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Prosperity Gospel: Does it help the poor?

posted by xscot mcknight

Peter Berger, well-known sociologist, goes against everyone’s grain and the fashionable, trendy screeds in this piece in Books and Culture. When I read Berger’s ideas on the train during my commute, my jaw dropped. By the way, I’m a huge fan of Books and Culture. Used with permission.
Books & Culture, September/October 2008
“You Can Do It!”
Two cheers for the prosperity gospel.
by Peter L. Berger
There is an almost universal consensus, right across the Christian theological spectrum, to the effect that the so-called prosperity gospel is an aberration. One should always be suspicious when there is a universal consensus about anything; quite often it is wrong. I will momentarily voice some suspicion about this particular consensus. But first one should give credit where credit is due. In other words, the consensus about the prosperity gospel is not completely wrong.
It is certainly a distortion of the Christian message if it is primarily interpreted as a program for the material improvement of the human condition. Where the prosperity gospel does that, it is an aberration?especially so when its proponents suggest, implicitly and often enough explicitly, that giving money to them guarantees that God will bless the donors with success and wealth. Protestants if no one else should recall in this connection that the Reformation began as a protest against the sale of indulgences. Recall Johann Tetzel’s jingle?”as soon as the coin drops into the collection plate, a soul jumps out of purgatory.” Some prosperity-gospel preaching strikes one as an eerie Protestant translation of Tetzel’s message.
A number of critics of the prosperity gospel have couched their criticism in an overall anti-capitalist rhetoric: The prosperity gospel is supposed to be part and parcel of a pro-capitalist ideology, seeking to dupe the poor of the global south into accepting the wicked policies of “neoliberalism.” It is useful to point out that the materialist distortion of the Christian message is fully shared by the liberation theology of the anti-capitalist left. Only here the material improvement is understood in collective rather than individual terms: put your coin in the collection plate of the revolutionary movement, and the soul of the masses will be freed from the purgatory of capitalist exploitation. Theological suggestion: What is good for the rightist goose is good for the leftist gander.
The core of the Christian message is the proclamation of a tectonic shift in cosmic reality inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This proclamation radically relativizes all the empirical givens of this world, including all human institutions. Any reinterpretation of Christianity in terms of a this-worldly agenda, individual or collective, is a distortion. At the same time, one cannot ink out of the New Testament the fact that Jesus in his earthly ministry showed a special concern for the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. Nor should one put aside the age-old pastoral wisdom that adversity can be an occasion of spiritual growth, that God draws closer to us when we suffer from adversity. But this does not mean that adversity should be celebrated as such. Sickness should be fought by the means medicine puts at our disposal, as marginality should be fought politically (think of the civil rights movement here). But if sickness or marginality should not be accepted passively as God-given circumstances, neither should poverty.
This train of thought, at least for me, leads from theology to sociology. In terms of poverty, one must now ask just what is good for the poor. And, as far as the prosperity gospel is concerned, what one can say about it sociologically is quite different from what one can say theologically. Different Christian traditions will have different ways of coping with this (I think, necessary) dichotomy. For Lutherans this is rather easy, due to the sharp distinction between the “two realms” of Law and Gospel. Sociology has nothing to say about the realm of Gospel. It has quite a lot to say about the realm of Law. Let me try.
The research center which I direct at Boston University, in collaboration with the Centre for Development and Enterprise in Johannesburg, has recently concluded a study of the social impact of the remarkable growth of Pentecostalism in South Africa. Not all Pentecostals adhere to the prosperity gospel; many do, especially in the Pentecostal mega-churches. One of these is Rhema Church, located in a suburb of Johannesburg. On a recent visit to South Africa I attended a Sunday morning service at Rhema. It was a memorable occasion. And it led to the reflections expressed here.
An estimated 7,000 people attended the service (one of four every Sunday), in a vast gigantic auditorium that was packed full. The atmosphere was that of a rock concert, with amplified music from a band on the center stage (the music, I was told, derived from American “Christian rock”). After a long warm-up of singing and clapping (certain to give a splitting headache to anyone not immunized against such a trivial ailment by the “baptism of the Spirit”), a collection was taken (very efficiently, given the size of the congregation). Then came the climax of the event, a long, rousing sermon by the founder of the church and its principal preacher, a white South African with a background in professional body-building (I could not help thinking of him as a born-again Schwarzenegger).
The congregation was about 85 percent black, but the whites seemed perfectly at ease. We arrived by car and had difficulty finding a space in the large parking lot on one side of the church. There was a variety of cars, among them quite a few Mercedes, BMWs, and the like. On the other side of the church sat a long line of buses, which had brought people from the townships. The same class difference was evident in the way people were dressed, some in business suits, some in cheap-looking clothes. Thus the divides of both race and class were bridged, fused together in the fire of the Spirit.
Like mega-churches elsewhere, Rhema has a large number of activities serving the multiple needs of its flock. Most of these, of course, were not in evidence on a Sunday morning, but I was particularly struck by a brochure advertising a business school operated by the church. Clearly, this was not intended to give out MBAs for individuals hoping for a career in a multinational corporation. But the courses listed were evidently suitable for grassroots entrepreneurs: how to keep accounts, plan marketing, pay taxes. One could not tell from the brochure how religion was introduced into this curriculum, but it was described as “bringing Christ into the marketplace.”
