What the prosperity gospel gets right

Image: Robert M. Worsham (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Financial Times this weekend has a profile of Joel Osteen, “a preacher for Trump’s America”, one of the most successful proponents of the “prosperity gospel” — which the FT describes as a “quintessentially American” blend of Pentecostalism and faith healing, and the only section of the US church that is currently expanding.

The writer, Edward Luce, picks up on Osteen’s ability “to keep sin and redemption out of a Christian message”. Osteen’s response:

It is not my aim to dwell on technicalities. I want to help people sleep at night.

Helping people sleep at night is good for business: Osteen’s church, Lakewood, had revenues of $89 million in the year ending March 2017, with more than 90 per cent coming from its church members. Most church members give at least one-tenth of their income to the church, but those interviewed by Luce seemed to consider it a good investment, one they’d seen repaid in promotions, pay rises, new jobs. “God works fast when you work for him,” one observes.

All this tends to leave most other Christians aghast. As one commentator observes, what the prosperity churches provide is a “deification and ritualisation of the American dream” rather than anything resembling the New Testament gospel. But, despite the evident (and understandable) appeal of such a message for the American super-rich, Osteen’s target market is “the struggling middle class”: a demographic experiencing stagnating incomes, precarious employment, family and community breakdown, a “crisis of loneliness”, addiction to prescription drugs. One congregant comments:

Here is a community that only offered love. Nobody told me that I was bad. The world already tells you that every day.

We don’t have to give any ground to the prosperity preachers’ theology to ask ourselves: is it really just false offers of wealth and security (for those who believe, and give, enough) that keeps people loyal to these churches? Or is there a message here about how the mainstream churches may be failing to address the situations faced by many people?

Which brings me to Fleming Rutledge’s book The Crucifixion, which I am currently reading. At the heart of Rutledge’s argument in this book is that the cross has to be understood in the context of apocalyptic theology. She describes the recovery of the apocalyptic perspective as one of the major developments in New Testament scholarship in recent decades:

[This scholarship] is still not well known in the churches, but it is becoming more prominent in academic circles, and this will begin to filter down to the pews.

(The Crucifixion, p.353)

It’s clear that Rutledge — a self-described “preacher and pastor” rather than an academic theologian — sees her book as part of this process of filtration.

The essence of the apocalyptic framework as outlined by Rutledge is that the gospel — and in particular the crucifixion of Jesus which lies at its heart — isn’t simply a matter of individual salvation from the penalty for our sins. Rather, it is God’s assault on the powers of Sin and Death that hold all humanity captive; a confrontation between two realms, two aeons: the reign of Sin and Death and Satan and the other Powers on the one hand, and the reign of righteousness and grace through Christ on the other.

Rutledge argues that, far from this perspective overriding or setting aside more traditional motifs such as sacrifice, redemption, substitution and so on, apocalyptic provides the framework within which those motifs can be better appreciated:

This book has been designed to highlight the whole cluster of images surrounding the death of Christ, within the overarching apocalyptic drama that consistently presents God as the acting subject while at the same time enlisting even the humblest Christian (especially the humblest Christian) in God’s band of resistance fighters.

p.393

This in turn can bridge the gap that has often opened up between the gospel of individual salvation and the call to social justice: to confronting the Powers of evil in the world. For Rutledge, the meaning of the cross is twofold: it is both God’s action in making vicarious atonement, and God’s decisive victory over the powers of Sin and Death. Too often, she argues, the former has devolved into an individualistic approach in which “my sins” are somehow “paid for”, giving me the prospect of life with God after death, but in the meantime leaving the wider world largely unchanged. This in turn can have an appeal to those for whom the wider world — however much they (we) may pay lip-service to the idea of societal sin — has shaken out pretty much OK. It has less appeal to those who have been on the receiving end of severe injustice, for whom an apocalyptic message of God’s incursion on a world under the control of alien powers has greater resonance: as Rutledge illustrates with frequent references to the US civil rights movement and the South African anti-apartheid struggle.

So, perhaps this shows us the one thing that the prosperity gospel gets right: its diagnosis that the “mainstream” gospel of individual forgiveness is inadequate to the plight faced by millions of people; that it is not good enough to tell people that they simply need to “bear up patiently” in the face of poverty or suffering or injustice, and certainly not good enough to cite the crucifixion of Jesus in support of this; that God really does want something better for his people, and that he really does intervene in a dramatic way to bring this about, to lay waste to the Powers that oppose him and oppress his creation.

Of course, the prosperity gospel gets pretty much everything else wrong from that point onwards: starting with the idea that how God goes about this is by individually enriching those who show their faith by tithing to Lakewood or whatever. But maybe the answer to this isn’t to be found in telling people that they are wrong to expect God’s intervention in the concrete circumstances of their lives, but rather in developing, at a pastoral and devotional level, the apocalyptic perspective in which the gospel is God’s dynamic assault on all the Powers that oppress us: Sin, Death, poverty, injustice and the rest.

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