Over the centuries, traditional Christianity has produced many aberrations, but today I would suggest that what's become known as the Prosperity Gospel (or health, wealth and healing on demand) is a top candidate for the currently most distorted version of the original gospel.
A new book by Duke Divinity School scholar Kate Bowler, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, give us a carefully drawn, unemotional history of this movement.
Traditional Christianity asks followers to follow Jesus even if it costs them everything. Jesus himself tells people not to store up treasures on earth because where your treasure is there will your heart be also.
But the Prosperity Gospel preachers say you can have it all -- and should.
Why has this bogus Christianity become so popular, especially in parts of the African-American community?
Bowler lists at least four reasons: 1. The message "suited the economic mood." 2. As African-Americans participated in a reverse migration to the south and southwest, they "sought out prosperity churches to make sense of their new social location." 3. Interaction among megachurch leaders spread this distorted to gospel. 4. Churches that historically focused on mutual aid, including predominantly black churches, began to fall for "the materialism and hyper-individualism of the prosperity gospel."
In the end, churches began giving people what they wanted instead of the call to sacrificial giving and love that the true gospel issues. And what did the people want? Bowler: "People wanted churches that lifted their gaze, enlivened their spirits, and assured them that help was around the corner."
So we Christians have wound up with many churches that cater to the self-centered desires of people instead of with churches that point to the transformative experience of being in relationship with the one who loved us enough to die for us. It's a sad, though fascinating, story, and Bowler tells it well.
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REALLY MONITORING RELIGIOUS LIBERTY
I mentioned here yesterday the just-released U.S. State Department report on international religious freedom. To follow up on that, here's a piece asking why State doesn't get tougher with countries that are so abusive. It's a good question.