In a way, this obsession with Purity of Ideology to PROVE to themselves that THEY are Truly Elect is a form of Wretched Urgency, except PROOF of God’s Favor (or should that be whim?) is Perfectly Correct Reformed Theology instead of “How Many Souls Did YOU Save?” But the smug superiority and arrogant one-upmanship is the same. “I’m God’s Speshul Pet and YOU’RE NOT! SEE? SEE? SEE?”

  20. I don’t recall the author’s name, but The Atlantic (I think) had an interesting article in the aftermath of the 2008 meltdown about how the prosperity gospel may well have contributed to far too many people with limited means “stepping out in faith” and buying houses they really couldn’t afford. I wouldn’t want to overstate the author’s thesis, but it’s interesting to ponder.

  21. My son-in-law sent me the link to Kate Bowler’s February 13 New York Times article, Death, The Prosperity Gospel and Me. He knew it would strike a nerve as both of us had gone through the gyrations of prosperity thinking in the churches we’d been involved with over the decades. It seems to come partly, as Bowler points out, from our need for order and partly from a sense of entitlement. Although there is the element of a desire for a pure faith that believes all things are possible, enough of the aforementioned is in there to muddy our motives.

    Of late, I have found myself interested enough in Catholicism for serious study and much of the attraction stems from Catholicism’s acceptance of suffering as part of the human condition … albeit acceptable only as we have expended ourselves to relieve it for others as we are able. (See Matthew 25:37-40) Suffering may well be the closest fellowship we can have with Christ. While we don’t look for unnecessary suffering and while we rejoice in blessings, we shouldn’t feel guilty when either comes to us as they are God’s sovereign orchestrations.

    I think true faith is not always indicated by healing and blessing, but by our refusal to malign God when we are suffering. When God spoke to Job’s friends, he said, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

    How do the prosperity gospel preachers explain the suffering and martyrdom of the Apostles or Christ saying, “In this world you will have many tribulations?” American Christianity is as much cult belief as it is anything these days. We can reject the stupid stuff of it, but we have to fight to keep our personal faith. Part of that is embracing that God and his ways are mysterious. Human reason and desire for explanation cannot place God within parameters that always make sense to us. His otherness does not allow it.

    When my mother-in-law, who was a wonderful, loving, good woman fell ill at the beginning of last year and suffered terribly for six months before dying of cancer, it pained me to watch. But I did not think for one minute that she lacked faith to be healed. Her faith shone in her patience with suffering. When I prayed for her each day and went to church each week, I consciously carried her whole beautiful life, including her suffering and put it before God. Her suffering was not my offering to make (she was doing that with every painful breath), but rather a petition that she perceive his mercy and grace. When my time to suffer comes, I pray it will be an offering, my spiritual service of worship.

    I thank Ms. Bowler for sharing her story and starting a needed conversation. I pray she will perceive God’s profound and sweet love in a way that is uniquely for her, even if we outsiders aren’t permitted to see the intimate exchange between God and his dear daughter.

  22. Tonight, through the clouds,
    eerie light low in the sky–
    Ah, it’s just the moon.

  23. The Judith Fritchman artwork is beautiful. This is the first I was aware of her or her work. Thanks.