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Posts from the ‘prosperity gospel’ Category

14
Aug

The Black Dog (10 years on) 5: THE INSENSIBILITY OF FAITH…

It’s been very moving to have messages in the last few days about my black dog posts. Thank you! At least it shows that it’s been worth it. As I mentioned in the first post, I’m genuinely not motivated by the kind of confessional culture that is all around us; still less am I trying to elicit sympathy. And I’m definitely not seeking advice or support (kind though some offers have been!). It is only to help those who don’t quite have the words for this yet. But I do realise that it’s raised lots of questions for some… Read more »

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2
May

Nothing Buttery: a Reductionism Rant

Reductio ad absurdum: one of those nice little Latin phrases that comes in handy every now and then. It has a noble pedigree and describes an age-old form of argument designed to pick one’s opponent’s claims apart. It means ‘reduction to the absurd’, or ‘to the point of absurdity’. And it is definitely worth mastering. Read more »

12
Mar

U2’s ‘Wave of Sorrow’ & the Ethiopian Famine of ’84

I’ve been wanting to blog about this song since it hit the streets last autumn, but yesterday’s posting seems to lead into it reasonably well. This is a song that achingly captures the questions surrounding the Ethiopian famine of 1984/5 (link to excellent BBC flashback, from which the picture is taken). Provoked by working on Live Aid, Bono and his wife Ali spent 6 harrowing weeks working in a feeding camp. This song was a personal response. It was only finished last year as part of the 20th anniversary re-release of The Joshua Tree (as he describes in the video below). It is quite simply heart-rending – you can somehow actually hear the heat-haze in the arrangement, as well as the sheer desperation and injustice of the situation. For while this was at first sight a natural disaster (the result of failed harvests several years running, and then to top it all, the tragic threat of rain on uncultivated and desiccated fields), there were plenty of culpable people involved as well – civil war in Ethiopia itself and Western indifference despite living in plenty.

 

What makes this song so powerful, though, is Bono’s contrast between modern Ethiopians forced into humiliating begging for food and the great and proud heritage of their ancient (and biblical) ancestors. For it was the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba who visited King Solomon (the “Son, of shepherd boy, now king” in the song) in Jerusalem (1 Kings 10). And it was Solomon who was famed for his wisdom – a divine wisdom, from which many of the Proverbs in the OT are derived. But the OT wisdom literature that this song most harks back to is the searching agony found in some of the Psalms, Job and Ecclesiastes. Where is God’s wisdom to be found in the heat of famine, under the boot of oppression, in the despair of begging? “What wisdom can you bring? / What lyric would you sing? / Where is the music of the Seraphim?” If the rain comes it doesn’t just bring waves of flooding – but sorrow.

 

But this is the poetic genius of the song (and I do not use those words lightly, despite not being either a poet or a genius). For Bono (together with the Edge, when they collaborate, though i think this song is single-handedly Bono’s) is a profound lyricist. Not only do the sparing words evoke the horror and despair so searingly, but they also provide the hint (and in such circumstances, it is surely the only hint one can possibly make) of hope and light. The song’s conclusion is a radical application (rather than a straightforward updating) of Jesus’ Beatitudes in The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12). When Jesus originally taught the Beatitudes, I suspect that he was epitomizing the whole of that great sermon, in that he was articulating a fully-rounded picture of every Christian (rather than picking out lots of different types of people). What is clear, though, is that the poor and marginalised are those for whom God is profoundly concerned. And when humanity in its evil and idolatrous self-centredness ignores the plight of the poor, God is rightly furious… and he promises blessing. It is not for nothing that he is called the God of the Fatherless and the Widowed.

 

The point then is that Jesus, who is one greater than Solomon, is the only one who can bring eternal hope, a hope that endures, permeates and transforms the horrors of a cruel, cruel world. As Jesus said in Matthew 12, referring specifically to the Queen of Sheba herself:

The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.

