The Root of All

The other day I was in one of those stores where everything is sold really cheaply.  I figure it helps balance out all those times when I’ve been overcharged for things at other stores because I was pressed for time and needed something quickly.  In any case, these dollar store establishments have a constantly rotating stock, it seems (things move at a buck!), and so you might or might not find exactly what you’re looking for.  While just looking around, acquainting myself with the content, I came upon a shelf of Bibles.  God’s word for a dollar a pop.  This isn’t a place I’d normally come looking for books.  Then it occurred to me: many of those who shop in such stores are committed to a faith that keeps them in their economic bracket.

That suspicion was confirmed by other items at the store.  Many of them were Christian-themed.  This seemed like the opposite of the prosperity gospel.  People trying to scrape by, to shave enough off the budget to make it to another paycheck.  Many Americans live like this.  Many of them support Trump.  Selling the Bible to them cheaply definitely involves a mixed message.  There’s indeed a message, as I’ve learned in the publishing, in the way books are priced.  Getting a thousand-pager printed where the unit cost is below a dollar requires a massive print run.  Someone knows that Bibles sell.  You won’t find such cheap divine revelation at Barnes and Noble.  The same content, maybe, but not at the same price point.

The economics of cheap Bibles contains a message.  Those who can’t afford much can be guided toward spending some of it on the Good Book.  While just reading the Bible may indeed bring comfort to those who know where to look, as a whole this book requires major interpretative work.  As I’ve been indicating over the last several days, Holy Writ is not nearly as straightforward a reading experience as many suppose it to be.  Trying to figure out what Nehemiah’s differences with Sanballat the Horonite have to do with the rest of us isn’t an easy task.  To find out, if the internet doesn’t give us quite all the knowledge we want or need, can require some intensive study, up to and including seminary.  Even then you might not get it.  Studying the Bible requires further commitment than simply picking one up for a Washington might imply.  But then, it costs less than a lottery ticket.  And you can get it while saving money on other things you need.

Do unto Yourself

Selfishness goes by many names. One of the strangest is “Christianity.” I wouldn’t presume to define a religion, but some time back my wife sent me a story about the prosperity gospel. Written by Michael Horton, himself an evangelical, the pre-greatest inauguration of all time piece is called “Evangelicals should be deeply troubled by Donald Trump’s attempt to mainstream heresy.” Horton goes on to describe the belief system of the prosperity gospel that includes people becoming gods and the idea of positive thoughts drawing good things to you. Quite apart from completely ignoring most of what Jesus is recorded to have taught, the prosperity folk tend to think the Almighty wants them to be, of all things that most shallow, wealthy. “More for me” also goes by many names. The most common is “selfish.”

I grew up evangelical as well. One of the messages drilled into my malleable head was that Jesus taught putting other people before yourself. “Do unto others” was the least you could get away with and still call yourself “Christian.” Part of the disconnect here is that nobody has the authority to define a religion. Not even the Pope can say unilaterally what Christianity is. Protestants aren’t obligated to agree. And with prosperity gospelers with their enormous cash flow telling us that it’s God’s will, well, heresy looks mighty attractive. We’ve come to see the error of heresy, however. Nobody can claim their brand alone has the answer. It’s a theological anything goes. I suggest we go old school and call a cad a cad. Selfishness by any other name would smell as bad.

It’s poor taste to claim your own self-gain as a benefit to society. I, of all people, would handle my wealth properly so that nobody suffers. Except those I don’t like. Doth not Scripture saith, “ I have said, Ye are gods”? Yet earlier in the same Psalm come those easily ignored words, “Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy.” Missing are “build a wall across your southern border,” and “speak untruths when it is convenient to do so,” and “distrust those who speak a language not your own.” Oh what the Bible would say if only we could write it ourselves! But fear not, for we have many who believe the prosperity gospel. And they’ve already got the task well in hand. And their lexicon doesn’t even include the word “selfish,” so you need not worry about such uncomfortable thoughts. Get rich and all will be well.

Photo credit: Kriplozoik, Wikimedia Commons

Cheap Faith

“If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.” Many of my conservative Christian friends may be surprised to learn that these are the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Evangelical hero and firm believer in costly discipleship, Bonhoeffer lived, and died, during the Nazi takeover of Germany. A promising young theologian, he escaped Germany to come teach at Union Seminary in New York City. Increasingly disturbed by what was taking place back home, he forsook safety and returned to Germany to try to wrench the hands of Hitler from the steering wheel. Bonhoeffer didn’t write empty words.

