I trust that my readership is not tempted toward the prosperity heresy, its false god, and its routine pissing on the Bible. So, you do not need to be instructed otherwise. But, it is good to be reminded every once-in-a-while of this pestilential Baal-worship.

Here is Ross Douthat, after describing Bruce Wilkinson’s failed attempt to establish an orphanage / golf resort in Africa, then moving to the more insidious Osteen:

He seemed baffled, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, that things hadn’t turned out better. “I asked hard enough,” he insisted, as if he were in a business partnership with the Almighty, and God hadn’t held up His end of the bargain.

There is innocence at work here, but not a holy innocence. God-and-Mammon Christianity often seems determined to veil the possibility that God might desire something less than perfect success for all His faithful, that He might want small churches as well as thriving congregations, people who fail by the world’s lights as well as those who succeed and thrive, Christians who embrace poverty as well as those who pay off the mortgage and live debt-free. Prosperity theology speaks a language of abundance and skates over the passages in the Bible that deal with the value of little things and hidden virtues — of salt in the earth and treasures buried in the field, of little flocks and narrow gates that few enter.

…Joel Osteen seemed particularly fixated on real estate as a sign of God’s favor. (Your Best Life Now opens with an anecdote about a Hawaiian vacationer who sees a beautiful home and thinks, “I can’t even imagine living in a place like that” — a sentiment that Osteen holds up as an example of a Christian giving in to “mediocrity.”) It’s still interesting to track the way mortgages and home ownership show up again and again in the stories and testimonies that crowd the rhetoric of prosperity preaching. …

“Right now God is showering down blessings, healing, promotions, good ideas,” Osteen promised his readers. “If you are not sharing in His favor, you might want to watch your words. Here’s the key: If you don’t unleash your words in the right direction, if you don’t call in a favor, you will not experience those blessings. Nothing happens unless we speak.” [It’s Your Time: Activate Your Faith, Achieve Your Dreams, and Increase in God’s Favor, p. 125]

…The book sold. The ratings rose. The tours continued. In March 2009, with the unemployment rate at 8.5 percent and rising, Osteen sold out Yankee Stadium.

[Bad Religion, pp. 206-210. For the sake of blog brevity, I cut-out the interesting/depressing anecdotes.]

One of the seminal figures who prepared the way for people like Osteen was Robert Schuller, whose Hour of Power broadcast was beloved by millions. Here is a partial transcript of an interview with Robert Schuller: Michael Horton Interviews Robert Schuller. It is fascinating to read Schuller’s responses, which are almost verbatim to interviews that I have seen with Osteen.

CALLER: Dr. Schuller, Paul called the gospel an offense. You seem to have a gospel that is a “kinder, gentler” kind of thing.

RS: Thank you. I try to make it that way.

You have to at least admire Schuller’s honesty.

The paradoxical Jesus

October 8, 2014


Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012) is a really good book. I actually was not expecting it to be as marvelous as it is. I have read Douthat’s NYT articles and have generally enjoyed them, but he really shines in this book. He is given the space to develop his ideas and ground his claims in the historical phenomena, far more than he can accomplish in an op-ed. He is fair to Reinhold Neibuhr and Karl Barth, whom he extols, while being justifiably critical of Harvey Cox and all of the other fashionable progressives who happily rode the optimistic wave of secularism, calmly and confidently assuring us of its ultimate compatibility with the iconoclasm of the Jewish and Christian faith. Oh my, how things never change.

While Douthat is a self-identified political conservative, he is rather severe in his criticisms of the religious right, whether under Reagan or Bush. This doesn’t mean that he occupies some idealist middle ground without any commitments one way or another — obviously not on life and family issues — but he recognizes the allure of political opportunism and the convenience of theological compromise under the stage lights. In this regard, he strives to be a genuine representative of the Catholic who discerns the good and the bad in all ideologies, while abjuring their utopian promises.

There is a lot that I would like to quote from the book, but I will just offer the following description of Christianity, perfectly stated:

Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a wise ethicist the next. He’s a fierce critic of Jewish religious law who insists that he’s actually fulfilling rather than subverting it. He preaches a reversal of every social hierarchy while deliberately avoiding explicitly political claims. He promises to set parents against children and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. He makes wild claims about his own relationship to God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness. He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peace makers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping. And of course the accounts of his resurrection only heighten these paradoxes, by introducing a post-crucifixion Jesus who is somehow neither a resuscitated body nor a flitting ghost but something even stranger still — a being at once fleshly and supernatural, recognizable and transfigured, bearing the wounds of the crucifixion even as he passes easily through walls.

The goal of the great heresies, on the other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus. For the Marcionites in the second century, this meant a merciful Jesus with no connection to the vengeful Hebrew God; for their rivals the Ebionites, it meant a Jesus whose Judaism required would-be followers to become observant Jews themselves. For the various apocalyptic sects that have dotted Christian history, this has meant a Jesus whose only real concern was the imminent end-times; for modern Christians seeking a more secular, this-worldly religion, it’s meant a Jesus who was mainly a moralist and social critic, with no real interest in eschatology.

[Bad Religion, pp. 153-154]

Indeed, nothing has changed.