The message from the preacher had two major themes. One: God does not want you to be poor! And two: You can do it! That is, you can do something about the circumstances of your life. Should one quarrel with this message? I’m inclined to think not.
Is there a theological warrant to propose that God wants us to be poor? Any more than he wants us to be sick? The prosperity gospel contains no sentimentality about the poor. There is no notion here that poverty is somehow ennobling. In that, speaking sociologically, the prosperity gospel is closer to the empirical facts than a romantic idea of the noble poor?a notion reminiscent of another romantic fiction, the noble savage. Such notions, of course, are always held by people who are not poor and who do not consider themselves to be savages. The notions are patronizing. They are implicit in the famous slogan of liberation theology: “a preferential option for the poor.” Mind you, not of the poor, but for the poor?pronounced, as it were, from on high.
“You can do it!” Research data about Pentecostals bear this out. They are more optimistic, more self-confident than their non-Pentecostal neighbors. David Martin, the dean of Pentecostal studies, has caught this theme in the concept of ” betterment.” The concept refers to what Pentecostals believe to be a fruit of the Spirit?betterment, not only spiritually, but in every aspect of life, including health and material well-being. All over Latin America this belief is expressed in the Pentecostal bumper sticker par excellence: “Cristo salva y sana!?Christ saves and heals!” It is a package: being saved from sin, healed from sickness, and helped to emerge from poverty. This is a big promise. An empirical observer cannot say anything about salvation from sin, and will be inclined to skepticism about healing from sickness. But what about the promise of emerging from poverty? And here is the most important reason for taking a new look at the prosperity gospel: The promise has a good chance of being kept!
The aforementioned package also comes with a moral component?the one that Max Weber long ago called “the Protestant ethic.” It is an ethic of hard work, soberness, frugality, and a generally disciplined lifestyle. If it is observed by poor people over a generation or so, it is very likely to lead to social mobility?that is, to an escape from grinding poverty. To be sure, there will be many people who attend prosperity-gospel churches and think of their transaction with God in quasi-magical terms?they will sing, pray, give money, and without any further effort on their part God will shower material blessings upon them. In other words, Tetzel can indeed reappear in a Protestant guise. But it is also clear from the empirical data that those people who do adhere to the Protestant ethic will indeed be materially rewarded, or at least their children will. “Betterment” follows if people work hard, save from their paycheck rather than spend it on liquor and lavish entertainment, educate their children rather than invest energy in sexual adventures. Individuals who live by the Protestant ethic have a better chance to undergo social mobility, and a society in which this ethic is diffused has a better chance at economic growth. And that is very good indeed for the poor.
Weber believed (correctly, I think) that the socio-economic consequences of Protestantism were unintended. Luther, Calvin, and Wesley did not intend their moral teachings to make their followers rich (though at least the last of the three noticed, with considerable discomfort, that many of his followers did become rich?the “method” of Methodism turned out to have an economic result along with its religious one). The purveyors of the prosperity gospel are, as it were, intentional Weberians: They consciously intend the consequences that earlier Protestants brought about unintentionally. Sociologists will have a hard time quarreling with this program, whatever the qualms of theologians.
One does not have to be a dogmatic “neoliberal” to understand that the major beneficiaries of capitalist growth are, precisely, the poor?in the aggregate if not without exception, later if not sooner, and if the political context is not one in which an ?lite forcefully hoards the fruits of growth. If one truly cares for the poor, one will hold a “preferential option” for capitalist economics?and ipso facto will be cautious in one’s criticisms of the prosperity gospel.
What about the criticism that prosperity-gospel preachers are cynics who live high on the hog by exploiting their poor followers? Unless one gets jovially drunk with people, it is difficult to know who is a cynic and who is sincere (and, alas, these preachers rarely drink). And exploitation is an ambiguous category: If a salesman convinces me that his product will make me happy and is worth the price, is he exploiting me? (Never mind whether he believes in the product himself.) The maxim of caveat emptor applies. And buyers are often quite careful?especially if they are poor and don’t have money to throw away. But let it be stipulated that some of these preachers are cynical and exploitative. So are other clergy, bishops, archbishops, even professors of social ethics.
People generally know what is good for them, better than the well-meaning outsider. So do buyers in the marketplace, especially if they are poor. Thus the “consumers” of the prosperity gospel generally know what they are “buying.” Specifically, they know that the betterment being promised them is not an illusion, and they know and don’t care that their preacher has a swimming pool and drives a Mercedes. If they put money in the collection plate, they generally believe that they are getting good value in return. Thus it is not only patronizing to see them as dupes and victims; it is empirically misleading.
Pentecostalism is an enormous and growing presence globally. Until recently, it has been under the radar of academic and media attention. It continues to be ignored by many if not most Christian theologians outside its community: it is still the elephant in the living room of respectable Christendom in the global north (and sometimes even in the global south). Given the demographic facts, this will inevitably change. An ecumenical dialogue with Pentecostalism will have to come. To the extent that the prosperity gospel is a sizable component of the Pentecostal phenomenon, a moral reassessment of this component should be part of the dialogue.
Peter L. Berger directs the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs at Boston University.



