11.17.2009

"We love the money in Jesus Christ’s name! Jesus loved money too!”

Here's an interesting article by Hanna Rosin, from The Atlantic: "Did Christianity Cause the Crash?"

The title is somewhat misleading -- it's rather generous to describe the religion portrayed in this article as "Christian," and as popular as the "prosperity gospel" might be in the US, it's hardly representative of Christianity in general, or even American Protestantism in general.

But the article provides a fascinating glimpse into the world of the sad people who've fallen for the "prosperity gospel," something I learned about only a few years ago when, out of anthropological curiosity, I started watching people like Oral Roberts and Creflo Dollar.

Here are the first few paragraphs:

Like the ambitions of many immigrants who attend services there, Casa del Padre’s success can be measured by upgrades in real estate. The mostly Latino church, in Charlottesville, Virginia, has moved from the pastor’s basement, where it was founded in 2001, to a rented warehouse across the street from a small mercado five years later, to a middle-class suburban street last year, where the pastor now rents space from a lovely old Baptist church that can’t otherwise fill its pews. Every Sunday, the parishioners drive slowly into the parking lot, never parking on the sidewalk or grass—“because Americanos don’t do that,” one told me—and file quietly into church. Some drive newly leased SUVs, others old work trucks with paint buckets still in the bed. The pastor, Fernando Garay, arrives last and parks in front, his dark-blue Mercedes Benz always freshly washed, the hubcaps polished enough to reflect his wingtips.

It can be hard to get used to how much Garay talks about money in church, one loyal parishioner, Billy Gonzales, told me one recent Sunday on the steps out front. Back in Mexico, Gonzales’s pastor talked only about “Jesus and heaven and being good.” But Garay talks about jobs and houses and making good money, which eventually came to make sense to Gonzales: money is “really important,” and besides, “we love the money in Jesus Christ’s name! Jesus loved money too!” That Sunday, Garay was preaching a variation on his usual theme, about how prosperity and abundance unerringly find true believers. “It doesn’t matter what country you’re from, what degree you have, or what money you have in the bank,” Garay said. “You don’t have to say, ‘God, bless my business. Bless my bank account.’ The blessings will come! The blessings are looking for you! God will take care of you. God will not let you be without a house!”

Pastor Garay, 48, is short and stocky, with thick black hair combed back. In his off hours, he looks like a contented tourist, in his printed Hawaiian shirts or bright guayaberas. But he preaches with a ferocity that taps into his youth as a cocaine dealer with a knife in his back pocket. “Fight the attack of the devil on my finances! Fight him! We declare financial blessings! Financial miracles this week, NOW NOW NOW!” he preached that Sunday. “More work! Better work! The best finances!” Gonzales shook and paced as the pastor spoke, eventually leaving his wife and three kids in the family section to join the single men toward the front, many of whom were jumping, raising their Bibles, and weeping. On the altar sat some anointing oils, alongside the keys to the Mercedes Benz.

Later, D’andry Then, a trim, pretty real-estate agent and one of the church founders, stood up to give her testimony. Business had not been good of late, and “you know, Monday I have to pay this, and Tuesday I have to pay that.” Then, just that morning, “Jesus gave me $1,000.” She didn’t explain whether the gift came in the form of a real-estate commission or a tax refund or a stuffed envelope left at her door. The story hung somewhere between metaphor and a literal image of barefoot Jesus handing her a pile of cash. No one in the church seemed the least bit surprised by the story, and certainly no one expressed doubt. “If you have financial pressure on you, and you don’t know where the next payment is coming from, don’t pay any attention to that!” she continued. “Don’t get discouraged! Jesus is the answer.”

America’s churches always reflect shifts in the broader culture, and Casa del Padre is no exception. The message that Jesus blesses believers with riches first showed up in the postwar years, at a time when Americans began to believe that greater comfort could be accessible to everyone, not just the landed class. But it really took off during the boom years of the 1990s, and has continued to spread ever since. This stitched-together, homegrown theology, known as the prosperity gospel, is not a clearly defined denomination, but a strain of belief that runs through the Pentecostal Church and a surprising number of mainstream evangelical churches, with varying degrees of intensity. In Garay’s church, God is the “Owner of All the Silver and Gold,” and with enough faith, any believer can access the inheritance. Money is not the dull stuff of hourly wages and bank-account statements, but a magical substance that comes as a gift from above. Even in these hard times, it is discouraged, in such churches, to fall into despair about the things you cannot afford. “Instead of saying ‘I’m poor,’ say ‘I’m rich,’” Garay’s wife, Hazael, told me one day. “The word of God will manifest itself in reality.”

Many explanations have been offered for the housing bubble and subsequent crash: interest rates were too low; regulation failed; rising real-estate prices induced a sort of temporary insanity in America’s middle class. But there is one explanation that speaks to a lasting and fundamental shift in American culture—a shift in the American conception of divine Providence and its relationship to wealth.

You can read the rest of the article here.

The Casa del Padre website features a picture of an eagle on the home page. A predatory bird. Seems appropriate to me.

Image: Fernando Garay, Pastor at Casa del Padre.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Frank said...

It's a tricky situation. A lot of people go around saying they've been "blessed" when they have good health, a raise at work, or a win at the football game.

I think Calvinism is partly involved here, as prosperity was often a sign of predestination, and the industrial revolution picked up on that putting idle hands to work in fervent anxiety.

Still, I think Christianity needed to be balanced out as so many traditions seemed to deplore Creation and there was a need for some holistic balance. The problem comes in when too many people see the Cross as "something nice Jesus did for me" rather than as a path for each person who is a follower.

3:06 PM  
Blogger Frank said...

I was probably not clear in my last post, so let me try again: I am opposed to the prosperity gospel, but it is interesting to me how many different theologies that most of us utter are probably feeding it. And when self-help joins in with Christianity, I think we see the results.

But then again, I'm not opposed to seeing fruits of Creation as blessings, and I'm not opposed to all self-help, either. So I'm not sure what the right balance is.

3:09 PM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Frank, thanks for you comments. I think you make some good points.

I was thinking about this a few weeks ago, around (Canadian) Thanksgiving. It's commonly assumed that we should be thankful to God for what we have.

This seems like a rather benign sentiment, but it would seem to imply that I have what I have because God wills it. After all, if God is not responsible for my having what I have, why should I be thankful to God for having it?

But doesn't this further imply that it's God's will that the rich are rich and (especially) that the poor are poor?

The seemingly innocuous notion that we should be grateful to God for what we have can easily become a subtle means of legitimising the status quo.

This is, as you suggested, basically what follows from Calvinism or Reformed theology more generally, with its emphasis on the sovereignty of God. And I agree with your comment that the "different theologies that most of us utter are probably feeding it." Catholicism might leave more room for freedom and nature as distinct from grace, but one doesn't have to look hard to find Catholic assertions that "this happened, therefore God wanted it to happen."

For that matter, the Bible is chock-full of verses making precisely this assertion. It's not the product of any particular theology, but follows, rather, from any theology that identifies God as a being "out there" who selectively intervenes in the created order.

As far as many people are concerned, this is the Christian concept of God, and anything that deviates from it is something other than Christian.

Part of me feels this is due to a lack of imagination, but more likely it's because people have other psychological needs that would be threatened if they stopped believing in the supernatural interventionist deity.

10:56 AM  

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