What is the Prosperity Gospel Doing?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post asking pastors and Christian intellectuals to stop sneering at Joel Osteen, among other things we sneer at, to think contextually about Osteen's appeal to our culture. 

I want to revisit that post and share a few thoughts about what the prosperity gospel both is and isn't.

By and large, when you listen to intellectual criticisms of the prosperity gospel, the point tends to hit upon this issue: the prosperity gospel is a "problematic" vision of God's providence and action in the world. That is to say, the criticism goes, the prosperity gospel teaches that God wants to bless you, across all facets of your life, and that you merely have to "name and claim" these promises of God to receive these blessings. This is deeply "problematic," the criticism continues, because we don't actually receive all these blessings in life. Life is filled with pain and trauma. We can hope for God's promises all we want, but we still have to face cancer diagnoses, economic hardship, and broken relationships. Life is hard and God's promises are not a magic get out of jail free card. No matter how much you "name and claim" it. 

My sense is that this is the top shelf criticism. But running a close second would be the prosperity gospel focus on financial well-being as a sign of God's blessing.

Let me be very clear that I'm not a proponent of the prosperity gospel. Nor am I defending prosperity gospel pastors and their ministry empires. I'm speaking about the appeal of the prosperity gospel to the person on the street. As I recounted in my prior post, I've watched the impact of prosperity preachers like Osteen upon people and have noted that this impact, while "problematic," isn't wholly bad. Prosperity preaching intersects with and speaks to some acute human needs, and I think being a psychologist, rather than a pastor or theologian, has allowed me to see this.

Here's my starting point. Criticizing the prosperity gospel on theological grounds, pointing out how its theology of blessing is "problematic," is mostly an exercise in missing the point. Pointing out that not everyone is "blessed" 100% of the time isn't a very incisive criticism. You're missing what the prosperity gospel is doing. Criticizing the prosperity gospel on theological grounds is akin to criticizing the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders for having a poor run defense. Of course, you're totally correct, the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders are pretty awful at tackling. But that would be missing the point of what the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders are actually up to.

So, what is Joel Osteen up to? 

First, the prosperity gospel isn't a new thing. It has a rich and deep legacy in America. With the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and "the American Dream," social and economic striving was introduced into the world. The meritocracy was invented. No longer were we, as peasants and serfs, condemned to work the land generation after generation, permanently locked into a lower social strata. Now, living in a modern economy, social mobility was introduced. We could climb. Or fall. And it was now all up to us to climb, to strive, and to push. You have to make something of yourself. And if you don't, you sink, and maybe even drown. 

This striving introduced into our experience what Alain De Botton calls "status anxiety," the notion that our material position within the modern economy is a reflection of our value, worth, and moral integrity. Status anxiety is the Protestant Work Ethic in a neurotic register, the scars of shame when our material fortunes falter or stall.

Even worse, this striving never ends. To stay afloat in modern economies you have to keep swimming or you'll go under. Like a little duck on the surface of the water, our calm exteriors hide our churring little feet keeping us afloat. And this constant swimming, this never ending rat race, creates a second modern ailment: chronic exhaustion, what some have called "the weariness of the self."  

Summarizing, modern life is a life of striving to achieve some modicum of material stability, a striving haunted by anxiety, stress, strain, shame, failure, exhaustion, weariness, and depression. And this, dear readers, is the world inhabited by the prosperity gospel. 

Which is why criticizing the prosperity gospel as "bad theology" is missing the point. You're asking the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders to tackle. 

The prosperity gospel is a part of the long tradition of self-improvement in America. What is the prosperity gospel doing? I'd describe the prosperity gospel as sacralized self-improvement and sanctified self-help. Most critically, the prosperity gospel focuses upon the psychological engine of self-efficacy, the belief that you are capable and competent, that "You got this! You can do this!" The prosperity gospel sacralizes self-efficacy by bringing God into the equation: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

And let me be clear, bringing God into the self-improvement conversation isn't funny or silly. In the modern world, in our striving within the meritocracy, self-efficacy, sacralized or not, is what keeps you afloat. Lose it, and you sink.

Plus, just look out upon the American landscape--from fitness, to wellness, to corporate success, to personal fulfillment, to parenting and happiness--we're all working some angle of self-help and self-improvement. Crossfit, atomic habits, Peloton, counting my steps, mindfulness, TED talks, 7 Habits, Feng Shui, Goop, witchcraft, essential oils, yoga, best practices, business tips. On and on and on it goes. Most of this vast industry doesn't bring God into the equation, but sometimes it does. This is the world of the prosperity gospel, and everyone, even the non-religious, has their Joel Osteen, from business gurus to life coaches to the latest Amazon best-seller you've been reading. 

And again, none of this is stupid or silly. Like little ducks paddling furiously on the surface of the water, we are all exhausted swimmers about to drown in failure, shame, and exhaustion. The prosperity gospel, charitably understood, isn't about "blessing" or wealth. The prosperity gospel is about shame and exhaustion, status anxiety and the weariness of the self, the twin demons of the modern world. Understand this, and you understand Joel Osteen.

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