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John C

posted September 29, 2008 at 2:31 am


I’ve always enjoyed Berger’s writing, and I think this is a useful contribution to the debate. Here in the UK, the biggest churches in London are mostly West African, Pentecostal and teach the prosperity gospel. The UK Evangelical Alliance (which includes many/most of the black churches) published a report about the prosperity gospel a few years back, which still stands out because it brought together both sides of the argument.
What the PG has in its favour is that it’s wholistic and addresses very practical concerns about life chances that shouldn’t just be swept under the carpet. My problems with it are threefold: (i) the crass materialism (as if flash cars really matter) (ii) the over-realised eschatology and (iii) the fact that its proponents seem more excited about their distinctive doctrine than about the Nicene Creed (they certainly appear to spend more time preaching it!) Of course, that third criticism pertains to all kinds of other groups – dispensationalists and hot Calvinists sometimes appear more excited by doctrines that divide them from other Christians than by ones they share in common.



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RJS

posted September 29, 2008 at 4:17 am


Well, the folks at Books and Culture were wise to let you post this. I followed the link to the site – was hooked by another interesting article or two, and actually went so far as to sign up for the trial issue/subscription.
Interesting article “No Science, Please” starts with a quote – People who write obscurely are either unskilled in writing or up to mischief. –Peter Medawar and goes on to have good things to say about Dawkins…(deserved even). The premise would be worth another post…
But I will drag myself back to the topic at hand. This is a fascinating article. I hope Michael Kruse finds time to chime in.
The best of the churches combine the ethic and optimism with theology founded in orthodox Christianity. Nonetheless, I have mixed feelings, especially with flaunted consumption and ostentatious materialism. Ultimately we all die, no exceptions. Sometimes it seems that the implicit message is that bad things won’t happen to God’s people — an errant message if there ever was one.



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Diane

posted September 29, 2008 at 4:43 am


I have not argued with the prosperity gospel, per se, since observing it in a pentecostal church with a large Latino population: it gave people who had been told all their lives they were nothing the assurance they could prosper. I’d not go as far as to defend the televangelists … and there’s a wsidom in understanding that, beyond a certain point, prosperity means the freedom to have less (didn’t Wesley say earn as much as you can, save as much as you can, GIVE as much as you can)–but there’s a lot to be said for the idea that people are not meant to live in poverty.
A thought-provoking article. Especially as it points to th importance of getting out of books and on to the street to see what’s really happening. :)



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Beth

posted September 29, 2008 at 5:36 am


My husband and I worked in a township outside Cape Town for a couple months, and while we didn’t go to any 7000-person churches this story rings very true to our experience there. Just one example: We saw a woman come to Christ early in our time, who as we sat in her shack at that moment seemed to illustrate the tragedy of a person completely defeated by poverty and living in utter misery, hunger, and chaos. And over our first few follow up meetings with her (with no explicit prosperity-type teaching from us, believe me, just “God loves you and sees infinite worth in you” and so on) everything about her changed. I mean, the way she sat in a chair changed. She started meeting people’s eyes. Before we left, she had started a small business, and we had to go find her at her workplace to meet.
My takeaway from that (other than awe and gratitude for the sovereign work of God) was that the so-called split between “the Gospel means just saving souls” and “the Gospel means bettering conditions” (in its prosperity version or its “social gospel” version) is an intellectual luxury of those of us who live on more than a dollar or two a day. I think people in absolute poverty know better.
Berger’s analysis of “preferential option FOR the poor” — to my shame, his point has never occured to me before, over probably 20 years of familiarity with the phrase. Wow.



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Anonymous

posted September 29, 2008 at 6:18 am


Academic Anguish: Prosperous Pentecostals « David Morgan’s Weblog

[…] Thanks Scott for pointing this out. […]



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Clay Knick

posted September 29, 2008 at 6:37 am


B&C is a fantastic journal. I would not want
to live without it!



