I can very clearly remember the day, several years ago, that one of my students came into graduate support at SMPA clutching a Joel Osteen book. My immediate reaction was general shock, and expressed as such—not least because they were one of the most thoughtful and spiritually motivated students I’ve had the privilege of working with (to say nothing of their keen intellect). My second reaction was one of puzzlement, caused by reflecting on this second truth. So I asked them why they were reading Osteen. The answer was that reading him gave the student a sense that they were and could be worth something; to God, to themselves, to their family. The book laid out clearly many of the psychological blocks to realizing this worth (both social and personal), advocated clearing them away by considering the great power of God, and promised that once these blocks were removed that power would work through them to bring this worth to light in prosperity.
I despise the Prosperity Gospel. I believe it to be one of the most pernicious heresies produced within the Church, one which imprisons its disciples in an impossible system and imprisons many of its more self-conscious preachers in both their own knowing hypocrisy and the material weights they have extorted from their followers. But this student’s answer struck me; and it struck me because it pointed to at least a part of the power of this heresy. All heresy contains a truth of some kind, and it becomes heresy by emphasizing this truth and excluding others to the point where it becomes a lie. But this means that in seeking to combat heresy, we must begin by recognizing and the re-situating its truth.
There is a reason why the Prosperity Gospel has such a hold on so many—and there is a reason why so many of this so many are to be found in the spaces which America has excluded from its dreams. It catches hold by proclaiming God’s love to those who have often been told that they have no option but to exist in a state which is incompatible with the knowledge of being loved. And in this, it successfully identifies and rejects the social lie that the station of one’s birth is indicative of one’s relationship to God. It then distorts that truth by identifying the fruits of that love with the same status symbols which ground the lie. But it does know this truth.
If the Church is to defeat the Prosperity Gospel, then—and it should be defeated, and it can only be defeated within and by the Church—it must do so by recognizing this truth and reclaiming it. It must do so with more than lip-service, moreover. It cannot do so by proclaiming a welcome which is always one from those inside to those who are outside, so ultimately reinforcing that structure of exclusion. It cannot do so by proclaiming inherent value whilst leaving the social conditions which belie that proclamation untouched. It cannot do so from a pulpit (or, indeed, a blog post), outside of equal relationship with those who (I truly believe) are being conned. And it cannot do so by belittling those who believe and preach this false gospel. The Church cannot belittle those who have been given no reason to think it recognizes the truth of their worth before God better than Osteen has. And it cannot belittle those who proclaim the Prosperity Gospel, for those who know what they are doing are far more dangerous than that.
As it is, I did not try and argue the matter with the student. I simply reaffirmed the truth of what they had said, then expressed my fears about its distortion. I’m unsure about the correctness of this response, but equally unsure that there was a more correct one at the time. I am, however, fairly convinced of the above—and I hope that reading these thoughts is of some help to anyone who has taken a few minutes out of their day to do so.