Death and The Prosperity Gospel

burning_money_symbol_picture_2_165377In the mid-nineties I enjoyed a rare privilege. With the help of an Afrikaans journalist I had traced the whereabouts of a man who was, at the time, the most notorious Christian in all of Southern Africa. I showed up on his Capetonian doorstep one sunny afternoon, and he kindly invited me in. What followed was one of the most memorable conversations of my life.

My fascination with him had begun many years before, whilst attending a week-long seminar where he spoke about the cross of Christ. He was by far the best Bible teacher I had ever heard, and remains so to this day.

In fact, his clarification of sin and salvation changed the course of my life.

But for a number of reasons his ministry nosedived soon after I met him, leading to an extremely public media crucifixion by the ecclesiastical establishment in South Africa. The whole affair ruined his reputation to such an extent that the remnant of his teaching ministry went underground, mostly in the form of cassette tapes. There it remains to this day.

Naturally, I was befuddled. How could a message of this profundity, this calibre, simply be wiped off a Christian landscape riddled with so many radically inferior versions of the same truths?

I was determined to find out, and hoped that my visit would reveal an answer.

It did. From the very lips of the man himself. Oh, we spoke for hours, and enough was discussed to fill a book, but a single statement stood out – one that has never left the back of my mind.

Over the two decades since then, it has both haunted and helped me countless of times.

It was simply this, and even now I can recall the moment when he uttered the words:

“I hate religion too much.”

I got it. And in that moment I knew that I was attracted to his teaching for more reasons than its sheer brilliance. I had the same problem, and it threatened to damage my work for the Lord in the very same way. I hated religion (perhaps I should say “religiosity,” to distinguish it from the true religion spoken of by James) too much. And I especially hated certain types of religiosity more than others.

Those words saved my life, for without them I would have fulfilled what I thought was God’s calling on my life: To become a crusader for the truth.

It sounds noble, doesn’t it? But we were never called to lay our lives down for the truth. We were called to lay them down for Christ, and the difference is monumental.

Note that I am speaking for myself here, and not for my friend who taught me this lesson. His hatred of religiosity came with its own hazards, and I respect him too much to speculate about them. But in my case it manifested as a dangerous substitute for God’s actual calling on my life: To forget about myself and my own offenses, and to proclaim his immeasurable greatness and the incomparable delights of losing and finding our lives in him and him alone.

So why am I going on about all of this?

Simply because I read a New York Times article this morning that stirred up all of those old emotions. And, like an old recovering addict, I had to subdue them by applying my golden line in a calculated, cognitive, emotionless manner, coupled with the closing of my eyes and a very deep breath:

“You hate the prosperity gospel too much.” 

If only you knew what it takes from me not to expound on this statement, not to explain why I hate it so much, not to at least leave you with some shred of information that may inspire you to also… you know?

The intoxicating potion is beckoning, as always, but I will refrain, albeit it with shaking hands. The glow of exposing the hucksters, of naming names, of storming into the fight… Alas, it is no longer for me. To quote Nietzsche (of all people), I fought the dragon, and in the process I became the dragon.

But I am quite happy to provide the link to the article (bet you are relieved!), for I think it is magnificently written. Also, the author has clearly, and graciously, been spared the dark offense that turned me into a poor apologist for this particular cause.

And so I heartily recommend Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me by Kate Bowler.



Jesus Junk

Making a whip of cords, he drove them out of the temple… And he told the pigeon-sellers, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” John 2:14-16

USA Today reported in 2009 that American retailers “sell about $4.6 billion worth of Christian products annually.”

One cannot help but wonder how big that figure is today and how big it would be if the rest of the globe were included in the statistics.

According to the report, you can now wear a “Jesus Christ wants to be your friend” Facebook shirt and an “iPray” hat while listening to your iPod. Preachers can buy material for sermons based on the popular television reality series “Survivor”.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Christian merchandise include dolls, jewelry, stationary and a host of items sporting designs that are oftentimes trademark rip offs of well known brands like Coca-Cola (“Jesus Christ—Eternally Refreshing”).

Other designs are totally original, like the one that has Jesus dressed as a hockey goalie accompanied by the words “Jesus Saves!” And then there is the rubber Jesus duck for your bathtub, and the “Wash away my sins bubble bath” to accompany it.

I still have my three-decades-old coffee mug with St Francis’ Peace Prayer on it. And I have joyful memories of buying my first Christian bumper stickers shortly after my conversion. But I think we have lost it somewhere between the Jesus revolution of the early seventies and today. The new vision of a culturally relevant Messiah, expressed joyfully and colorfully by Hippies who had become “Jesus People”, appears to have become a corrupt money-making machine.

In fact, I am quite convinced that we would see a repetition of the events described by John above if Jesus were to return today.