To miss Jesus is to miss his wisdom – which has devastating consequences. And his wisdom is one of both justice and judgment, AND love and blessing. But NEVER let this generate a laissez-faire attitude amongst those who have discovered his wisdom. This song won’t let us sit smugly in our favourite recliner chairs and bursting refrigerators and the churches which Bono frequently derides as ‘Bless Me’ clubs…  because GOD WON’T. This is surely a boot-up-the-proverbial-reminder that God is concerned with those trapped in sex-work, in tin-shacks, in voicelessness. Let this wave of sorrow flow into prayer and action:

The hearts of the people cry out to the Lord.
O wall of the Daughter of Zion,
let your tears flow like a river
day and night;
give yourself no relief,
your eyes no rest. (Lamentations 2:18)

To see Bono talking about the song (as well as singing and forgetting the words towards the end !), check out the video at the bottom.

WAVE OF SORROW
by Bono & U2

Heat haze rising /On hell’s own hill
You wake up this morning / It took an act of will
You walk through the night / To get here today
To bring your children / To give them away
Oh… oh this cruel sun /Is daylight never done?
Cruelty just begun / To make a shadow of everyone

And if the rain came… / And if the rain came…

Souls bent over without a breeze / Blankets on burning trees
I am sick without disease / Nobility on its knees

And if the rain came… / And if the rain came… now
Would it wash us all away
On a wave of sorrow? / Wave / On a wave of sorrow?

Where now the holy cities? / Where the ancient holy scrolls?
Where now Emperor Menelek / And the Queen of Sheba’s gold?
You’re my bride, you wear her crown /And on your finger precious stones
As every good thing now been sold
Son, of shepherd boy, now king / What wisdom can you bring?
What lyric would you sing? / Where is the music of the Seraphim?

And if the rain came… / And if the rain came… now
Would it wash us all away
On a wave of sorrow? / Wave / On a wave of sorrow?

Blessed are the meek who scratch in the dirt / For they shall inherit what’s left of the earth
Blessed are the kings who’ve left their thrones / They are buried in this valley of dry bones
Blessed all of you with an empty heart / For you got nothing from which you cannot part
Blessed is the ego / It’s all we got this hour

Blessed is the voice that speaks truth to power
Blessed is the sex worker who sold her body tonight /She used what she got /To save her children’s life

Blessed are you, the deaf cannot hear a scream
Blessed are the stupid who can dream
Blessed are the tin canned cardboard slums
Blessed is the spirit that overcomes

 

7
Dec

Benny Hinn update – US Senate rebuffed

Just had this news from Christianity Today of an AP report:

AP Newsbreak: 2nd Preacher Spurns Senate

A second Christian ministry is refusing to meet a Thursday deadline for a Senate investigation into preachers’ salaries, perks and travel, The Associated Press has learned. Benny Hinn of World Healing Center Church Inc. and Benny Hinn Ministries of Grapevine, Texas, said in a statement to the AP on Thursday that he will not respond to the inquiry until next year. A lawyer for preacher Creflo Dollar of World Changers Church International in suburban Atlanta had said Wednesday that the investigation should be referred to the IRS or the Senate panel should get a subpoena for the documents.

Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, sent lengthy questionnaires a month ago to six ministries so he could review whether pastors were complying with IRS rules that bar excessive personal gain through tax-exempt work.

Only Joyce Meyer Ministries of Fenton, Mo., has provided the detailed financial and board oversight information sought by Grassley.

Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said in a Wednesday conference call with reporters that he “can’t be impressed” by the argument from some of the preachers that the IRS already monitors them, because his past inquiries have unearthed information that the IRS never knew.

All the ministries preach a form of Word of Faith theology, known as prosperity gospel, which teaches that God wants believers to reap material rewards for their faith. Grassley has insisted his investigation “has nothing to do with church doctrine” and is strictly concerned with making sure nonprofit groups are following the law. However, several religious liberty watchdogs have said the scope of the inquiry is too broad and warned that it could be unconstitutional.

