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The Deacon's Bench

In the New York Times, David Brooks has taken aim at “the prosperity gospel,” and fires a few well-aimed shots:

In the coming years of slow growth, people are bound to establish new norms and seek noneconomic ways to find meaning. One of the interesting figures in this recalibration effort is David Platt.

Platt earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. At age 26, he was hired to lead a 4,300-person suburban church in Birmingham, Ala., and became known as the youngest megachurch leader in America.

Platt grew uneasy with the role he had fallen into and wrote about it in a recent book called “Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream.” It encapsulates many of the themes that have been floating around 20-something evangelical circles the past several years.

Platt’s first target is the megachurch itself. Americans have built themselves multimillion-dollar worship palaces, he argues. These have become like corporations, competing for market share by offering social centers, child-care programs, first-class entertainment and comfortable, consumer Christianity.

Jesus, Platt notes, made it hard on his followers. He created a minichurch, not a mega one. Today, however, building budgets dwarf charitable budgets, and Jesus is portrayed as a genial suburban dude. “When we gather in our church building to sing and lift up our hands in worship, we may not actually be worshipping the Jesus of the Bible. Instead, we may be worshipping ourselves.”

Next, Platt takes aim at the American dream. When Europeans first settled this continent, they saw the natural abundance and came to two conclusions: that God’s plan for humanity could be realized here, and that they could get really rich while helping Him do it. This perception evolved into the notion that we have two interdependent callings: to build in this world and prepare for the next.

The tension between good and plenty, God and mammon, became the central tension in American life, propelling ferocious energies and explaining why the U.S. is at once so religious and so materialist. Americans are moral materialists, spiritualists working on matter.

Platt is in the tradition of those who don’t believe these two spheres can be reconciled. The material world is too soul-destroying. “The American dream radically differs from the call of Jesus and the essence of the Gospel,” he argues. The American dream emphasizes self-development and personal growth. Our own abilities are our greatest assets.

But the Gospel rejects the focus on self: “God actually delights in exalting our inability.” The American dream emphasizes upward mobility, but “success in the kingdom of God involves moving down, not up.”

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