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Anonymous

posted September 29, 2008 at 7:02 am


Train… er… Blogspotting 9/29 at Between the Trees

[…] Scot McKnight has a fascinating article up by Peter Berger, defending much of the prosperity gospel movement. Berger is doing mostly sociological study, but it’s still got some fascinating ideas. […]



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Bill Giovannetti

posted September 29, 2008 at 7:38 am


This sounds like Donald McGavran’s observation of “redemption and lift.” I experienced this phenomenon when I pastored in Chicago. As people’s lives were made whole, they got their act together financially, and moved to the suburbs… away from the church that ministered to them. It’s a valid observation.
The Psalmist expects that, if he is faithful to God’s word, everything he does will prosper (Ps 1:3). That promise is not limited to the “spiritual” realm of life. While I am not a fan of the health and wealth gospel by any means, I took that verse to heart as a teenager, and God has been faithful. It is not improper to speak hope into every area of life for those who will walk with the Lord.
I’m wondering, Scot, if your jaw dropped in a) disgust, b) delight, c) confusion, or d) something else.
Bill Giovannetti



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Rachel H. Evans

posted September 29, 2008 at 7:39 am


Wow. What an interesting article! It’s always helpful to read a fresh perspective on something about which you think you’ve already made up your mind.
Seems to me that perhaps a version of the prosperity gospel is appropriate in some circumstances. However, I’ve noticed that parts of the prosperity gospel approach have seeped into well-to-do American churches, where folks who are already quite wealthy (compared with the rest of the world)are told that God wants to continue to bless them with even more material abundance.
I suppose it’s a matter of distinguishing between helping people out of poverty and perpetuating materialism.
After all, Jesus did say that it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We can’t forget that wealth is as much a stumbling block as it is a blessing.
Thanks for posting the article, Scot. An interesting read!



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Anonymous

posted September 29, 2008 at 7:41 am


Stones Cry Out – If they keep silent… » Things Heard: e35v1

[…] Two cheers for the prosperity gospel … or not? […]



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Jamie Arpin-Ricci

posted September 29, 2008 at 7:51 am


I am going to have to spend more time with the article (perhaps writing a full response at my blog). While many of the points the author makes are valid, I am not sure his examples represent (even closely) the norm “prosperity-gospel” churches & beliefs. While my understanding is inevitably limited by experience, I have seen far too many “prosperity-gospel” churches devastate communities, be they the inner city where I live or the African community where we participate in development.
I have met no critics of the “prosperity-gospel” who would suggest that there is not a core intention in it’s message that isn’t true & right- namely, that God cares about our physical and material well-being. To explicitly state this basic tenet does not, in my opinion, necessarily make one or ones church a proponent of “prosperity-gospel”.
Again, there is too much to respond to hear in this section, but I worry that this article clouds the water of the issues at hand. And let me be clear- the issue here is as devastatingly dangerous to the rich (including the middle class) as it is for the poor.
Peace,
Jamie



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Travis Greene

posted September 29, 2008 at 7:54 am


There’s a huge difference between “God doesn’t want you to go to bed hungry” and “God wants you to drive an Escalade”. But it’s good to listen to the minority report, even if I think Berger doth protest too much.



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dopderbeck

posted September 29, 2008 at 7:56 am


I enjoy Berger’s work and B&C is a fabulous journal. I hear what Berger is saying here. And yet….
I help out sometimes with a group that ministers in inner city projects. It’s quite interesting to talk with people on the streets. The circumstances are often quite desperate — the drug trade washes through these areas, and young people who aren’t addicts and/or alcoholics themselves are often swept into dealing, gangs, gambling, prostitution, and violence.
Many of the local churches are into the prosperity gospel. I’m not sure if it gives the people solid hope or if it’s yet another quick fix. Does it inspire people to stay clean, finish school, and work hard, or is it yet another fleeting promise of success without real honest effort? Is the Pastor smiling from the billboard over Route 21, advertising the latest revival, sitting in his upholstered chair, in a tailored suit and wearing gold rings, really portraying the good news of the incarnation? How much of my discomfort with this is my cultural insulation as a relatively pampered white suburban dude?



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Beth

posted September 29, 2008 at 8:15 am


@ Travis Greene: “There?s a huge difference between ‘God doesn?t want you to go to bed hungry’ and ‘God wants you to drive an Escalade.'”
Amen!
The poverty we have in the USA is “relative” poverty, not the kind of $2-a-day extreme poverty Berger’s sociological project analysed, and I think keeping that distinction in mind is useful here. A single person with income at the USA poverty line for 2008 ($10400) is in the top 13% of wealth worldwide. So we probably need to take care not to expect Berger’s research to be transferable to American prosperity preachers working in a rich nation.



