Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Consumer Gospel

This morning as I bustled around preparing for my day, I found myself thinking about the prosperity gospel, likely an echo of some social network chatter and mass media articles over the last few days.

That gospel..the name-it-and-claim-it, Word Faith, to-meet-your-need-gotta-plant-a-seed perhaps best known for it's tendency to emphasize material rewards as the fruits of faith.  If you have faith, you will prosper.  Your car will be large.  Your shoes will be fancy.  You will have all the best toys.

That emphasis is, of course, utterly alien to the teachings of Jesus.  But that doesn't stop folks from pitching it out there, because it resonates with a pretty basic primate desire.   We want the tastiest fruit for our young.  We want that female to be so awed by our abundantly padded nest that she can't help but approach us with the cooing sounds that mean we're going to get some serious...nitpicking...on.  Ooooh. Yeah.  Right there...

That desire is strong enough that it has spawned functionally identical versions of the prosperity gospel across world religious traditions.  It exists in basically the same form and with entirely the same purpose in Buddhism, Hinduism, and all manner of pagan and neopagan traditions.

Over the past few years, as the health-and-wealth stream has grown and swollen, I've heard some folks defend it as  the 21st Century variant of the Protestant work ethic.   It encourages work, they say.  It's good for pulling people out of poverty, and getting them focused on remaking themselves.

This morning, it occurred to me that this is entirely and completely hooey.

The Protestant work ethic focused on worldly labor as an expression of God's purpose in your life.  It was oriented towards vocation, the utilization of our gifts and talents in labor as a sign of blessing and grace in life.   To fulfill your created purpose involved actions and a life lived towards that purpose.  That wasn't a guarantee of prosperity, or of material blessing, or of escape from hardship.  But it was the mark of a faithful, meaningful life.  As John Calvin put it:
It will also be no small alleviation of his cares, labours, troubles, and other burdens, when a man knows that in all these things he has God for his guide. The magistrate will execute his office with greater pleasure, the father of a family will confine himself to his duty with more satisfaction, and all, in their respective spheres of life, will bear and surmount the inconveniences, cares, disappointments, and anxieties which befall them, when they shall be persuaded that every individual has his burden laid upon him by God. Hence also will arise peculiar consolation, since there will be no employment so mean and sordid (provided we follow our vocation) as not to appear truly respectable, and be deemed h'ghly important in the sight of God"
This is not the Prosperity Gospel.  The prosperity gospel is not about vocation, or "inconveniences, cares, disappointments, and anxieties."  It's not about production.

It's about consumption.   It's about instant gratification. It's not about giving, unless that giving happens to be either 1) to your megachurch so's Pastor can be blessed with another Lexus or 2) to your credit card company, at 21.5% interest, compounded 'till Jesus returns.  It's about taking, about devouring, about seeking the needs of the self-flesh above all else.

It's the consumer gospel.  It's the gospel of debt.  It's the gospel of endless hungers.

If this is our faith, then no wonder things are such a mess.


  1. Prosperity gospel is heresy; this much should be affirmed. However, it is also a corrective to an equally heretical suite of gospels that suggest that God, Christ, have no interest in our material well-being, offer no material rewards in our lives (or only do so through the natural fruits of labor, such as they are). Some of these suggest that the blind watchmaker has walked away; others suggest that he is only offering sticks in this present life; or worse yet, hellfire and otherworldly bliss but nothing visible at this time; still others suggest that God is only the God of the poor - what is unspoken is that thus He couldn't make people wealthy without being forced to abandon them soon after. This final heresy is explicitly preached in a large number of venues that I won't bother to name.

    However, the scriptures are very clear on these points and reject all sorts of strange perversions such as the racism of Cone and Wright, or the belief that God is practicing class warfare. Rather, the epistles say that in Christ there are no such distinctions.

    The Protestant Work Ethic, such as it was, embraced labor as a God given vocation such that a person did not need idle time for pilgrimages, preaching, prayer, or charity work to be a good Christian. A person could do God's will in his daily life and do it in a manner suitable to the intonation of good and faithful servant - not abandoning all religion, all prayer, or all charity, but not rewarded with piety and purity in proportion to his time invested in such things.
    Further, his productivity in his work was his own, fit to accumulate, store, or eat of, without guilt or shame, a proper demonstration that his efforts were fruitful, appropriate and blessed in some measure. The ox is free to eat while he treads. We do not let coins clink to have spirits soar free. This spoke against the Roman Catholic heresies of the day - both worship of inherited wealth which permitted rich donations and the worship of poverty as a somehow pure state of being. Productivity was valued anew.

    This stance also speaks against the heresy of poverty worship found in so many enclaves, both Roman Catholic and Protestant today.

  2. @ BenK: If it's a corrective, it's a corrective in the same way that swerving to avoid a squirrel and going right over that cliff is a corrective. ;0)

    And while Cone and other leftys might make for a good conceptual target, their influence beyond academe and a small sliver of the overeducated oldline is functionally nonexistent. Their language and emphasis is too narrow and too exclusive to allow for broad purchase. Perhaps for the best, eh?

    Prosperity teachings, on the other hand, burn like a cold fire throughout both this country and the Global South. Best to focus on where the most harm is being done, I think.

    As to the relationship between rich and poor and our Creator, the axiom that governs my interpretation on this is simple: God is no respecter of persons. That word is good news and liberation to the poor, and a reality that challenges the power of mammon.

    The wealthy who live by that can pass through the eye of the needle.

  3. I wouldn't be so quick to place a materially irrelevant Gospel as the squirrel in the road. Perhaps it is a question of getting stuck on the railroad tracks or plunging over the embankment. Neither is even vaguely acceptable.