Sometimes it takes a crisis for people to see their theology clearly. And make no mistake. Everyone has a sense of theology. Everyone has some internal sense of how to answer the eternal questions, of how to describe God or why there's no god at all to describe.
But that theology really doesn't get tested until it runs into some kind of challenge, some kind of catastrophe. It's then that you see whether your theology makes sense, whether it can offer explanations, even comfort.
The coronavirus pandemic was such an event for one of this country's best-known pastors, Bishop T. D. Jakes (pictured here). I found that surprising when I read this Atlantic article, which includes an interview with Jakes. I would have assumed that by this time in his career, Jakes would have run into many previous opportunities to rethink his theology. And perhaps he did. But he nonetheless still was one of the promoters of what has been called the "Prosperity Gospel," which suggests that God wants you to be rich and that if you're not rich you aren't living right.
As Jakes told The Atlantic's Emma Green, the pandemic "really makes you think through your theology. As a Christian, the one thing that is quite clear about the Christian message is that it does not hide itself from suffering and pain. When the emblem of your faith is a cross, it’s quite obvious. Suffering is center stage to our faith.
"It isn’t the contemporary theology of just blessings and gifts and promises. It is also seasoned, frequently, with the stoning of the disciples and the killing of members of the early Church. Pandemics are all throughout the Bible. When I looked at those scriptures, it really, really took my empathy toward the text to a different level. It’s one thing to know something intellectually. It’s another thing to say, 'Oh, that’s how they felt. This is how this feels.'”
I hope Jakes never loses that perspective. There are several things that make Christianity an extraordinarily difficult religion to follow. One is that followers of Christ are obliged to see the image of God in every other human being and to treat that person as a child of God. (Of course, we Christians regularly fail in that.) Another is what theologians call the old theodicy question, which asks why, if God is loving and powerful, there is suffering and evil in the world. Indeed, there is no fully satisfying answer to that question, and Christians ultimately must acknowledge that.
Jakes certainly is right, despite all of that and more, to say this: "But the other part of my faith that’s important is that ultimately, we may see suffering on Friday, but we see resurrection on Sunday. That’s the blessed hope of the Church: that there’s better ahead than there is behind us."
But it's theological malpractice in Christianity to preach the Prosperity Gospel, and those who do that need to look at their thinking about that through the lens of the pandemic, of death, of catastrophe and more.
T. D. Jakes seems now to get it. Let's hope others begin to get it, too.
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IF SCRIPTURE IS BORING MAYBE YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG
I help to lead a weekly Bible study, and worry from time to time about how people will react to whatever chapter gets picked (sometimes by me) to read. I think I will share this Christianity Today piece with them so they'll know that there are no boring books in scripture. As the author writes, "The Bible isn’t boring. Even the parts that people always say are boring are weird, gripping, and awe-inspiring. If we let them, they will absolutely command our attention." Same with the Qur'an or with any sacred writ from any religious tradition. But if you're reading texts outside your own tradition, don't do it alone. Do it with someone who understands that tradition. Just recognize that if you choose a second person from that tradition to help you understand it, you won't get the same perspective.