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dopderbeck

posted September 29, 2008 at 9:48 am


Beth — I hear what you’re saying — but believe me, the folks living in the projects in inner-city Newark are not only “relatively” poor. I get very nervous at the possible suggestion that the poor in America need to stop complaining. I’m not saying this is what you’re suggesting, but many pundits do say this sort of thing explicitly using “relative poverty” arguments.
The problems with poverty here, like the problems in many developing countries, are intractably deep, rooted as much in historic structual evils surrounding race and class as they are in simple dollars. To the extent prosperity preachers encourage Christian spiritual practices and perspectives that start to break down these structural evils, wonderful! I wonder, though, both in the U.S. and in developing countries, whether some prosperity preachers have actually become a significant part of the social structure that preys on the marginalized and weak.



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howard

posted September 29, 2008 at 9:52 am


Very thought-provoking article. This is clearly one of those areas where personal background creates a dominant lense that is hard to see around. I guess my initial reaction is that I am uncomfortable with the idea of PG from my experiences because as I have heard it preached, it emphasizes a change to the nature of the gospel message instead of what is more properly an emphasis on a change of heart and life by the hearers of this gospel. The rich should hear the gospel and respond by seeking economic justice for the poor by increased giving, transfer of real wealth/capital, and advocacy through the use of social power. The poor should hear this gospel and increasingly realize the source of help for life struggles is not in physical materialism nor in physical healing. As with many discussions–balance is the key.
To the extent I follow Berger, if I read correctly, I take exception to a conclusion that the gospel “relativised” all human institutions and was entirely pointed to a life to come instead of life here-and-now. Again, IF this was part of his position, I disagree with this.



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John Frye

posted September 29, 2008 at 9:52 am


Beth (#14),
You NAILED it. This is exactly what we must keep in mind.



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howard

posted September 29, 2008 at 9:55 am


“The core of the Christian message is the proclamation of a tectonic shift in cosmic reality inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This proclamation radically relativizes all the empirical givens of this world, including all human institutions. Any reinterpretation of Christianity in terms of a this-worldly agenda, individual or collective, is a distortion.”
This is the quote from Berger’s essay I am troubled with. The Incarnation itself revealed that God does have a “this-wordly agenda.” The simple teaching of scripture…for example eating certain foods–these are clearly issues for this world, not the next one.



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Anonymous

posted September 29, 2008 at 10:09 am


Pseudo-Polymath » Blog Archive » Monday Highlights

[…] Two cheers for the prosperity gospel … or not? […]



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PJ Condit

posted September 29, 2008 at 10:16 am


I really do like the optimism of health-and-wealth preachers, but I get a little squeemish when they start making the point that you have little because you have little faith. I think Paul washing up on the shore of Malta would have something to say about that…
Great topic and very good posts by all.
Thanks



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Bob Smietana

posted September 29, 2008 at 10:24 am


Kirbyjon Caldwell said much the same thing in a Time magazine story last year.
Here’s a clip from the story:
“Kirbyjon Caldwell, who pastors Windsor Village, the largest (15,000) United Methodist church in the country, can sound as Prosperity as the next pastor: “Jesus did not die and get up off the Cross so we could live lives full of despair and disappointment,” he says. He quotes the “abundant life” verse with all earnestness, even giving it a real estate gloss: “It is unscriptural not to own land,” he announces. But he’s doing more than talk about it. He recently oversaw the building of Corinthian Pointe, a 452-unit affordable-housing project that he claims is the largest residential subdivision ever built by a nonprofit. Most of its inhabitants, he says, are not members of his church.
Caldwell knows that prosperity is a loaded term in evangelical circles. But he insists that “it depends on how you define prosperity. I am not a proponent of saying the Lord’s name three times, clicking your heels and then you get what you ask for. But you cannot give what you do not have. We are fighting what we call the social demons. If I am going to help someone, I am going to have to have something with which to help.” ”



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Keith Schooley

posted September 29, 2008 at 11:02 am


A few observations from one who attended what would now be called prosperity gospel churches while growing up (although the focus at that time seemed more on divine healing than wealth):
Berger makes the point that Protestantism contained unintended economic benefits to its adherents, and that what the PG is doing is simply making these benefits intentional. I wonder if they are supposed to be intentional. That is to say, even if it works (i.e., is “true” in a pragmatic sense), is material prosperity (however defined) supposed to be a goal, or merely a byproduct, of Christian living?
The benefits of the PG, according to Berger, would appear to be the same as the benefits of secularized motivational speaking. I.e., the message of “You can do it!” doesn’t have to be gospelized; one wonders how necessary or desirable the connection is.
The dark side of the PG movement (and arguably, the secular motivational speaking movement as well) is that it implicitly or explicitly blames the person who fails for their own failure. So if you aren’t healed or materially “blessed,” that means you didn’t have enough faith or didn’t give enough or didn’t pray enough or didn’t do something enough. The fault can’t be God’s; it must be yours! And that can be devastating.