5
Dec

What did Mrs Zebedee want for her boys? Falling into our own prosperity traps

I can’t remember who was being referred to, or by whom (which is probably just as well). But I was recently told of someone who described one of their own spiritual gifts as the ability to discern error and heresy. Well, that is of course an essential requirement, as even the vaguest study of the NT and of church history demonstrates. But I have to say that it did rather send shivers down my spine. I mean, yes, we all have to be discerning and on our guard. The most vulnerable Christian has to be the most gullible Christian. But to make a big deal of it, almost as if taking pride in it? Well that is certainly a very risky business. If you think you are standing firm, take care that you do not fall.

You see, I was acutely conscious of the dangers of spiritual pride after talking about the prosperity gospel the other day. As I said at the end of original talk, there are plenty of things that those who reject prosperity thinking fall into. Which is why it was very helpful to receive this tip from Emma Park: Our Secret Heresy Revealed, an article by John Sandeman in Sydney, Australia. For the irony is that what we reject with our lips, we subtly subscribe to with our aspirations:

Study hard, keep your nose down, go to university, work even harder, make a respectable but not vulgarly excessive amount of money: that’s the Sydney Anglican unspoken prosperity doctrine. And it has one chief advantage over the more Pentecostal prosperity gospel. It works, almost all the time. Unlike the happy clappy version this prosperity thinking is no doctrine. We don’t claim a Bible justification for it. Rather it is the triumph of pure pragmatism.

…It comes out clearly in the messages sent out by high profile Anglican institutions that have the money for marketing. “Leadership” is the headline for as campaign run by our highest profile Anglican school. Yes, parents want their boys to be leaders, to end up in charge of other people. That’s what Mrs Zebedee wanted for her boys, too. It is good marketing that like all good advertising plays on at least one of the still deadly seven sins. Yet if we were truly Biblical wouldn’t there be a “servant-hood” advertisement too?

Read the rest – it’s heady, provocative stuff. I fear that London Christians share more with their Sydney fellows than we should. For the article has reminded me that our need for discernment comes not out of the mindset of heresy-hunting, but from humility rightly borne out of our own temptations and gullibilities. It is perhaps because I see myself so wanting the prosperity gospel to be true that I am so aware of its peculiar dangers. If I’m honest, I would obviously prefer a pain-free and successful existence. I don’t want to suffer – it’s just that I can’t avoid the realities of this present age. But it is only because of confidence in the realities of the age to come, as well as the firstfruits enjoyed in the present, that this is at all faceable.

In case you’re worried about what Mrs Zebedee has to do with this (because, dear reader, this has nothing actually to do with the Magic Roundabout), check out her story here.

 

29
Nov

The cruelties of the Prosperity Gospel – a very modern heresy

Prosperity Gospel. It is an affliction. And it is a cruel hoax. And I saw first-hand the damage it does to believers in Uganda during the 4 years that we were there. But it is STILL gaining influence and credibility – and it is not just in the poorest countries in the world (which is where the exploitation is at its worst). It is creeping beyond the shores of the USA (where its modern incarnations originate) and across Europe and Australia.

This was why I felt the need to speak about it in a sermon 10 days ago at All Souls. It certainly raised eyebrows – and a little bit of consternation. I guess the issues will rumble on. You can download/listen to the sermon and make of it what you will: Acts 8 – Shaken but not stopped. It was certainly a sermon that caused me great trepidation and is not the sort of thing that one could, or should, do every week.

But let me give a few explanations.

1. What is The Prosperity Gospel?

As far as I can see, the prosperity gospel is a spiritualisation of the American Dream. Quite what the American Dream is precisely is a moot point, but this definition from the relevant Wiki page seems helpful enough:

The package of beliefs, assumptions, and action patterns that social scientists have labelled the American Dream has always been a fragile agglomeration of (1) individual freedom of choice in life styles, (2) equal access to economic abundance, and (3) the pursuit of shared objectives mutually advantageous to the individual and society. [1]

When you start saying not only that this is available to you, but that it is precisely what God wants for you, you have the lethal cocktail of a Prosperity Gospel. No wonder it sounds like good news! No wonder it is attractive!

