Feb 10 2011

“Prosperity gospel” for Christian institutions? Part 3

Category: Uncategorizedharmonicminer @ 10:12 am

The previous posts in this series are here and here, and are essential background for understanding what follows.

The problem for faithful Christian organizations is this: there will come a day when the choice is between being faithful to mission, by maintaining a powerful Christian witness for truth, or being safe and well-regarded by the secular world. It will probably not be something so dramatic as a secular sovereign attempting to force a recantation on pain of death. It’s more likely to be the temptation to adopt an essentially secular perspective or initiative that “sounds good” on the surface, one with non-Christian or even anti-Christian origins, but one that is highly socially acceptable, and to bathe it in proof-texted Christian sounding rhetoric. Or it may be the temptation to withhold speaking out on a crucial moral issue, perhaps a controversial one, in which taking sides comes with some risk of negative public relations with some group whose approval we court. Another danger is the retention of leaders or employees whose dismissal will cause some inconvenience (lawsuit, perhaps bad public relations with a sister organization, etc.), but who are clearly out of sympathy with the Christian world-view that is presumably at the root of the institution, or who are having a negative impact on the institution’s ability to carry out its Christian mission without hypocrisy.

Self-delusion is easy. We can say that we have taken particular actions or adopted particular policies because they are the right things to do, not merely because we expect them to bring the good regard of the world and success in our direction. And certainly there can be overlap. But one thing is clear: the agenda of the world is not Christ’s. If we can not fairly easily point to several specific ways in which we have risked the world’s approbation for our church, para-church organization or institution, and risked it for the sake of being true to Christ and standing firm, it is likely that we have succumbed to a carnal view of our mission of leadership, wherein we judge ourselves more by our press releases and public image than by our faithfulness to Christ’s teaching.

One of the more seductive tendencies for 21st-century Christian organizations is to seek social acceptability by moving to the left. This is sometimes packaged as “maturing” and becoming less “simplistic.” Since the opinion makers in media and academia are mostly on the left, that may seem to be the only way to gain the good report of the world. Not that this is always a consciously chosen grand strategy; rather, it is often the cumulative result of many small compromises. It may also come about from adopting perspectives, initiatives and vocabulary of un-Christian or even anti-Christian origin, and then trying to find scriptural support for them.

There is irony in this. The left generally despises traditional religious and moral perspectives. It is usually anti-American in significant ways, and generally denies what it considers to be the flawed notion of western cultural superiority (including the “progress” narrative, the assumption of ever greater material prosperity, etc.). Yet the assumption of success due to intelligent effort is the most American (and conservative) of perspectives. The idea that you can do good and get rich is extremely American, not to mention capitalist at its core, with its assumption that when you do good by providing a service, or creating a product, you deserve to benefit when people freely buy whatever you’re selling. When that assumption animates church and para-church organizations and institutions, which then gradually shift to the left (because, after all, moving left sells, don’t you know, in the media and academia), the irony is complete. They become busy marketing a left-leaning perspective, one which is inconsistent with the underlying assumption that the practice of selling something that people want is to be justly rewarded.

There is another paradox. The Christian left is prone to agree with the secular world that “America is not a Christian nation” and to disagree with the notion of “American exceptionalism” that is generally held by conservatives and many “mainstream” Americans.  How sad, then, when a critical part of the self-image cultivated by some Christian institutions is that non-Christian, unexceptional America likes them, as measured by ratings in magazines, opinion polls and the like.

If any of this is interesting to you, stay tuned….  we’re about to get to the nitty gritty.

The next post in this series is here.

6 Responses to ““Prosperity gospel” for Christian institutions? Part 3”

  1. innermore says:

    Are you saying that seeking God’s will means seeking subtle peril and looking for the world’s disapproval? Should Christian witness for truth be faithful to mission if that mission is to condemn the world in order to save it?

    Is it such a horrible thing that many “secular perspectives” may coincidentally be the same as Christian ones? Perhaps a few “Godly perspectives” didn’t actually originate in church. Is that so bad? What’s the big deal? On cue everyone deafeningly over-responds to it by “reaching out in tolerance” like the leftys, or by claiming “America’s a Christian Nation” like the rightys. (kinda the same thing, coming from both ends!?)

    BTW, The jury might still be out on America’s status of Christian nation, but I’m sure all would agree that Saudi Arabia is an Islamic nation. These days, I would think any lover of democracy (except Utahans) would feel a little nervous about any fundamentalist group hinting of a potential religious state. Rightys just like to rattle lefty cages by saying “Christian nation,” which, as we all know, isn’t exactly a Christian state. Knock it off.