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Travis Greene

posted September 29, 2008 at 11:05 am


Beth (#14).
Fair enough. The main point of his article is the developing world, and I was responding more to where I’ve encountered the prosperity gospel–in the U.S.
My point was, Jesus does say that God will take care of our needs, that we’ll have enough to eat and clothes to wear and shelter. Jesus does not say that God wants to make us wealthy.
Trusting God to provide what we need, working as hard as we can in the meantime, having hope about our lives–all good things. Telling people to send you a thousand dollars so God can reward them by giving you ten times that in return, telling the handicapped that they haven’t been healed because they lack faith, spending your money on airplanes and mansions and “gospel” theme parks–very bad things.
I recognize that Berger makes a distinction in the article, but when I think “prosperity gospel”, I don’t really think of positive thinking types like Joel Osteen. I think of the people on TV asking for money, so God can reward you with what’s behind door number 3.



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B-W

posted September 29, 2008 at 11:14 am


Quickie observation and side-comment:
(I could not help thinking of him as a born-again Schwarzenegger).
Schwarzenegger is Roman Catholic. I wouldn’t have thought that precluded his being “born-again.”



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MDL

posted September 29, 2008 at 11:49 am


I too find that Berger is a bit sloppy with his definitions. He doesn’t ever tell us what his operating definition of “prosperity gospel” is. He says a bit about what he thinks it is not or should not be–that it is not a guarantee of material wealth, and especially not a guarantee of material wealth if only you give to a certain cause or a certain preacher–but he stops short of saying what he thinks it is. In fact, that section leads up to: “But if sickness or marginality should not be accepted passively as God-given circumstances, neither should poverty.” which seems a bit unfair to me. Do most intelligent opponents of the prosperity gospel (however he’s defining it) really believe that poverty is to be accepted passively?
If he’s defining the prosperity gospel as simply “not accepting poverty passively” then I don’t think most would disagree with the idea. For example, the idea of holding vocational training classes or career counseling or something similar is a great idea. I see it as a good application of James 2:15-16. If someone lacks basic necessities because they don’t have a job, and you have the resources to help them obtain that job (either by helping them learn a skill, or by giving them a job yourself, if your material situation has put you in a position to offer employment), then I think you have to take that seriously. You can’t just say, “Go and be well.”
Also, I doubt many would disagree that salvation can have a beneficial impact on someone’s financial state. If someone is in financial trouble due to a sinfully excessive lifestyle, or bondage to an addiction, or laziness, etc., then embracing the gospel’s message of change can certainly do that person a lot of good. Berger cites this too. Again–not a particularly controversial notion.
I’m not sure I’d agree that God doesn’t “want” everyone to be poor, in part because it’s always difficult to pin down what people mean when they say God “wants” or “wills” something, given the variety of theological options on that topic. I hate to trot out an example that has unfortunately become trite due to overuse, but what about Mother Theresa? In choosing poverty, she did tremendous good. Did God “want” her to be poor? Or what about the person who generally does everything right (as much as one human being can, obviously) and then is seriously hurt by a drunk driver, and whose family falls into poverty as a result of the loss of income. Did God “want” this person to be poor? While “God doesn’t ‘want’ you to be poor” is true in many circumstances, I’m a little uncomfortable with stating it as a universal absolute, especially since I’m not entirely sure what he means.
The crux of Berger’s argument seems to be that salvation addresses the whole person (which I would agree with) and that it is incumbent on us as Christians to address the material needs of those around us, with preference toward a “hand up” instead of a “hand out” (which I would also agree with). I equate neither of those principles with the prosperity gospel, which I see as the idea that health and material wealth is a necessary outcome of salvation properly applied.
I sort of think he just wanted to make a few points about the overspiritualization that certain Christians undertake (making it all the more odd that he pooh-poohs a “this-worldly agenda” for Christianity, when I’m not sure what his essay qualifies for EXCEPT as a this-worldly agenda for Christians–not that there’s anything wrong with that). And adopting a “Yay! Prosperity Gospel!” thesis was more attention-grabbing, even if inaccurate.



