Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘Prosperity Gospel’

Christians Should Shut Up, Calm Down, and Listen

In American Society, Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Government on March 2, 2014 at 12:49 am

Before you get too wound up, you should probably have a look at James 1:1-21, paying particular attention to verse 19. While my headline addresses Christians in general, I’m thinking mostly about that vitriolic group of Americans known as the Tea Party. Of course the groups are not one and the same, but I don’t think anyone can argue that the vast majority of Tea Partiers would self-identify as Christians. So if you’re not the angry, White, American Republican variety of Christian, please forgive my generalization; headlines can only be so long, you know.

James’ letter was probably written around 46-48 AD, a couple of years before the Council of Jerusalem put Gentile believers on equal footing with their Jewish Christian brothers. Hence, it is addressed to “the twelve tribes scattered across the nations”, referring to the Jewish communities that existed in almost every city across the ancient world. These communities often practiced a form of Hellenistic Judaism, meaning that they combined their Jewish religious traditions with elements of Greek culture. As they were open to new ideas and philosophies, they were among the earliest adherents to the new faith of Christianity. Because most of the New Testament was originally written in koine Greek, instead of Aramaic, some historians think the early Christian church may have been composed almost exclusively of Hellenistic Jews; the fact that many Old Testament quotations in the letters of the disciples appear to come from the Septuagint strengthens this argument.

James tells believers to be happy when they are facing trials, as these will serve to perfect their faith. In an earlier post dealing with Paul’s discussion of persecutions in Thessaloniki, it wasn’t clear what he might have been referring too. However, there would have been lots of friction between Aramaic-speaking, traditional Jewish believers and Greek-speaking, Hellenistic Jews at the time of James’ writing. The recipients of his letter would have been subject to the disdain of their own Jewish brethren, perhaps ostracized from the synagogue for their belief in this person called Jesus. It is probably this religious persecution that he refers to.

According to James, God will give wisdom to anyone who asks for it, as long as they really, really believe when they ask. If you doubt – forget about it. God will give you nothing. Over the years, I have seen so many Christians beat themselves up over this verse. What they ask God for seems reasonable enough – the wisdom needed to sort out their marriage or their children, or direction in a financial decision – but they receive nothing. When their marriage or finances fall apart, they tell themselves (or are helpfully reminded by more successful Christians) that they just simply don’t have enough faith in God. Many of the largest evangelical churches across the US preach this kind of doctrine. The church leadership, enriched by the tithes of the faithful, tell the less fortunate among the flock that they need only the tiniest bit of faith, and they too can be rich and successful. If you are struggling in life, it’s your own fault for not being able to muster up enough faith. It has nothing to do with the fact that the economic system is rigged against you or that you were never able to complete college. No, your life is a mess because Jesus thinks you don’t believe in him enough.

It’s ironic that most of the TV preachers are telling us that we should all be rich; James doesn’t have many nice things to say about the wealthy. This is one of the major inconsistencies evident between a literal reading of the Bible and modern American Christianity. Americans all want to be rich – who doesn’t? – while Jesus, James, Peter, and other New Testament writers see wealth as a detriment to the Christian life. In fact, the wealthy are viewed as oppressors, not ‘job creators’, not as men of great faith. A great deal of rhetorical acrobatics is required to twist these teachings into something that supports our acquisitive, materialistic American lifestyle.

In fact, James thinks it is the poor who should be proud, as their lives are not focused on the material. At God’s table, the rich won’t get the best seat – if they are invited at all. In most American churches, the wealthiest members hold the coveted positions of leadership. In God’s kingdom, Tom Perkins certainly wouldn’t get a million more votes than you or I.

Phidippides

Two metaphors in verses 12 and 18 show how skillfully the writer weaves together ideas from both Jewish and Hellenistic worldviews. He compares the Christian life to an endurance race, something that can be won with perseverance. Marathons, the glory of victory, laurel crowns – these are Greek ideas that are not found in Old Testament writings. Christians today talk about “running the race”, “fighting the good fight”, and “wearing the whole armor of God”, little realizing that these ideas are all drawn from Greek legends, not Jewish or Christian ones. James was likely reminding his readers of Pheidippides, using that story as a source of inspiration for living the Christian life. Note that in Merson’s rendering above, the hero has truly laid aside every weight to run the race.

