Friday, January 01, 2010

Some intelligent thoughts on 'prosperity teaching'

Social Science Research Council's Immanent Frame's website reported a recent article that links the prosperity teachings in American churches as one of the contributing factors in current economic crisis. The article "exposes concrete examples of banks teaming up with prosperity preachers to convert believers into subprime loan customers."

The interesting part is that the website also interviewed some intellectuals for their thoughts on the article. I've pasted only those portions that are related to prosperity teachings here (with emphasis added). Generally all deem the health and wealth teachings negatively. And I think they are right.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Professor Emeritus, Claremont School of Theology:
"There is much in the Bible that connects the right relation with God to prosperity, long life, and many descendants. The idea that virtue pays is not a monopoly of the biblical tradition, but it certainly gets support there, and participants in the tradition can exploit such “good news” and have done so. This has paid off for the exploiters especially well in the context of American capitalism. The general idea, so prevalent in our society, that our system rewards intelligence, discipline, and hard work, has been religiously transformed and amplified by the prosperity gospel. No doubt this contributes to the consumerism that in turn makes living beyond one’s means acceptable.

There is another tradition in the Bible that the “prophetic” one, that condemns this idea. In this tradition the reason for faith in God is not that this will lead to personal prosperity but that God loves us despite our unworthiness and calls us to love God and, therefore, the whole of creation. We serve our neighbors not because this is good policy but because our neighbors, and that is everyone, are beloved of God. This message is not popular, and some of the prophets were killed for their pains. Jesus stood in this tradition and died on a cross. He condemned the quest for wealth in no uncertain terms.
Some Christians who condemn the quest for prosperity in this life have emphasized otherworldly rewards for virtue. But Jesus taught that the basileia theou (the “Kingdom,” or “Commonwealth,” of God on earth) is worth our sacrifice whatever happens to us here or beyond). Jesus’s true followers are those who out of love seek the common good here and now.

Many of them do find joy and personal fulfillment in such a life, but they seek first the Commonwealth of God."

Harvey Cox, Research Professor of Divinity, Harvard Divinity School:
"Neither Joel Osteen nor T.D. Jakes invented the prosperity gospel, but they have gravely distorted it. Still, they are half right. It is vital to tell people that God does not will them to be jobless, lacking health insurance, and unable to make mortgage payments while the banking elites pocket millions of dollars in bonuses. But the mortal sin of these preachers is to teach their people that if they are poor, it is their own fault for not praying or tithing ardently enough.

But to change the rotten system that creates such lopsided injustice something more is needed. The prosperity gospel should take the next step. Only when I see Osteen and Jakes leading demonstrations outside the doors of Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, will I believe that they have gotten hold of the real gospel and not the counterfeit version they now pander."

Michele Dillon, Professor of Sociology, University of New Hampshire:
"...the notion that God will reward the faith-filled with material riches has always struck me as particularly pernicious pseudo-theology. The Bible is certainly a document open to many diverse interpretations and there is ambiguity in several of its passages. Yet there is little equivocation in its core message that the good life is not one defined by material acquisition and ostentatious consumption but by purposeful acts motivated by generosity and concern for others.

The Sermon on the Mount is supposed to make Christians focus on loving their neighbor, not their Mercedes Benz."

D. Stephen Long, Professor of Systematic Theology, Marquette University:
"God does seek the plight of the poor to be alleviated. But the gospel of prosperity distorts this teaching, bringing it into alliance with a heretical doctrine of providence where God’s providence no longer works by holding goods in common, but as Adam Smith taught, by each looking only to his own interest."

Sarah Posner, Associate Editor, Religion Dispatches:
"That’s not to say that prosperity hucksters aren’t just as driven by avarice as the bankstas; just because they puff up their claims with Scripture instead of spreadsheets doesn’t make them any less complicit in leading the gullible on a path to financial ruin.

And that’s also not to say that prosperity hucksters would not have found another way to squeeze blood out of the turnip that is many of their followers’ nest eggs, had they not convinced them that God would make sure they could make the balloon payments. The annals of investigative journalism are filled with the sad tales of personal financial crashes because—prosperity hucksters would claim—victims didn’t have enough faith.

The hucksters may not be the sole cause of this crash, but they’re surely responsible for plenty of personal crashes long before sub-prime mortgage brokers began preaching their own kind of prosperity gospel."

James K.A. Smith, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Calvin College:
"...prosperity preachers are easy targets for blame—and they certainly deserve that. But what about the sort of low-grade, soft-sell gospel of prosperity that is part of “mainstream” evangelicalism?...While mainstream megapastors aren’t promising Bentleys for faith, they generally extol a vision of the “good life” that has 4 bedrooms and a 3-car garage, with an SUV in the drive...This is why evangelicals have been so easily assimilated to the American ideal of economic growth and personal prosperity...In other words, while Osteen and his ilk might be denounced by evangelicals, I do wonder if his gospel of prosperity differs by degree, rather than in kind."


Arthur KohsL said...

Brother, thanks for putting up all the quotes. I will appreciate it more if you could also include your sources.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Arthur,

Thank you for your comment.

The link in the post is the source. Most of the link in my blog post are sources. That's how I usually do 'blog citation'. Instead of footnoting, I usually use links.


Arthur KohsL said...

Got it. In Chicago style, it would be:

Ruth Braunstein, David Kyuman Kim, Jonathan VanAntwerpen. 2009. Christianity and the crash. The Immanent Frame. January 01, 2010).

Essential for me to know if I am going to use these various quotations. Thanks once again. May you have a blessed New Year.

Sze Zeng said...

Blessed New Year to you too :)