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BeckyR

posted September 29, 2008 at 1:08 pm


God never says we are not to ne wealthy. The negative placces about wealth are the heart attitude that goes along with the wealth a person has. Bottom line attitude is we are to understand that our money is Gdd’s money and wwe are to be faithful in using it as he leads. That doesn’t mean no vacations to Hawaii, or extravanges. Again, it’s the attitdue one has about the money. It’s legalistic to start being specific about what material things we can or can’t have, like an Escalade, or that our money is to go to help the poor. Yes, if our heart attitude is right we will help the poor but to go so far as to say we then arnn’t to spend it on an Escalade is to go into legalism. We are to hold our money with an open hand, realiaing it isn’t ours.



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BeckyR

posted September 29, 2008 at 1:11 pm


P.S. I need new glasses for real, please excuse the typo errors in my post, I have a hard time seeing what I”m writing. New glasses will be here in a couple weeks.



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Anonymous

posted September 29, 2008 at 1:54 pm


Hasos Tafel » Wohlstandsevangelium und Arme

[…] Wer immer noch denkt, das “Wohlstandsevangelium” sei der Versuch wei?er Christen aus der oberen Mittelschicht, ihrem Mercedes noch einen Porsche hinzuzuf?gen – ein Missverst?ndnis, dem einige seiner Anh?nger und viele seiner Kritiker aufsitzen; wer immer noch denkt, dass “Wohlstandsevangelium” sei eine zynische Verachtung der Armen in der dritten Welt … der lese bei Scot McKnight “Prosperity Gospel: Does it help the poor?” […]



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Jamie Arpin-Ricci

posted September 29, 2008 at 4:17 pm


Beth #14,
Your point is well made, but there are a couple of significant problems with that statement. First, prosperity Gospel in Africa is, for the most part, a direct export of the North American version. To distinguish between the two is important, but they are not separable.
Further, as has been stated by others, relative poverty is a touchy area. I live in one of Canada’s poorest communities and, while the dynamics of poverty are different, it is very misleading to say they are in the top 13% of the worlds wealthy. This is based on the assumption of relative cost of living, moderate climates, that they are at the poverty line, not WAY below it, etc.
But even acknowledging this and looking at the global south, the majority of expressions of prosperity gospel (at least, the majority we have encountered in more than 5 nations throughout Africa & Asia where we have worked) look nothing like the example listed in the article. A common result of the prosperity gospel in Africa is a dangerous shift in health/wealth thinking. We have seen 1000’s of HIV/AIDS victims destroy their already too rare med out of faith in their healing. The result: stronger strains of illness and more infected family members.
Again, few people deny that there is truth in some of the core ideal of the prosperity gospel, but the popularly articulated and practiced expressions are, for the most part, incompatible with core Christianity (as I understand it).
In the end, I fear the article will fuel self-serving expressions of faith in the West and in it’s missionary exports, resulting in further disparity between the rich and poor, as well as popular Christianity and the transformed communities we are called be.
Peace,
Jamie



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Daniel Clark

posted September 29, 2008 at 5:02 pm


Having researched Brazilian evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity, where prosperity theology is spreading like wildfire, and social inequality and poverty are still rife, I would have two main comments to make:
1) Berger’s comments have a sociological, rather than theological focus. His claim is that prosperity theology is good for the poor, in that it helps them escape poverty. There is some truth in this, but, this is also a characteristic of evangelical and pentecostal Christianity in general, including those denominations that have not traditionally preached the prosperity gospel (e.g. the Assemblies of God)
2) In fact, many recent studies in Brazil are pointing to a contrary effect. By promoting an “ethic of consumption” many prosperity gospel churches may in fact be neutralising the hard work and thrift characteristic of the protestant ethic which Weber identified. (I.e. the money I spent on that new car will not go towards the education of my offspring.)



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CLS

posted September 29, 2008 at 6:17 pm


You cannot separate the prosperity gospel from the gospel of health – ie. the “health and wealth” gospel. Its terribly deceptive and requires a much deeper knowledge than one can gain by observing from the outside in. Please see http://www.justinpeters.org and watch “demo.” Mr. Peters spoke at my church in this movement and comes highly recommended by my pastor, Dr. John MacArthur.
Jamie and Daniel Clark nailed it.



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Ted M. Gossard

posted September 29, 2008 at 7:06 pm


I saw something on this similar, some time back. Does seem like where Pentecostalism has taken hold in South America, that an upward mobility has accompanied it. This stands to reason as noted in that hard work and what we read of in Proverbs comes into play. The adherents seemed to gain a sense of power in an “I can” surely “through Christ”- though that’s taken out of context from its original text and meaning, it has truth for them.
Does God really want us poor, may be beside the point. It is certain that God generally does seem to bless and provide for our needs and even beyond as we trust him and seek to live for him, so we can give.
I’ve seen at least one Christian, over time, who seemed to genuinely walk with the Lord, love people, yet believe in the health and wealth gospel- along with the part of the gospel we’d all basically agree on.