When he refers to his fellow believers as “a kind of firstfruits”, James is alluding to a type of agricultural offering that had existed in both Greek and Jewish cultures for centuries. He appears to be changing the significance of the offering – instead of humans giving the first part of their harvest to a temple, James seems to be saying that the first group of believers are offered to God as the first of many more believers to come. Modern churches, however, prefer the ancient meaning – every religion in every culture has rituals that are meant to sustain – and often enrich – the priesthood.

While partisans from all parts of the political spectrum are guilty of lowering the quality of the debate in our country, I offer this next verse as Biblical instruction to the Tea Party in particular. James says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” If a godless, reprobate secularist won’t listen and spouts off all the time, at least he isn’t breaking his own moral code – you, Mr. Tea Partier, are. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is the anger of the Tea Party that is driving the greater part of the rancor and real ugliness in our politics today. I didn’t think George Bush was very bright, but I didn’t call him a subhuman mongrel. I wish evangelicals didn’t always vote Republican, but I certainly don’t hope they burn in hell when they do.

We can’t solve any of the many serious problems our nation faces as long as we think and act this way. We have to respect each other – talk to one another – to get things done. So, Mr. Tea Partier, it’s not just me who thinks you need to shut up, calm down, and listen every once and a while. No, your friend James – Jesus’ brother – thinks so too.

The road to getting our country back in shape is likely to be a long one – we need to put our energy into running that race.

If it’s ok with you, I’ll be keeping my clothes on.

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Did Christianity Cause the Crash?

In Religion and Money on April 23, 2012 at 11:56 pm

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

A Reflection on Hanna Rosin’s article for The Atlantic

Read the entire article at The Atlantic – Did Christianity Cause the Crash?

When I was 19 years old and still a fervent fundamentalist believer, I found myself in dire need of a car.  The old clunker I had driven in high school had suddenly given up the ghost, just as I was planning to go off to Bible school, several states away.  I hadn’t yet received any scholarship offers from the school, and I didn’t want to borrow any money, so I was trusting that God was going to give me the means to have an education. I knew that I would have to work part-time to support myself while in school, and I began to worry how I would be able to make the whole college thing work without any transportation. In fact, I didn’t even know how I was going to get myself back and forth to my part-time job at a local shoe store.  So I began to pray.  I asked God to provide me with a car and a job so that I could go to school and learn to do his work.

What happened next seemed like an answered prayer – a miracle, if you will.  My boss at the shoe store asked me if I would postpone college for a year or two and help him open a new store about an hour away. He knew I had just lost my car, so he offered me a signing bonus that could serve as a down payment on a new one – a new car!  I had asked God for any old car and a part-time job; he was giving me a brand new car and a retail management job – wasn’t God amazing?  Still, I was unsure if this was the direction that God wanted me to go in – hadn’t I prayed for hours and felt that I should go to Bible school?  So, I put out a fleece before God.  I reminded God in prayer that I didn’t have any credit whatsoever, and that I was pretty sure I couldn’t qualify for a car loan.  However, if I was indeed approved for the loan, I would take that as a sign that this was what he wanted for me at this time in my life – new car, decent job, college later.

I was reminded of this story as I read Ms Rosin’s article about how the prosperity theology espoused by many Charismatic/Pentecostal churches may have contributed to the biggest housing crisis in the last 100 years or so.  Her story focuses especially on Black and Latino churches, and how some of the poorest members of American society were and still are being told that God wants them to be rich – but they’ve got to have the faith to get started themselves.  Over the past decade of easy money, this often meant going out and buying a house that seemed out of reach, trusting that God would bring in the extra dollars needed to make the mortgage payments.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that – at least in the Christian circles I’m familiar with – this is the only way to make financial decisions.  Pray, seek a sign from God, act on that sign.

Wouldn’t it be better if a Christian trusted his afterlife to his faith, but made his financial decisions based on evidence?  Even if we believe that God wants us to be rich, wants us to have that new house or new car, how can we be so sure in our belief – in our interpretation of God’s sign –  that we are able to act against all sound financial advice? It would be interesting to know – but impossible to find out – how many people bought houses this way, signing a loan with payments they knew they’d never be able to pay without divine intervention.

In my case, no financial crash ensued.  I got the loan, bought the car, and the job I started allowed me to earn enough money to make the payments.  But I didn’t go to school that year, or the next.  In fact, it would be nearly a decade before I would be able to start my education.  When I think of the lost income potential that long delay may have cost me – well, that’s the topic of a future post.