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.