    At the risk of self-delusionizing: Christianity, Christian institutions, organizations and nations, like all religions, are all worldly. The guarantee of earthly religious survival always necessitates an illusional division between sacred and secular. The tired argument that something is xyz-tian or non-xyz-tian does nothing but expose the flawed humanness of the arguer. Christianity is no different than any other religion in this regard. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. It’s just a forgotten reality at times.

  2. harmonicminer says:

    Innermore, as I said in the comments area of the first post in this series, the point is not to seek suffering (self-flagellation is, thankfully, out of favor these days), but to be obedient, and speak and live truly in a world that is hostile to Christian teaching and values.

    And not, it would not be “horrible” if the secular world had perspectives that coincidentally matched Christian ones. Care to name any, that did not in fact ORIGINATE in Christian teaching and practice in the first place? Just to see if there is a “there” really there….

    Most of what the secular world wants to claim as “the good” apart from Christian teaching in fact appeared in the church and its teaching and practice before they became “secular.” The idea that rulers should not be allowed to capriciously murder whomever they find annoying starts in the Ten Commandments. And so on.

    Actually, Al Qaeda would NOT agree that Saudi Arabia is “an Islamic nation.” Neither would the Muslim Brotherhood, though both are happy to accept Saudi money.

    Innermore, with respect, this sentence is hard to believe: “The tired argument that something is xyz-tian or non-xyz-tian does nothing but expose the flawed humanness of the arguer. ” Do you really mean to say that nothing is by definition un-Christian?

    So, do you also think nothing is up, or down? Nothing is red, or green? Nothing is hard, or soft?

    In such an amorphous concept of reality, and human ability to reason about it, why do you bother to read anything? Or think anything? Or use meaningless words?

    I’d just drop the discussion and go have a taco. If there are tacos. Or things that aren’t tacos. Hey, have an un-taco. Which isn’t a burrito, which may or may not exist, either… After all, the notion that some things ARE burritos, and some things AREN’T burritos, is just the flawed humanness of the arguer.

  3. innermore says:

    Jesus taught a set of simple universal principles. Later, a religion was established adopting them. These ideas did not originate with Christ’s followers, but with him. However, one could say that Jesus built a lot of these concepts from his own Jewish tradition. Depending on how skillfully (or conniving-ly) an idea’s essence can be pared down, one could trace these concepts back millenniums to the Hindus, Sumerians or Grays if one wanted to. That wasn’t really my point. Who cares who gets credit for rediscovering a moral idea or two? Beyond that, I just think it’s a little vain to go around like a peacock squawking that MY religion/social group/nation OWNS these principles and YOURS doesn’t. Whoopee. Where have we all heard that before? They’ve been around since the beginning of civilization.

    The important thing is how to use these ideas. If somebody’s gonna be all judgmental and use’m to show off, or put people down or support accusations of heresy or whatever, they’ll be judged accordingly; exposing their own human flaws. Or, if you’re gonna use these ideals to build some sort of global Marxist Utopia, you’re hiding your own flaws and pompously exposing everyone else’s. These sorts of uses are painfully common. I say the reactions to them are also SO predictably unproductive, I question the wisdom of using them that way in the first place. Use’m like you’d think Jesus did. Just live. Go work on how to help somebody out by yourself. The world can only be changed individual to individual anyway. And quit making such a big deal out of it. It sorta screws it up for the rest of us.

    Um I know it’s delusional but, the term “Christian” should describe an effect on people. Not on objects or ideas. There’s kind of a lesson of “let your yes’s be yes’s and no’s be no’s ” to be learned here. Everybody does it but, do people actually know what they’re doing, prefixing a thought or idea with “Christian” or “un-Christian”? It subjects “things” to vast amounts of inherent superstition and potential deception in my book. Whenever I hear it I have to get suspicious. Like whoa, who could ever question a Christian idea? In other words, who’s been authorized to stifle my free-thinking by immortalizing their idea? Likewise an anti-Christian idea. Egad, who would ever ponder such an idea? Among many misgivings, it sounds to me like another cheap maneuver to get a certain type of “sinner” or voter all stirred up.

    Miner, Christians and secularists alike both sing and record music. Excuse my deluded amorphousness, but why touch-up a Piccasso? You’re supposed to be free to think of it as you like. To me (as an old-school Christian) it’s music. I think classifying it, or any other thing, as Christian or secular introduces all sorts of unnecessary distractions. By the same delusional token, I don’t think you asked the Taco Bell guy to make you a Christian burrito, did you?