The above quote comes from a letter he wrote to his sister-in-law Emmi. Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship, well deserves its status as a classic. In it Bonhoeffer declares that a cheap faith is not a faith worth believing in. The Prosperity Gospel would have made him ill. You see, Bonhoeffer believed that the religion preached by Jesus didn’t allow for shirkers. Those who get rich and claim God helped them to it. There’s a reason some people say Mammon is a demon. This was in the days when Christianity still had a conscience. When leaders of religious movements weren’t afraid to speak out against accommodating with evil when that was the more comfortable course to take. And his wasn’t empty rhetoric.

Bonhoeffer was arrested back in his native land. Sent to Buchenwald and then to Flossenbürg, he was hanged on April 9, 1945. He was 39 years old. Two weeks later the Allies liberated the camp. Bonhoeffer knew evil when he saw it. Now, some seventy years later our vision has become blurred. We live in a country that declares itself “Christian” but, unlike any religion Jesus taught, declares itself to be first. “America first,” we’re told. Flipping through the pages of the Gospels my eyes fall on a forgotten verse. “The first shall be last,” it reads, “and the last shall be first.” Scholars argue over the authentic words of Jesus, to be sure. What we do know is that he too was executed by his government before he reached 40. And they killed him for the radical message that what God requires is loving your neighbor as yourself.

Photo source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R0211-316 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Photo source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R0211-316 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Friar’s Tale

Being a fan of Gothic fiction, I recently read an anonymous story from 1792 entitled, “The Friar’s Tale.” Those who linger among Gothic conventions know that the monastery is a common trope in the genre, often with debased clerics who use their authority to make their charges miserable. (Hmm. I wonder why I keep coming back to this kind of fiction?) Literary scholars tend to point to the late eighteenth century as the origin point of Gothic sensibilities which coincide with the Romantic movement. This then, is an early example of what people feared as industrialism and modernity encroached on a world once natural and full of mystery. The tale contains nothing to frighten a modern reader, but it does offer compelling commentary on the one organization that would seem most to benefit from retaining a pre-scientific worldview—the church.

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The story involves lovers separated by a cad who is after the lass’s money and who connives with the mother superior of a convent to lock the girl away from both her money and her lover. She comes to the realization that religion has ruined her prospects. The friar narrating the tale refers to religion as “that constant comfort of the good, and powerful weapon of the wicked.” Of course we had already experienced Reformation vitriol by this point in history, and rage against the use of religion as a means for personal gain had been thrown out for any who would care to utilize it. Clearly the author of “The Friar’s Tale” found it essential to the plot.

The truly interesting aspect of all this is how, in the intervening centuries, religion has continued to present this opportunity to the greedy and corrupt. Not all religion succumbs, of course, but when it becomes a hierarchy of any description there will follow those who find it a means of personal gain. The Prosperity Gospel movement comes immediately to mind. Those who putatively follow a man who is recorded as having said to give away all that you have in order to be his disciple have somehow missed the message and keep their treasure where moth and rust pose constant dangers. We think ourselves advanced since then, but the words of a fictional friar from centuries ago may still hold some wisdom for Gothic readers in the present.

Blessed Art Thou?

blessed“Con man” derives from the disparaging use of the term “confidence man,” as applied to those whose promised deliverables never appear, if they ever existed at all. History is filled with roguish con men who populate movies and popular biographies. Among their ranks have been hawkers of spiritual wares, but the institutionalization of religious profiteering is fairly new. Even growing up in a Fundamentalist setting, I don’t recall ever hearing of the “prosperity gospel.” Although I can’t in good conscience accept the distorted theology of the literalists, at least I can say that they are mostly an honest bunch with a high threshold for supernatural interference in daily life, if sometimes rationally challenged. The prosperity gospel is far more insidious.

Kate Bowler’s Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel was my first attempt to deal with the phenomenon academically. Bowler traces the movement to strains that appeared earlier than I might have guessed. Nevertheless, its fruit is rotted on the tree of greed, and it has nothing to do with historical spiritual seeking. One of the few things over which the Bible doesn’t equivocate is the corrupting influence of wealth. The needle has been jammed into the eye of the gospel in this confidence scheme. “Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.” How did this become transformed into “bring your family jewels if you don’t have cash; our accountants can liquidate your heritage for the extreme comfort and obscenely expensive lifestyle of your ‘pastor’”? In a church of 10,000 how much does your pastor care for you? I would never join a church where the shepherd did not know my name.

Bowler does an admirable job maintaining academic neutrality in Blessed. She explores the central concepts, copied from the very entrepreneurial ledger of the root of all evil. Nevertheless the prosperity gospel remains terribly hollow, shallow, and callow. The mere suggestion that wealth equates blessing in a world where millions suffer for lack of basic needs is unconscionable. One could even be justified in saying “wicked.” What kind of god takes food from the mouth of a hungry child to give it to those who have more than enough? I grew up knowing some want. I also grew up knowing that my grandmother had religiously supported a millionaire who said, “expect a miracle” week after week and then claimed the Lord would take him if he didn’t raise 8 million dollars in the first three months of 1987. Meanwhile the Evangelist still enjoyed great wealth for two more decades when he heeded the call home. All the while those far more worthy perished for lack of bread and clean water. This is neither prosperity nor gospel. Of this I’m utterly confident.

