This is how it's done

prosperity fishAs I mentioned earlier this week, I finally got a chance to read the Time cover story on the Prosperity Gospel. I'm sorry to be so late in analyzing the piece, but I heartily encourage you to read it. The article is conversational and engaging as it digs deep into theological nuances and doctrinal distinctions. Unlike most newsweekly coverage of religious issues, the focus is theology rather than social or political impact. My mouth actually dropped open a few times as I read David Van Biema and Jeff Chu boldly characterize complex theological views. For instance, after letting each side in the "Does God Want You To Be Rich?" debate defend themselves and criticize opposite views, here's how the two authors sum up the issue:

As with almost any important religious question, the first response of most Christians (especially Protestants) is to ask how Scripture treats the topic. But Scripture is not definitive when it comes to faith and income. Deuteronomy commands believers to "remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth", and the rest of the Old Testament is dotted with celebrations of God's bestowal of the good life. On at least one occasion -- the so-called parable of the talents (a type of coin) -- Jesus holds up savvy business practice (investing rather than saving) as a metaphor for spiritual practice. Yet he spent far more time among the poor than the rich, and a majority of scholars quote two of his most direct comments on wealth: the passage in the Sermon on the Mount in which he warns, "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth ... but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven"; and his encounter with the "rich young ruler" who cannot bring himself to part with his money, after which Jesus famously comments, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

Both statements can be read as more nuanced than they at first may seem. In each case it is not wealth itself that disqualifies but the inability to understand its relative worthlessness compared with the riches of heaven. The same thing applies to Paul's famous line, "Money is the root of all evil," in his first letter to Timothy. The actual quote is, "The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil."

So the Bible leaves plenty of room for a discussion on the role, positive or negative, that money should play in the lives of believers. But it's not a discussion that many pastors are willing to have.

When was the last time you read a mainstream media report that characterizes Scripture as well as that? It's a fantastically difficult trick to fairly and accurately discuss something as contentious as interpretations of Scripture's view of wealth, and yet I think they did it very well.

After a colorful description of Joel Osteen's sermons, theology and crocodile-leather shoes, Biema and Chu provide some needed analysis about how prosperity preaching has changed over time. They also spend hundreds of words looking at fine theological distinctions among Protestants. One of my favorite parts was that they quoted religious leaders and scholars I'd rarely seen in mainstream media before -- and lots of them. Again, look at how the two reporters get what bothers prosperity teaching's critics:

Most unnerving for Osteen's critics is the suspicion that they are fighting not just one idiosyncratic misreading of the gospel but something more daunting: the latest lurch in Protestantism's ongoing descent into full-blown American materialism. After the eclipse of Calvinist Puritanism, whose respect for money was counterbalanced by a horror of worldliness, much of Protestantism quietly adopted the idea that "you don't have to give up the American Dream. You just see it as a sign of God's blessing," says Edith Blumhofer, director of Wheaton College's Center for the Study of American Evangelicals. Indeed, a last-gasp resistance to this embrace of wealth and comfort can be observed in the current evangelical brawl over whether comfortable megachurches (like Osteen's and [Rick] Warren's) with pumped-up day-care centers and high-tech amenities represent a slide from glorifying an all-powerful God to asking what custom color you would prefer he paint your pews. "The tragedy is that Christianity has become a yes-man for the culture," says Boston University's [Stephen] Prothero.

One reader did send along this critique, but I think it's a remarkable piece. By doing such a good job of characterizing doctrinal distinctions, the authors highlight the barrenness the religious coverage in the current media landscape. Let's hope they're working on their next cover story already.

Disclosure: Though I've only met him once, I should mention that coauthor Jeff Chu and I were in the same class of Phillips Foundation journalism fellows.

Prosperity fish decal via The Door.

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