1. Turning a divine might to a divine ought

This is how Andrew Heard (at the start of the paper mentioned below) describes it:

In some Christian circles at the moment another gospel is making itself known. It looks a lot like the gospel that we received—the gospel of Jesus Christ who died and rose again to bring us reconciliation with God—but it has an emphasis upon physical healing, material blessing and success that is very different from traditional evangelicalism. The difference doesn’t lie in the conviction that God can and does bless his people with physical healing or material prosperity as this has always been accepted as biblical; the difference lies in the conviction that Christians OUGHT to expect God to bless them physically and materially here and now.

The problem is that when the realities of life kick in – through sickness, redundancy, bereavement etc etc etc, who do people start to blame? Instead of blaming the person who related these promises to them in God’s name, they blame God himself. That is both unjust and tragic. It is a huge slur on the character of God – whereas it is the prosperity preachers who should have to answer for these problems, not God. And supremely, it completely bypasses the centrality of the cross of Christ – both for our rescue and as our inspiration and lifestyle blueprint (see Philippians 2:5-11).

2. Twisting a divine word for an idolatrous church

On a slightly different note, prosperity teaching can only thrive where a woeful mishandling of the Bible takes place, and in particular with a literalistic and unnuanced reading of the Old Testament. For sure, there are elements of the Old Covenant of Abraham and Moses which resemble a prosperity type view – for the covenant people were to enjoy material blessing when they lived in the Promised Land, which was, after all, flowing with milk and honey. But you can’t draw a straight line from those Moses promises to the contemporary disciple – without taking into account, for example the Book of Job (from the OT); or the call of Jesus in Mark 8:34-38 and his radicalisation of what the Kingdom of God actually is in John 18:33-37 (from the NT). Furthermore, the nature of Christian new covenant experience is one of ‘now and not yet‘ – we don’t have all the blessings of God yet, but that is not to say that they will never come. It is all a question of timing – God’s timing.

As John Piper pointed out, Christ warned the apostles that they would suffer great persecution for the sake of his name. In a January 2006 sermon entitled “How our suffering advances the gospel”, Piper stated bluntly that “the prosperity gospel will not make anybody praise Jesus; it will make people praise prosperity”. (quoted on Wiki)

3. Lining the pockets by fleecing the poor

All of this needs a whole load of unpacking – and there are plenty of places where this is done well – see below. But I hope it is beginning to be clear (at least) why this is so serious and dangerous. This is no minor aberration – this is unfortunately a different gospel which is no gospel – it is a pipedream which in the end is not good news at all. And what is not addressed enough is the practical impact all this has – especially in the poorest countries in the world like Uganda.

I have never forgotten Bob, a dear Ugandan friend and former student, describing how his fingers got burned in a prosperity gospel church in Kampala. He described one sermon in which the preacher was sharing some “wisdom” about marriage. He was advising the single women on who would qualify as a suitable husband. He had this to say: If the man you are interested in does not have a wardrobe in his room, then take that as a sign of the lack of blessing from God. God has not blessed that man. This man has not trusted God to provide him with a wardrobe. Marry him and you will share his curse.

Well, I ask you! Of course that is a ridiculous example and you can’t tar everyone with the same brush. But what do you notice about this? Firstly it shows a hopeless and devastating approach to pastoring human relationships, which are fragile and fraught at the best of times. Secondly, it shows the level we’re talking about here. I know exactly which church this was preached in – and it is in a particularly poor area of Kampala. A wardrobe can be picked up on the side of the road from the myriad of carpenters for a handful of US$. That’s all. So these are people who can’t even afford that. Thirdly, it actually demonstrates a total degradation of what God’s blessing actually means. I mean, honestly, is that all God can muster?! Is a $10 wardrobe the best God has in store for us?! To think in such terms is to insult the unimaginable scope of divine generosity.