  4. harmonicminer says:

    Innermore…. you seem to be implying I said things I did not. For greater clarification on the point of distinguishing ideas on the basis of “non-Christian” or “anti-Christian” origin, read The Left at Christian Universities part 2

     

    It seems critical that we examine the historical sources of the ideas that are represented in and by the Christian left and right. If an idea or perspective can be shown on historical grounds to have arisen from sources which are anti-Christian (something more than merely non-Christian), we are correct to look with great suspicion on its current manifestations, regardless of how much God-talk we surround it with. For example, rules of logic developed from the writings of Greek philosophers are merely non-Christian, not anti-Christian. On the other hand, we should be deeply suspicious of a teaching about the value of human persons that flows in a logical way from the assumption that we are mere meat machines, an anti-Christian perspective that cannot possible lead to sound moral judgments.

    This is not a violation of the “all truth is God’s truth” principle. We are not talking about denying the validity of science, or the rules of logic, or the fundamental principles of economics (if we can agree on what they are), i.e., theologically neutral propositions flowing from “the general revelation”. We are talking about the danger in trying to harmonize the perspectives of people who were specifically anti-Christian with Biblical teaching; drawing their viewpoints, flowing from anti-Christian stands, into the church’s teaching, perhaps because these viewpoints sound caring, or objectively rational, or appeal to us emotionally in some way; and then wrapping the entire affair in judiciously selected Bible verses so we can assure ourselves of our continued piety, while experiencing a chilly frisson of self-congratulation at our open-mindedness.

    How concerned should a Christian be when he finds himself agreeing on policy matters and social issues with well-known atheists? The answer, of course, is it depends. It depends on whether or not the particular matter of agreement flows from a commonly held perspective or understanding that is itself more or less theologically neutral. On the other hand, it should evoke great concern when a specific anti-Christian perspective, flowing in a consistent way from an anti-Christian worldview, becomes something we adopt as our own, having decorated it with hermeneutic distortion of Biblical texts.

    The Christian left seems more likely to ally itself with initiatives and perspectives whose origin is outside the church. These include abortion “rights” (flowing from Margaret Sanger’s eugenics views, among other places), certain views of science’s role in life and faith (especially sympathy with the neo-Darwinian synthesis), diversity, multiculturalism, sympathy with socialistic approaches to social problems, anti-military perspectives (natural for Christians from the Anabaptist tradition, but not so much for others), modern environmentalism as a near religion in its own right, suspicion of the profit motive, class warfare, preoccupation with “social justice” (not the simple Biblical concern for the local poor), “borderless nations”, disdain for the USA (expressing itself in inappropriate moral equivalence arguments relating the USA, and sometimes our allies, to other nations), encouragement for gay marriage (more than civil unions with associated “couple” oriented privileges, which seems acceptable to many on the right), etc. The list could be longer, but the flavor is here.

    This is not to say that all of the Christian left agrees with all of these things. And it seems possible for perhaps one of these perspectives to find root in an otherwise Christian right perspective, though it is uncommon. However, where half or more of these perspectives are present in an institution or person, it seems reasonable to affirm identification with the Christian left.

     

    You seem to be implying in your comments that I denied the concept of natural law, which may be discoverable by other traditions. To the contrary, Christian tradition includes the concept of natural law, the ability of non-Christian traditions to discover moral truths “written on our hearts” and so on.

    But we need to be suspicious of very recently discovered “moral truths” (like affirmative action, redistributionist/socialist government/economic policies, eco-pagan views of the earth prettied up as “creation care and stewardship” and so on). The central fact of universal natural moral law is that most of it was known by the time of Christ… or much sooner. None of it is likely to have been “discovered” by 19th century Marxists or 20th century prosperity gospel promoters.

    It’s not hard to discern which ideas are essentially anti-Christian. Those will be the ideas that conflict with millennnia of Judeo-Christian tradition AND natural law discovered by preceding or paralleling traditions, a very long time ago.

    And to the point of this series of posts: Christians who stick to revealed and natural law (which is mostly OLD, not NEW), as the basis for their moral perspectives and institutional policies, are not guaranteed to win the favor of the world in such a way as to make them rich, in some automatic way flowing from “God’s blessing of the obedient.”

  5. innermore says:

    Something rang in my head reading your last quote, “God’s blessing of the obedient.” Politically, statements or concepts of that ilk suggest autocracy (on some level). Do you think democracy is natural law? Is the Christian left trying to rectify these two opposing ideas?

    This prosperity gospel thing sounds too good to be true. God’s money tree?

  6. harmonicminer says:

    No, I don’t think “democracy” is “natural law.” I do think respect for liberty (which includes property) and reasonable autonomy is. An enlightened despot who uses political clout to protect the natural rights of human beings is fine with me… but there have been few such in human history.

    No one has every liked living under despots, save for the few favored, except in rare cases.

    I’m not sure what you didn’t understand about the sentence that included “God’s blessing of the obedient.” Can you frame a question? Or are you genuinely new to “prosperity thinking”?

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