If anyone knows Michael Horton’s email, send this one to him please. He’ll appreciate it.
There are two kinds of evangelicals who read the Internet Monk web site. The first, like myself, find it increasingly hard to identify with evangelicalism. The metaphor of “the evangelical wilderness” is one they find apropos. Like myself, they look around evangelicalism and see a landscape being devoured like a scene out of The Langoliers. Like myself, they find shelter in what other traditions haven’t yet thrown out and look hopefully towards a new generation of evangelicals to discern better than their elders what has been lost and what is wrong.
The second group of evangelical reader is happily, confidently, certainly evangelical and stands in some version of frustrated amazement at what is written and said here week after week. These are evangelicals for whom their pastors’ explanations from the Bible answer all questions, for whom evangelical leadership speaks a sure word and for whom the good always outweighs the bad in the family. They are cheerful Freds to my mumbling, unconverted Scrooge.
These readers often see my posts critiquing evangelicalism somewhere between immature whining and malicious betrayal. Despite the complexity of situations that face those in the community that exists around this blog and its offer of a “post-evangelical option,” these readers are confident that with enough good preaching and the right priorities, even persons such as myself could be rescued.
I write this bit of reminisce with both parties in mind. For the first, I write to confirm your convictions or suspicions that evangelicalism continues its demise. For the second, I offer this post as further evidence that the nature of the wrongs in evangelicalism are far deeper than you want to admit as you sit safely in your “niche.” In fact, what I will share with you is a scene of an evangelical apocalypse, quietly unfolding before you.
So, let’s talk about Rod Parsley.
If you aren’t familiar with Rod Parsley, the Wikipedia article is adequate for basic facts and his place in the culture war. It is not adequate at all in placing Parsley in the prosperity Gospel movement, where his preaching and teaching plays a prominent role via TBN, his books and the World Harvest Megachurch’s many conferences and events.
If you haven’t watched Parsley, you certainly need to do so, for several reasons. For one, he is an imposing man with extraordinary speaking abilities. He is insistent on retaining the distinctives of old time Pentecostalism and is highly critical of those streams in the Charismatic movement that are reluctant to talk about the Baptism of the Spirit as a distinct second word with the evidence of speaking in tongues.
Parsley is intelligent and winsome. He possesses massive personal charisma, which he uses in a mixture of evangelistic preaching, crass prosperity fund-raising, angry culture war rhetoric and a genuine concern for pastors and the church.
I’ve always placed Parsley in a different niche than other prosperity Gospel shills. For one thing, while he believes in the full array of Pentecostal gifts and manifestations, he does not appear to be interested in misrepresenting himself as anything other than a preacher, albeit one obsessed with the culture war. He has a strong view of scripture. He loves the church. He often preaches the distinctives of the Gospel in a far clearer way than anyone else in his camp.
While Parsley’s culture war ambitions are deeply grounded in assumptions that I believe are wrong and do not share, he does not appear to be a political opportunist. In all his zealous causes, he impresses me as sincere and always has, even when he scares me.
That includes a sincere devotion to the cancer that is the prosperity Gospel, which Parsley regularly invokes to increase his support.
Now I have often said that I believe the prosperity Gospel has spread throughout evangelicalism, and I have plenty of actual and anecdotal evidence that this is true. While the crasser versions of prosperity nonsense are obnoxious to many evangelicals, most evangelicals believe in some doctrine of economic prosperity where their current lifestyle as they conceive of it will be sustained by God in return for their own giving, worship and general obedience. They tend to believe this in regard to their churches and businesses as well.
Evangelicals do not, by and large, want the economics of Jesus, or to even contemplate what such a thing might even mean. The vast majority of evangelicals believe Satan is behind high gas prices and God sends low ones. This is who we are.
But does it affect the Gospel that we believe? Again, most evangelicals would say “No.” Whatever is believed about economics and financial prosperity, the Gospel remains simple, pure and spiritually applicable.
So…..I was sitting in the living room an hour perhaps before leaving for Christmas Eve worship services at 10:30 p.m. A Rod Parsley Christmas special was on.
I watched. After the music, Parsley appeared, sitting at a kitchen table with an open Bible and a cup of coffee.
Parsley proceded to interpret the incarnation of Jesus as an illustration of the prosperity gospel. He did not deny the incarnation at all. Oh no. He simply remade it into the raw material of a talk on how you can get a Christmas miracle of your very own.
Do you want a Christmas miracle of healing or finances?
Mary got a Christmas miracle. How did she do it? You can do the same!
I realized immediately I was watching something every bit as hostile and heinous as some radical Jesus critic telling us that this little account teaches us about the hopes and dreams of oppressed peasants everywhere, but Parsley was safely within the walls of Bible-believing evangelicalism as he took the meaning of the incarnation and transformed it into 5 Steps to Get God to Bail You Out.
The point that stays with me was something along the lines of “2. God desires a pure womb for his miracles.” So you should get rid of whatever bad influences are in your life so that you, too, can be a pure womb for the Holy Spirit to bring a Christmas miracle to you.
That’s right. The virgin birth is an illustration of moralistic repentance. Clean up your thought life so you, too, can be a virgin’s womb….so to speak.
Now Parsley is plenty intelligent enough to understand the Gospel and the Incarnation. He’s not a rube. Nor are his thousands of followers.
But he’s corrupted by the prosperity Gospel to the point that he can, on Christmas Eve, take the story of the incarnation and interpret it as a series of steps for you to emulate on your way to a Christmas miracle of your own.
The incarnation of a parable. The incarnation as a set of instructions of how to get God to heal your spouse or send money.
Now, I particularly want to ask iMonk readers in the previously mentioned group 2 a question: What percentage of the first 100 evangelicals we can find in the phone book would recognize that….
1. Parsley has denied the meaning of the incarnation?
2. Parsley has poisoned the incarnation with the Prosperity Gospel?
I’ll play and say that perhaps 10-15% would realize Parsley just denied the meaning of the incarnation and replaced it with the Prosperity cancer.
And that, my friends, is where were are in evangelicalism in 2008. Parsley may be a fringe nut job to you, but in evangelicalism world wide, he’s main stream, Dobson approved, TBN safe.
For calling out Parsley on this web site, I’ll get a hundred angry comments and emails. Dozens of pastors will take notes on that talk and use it again. And worst of all, half of those who know it’s a twisted, perverse reinterpretation of the incarnation will find ways to apologize for Parsley.
After all, scripture can mean so many different things. And who knows what God may have done with that message in the lives of the audience.
So here’s wishing you, dear reader, and all of us watching the evangelical circus, a Happy New Year. And may each of you learn the true lesson of the Christmas story: stop thinking bad thoughts and your life can become a virgin womb for a miracle, just like Mary.
She got hers; you can get yours.
One last note. A bout 90 minutes later, I heard the homily at midnight mass. An older, retired priest had written out his sermon for the 20 or so of us gathered at my wife’s church. He had one message: The incarnation was and is real. In all the other things we do at Christmas, don’t forget that God became a human being, so he could come to us and to our lives today and every day.
It’s good to know I could hear the truth of the Incarnation somewhere on Christmas Eve.