“Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel” by Kate Bowler stems from her Duke Divinity School thesis, which explains its extreme neutrality, even down to not pulling together threads that run through what have been the fastest growing churches in America since after WWII.
The core belief has always been that God wants to bless you, to privilege you, to deliver you what you desire in terms of wealth, health and victory, but in order to obtain this blessing, you have to follow the rules.
It is your pastor who lays out the rules, of course, and they always start with disciplined obedience to group expectations and richly giving to the church, both in time and money. It is these gifts which are your seed, which will be returned to you manifold.
The stories of what the asks and the promises made to stimulate that giving have clearly been beyond the literal text of the Bible.
Jim Bakker, head of PTL ministries, even admitted that once he read the Bible cover to cover, he finally understood that he had been preaching mistaken beliefs about prosperity. His opportunity to finally do this complete Bible study came while serving a prison sentence after being found guilty of fraudulent overselling of his Heritage USA community. Somehow, as a pastor, I would have thought he would have gotten to the Bible earlier in his career.
The blessings you deserve are there for the taking, goes much of the thinking, but you can only reach out and claim them by complying with the rules and traditions of your church.
Isn’t the joy of any church to be in the company of others who believe in the same way that you do? By getting your beliefs mirrored, becoming one of a flock of believers who comply with the teachings of God as handed down in your tradition, you get the assurance that you are not alone.
Bower notes that the attraction of megachurches is that they can provide a level of service that smaller churches can’t. I suspect, though, that one of the key attractions is having your beliefs subsumed into the crowd and the bigger the crowd, the righter you must be.
Sophie Tucker had a hit song with “Fifty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong,” though when I was a kid, that had permuted to the joke “Eat Shit! Fifty million flies can’t be wrong!”
Humans want to be on the winning side, and it might seem that there is no better way to do that than to side with the majority. Strength in numbers, people coo.
The Pareto Principle says that the last 20% takes as much effort as the first 80%, so why not just get the 80% right and leave the rest?
For believers, their following closely to the rules, beliefs and traditions of their church is following God. It then becomes easy to think that those who violate those rules, beliefs and traditions are rejecting God and mocking the Godly in the world. Those heathens are not right with God, so if you are following closely to get what you deserve from God, they should get what they deserve too, even if you have to give God a hand in teaching the unbelievers a lesson.
If someone doesn’t get the results they were expecting when following the rules, the problem must be in the way they didn’t bring enough faith and obedience rather than any flaw in the rules.
Conversely, people who do get rich must inherently be holy because of the blessings that they have received. Their very success is proof of their blessed relationship with God. “A cheap church speaks of a cheap God,” said Jerry Falwell, explaining why pastors should live a rich and aspirational life to demonstrate that they are in tight relationship with God.
This notion, that success is proof of Godliness, means we are judged by our results, that the ends justify the means. If it works for you, it is because God is on your side, and if you fail, well, then you are wrong with God, so that’s your fault.
The prosperity gospel demands belief in an interventional God, one who is ready and willing to intervene in the details of this world to fulfill the claims of his followers. Your goal is not to get in harmony with God, working to play your part in a greater plan, but rather your goal is to get God in harmony with you, filling the personal needs and desires you expound to him.
To tell God what you want you limit God to desire within your current range of understanding. I don’t know anyone whose best moments could have been predicted and scripted before they occurred.
It is the moment when we are surprised, when we move from the conventional to the transcendent when we really feel the presence of God in our lives, or at least that is my experience.
A correspondent of mine — we will call her Spiritus Transitum, or just Spiritus for short — tells me that she has a much more difficult time talking about her experience of spirit than about her experience of transgender. People resist the mystical because of the power it holds, because somewhere, they believe that the only safe religious experience is the conventional experience, vetted by success.
Spiritus knows that her real connection is with others who have sought the divine, finding it in the deep believers of the church, those who have contributed and consolidated the transformative teaching of ritual and practice in a deep relationship with God.
For me, the signs of Gods affirmation are odd and fleeting, like another woman dressed like me in the grocery or an unopened envelope that moves a traffic court date I was unable to face. They aren’t me telling God what to do, but they are tiny moments, easily written off as coincidence, that appear to me as symbol, offering me challenge, insight or affirmation.
It is easy to see these flashes as just köans, events that offer me reason to meditate, but more more difficult to see them as signs that I should believe I am walking in a path that is toward God, no matter how unconventional it is or how much it transgresses convention.
Where do I go to have others be joyful in the knowledge which flashes before me, reminding me to continue to leap, continue to be bold and true in my pursuit of the better, the transformational, the challenging, the godly?
If God only lives in the teachings of the church and wide mainstream commercial success is the only way to judge and value the divine, how can humans ever find the transcendence which takes us beyond the normative and into a true expression and relationship with spirit?
Following the rules of the church will create a stronger church, no doubt, giving comfort to those who desire to put their own moral and spiritual responsibility onto the group and the preacher, but will it create stronger individuals? Will it empower us to enter into the surprises of God, taking those flashes as both insight and encouragement?
I know why my search for a church has had almost no success; churches feel the need to live within the comfort and bounds of those at the core of them. Whatever their gospel, they want what they know to bound what they affirm.
For searchers of knowledge and transcendence, though, we need revelation and opening, living in the liminality of the question rather than in the fixed space of the answer.
Finding a group of believers who want to share in that, though, is almost impossible, which can leave you, lonely, lost, and resisting calling to the point of self destruction.