Thursday, September 14, 2006

Blessed are the poor . . . and the middle class?

How often can both ends of the Christian religious spectrum speak in one voice against a particular theological aberration? How often do they agree on anything? The two sides cannot agree on numerous ethical issues or even which political party coheres most closely with the Christian vision. Contention though gives way to singular agreement when it comes to the issue of the so-called prosperity gospel. From right wing to left, you can find voices spanning this frequently contentious spectrum denouncing the wedding of Christian theology and American materialism.

Time this week chronicles the rise of the prosperity gospel under the influence of preachers like New York Times best-selling author Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, and Atlanta's own Creflo Dollar. Watch most televangelists but for a minute, and you will soon here that God wants you to be wealthy, that poverty is a symptom of a sinful life, that if you just have enough faith, you too will live the American dream. After all, Jesus was rich himself. Haven't you heard? In the gospels, Jesus preaches to crowds in his home, ergo he must have had a large home. It is such exegetical gymnastics that propel our materialist desires to hope that God wants to give us that which we most desire in our culture: prosperity.

I am sympathetic to such a hope. Though we as Americans generally have all we need, we live in a culture in which we never have enough, in which we reach for just a bit more of an American dream communicated to us by a culture that keeps us constantly hungry for more. Our culture demands very little from us yet promises more than we can imagine. This pernicious imbalance motivates our feckless search for a panacea that will cure all our ills. Unfortunately, this search tries to remediate the symptoms of our cultural illness not their sources.

I am sympathetic to the hope that God will satisfy our deepest desires, but I cringe when theology is manipulated to satisfy our most trivial desires. If the Christian faith does not propel us to seek the good of others, even to sacrifice our own selves for those in need, then Christ died in vain. If the Christian faith simply acquiesces to this culture's infirmities, then we remain unchallenged; in such a faith, there is no need for conversion, for we crowd out God and stand arrogantly at the center of the universe.