The Blessings of Giving

The Lord Jesus himself said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Acts 20:35

One of the strangest peculiarities of the human race is the hoarding habit. When it gets out of hand, psychologists call it “disposophobia”. The rest of us speak of the “packrat mentality”.

Different people hoard different things. Minimalists may frown at being called packrats, yet their bank accounts or foreign investments would usually confirm that that is exactly what they are. The rich are in fact the greatest hoarders, but we forgive them as it is more interesting to watch someone hoard Louis Vuitton handbags than what it is to stumble over your husband’s junk in the attic.

The sin of covetousness, which underlies the hoarding habit, is humanity’s most aggressive effort to compensate for the distinct sense of loss we experience without God in this world. It makes perfect sense, and explains why any effort at filling the hole in our soul is always met with further disillusionment.

As Rockefeller famously answered when asked how much money is enough: “Just a little bit more.” Centuries earlier Solomon said: “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income” (Ecclesiastes 5:10).

Jesus challenges the fallen and conventional wisdom of this world by pointing out that the ultimate answer for our ailments is not to keep on receiving, but to start giving. This teaching runs like a golden thread throughout the New Testament.

The words of Basil, Bishop of Caesarea in the fourth century, is worth quoting here: “When someone steals a man’s clothes we call him a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”

Think about this for a moment. If the absence of God leads to covetousness, and covetousness to acquisition (let’s not use the word “hoarding” here, just in case you do not relate), then the presence of God should lead to contentment, and contentment to divine forfeiture (a.k.a. giving).

It is a huge subject, and one I have been contemplating since the early seventies. I had not yet turned ten when my mom took me to the drive-in to see Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun Sister Moon, and my life has never been quite the same. It remains my all-time favourite movie, and also the one that has inspired me the most.

Early this morning I received a notification of a post from one of my favorite bloggers, David McAnulty. It addresses the issue of the poor from a contemporary perspective, and I found it extremely meaningful. David says it so well that I prefer him to speak for himself. You can find it here.

Blessings to all.

(A few paragraphs of this post has appeared in Bloemnews.)

A Bubble of Covetousness

“You shall not covet your neighbour’s house…” Exodus 20:17

The past week’s international news headlines were dominated (yet again) by the current global financial crisis.

This time it is the Spanish economy that is wobbling. Whilst many are hoping that a massive bank bailout will resolve the problem, an increasing number of economists are warning that it won’t. They are predicting a “broader Eurozone catastrophe.”

That sounds rather grim, and so many people are asking the obvious question: “How did we get into this mess?” Google an answer and you will be overwhelmed by an array of articles filled with highfalutin economic terms that are pretty incomprehensible to Joe Soap and his family.

But there is something that you may notice while you’re at it: The recurrence of the term “housing bubble”.

It would appear that an inordinate amount of people bought an inordinate amount of houses with money that they never had but manage to borrow from banks who had inordinately liberal underwriting standards, causing real estate value to skyrocket in an inordinate way.

You don’t need to be an astronaut to understand why the whole thing was destined to pop.

This brings us to another question: Why on earth would anybody with a sound mind want to get involved in this? (Keep in mind that you will have to explain to your grandchildren why you helped destroy the world economy.)

The answer is simple: We never thought that God was serious when he told us not to lust after our neighbour’s house. And so we wanted bigger and better than the Joneses, and used every opportunity to get it.

Of course that made Mr & Mrs Jones feel terrible, and so they had to catch up.

We got into this mess because of greed. That’s the correct answer.

Will we get out of it? God alone knows. So let us focus on what we do know: That the Biblical definition of “gain“ is contentment, not accumulation.

Steve Jobs And Eternity

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. Luke 16:22-23

Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs is estimated to be worth about 6 billion US dollars. This makes him one of the richest people in the world. Jobs is the co-founder of both Apple and Pixar (the studio who brought us the Toy Story movies) and, as a result of the latter, The Walt Disney’s Company’s largest single shareholder. He has (quite understandably) been named the CEO of the decade by Fortune Magazine.

A truly successful man by all measures. And enviable. In a 2009 survey he was selected the most admired entrepreneur among teenagers. Everybody wants to be like Steve, it seems.

Until now. Jobs announced this week he is resigning as CEO from his company, and the reasons are well known. He has been battling with pancreatic cancer for some time. The announcement caused Apple stocks to plummet and many to wonder if his successor will be able to fill his shoes.

In the face of death we have a tendency to reevaluate things. I suspect Steve would be happy to rid himself of all his possessions (and fame) if he could be given immortality in return. The point is: If he fails to find it, then in the bigger scheme of things, the one who does find it will be a much greater success than he, even if such a one has lived his or her earthly life as a beggar in the slums of Calcutta.

That is exactly the point of Christ’s well known story from which the above verses come. And it raises a question: How do you define success?

(This is an update of a column that appeared in Bloemnews earlier this year when Steve Jobs took indefinite medical leave)