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Beth

posted September 29, 2008 at 7:13 pm


Jamie (#29),
From your first paragraph, I wonder if you may have misread my point, or perhaps I stated it poorly. I was not claiming that a prosperity preacher in Africa will make different theological points than one in America, but giving the caveat that the results of Berger’s sociological study of the effect of preaching “God does not want you to be poor” in a country where a high percentage of hearers are in extreme poverty would likely not be the same results if his study had been run in a wealthy country. (Despite having worked in Appalachia and currently living in a Christian community on the worst street in the worst neighborhood in my city, I’m still persuaded it makes sense to remind ourselves regularly of our comparative privilege. Others may certainly disagree.)
I’ve also witnessed the kind of pernicious effects of “prosperity” teaching you mention, but I would agree with previous commenters that Berger is using the term somewhat loosely and working hard not to give any blanket endorsements.



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Jamie Arpin-Ricci

posted September 29, 2008 at 8:03 pm


Hey Beth,
Thanks for the clarity. I agree with what you are saying, but am unclear how it strengthens the merits of the article in question. Berger is using the term loosely- so loosely I find it is unhelpful, even inaccurate. However, by defending his point under the title he chose, then he inevitably defends a great deal more than he bargained for. I think that is dangerous, even irresponsible. His point could have been made far more clearly and effective
Thanks for clearing some stuff up!
Peace,
Jamie



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Dave Searles

posted September 29, 2008 at 8:17 pm


For me the faulty Biblical assumptions of the prosperity gospel are addressed by Dr. Gordon Fee in his book, “The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospel.”
Furthermore this quote from Dr. Berger was an interesting one. “People generally know what is good for them, better than the well-meaning outsider. So do buyers in the marketplace, especially if they are poor…” I live in a poorer neighborhood in the city of Boston. In a small corner market around the corner from where I live I noticed a lot of people buying lottery tickets. One day I asked the owner how many lottery tickets he sells. He told me they sell over $5,000/day. That’s over $1.5 million in lottery tickets per year from one small corner market. The promise of big winnings lures people. Would Dr. Berger say this is in the best interest of the poor?



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sheryl

posted September 29, 2008 at 9:05 pm


Interesting article and equally interesting thread.
Without defining the parameters of PG and Pentecostalism, Berger creates some problems with his generalizations. Both the PG and Pentecostalism are large tents and mean different things to different people in different locales. Without these clear definitions, I struggle to accept Berger’s argument based on his premise that ALL of the PG is after all really good (It isn’t) and all of Pentecostalism preaches the PG (It doesn’t).
I do find one point of agreement with Berger. The merits of the PG to improve one?s material situation are good, so long as the personal benefits aid others. He provides a compelling, inspiring example. The criticism of the PG has been its internal, selfish focus, i.e., I give so I get blessed and get rich. I don’t see God promising us a rose garden. He does say he’ll make sure we have food and clothing for each day. When the PG has the proper focus–God blesses me (or us) so I can bless others–it is a good thing. Then, those who live in poor circumstances–by choice or necessity–or missionaries to those people, I can give from my blessings to assist them and the work of God.
There is a danger, however, of upward mobility. The one who is blessed can go the way of the problematic PG stream of the US with its “me” focus, or become mainstream and middle class, losing the fervor of the gospel’s purpose. I find that when I am closer to the bottom of the barrel, I trust God more and walk by faith, than when I am blessed financially. Somebody asked me recently what’d I would do if I won the lottery. I said, “I’d give it all away! I don’t want the money because I know what it would do to me.” I know my weaknesses and the power of money. (And no, I don’t buy lottery tickets, Dave Searles #35!)
As this issue relates to Pentecostals, specifically the Assemblies of God, Grant Wacker tackled this subject in “Heaven Below” and also Margaret Poloma in “The AG at the Crossroads.”
Scot, you never revealed why the article made “your jaw drop”! Will there be a follow-up post???



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Erika Haub

posted September 30, 2008 at 9:07 am


This reminds me of something Dr. Robeck said in a church history class at Fuller: “The Liberation theologians chose the poor and the poor chose Pentecostalism.”



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glenn

posted September 30, 2008 at 2:33 pm


Just a few comments. Firstly, on redemption and lift. It is often the case here in Ireland that this feature of the life of faith is peculiarly Protestant, who when they embrace faith they or their children eventually move away to better neighbourhoods and generally break connection with their roots. The parish system of the Catholic church however seems to be able to hold on to those who prosper.
The result is that levels of social capital are greater in the most economically deprived Catholic communities compared with the similarly deprived Protestant communities.
Different types of poverty then may have theological dimensions.
Finally, facetiously, I wonder at the place of Jesus statement that the poor will always be with us. Does it mean the gospel is not for everyone…are those who remain poor someone resistant to the Gospel.



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