When shallow Christianity drowns in a mighty flood, the prosperity gospel is no life preserver.
Joel Osteen had a terrible week. But that’s only because his devotion to the prosperity gospel put him there. It wasn’t God. I suppose this really is a kind of “reap what you sow” kind of moment.
It was the kind of week no pastor would want. He was the butt of jokes, memes, and scorn all over social media. He was criticized for his handling of Hurricane Harvey relief, which he only sort of deserves. I mean, the guy has a megachurch of thousands in Houston.
And welcoming the stranger and protecting the weak is literally what Jesus says would be his followers’ calling cards.
The criticism was heavy, direct, and focused on the hypocrisy between Osteen’s wealth and the size of his church on the one side versus the present need and expectation of the Christian on the other.
The critique of him is sound. The voice of the critique, however, often strayed into the nasty and undeserved.
If that were the whole story, that would be one thing. If it were simply that a handsome, wealthy pastor with a big following is a big hypocrite and we all go home, then there isn’t much to say. But that isn’t all of it.
The Joel Osteen flap helps reveal two other parts we often struggle to wrestle with. And the fact that they are exposed right now is no surprise.
1. The Defense
Criticism of Joel Osteen was widespread, but far from universal. He had many people defending him. Not just from the charges of hypocrisy, or in the general defense of not supporting any critique of anyone ever. It came from a different direction entirely: Christian diversity. As in Joel Osteen is a Christian pastor and his kind of Christianity is but one of many.
There’s a certain irony in seeing this kind of support for Osteen as one of many different flavors of Christianity. Especially given the other big story last week was the Nashville Statement: Conservative Christianity’s claim of exclusive revelation of all that is Christianity.
This isn’t new, of course, but it seems to be growing. A lot.
In fact, this exclusive stranglehold was not something I had ever experienced until recently and even then, it seemed like a lone wolf situation. I didn’t expect it to actually be codified in that horrible statement of exclusion and division.
But we shouldn’t take the newness of this level of division for granted. We’ve had many Christianities before, but until the last two years, I haven’t seen such intense work to exclude diversity in theology and Christian practice.
In other words, reading conservatives defend Osteen’s faithful Christianity as but a square in the Christian quilt feels like an intellectual train wreck. It is so radically counter the exclusivity position pushed in many of the same spaces and is precisely the openness to diversity for which Progressive Christianity is constantly criticized.
This defense of Osteen is literally the defense progressives are vilified for giving others.
Don’t get me wrong; I have a very generous understanding of who gets to be a Christian. And I actually tend to agree with the defense of multiple Christianities and diversity in the faith.
I’m not mad about the hypocrisy. It bothers me that the defense of Osteen doesn’t actually match the criticism. They aren’t defending his doing nothing or waffling in the face of adversity, which were the criticisms. Nor is it a declaration that the faithful have a right to not have to open their doors if they don’t want to. Which may be a defensible argument.
But of course, that defense would be a little too on the nose.
2. The Prosperity Gospel
My broad definition of Christianity allows the Prosperity Gospel to be considered Christian. Just like it allows those hypocritical and cruel Southern Baptists to be called Christian.
That very broad definitions of who gets to be counted as Christian give us this opportunity to see Christ in a variety of faiths.
This diversity also means I believe they don’t have the right to call my branch of Christianity unChristian. The very means of defining them as Christian defends my Christianity.
Having established that the parameters of Christianity are necessarily broad, there is a really big difference between the prosperity gospel and more traditional branches of the faith. The red line the Nashville Statement wanted to draw between Southern Baptists and the great diversity of historic Christian communities doesn’t change the fact that we have more in common than either of us have to the prosperity gospel.
And this big difference is that the prosperity gospel’s primary belief is that good things come to good people for being good. Maybe praying hard enough. Really believing that you will be rewarded in this life with wealth. If only you believe really hard.
This doesn’t make the prosperity gospel inherently bad. Just insufficient. But I have a different argument to make.
