Time's headline of "Maybe We Should Blame God for the Subprime Mess" does an injustice to David Van Biema's brief and informative update on prosperity theology's march through the contemporary church. The results of that march are ugly. Christians who were persuaded that faithful believers will prosper sometimes ended up believing that a sudden decrease in their monthly note was the work of God, rather than of unethical and irresponsible lenders.
Van Biema turns to religion scholar Jonathan Walton, who will soon publish the book Watch This!: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism, to help make sense of how prosperity has retained loyalty among some believers:
. . . Walton suggests that a decade's worth of ever easier credit acted like a drug in Prosperity's bloodstream. "The economic boom ’90s and financial overextensions of the new millennium contributed to the success of the Prosperity message," he wrote recently on his personal blog as well as on the website Religion Dispatches. And not positively. "Narratives of how 'God blessed me with my first house despite my credit' were common. Sermons declaring 'It's your season to overflow' supplanted messages of economic sobriety," and "little attention was paid to ... the dangers of using one's home equity as an ATM to subsidize cars, clothes and vacations."
One quibble with Van Bienma's report: Saying that prosperity theology is "a type of Pentecostalism" gives short shrift to a Pentecostal denomination like the Assemblies of God, in which the church's top councils have distanced themselves [PDF] from the prosperity teaching that a positive confession will guarantee a Christian's well-being.
Reporting on prosperity also would benefit from D.R. McConnell's argument, in A Different Gospel, that prosperity theology owes far more to pastor and New Thought devotee E.W. Kenyon than to anything in the Bible.
Van Biema's closing paragraph brings home the emotional and spiritual wreckage of prosperity theology that's left unchecked by pragmatism:
Brownsville [Assembly of God] is not even a classic Prosperity congregation -- it relies more on the anointing of its pastors than on Scriptural promises of God. But the believer's note to his minister illustrates how magical thinking can prevail even after the mortgage blade has dropped. "Last Sunday," it read, "You said if anyone needed a miracle to come up. So I did. I was receiving foreclosure papers, so I asked you to anoint a picture of my home and you did and your wife joined with you in prayer as I cried. I went home feeling something good was going to happen. On Friday the 5th of September I got a phone call from my mortgage company and they came up with a new payment for the next 3 months of only $200. My mortgage is usually $1,020. Praise God for his Mercy & Grace."
Image: Courtesy of PDPhoto.org.