However, it wasn’t until Bob suddenly woke up to what was really going on at his church that he finally left. The congregation had been promised Mercedes Benzes (or at the very least BMWs) if they believed God enough. No wonder then that when their church was built, it was equipped with a spacious car park, despite being located in a Kampala slum. No one had cars. Or at least, no one apart from the pastors. And that was the shock – people who were so poor that they were barely able to pay the nominal taxi fares to get to church were being manipulated into supporting the excesses of the pastors’ lifestyles. All in the name of sowing seeds for God. That is sickening. And so Bob left – and for a while couldn’t face going back to any church at all. Thankfully he is now himself in full-time ministry in Uganda because he saw that there was another way.

2. Whys and Wherefores

So having spelled out why this is such an issue, i need to touch base on one or two issues relating to the sermon itself. I was questioned by one or two people about the wisdom of mentioning people by name (in particular Benny Hinn, and at the end of the talk Hillsong in parenthesis). This is a potted summary of my response:

1. Mentioning No Names?

  • Firstly, it is not something that was done at all lightly nor unilaterally. It was something discussed beforehand with a number of colleagues (including at our weekly All Souls preachers’ breakfast, which happens every Thursday morning – each week the preachers for the coming sunday have to present the outlines of their sermons to the rest of the ministry team for discussion, crits and suggestions – a scary but excellent discipline!).
  • Secondly, there is biblical precedent, both for dealing with the problems of prosperity teaching and for mentioning individuals by name. Intriguingly, the closest NT precedent for both issues occurs in the same place in 2 Timothy 2:17-18. Hymenaeus and Philetus are claiming that the resurrection (i.e. the second resurrection and therefore the full and final promises of heaven) has already occurred (thus making a sinlessness / perfectionism possible as well as, presumably, a truly blessed life). Paul describes such teaching as gangrene and something which has wandered away from the truth (v18) – and that ‘destroys the faith of some’. What’s more, Paul is explicit about their names! And it is not just because it is a private letter to Timothy – he does the same on many other occasions (eg Philippians 4:2-3 etc). Sometimes, people need to be warned about these things in explicit terms.
  • This does not imply I have apostolic pretensions! I am by no means claiming to know everything, nor to have a Pauline authority! But it seems to me that we do from time to time have to be quite clear about things especially where they are dangerous. Isn’t this precisely the role of the pastor teacher – 2 Timothy 4:2: in and out of season (i.e. including the times when things are most uncomfortable), and that includes both encouragement and rebuking (the latter being something that in Britain we shy away from far more than we should). Of course we don’t want the opposite extreme – it would destroy people if there was nothing but rebuke and correction (and far too many preachers err in that direction).
  • Would such actions cause division in a church? Well perhaps. But while we should wish to do everything we can to preserve relationships and pastoral concerns (of course), there is still the need to raise awareness when this sort of thing is being actually taught, even if people get upset about it. No one said that ministry was easy – nor did they say that a faithful preacher’s ministry would be a short cut to popularity!

2. Mentioning Benny Hinn?

I’m afraid (and I say this with all tentativeness!) I am not apologetic about talking about Benny Hinn – not least because what is inescapable is the appallingly lavish lifestyle and hypocrisy that are features of his ministry. That, it seemed to me, made him a legitimate parallel to Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8 – a desire for God’s power for the purpose of developing one’s own ministry and even personality cult (hence in Acts 8, Simon’s desire to pay the apostles for the ‘use of the Holy Spirit’ – presumably in his eyes that was a good financial investment).

What we see in Benny Hinn is a frightening cynicism about his lifestyle. This is not hearsay – for this is a matter of current USA Congressional Investigation (you can’t get much more serious than that); and it is the subject of a sober and thorough report by MinistryWatch.com. This organisation seeks to hold Christian organisations in the US to high standards of financial transparency. This is what the report alleges about Benny Hinn. Should these be the sorts of things that a pastor’s lifestyle, consistent with the ministry of Jesus, be noted for?