The prosperity gospel is totally incapable of dealing with disaster.
Taking on water
When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, the flooding was terrifying. It exposed the folly of building the city on a swamp, but worse. City officials continued to expand the city onto the floodplains when they knew that it would make catastrophic flooding worse.
The level of devastation in Houston was not an act of God. It was the result of human hubris. Our world has a means of protecting itself from violent storms. And it doesn’t involve concrete.
The very weakness of the prosperity gospel is that it is entirely based on God’s providence for the good, with human action being the instigator. But the offering isn’t the “providential gospel”. It isn’t “your life is a rollercoaster and let God protect you”.
It’s more like: think and grow rich.
It doesn’t plan for disaster or account for its whereabouts in our midst. I suppose that goes against the thinking and growing rich part. No room in that equation for poverty or catastrophe. No place for making mistakes, repenting and returning.
It is a shallow gospel whose incredibly unorthodox approach to faith can’t handle disasters. Which is why Osteen himself struggled to keep ahead of the story.
He bumbled. Then he shifted the blame. Anything to hide the fact that he couldn’t handle disaster. Not that most of us would be great at it. That’s not the point. His theology has no room for it. He can’t deal with disaster because he doesn’t believe it is even possible. Not to him. Only the opportunity for more greatness.
3. The Politics of Prosperity
While I’m no fan of the prosperity gospel, I mostly don’t care about it. It isn’t a bigger threat than the bigoted divisions behind the Nashville Statement. That’s a much more dangerous form of Christianity.
The problem is that while many of us strain to be true to two thousand years of faith, the prosperity gospel is so attractive that it doesn’t need to. It smiles and speaks unfounded platitudes.
But it’s worst character is that it even connects wealth with goodness and poverty with badness. It is fueling a distorted Christianity which is an attractive means of criticizing the poor and the destitute.
It mainlines our greed and the values of our consumer culture like a junky and sells us a shallow faith in a market saturated with charlatans with their snake oil. It’s our fast food when the price of real food is rising and wages are stagnating. It’s pure American temptation.
So it shouldn’t surprise the faithful that the prosperity gospel is Donald Trump’s religious foundation. That his upbringing was that Norman Vincent Peale happy Christianity and the surprisingly misunderstood prosperity gospel.
The prosperity gospel is weak tea and a defense of wealth and exploitation. That there is any correlation at all between faith and wealth should be laughable at the suggestion. Anyone who has witnessed the faith of the oppressed or read the words of Jesus in the gospels would know that there is more likely to be an inverse relationship between wealth and faith.
No form of Christianity explains this current moment better than the prosperity gospel. It can’t handle these moments because it is profoundly selfish and individualistic. And it reinforces dysfunction in us rather than health and vitality.
The prosperity gospel feeds off of selfish desire and individual focus. It can’t handle collective pain or common adversity. It’s vision of God only shows up to throw money at the true believers and awesome jobs at the already wealthy.
Their God doesn’t show up in the nursing home to give strength to the elderly trapped in wheel chairs or to inspire the teams of rescuers pulling people out of the cars and homes.
Their God is the flip side of the monster God of the Pat Robertsons of the world, condemning the innocent and terrorizing the weak. This is a shiny happy God who only loves happy people with Successories posters.
A far more mature faith wrestles with the providence of God and looks to find God in the midst of the tragedy. A God found in bravery, compassion, hope, and love. God is found in the people who make God known in the midst of tragedy and felt in the midst of despair.
We shouldn’t attack or defend Joel Osteen for his morally weak moment. He’s a weak human peddling a shallow Christianity.
Instead, embody a deeper faith and profess the good news of Jesus Christ. Good News which is found in
poverty, not wealth;
weakness, not strength;
hope, not cynicism;
welcome, not exclusion;
love, not hate.
And hopefully, that shallow faith will deepen into a well. A well providing for all the people of the community. Especially the poor, the displaced, and the immigrant.