Thursday, December 9, 2010

Prosperity: A Redeeming Reconsideration

"Prosperity can be a real problem," writes renowned scholar of global Christianity Phillip Jenkins to open his column, "Notes from the Global Church," in the most recent issue of the Christian Century. He's writing this in reference to post-liberal and progressive seminarians' favorite punching bags, purveyors of the so-called Prosperity Gospel like the much-maligned Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes, especially as their megachurch model of "health, wealth and prosperity as the essential promises of the Christian faith" is being exported and embraced by emerging church movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America who "draw as much on American ideas of positive thinking and perky self-help manuals as on any familiar Christian theology." If you're part of a mainline denomination or have attended one of their schools, you have undoubtedly made yourself feel better about yourself by exercising your strong sense of indignation and outrage at such obvious manipulation both of the Gospel and of the desperate hopes of the marginalized. Jenkins does so much more prophetically:

In its most alarming manifestations—and the superstar ministries are by no means the worst offenders—prosperity teachings so exalt success as to pour scorn on the poor as stubborn infidels who have evidently refused to seek God's aid. In this version of the gospel, faith leads to tithing, and tithing ignites prosperity. A gratified Almighty will respond by opening the windows of heaven, pouring out blessings so rich that believers will not have room to store them all. You have to pay to play—and to win. And if the church's pastor follows a dazzlingly sumptuous lifestyle, that is just his way of exhibiting God's munificence to the world. These days, Elmer Gantry is a very familiar spiritual type around the world.

Of course, were we to substitute "enlightened education in Barthian church-world dualism and safe criticism of so-called primitive ideologies from the safety of a first-class educational seat of privilege and economic supremacy on the way towards high-paying job at a thriving suburban ministry or perpetual abeyance in pursuit of further theological education and sense of superiority over 'those lay people we just need to whip into shape,'" then the grammar of such prosperity thinking may not seem so objectifiably distant. Knowledge is power, as is prejudice, and both represent the potential poverty of our own hoards of prosperity.

Thankfully, Jenkins is not content to snipe at the hopes of popular piety from his ivory tower, but instead, offers a charitable reconsideration of the more fruitful manifestations of prosperity thinking, particularly as they have taken root and been cultivated in more prophetic directions by churches abroad. Pointing to the diversity of voices in the global church, particularly as prosperity thinking is filtered through the presence of the theology of indigenous manifestations of mainline churches, Jenkins notes that the practical applications of this alarming trend tell a different story:

Matthew Ash­imolowo, for instance, heads a potent transnational ministry headquartered in London, with a strong health-and-wealth com­ponent. His church teaches that poverty and unemployment are manifestations of sin, against which Christians must struggle. In practice, this means that the faithful should help other members of the congregation by giving them jobs and that the church sternly teaches habits of thrift and sobriety.

Most prosperity churches not only condemn poverty but teach invaluable ways of avoiding it, like actually saving up in order to buy material goods. Debt is a demon to be defeated. Few communities in the world could fail to benefit from such a lesson, but it is vital for people moving suddenly from a rural setting into an overwhelming metropolis, with all the consumerist blandishments of­fered to the poor. In such a setting, being a member of a church offers life-saving access to social networks of mutual aid and support, which teach essential survival skills. Meanwhile, peer pressure helps believers avoid the snares of substance abuse.

According to Jenkins, not only material prospects, but also our faith in God's promises, are at stake:

Whatever their undoubted problems, prosperity churches do not represent a negation of Christian faith. Con­troversies over their teachings also raise one perennial question for Christians of all persuasions: how seriously do we believe that prayer can actually affect conditions in the material world?

Whatever comfortable objections we might raise against undeniably questionable teachings, perhaps those of us steeped in spiritual poverty could stand to indulge in the prosperity of God's promises that have been offered back to us in the witness of our brothers and sisters who comprise not only the majority of the world's believers, but also its most faithful. Perhaps if prayer, and not riches or pithy irony, filled the treasure stores of our faith, then there would be no need for other gospels, prosperity or otherwise. The poverty of our own prosperity might be alleviated, if we allow those to become our teachers whose alms we cannot afford to refuse.

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