  • Hinn’s salary is somewhere between half a million and a million dollars per year (+ huge book royalties)
  • Personal perks for Hinn, family and his entourage include a $10 million seaside mansion; a private jet with annual operating costs of about $1.5 million; a Mercedes SUV and convertible, each valued at about $80,000
  • What the church termed “layovers” between crusades included hotel bills ranging from $900 per night to royal suites that cost almost $3,000 for one night’s stay. Layover locations included Hawaii, Cancun, London, Milan and other exotic locations.
  • Beverly Hills shopping sprees; Receipts showing Hinn’s daughter receiving $1,300 in petty cash; her boyfriend getting $2,550 for babysitting; $23,000 in cash dispersed to Hinn and his wife; and, $25,000 in cash for expenses for a crusade – 30 minutes away from Hinn’s home;
  • Hinn continues to espouse the theologically-suspect self-serving Word-of-Faith or “prosperity” gospel. Jesus and his followers never amassed personal wealth through their ministry and instead lived a clearly sacrificial life. Hinn would be wise to follow this example and encourage his followers to do likewise as this would lead to much greater spiritual prosperity, the value of which far exceeds anything material
  • Hinn employs two primary methods to manipulate those that watch him – promising healings to those afflicted with chronic or terminal illnesses, and claiming that donations are “seeds” being planted by the donor that will result in the gift giver enjoying financial blessings;
  • Television producer Nathan Daniel, a former BHM employee who was hired to improve the public image, instead reported to NBC, There was never one complete record that would suit the criteria for documented miracle healing.

3. Mentioning Hillsong?

This is a much trickier area – and in some ways I wish i hadn’t mentioned them, not least because they are very close to home geographically (their London venue is a stone’s throw from All Souls). This is not because there are no issues there, but because the issues are slightly different and not as clearly drawn from Acts 8. I certainly do not wish to imply the sorts of impropriety and lifestyle that Benny Hinn is alleged to characterise. The problem is that when you analyse mainline Hillsong teaching (and indeed some of their song lyrics) it is clear that they are following the same tradition. Their founder, Brian Houston teaches a prosperity gospel which gets lapped up and is spreading fast. I have been to London Hillsong – and I honestly went with a real desire and openness to hear from God (quite apart from the fact that I actually enjoy a lot of their music). What’s more, I have read some of their stuff. And to my great sadness, nothing I’ve heard or read has given me any reason to change my mind. Take this one example, quoted by Andrew Heard:

the Scriptures … [are] full of promises of prosperity. … Is it God’s will for you to prosper? … the answer is undoubtedly “YES”

Fair enough, perhaps – but it all depends on what we mean by prosperity. According to Heard, there is no doubt Houston meant material prosperity, given the book’s premise:

If you and I can change our thinking and develop a healthy attitude toward money, I believe we can all walk in the blessing and prosperity that God intends for us. We will never have a problem with money again.

Now, please understand, I am VERY willing to sit down and chat with people who think differently. I certainly do not wish to malign or misquote – if I have been unfair or unkind, then I do seriously want to know. There is plenty of scope for responding thru this blog or directly with me at All Souls. Furthermore, we all have our blind spots – and I’m sure there are areas where I/we here need to be confronted by the challenges of the word. None of us is immune or perfect (in theology or lifestyle).

But I cannot escape thinking that the issues raised by prosperity teachers are so serious that they demand people speak out and point out the emperor’s new clothes.

Some Follow-up Resources

Also, there’s this (if you like things in your face)

  • John Piper – video montage by a student in USA

This video is based on a sermon by John Piper given at the University Christian Fellowship (Birmingham, Alabama, USA) which you can listen to HERE. I’ve not yet had a chance to hear it all myself but from what i’ve listened to, Piper is his passionate and in your face self! His style is not everyone’s cup of tea (esp in the UK) but his challenges are never without a point.