The Subtle Elephant

“Beer,” the list reads, then “Sex, Tacos, Weed.” At the top of the list, “Jesus.” “Which one of these is best?” the magazine page virtually shouts. Not Playboy, but Wired. At times I have difficulty figuring out what is an advertisement and what is an article in Wired. It is the future, I suppose. Anything’s for sale as long as there’s lucre to be generated. The page is topped with “Wired Insider,” so I suppose it’s a whimsical pop culture section, but I’m not really sure. The page seems to be promoting an app called Proust. I’m still pondering this list: “Jesus, Beer, Sex, Tacos, Weed.” One of these things is not like the others…

Vices

While there may be nothing inherently wrong with beer, sex and tacos (the jury’s still out on weed), such indulgences are often labeled “vices.” Jesus, until recently, never really populated such lists. Even those who do not claim divinity for Jesus of Nazareth do tend to see his teachings as embodying virtue rather than vice. In the media, however, we often see Jesus turned into a kind of addiction, a vice, if you will. What I mean is that Jesus has become a kind of iconic symbol, emptied of tolerant teachings and benevolence toward all. He has become a “white man,” who does not put up with anyone who deviates from the McCarthy-era lifestyle. He is Ozzie (Nelson, not Osborne). We know so little of the historical Jesus that it is difficult to say anything definitively, but I might suggest that he may have felt more at home at a Black Sabbath concert than watching Leave it to Beaver. There is, after all, value in shock value.

Some scholars now confer about the Iconic Book (i.e., the Bible). The Iconic Book is where the Bible is used not for what it says, but what it represents. Swearing on a Bible means nothing to an atheist, and yet we persist. These hollow symbols become powerful indicators of social norms, while losing their radical content. Many might think the Bible utterly conventional, but there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth on Wall Street if people actually read it and took it seriously. Jesus, it seems, has also become iconic. I don’t mean that icons are painted (although they are), but that he has become a hollow symbol for some. In a world where gaining as much money as possible is called “Prosperity Gospel,” despite what the iconic man in the iconic book supposedly said, I guess it isn’t unusual to find the erstwhile savior among the vices of the world.

“Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless”

Yes, Mr. Eliot, this is the way the world ends.

White Christmas Revisited

In the light of yesterday’s post, I’d like to tip my metaphorical hat to Brian Regal of Kean University for a piece he wrote in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. Entitled “The Real Meaning of Christmas,” Regal’s piece shows the striking disconnect that comes between the image of a “Christian” Christmas and the oft-ignored words of Jesus that make him such a great example to follow. We want the image and the affidavit without having to do the hard work of loving those we don’t like. This really seems to be the heart of what was once know as gospel—it’s okay to be who you are (for those of that bent, “who God made you.”) Too often “Christian” has come to mean someone who wears their hair far shorter than Jesus, who shuns those welcomed by Jesus, and who smile far more than Jesus. My Bible says “Jesus wept.” I don’t recall any verses reading, “Jesus put on his ‘I love you’ smile.” Ours is a society that wants it both ways—all for me, but isn’t that what Jesus really wanted? You know, he must’ve smiled a lot.

Regal rightly points out that the majority of Christmas traditions are admittedly pagan, and we are glad to baptize them as long as we don’t have to let the homeless into our churches or admit equal rights to those of all genders, races, and orientations. What seems to be the real desideratum is a “white” Christmas. A white, affluent Christmas. The very idea of the ownership of a holiday characterized by giving is a phenomenon worth serious study. Religion can certainly be used to justify such self-centeredness, but it is condemned by that very same faith. What are people worried about? Christmas has been a commercial holiday essentially from its origins in the modern period. It is one of the few holidays to which nearly everyone looks forward, at least for a break from work or school, if not for a windfall of new stuff.

Privilege as blessing is a perverse theology, as is shown repeatedly in the Bible. Israel’s long line of descent is chosen from the least, the youngest, the meek. Now we are constantly told that God rewards those who are blessed, and that the poor and underprivileged have only themselves to blame. At Christmas time it may be worse than many other seasons of the year. We want not only to keep good cheer, we want to keep a holiday only partially of our own making for ourselves, and then congratulate ourselves on just how good we are. It would seem that the spirit of Christmas might lie, as the pagans said, in giving. I am not a fan of commercialism, as my regular readers know. I can’t help but think that believing one deserves special rewards for righteousness in their own eyes will only have the opposite effect. Remember: he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake…

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