Atheism, Bigotry, Bill Maher, Christianity, Creflo Dollar, Frederick K.C. Price, Gospel of Prosperity, Hebrew-Israelites, Jimmy Swaggert, Kenneth Copeland, Liberation Theology, Pat Robertson, Televangelism
This weekend marks twenty-six years since I became a Christian. Given how torturous my nearly three and a half years of wearing a kufi and walking in the beliefs of the Hebrew-Israelites (at least nominally) were, I dare say that the turning point for all of my life occurred in April ’84. I’m grateful every day — and I mean, every day — for finding my way to God and Jesus. But, as I’m come to understand myself and Christianity over the years, I’ve also come to regret the religious and anti-religious narcissism that is infused in all of our conversations about Christianity, God, Atheism, evolution and so many other things that require more than scientific knowledge and absolute certainty.
For better and for worse, I have to start with the people who helped me get on the Christian path in the first place. If not for televangelists like Frederick K.C. Price and Kenneth Copeland, my understanding of Christianity would’ve been limited to conversations with my best friend in elementary school and my pedestrian attempts at understanding the New Testament. So I have to thank both for opening my eyes to the endless possibilities that all people have through faith and redemption, salvation and grace.
Still, their work, and the work of others like Benny Hinn, Jimmy Swaggert, Robert Tilton, Pat Robertson, Oral and Richard Roberts and others has revolved into a form of narcissism. Their gospel — and the gospel of the megachurches that now populate our nation — should be remembered by historians as the Gospel of Prosperity. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking control over your finances, giving to a church to provide community and social services or even using principles of faith (beyond the religious or spiritual) in order to make one’s life better materially. There is something vitally wrong, though, when this is almost all your ministry is about. I must admit, I was inspired by Price when I was a teenager, listening to his story about how he grew up in Alabama, about the poverty he had to overcome in order to become an ordained minister and establish his church in L.A. It was much later that I learned how enriching a Gospel of Prosperity could be for those with the power of the pulpit and the will to wield that power.
Seeing it firsthand at my church outside Pittsburgh (in Wilkinsburg for those of you familiar with Western Pennsylvania) was what made me realize how incredibly shallow this kind of preaching is for a church and its flock. The leadership began a campaign to raise something in the order of $1 million toward building a new church, as this church now boasted over 3,000 members. That was in December of ’96.
Within a couple of months, we had easily exceeded this amount, which was on top of the amount church member normally gave. Within a week, the pastor announced that God had given him a vision that another $3 million would be needed to help with the costs of building a new church and maintaining the current church building. A vision? Really? I think even God realizes that most of us, with help, can decipher a budget sheet to know what’s needed to build a building the size of a 3,000-seat church. What made this particularly dishonest was that the leadership should’ve let us sheep know what was needed from jump street, not a staggered campaign of visions in order to build the congregation’s confidence in giving. Not to mention the tapping into our American obsession with getting rich or becoming well-off.
Around the same time, Price was doing the same thing via his TV program. A whole series on Jesus as a materially rich Jew living in Galilee, and not as the relatively poor son of a carpenter and fisherman as portrayed in the Gospels. “How could he be poor and feed 5,000 people? Why would a poor man need to hire an accountant?,” Price asked at one point in his series in ’97. Although I think you could argue that Jesus’ ministry was doing well enough to keep him and his disciples in food, olive oil and sandals for three years, I’m not sure what this means for the average Christian or average person. The implication of all of this, of course, is that if you end up in debt, or without significant upward changes in income, or somehow become unemployed, that you somehow didn’t display enough faith. Or give your full tithe to your local pastor or church. Or for that matter, give beyond the tithing to pastors like Price, Copeland, and numerous others.
It couldn’t be about education, the kinds of job individuals have, or the wrecked state of the American economy, right? Or that, no matter how much faith we have, it’s our acting on that faith, having the skills necessary to make our dreams real possibilities, and of course, meeting people who are well positioned in our lives to help us (and oddly enough, vice-versa)? No, our lack of faith in The One is to blame. Need I mention that folks like Price have been saying for at least thirty years that we as Christians shouldn’t worry about the world’s oil reserves running out, as there’s more than enough to carry us all the way to the Rapture?
Before those in Bill Maher’s camp laugh in wild glee, I’ve found in my academic and spiritual walk narcissistic intolerance among many atheists as well. As if all Christians — and all people who believe in a higher power in general — are delusional, are absolutely orgasmic about seeing the world go up in flames and think science is something to be discarded. Theirs may well be the Gospel of Scientific Absolutism, as if science and the scientific method alone holds all of the answers in the Cosmos. I’m not arguing against evolution, the Big Bang, or String Theory. What I am standing up against are overly simplistic answers for the “why” questions — questions that come with weird and somewhat unscientific explanations — that can confound many a biologist or astrophysicist. Or, for the purposes of this post, atheists who refuse the acknowledge the myriad examples of intelligence in the supposedly random universe. While I stand in almost all respects on the side on science, complete randomness isn’t something that I choose to believe in.
So where does this leave me after twenty-six Christian years? In a very lonely place, where I’m both a complicated Christian and a less-than-scientific scientist in a broad sense. I stopped watching Price in ’98, and the other televangelists between ’88 and ’01. Christianity is about so much more than prosperity and pontificating pastors, learning about much more than science. Social justice, wealth redistribution, speaking truth to power, fighting for equality in this life and the next. Both religion and science have this possibility and have provided this for many people over the course of human history.
Unfortunately, folks like Price think that this is about speaking power to truth, and people like Maher already believe they know everything they need to know. Both have missed the point that faith, or belief, is important in every endeavor, and serves as a catalyst for great human achievement and for great human atrocities. So, for me, this Easter truly is a bittersweet one, where my salvation is real, and my doubt almost as much.