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What's Right with the Prosperity Gospel?

Fall 2009
PAGES 8, 9
[original publication]

An Economy of Abundance

In contrast to the logic of scarcity with which we are all too familiar, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann put his finger on the pulse of God's economy by describing it as a "liturgy of abundance." God's economy, he pointed out, assumes the abundance of creation and so refuses the miserly hoarding and competition yielded by the myth of scarcity. It's Pharoah's logic, he suggested, that generates an economy of fear: "There's not enough. Let's get everything."* In contrast, Jesus came to demonstrate an extravagant, wonder-working economy that makes wine out of water. In this economy of abundance, not only is there enough fish and bread to go around, there are baskets and baskets left over (John 6:11-13). God's extravagant creating and re-creating almost borders on being wasteful.

Not surprisingly, then, some have seized upon John 10:10 as central to the gospel, where Jesus announces: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."

From Abundance to Prosperity

Unfortunately, this promise of abundant life is often taken up by those we identify with the "prosperity gospel": a gospel of "health and wealth" associated with folks like Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church in Houston, or Creflo Dollar's World Changers Church outside Atlanta. You might be familiar with its slogans, plucked from Scripture: "You have not because you ask not" (James 4:2).
"Ask and you will receive" (John 16:24).
Jesus came "that you may have life, and have it abundantly."

This seems to resonate with creation's economy of abundance. Wouldn't an economy of abundance be one that generates prosperity?

And yet I'm guessing most of us would squirm (or scream) if we had to watch the Trinity Broadcasting Network for any extended amount of time. Many of us would cringe to see Creflo Dollar positioning the Cadillac Escalade beside his pulpit as "evidence" of the anointing. And I suspect most of us would be uncomfortable with the picture of Joel Osteen asking for donations on a remote broadcast from his yacht. Indeed, it's easy to detest name-it-and-claim-it as simply sanctified greed. We are rightly suspicious that this is just the wolf of consumerism in sheep's clothing.

But how many of us are still quite comfortable with more "low grade" (or "soft sell") versions of a prosperity gospel? For instance, how many of us buy into a logic which assumes that if Christians are wealthy, they have been "blessed" by God (as if material prosperity was a kind of magic, rather than the product of often unjust systems)? While many of us might be quick to loudly denounce the "heresy" of the prosperity gospel, we're quite comfortable with affirming the good of affluence. But isn't that just a propserity gospel without the glam?

What's Right with Prosperity?

So maybe it's fair for us to ask: What's right with the prosperity gospel? One of the reasons it's important to ask this question is because of the explosion of world Christianity, which is basically charismatic Christianity; and the prosperity gospel often attends Pentecostal and charismatic spirituality.

But here's my question: Does the prosperity gospel mean something different in rural Nigeria than suburban Dallas? Is the promise of material and economic abundance received differently by those who live on less than $2 a day? The prosperity gospel (for all its failures) might be an unwitting testimony to the holistic aspects of Pentecostal spirituality that value the goodness of creation and embodiment—a holism that resonates with the Reformed tradition. In a curious way, the prosperity gospel is a testament to the very "worldliness" of Pentecostal theology. While Pentecostal spirituality might often be associated with "pie-in-the-sky" pietism and a sort of escapism into spiritual matters, the prosperity gospel of Pentecostal spirituality refuses to spiritualize the promise that the gospel is "good news for the poor," and gives evidence of a core affirmation that God cares about our bellies and bodies. This means something very different in the comfort of an air-conditioned mega-church in suburban Atlanta (where "prosperity" signals an idolatrous, consumerist accumulation of luxury) than in famished refugee camps in Rwanda. The former deserves our criticism; the latter, I think, requires careful listening.

Two Cheers for Prosperity

God's economy of abundance has no room for some romantic celebration of poverty and lack. Even if we're rightly concerned about the prosperity gospel, that shouldn't translate into any simplistic demonization of abundance or even prosperity. Indeed, this reminds me of the lyrics of an old Everclear song, "I Will Buy You a New Life":

I hate those people who love to tell you, "Money is the root of all that kills." They have never been poor, They have never had the joy of a welfare Christmas.

I suggest that implicit in the prosperity gospel—-and buried under all its perversions and distortions—-is a lingering testament that God is concerned with the material conditions of the poor. And God's economy does not just envision some "bare minimum" survival, but a flourishing, thriving abundance. The New Jerusalem is not some spartan, frugal space but rather a city teeming with downright luxury—a luxury enjoyed by all. In a similar way, the marriage supper of the Lamb doesn't have to observe the frugality of a downsized corporate lunch policy! Creation's abundance is mirrored and expanded in the new creation. Prosperity has a biblical ring to it.

However, we are still waiting for the New Jerusalem. And I think we can rightly be concerned that the "prosperity gospel" is often inattentive to this. Instead, the prosperity gospel seems to be a kind of "realized eschatology"—an overemphasis on the already that forgets the not yet. It fails to recognize that such prosperity is still to come. And in the meantime, it misses the structural injustices that yield abundance for only a few. In other words, the prosperity gospel fails to discern how wealth is often generated by systems of exploitation and oppression.

So how can we respond? On the one hand, the biblical narrative paints a picture of abundance and overflowing generosity as part of the warp and woof of God's creation. On the other hand, in our fallen, broken world, the prophets consistently denounce those economic systems which concentrate wealth and abundance in the hands of the few, and often at the expense of the many. So are we called to be present-day ascetics who are just waiting for an abundance to come? Doesn't that seem like we'd be spurning the gifts of God's creational abundance?

Fasting and Feasting

The answer, I suggest, revolves around how we inhabit time. An intentional asceticism or abstinence which voluntarily chooses to forego abundance attests to the persistent injustice of current economic systems, expressing solidarity with the poor and refusing the idolatry of materialism. But such an approach can run the risk of spurning God's abundance and can unwittingly fall prey to a logic of scarcity. On the other hand, an absolute enjoyment of abundance in the present almost inevitably lives off the exploitation of others and is prone to idolatry, as Paul notes when he writes, "Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry" (Col. 3:5). So it seems we're faced with two problematic options.

But it's not either/or if we think about this dynamically with respect to time— which is exactly the idea behind ancient and medieval practices of "fasting and feasting." The rhythm of fasting and feasting calls the people of God to bear witness to both of these realities at different times and in different seasons: we rightly celebrate and enjoy God's abundance, but we also rightly lament and resist injustice and poverty. During days or seasons of fasting—which, in a way, should be the "default" habit of the church's sojourn—we say "no" to abundance as a witness to the fact that so many lack not only abundance but what's needed just to survive. But during days and seasons of feasting, we enjoy a foretaste of the abundance of the coming kingdom.

The liturgical calendar encourages these sorts of rhythms. The ascetic disciplines of Advent and Lent encourage seasons of denial, frugality, and simplicity. During these seasons we do well to express our solidarity with the poor and hungry and to remember economic injustice, by resisting the luxuries of our American standard of living. But during the festal seasons of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost we are encouraged to drink deeply of God's abundance—to enjoy the overflowing fruits of a bountiful creation.

We can do the same in our own week-to-week rhythms. We might consider regularly fasting one day a week and regularly observing a Sabbath rest from global economic systems and local markets. But we might also restore the Sunday feast, and open our lavish tables to friends and strangers, providing a tantalizing hint of the coming Supper of the Lamb.

The God who became poor so that we might become rich invites us into a way of life marked by the rhythms of fasting and feasting—as a way of making us hungry for the abundant life.

*Walter Brueggemann, "The liturgy of abundance, the myth of scarcity," Christian Century, March 24-31, 1999, p. 342.

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