The Real Problem with Prosperity Teaching Isn’t Theological (Well, not entirely…)

There’s a well-known Anglican “divine” (to use the old term) in this country who’s engaged in a Facebook campaign/rant (take your pick) about African faith declarations and the popularity of prosperity teaching.  It’s gone on for some time, and the fact that he’s Reformed only adds to the persistence.  (Maybe he’s also trying to prove that doctrine, but that’s another post…)

Readers of this blog know that an family heritage snob like me doesn’t have much use for prosperity teaching as it is currently propagated by the arrivistes on this side of the Atlantic.  And that may be a big part of our Anglican divine’s problem: Episcopal churches in this Republic have traditionally been the church home of people who really don’t need “name it and claim it” or “blab it and grab it” because they already have it and know how to get it by other means.  I suspect that Anglican churches have inherited many of these people and have attracted more to their ranks, which is why it’s easy for Anglican and Episcopal divines to sniff at others not so well endowed.

But to turn sniffing into heresy hunting is a game-changer.  It’s easy if you’re a hammer to see everything else as a nail; it’s easy if you’re a minister of the Gospel to see everything that doesn’t square with what you know to be true as heresy, especially when you’ve been pummeled by the stuff from the Episcopal left.  It’s also easy to miss the forest for the trees, and I think objectors to prosperity teaching have done just that.  The real problem with prosperity teaching isn’t theological, but it’s wrapped up with the whole theodicy issue.

I’ve discussed this before, but the core problem is that Americans in particular have been drilled in the idea that life is supposed to be a “bowl of cherries” and that they’re not supposed to experience adversity or pain.  That’s an interesting idea in a country where interpersonal relationships (like marriage and parenting) are so unstable and thus cause pain by themselves.  That’s had a great deal of fallout, I’ll mentioned two examples.

The first is the opioid crisis.  Boomers act like this is something new, but face it: the generation committed to “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” put drugs front and center in life.  But why?  Why are Americans so prone to taking drugs, and have been for the last 50+ years?  Some of that blame must be put squarely on the drug companies themselves.  Leaving out the scourge of prescription drugs such as Oxycontin, so many over-the-counter drugs were sold on the idea of “take a pill, you don’t have to feel pain, everything will be fine.”  That’s a powerful concept for drugs both legal, illegal and those in transition.  But it’s left a wreckage.

The second is prosperity teaching itself.  You never learn to appreciate the “positive confession” movement until you’ve been subjected to the “negative confession” one.  But prosperity teaching here pushes very strongly the idea of the pain-free, adversity-free life, especially for people who have been primed for that idea by their culture.

And that’s where the Africans come in.  Prosperity teaching has an obvious appeal in a place as poor as Africa.  But my exposure to the Africans tells me that for the most part they haven’t bought into the pain-free, adversity-free mentality that we have here in the U.S.  Their daily life and bad actors such as Boko Haram only reinforce reality in a way that most Americans find incomprehensible.

So what’s a Christian to do?  The first thing is to define the extremes, and see what’s in the middle.  We’ve seen one extreme, the adversity-free idea.  The other is that we should just tough everything out in life and do it ourselves.  The problem with that is that it basically leaves God out as our ultimate source and strength.  A good example of that is the “Contract on the Episcopalians, ” where the promises of God were replaced by what we promised to do.

Somewhere between these two extremes is reality, that we live in a fallen world, that our God as given us the promise of eternity, that bad things happen but ultimately that the life that God has given us is good.

Finding a middle ground on anything these days isn’t easy.  In this case, however, it is both Biblical and necessary.

My Response to Twitter’s Paranoia About the Russians

Yesterday I received the following in my inbox from Twitter:

As part of our recent work to understand Russian-linked activities on Twitter during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, we identified and suspended a number of accounts that were potentially connected to a propaganda effort by a Russian government-linked organization known as the Internet Research Agency.

Consistent with our commitment to transparency, we are emailing you because we have reason to believe that you either followed one of these accounts or retweeted or liked content from these accounts during the election period. This is purely for your own information purposes, and is not related to a security concern for your account.

We are sharing this information so that you can learn more about these accounts and the nature of the Russian propaganda effort. You can see examples of content from these suspended accounts on our blog if you’re interested.

My response is simple: I really don’t care.

Our elites’ paranoia about the Russians and their influence mirrors that of Joe McCarthy in the 1950’s.  They do not understand that we are the strongest state and that the success or failure of these United States is strictly in our own hands, or those within who own and operate us.  To say otherwise is blame shifting, and those who believe everything bad that happens to them is someone else’s fault are inherent failures.

Those who control social media have finally woken up to the fact that some who use their media for their own purpose are existential threats to them (or at least they think they are.)  The result of this will be the suppression of free speech on these media.  This has been coming for some time and will only get worse.  Those who have put all their eggs in the social media basket and get crossways with the gatekeepers will find this out the hard way.

As far as “fake news” is concerned, after watching the gorgeous show called Shen Yun one evening I told my wife that “It’s all propaganda.”  I had seen it from the other side (Shen Yun is an effort by the Chinese religious group Falun Gong, which the government hates.)  It’s just too bad that the propaganda war Twitter is so paranoid about can’t be conducted with such beauty.

No, Columbus Wasn’t Worried About Falling Off the Edge of a Flat Earth

I think it’s fair to say that most Boomers (and some who came afterwards) were taught that one reason Columbus sailed west to determine whether the earth was flat.  But this won’t wash, as BizzareVictoria notes:

Everyone knows that in the medieval era, everyone thought the world was flat, and Columbus discovered the Americas in part because he was trying to circumnavigate the globe, to prove it was round, and to end up in India, right?

Except all of this is wrong. 

Eco tells us that people have known the world was spherical since ancient Greece. “Parmenides seems to have guessed its spherical nature, while Pythagoras held that it was spherical for mystical-mathematical reasons [and] subsequent demonstrations of the roundness of the Earth were based on empirical observations: see the texts by Plato and Aristotle. Doubts about sphericity linger in Democritus and Epicurus, and Lucretius denies the existence of the Antipodes, but in general for all of late antiquity, the spherical form of the Earth was no longer debated” (11).

In addition to providing additional backup to this claim, BizzareVictoria goes on to detail how Victorians, frustrated at the opposition of the church to evolution, spread the idea that the medaevals, following Lactantius, thought the earth was flat.

To all that I’d like to add the following:

  1. The Bible does not teach that the earth is flat (cf. Isaiah 40:22.)  There was a great deal of knowledge interchange amongst the civilisations of the Middle East, including the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians and Greeks, a fact that was better appreciated in ancient times than it is now.
  2. Dante certainly conceived the earth as round, which is closer to Columbus’ time than the Bible.
  3. If there was a central fault in medaeval science, it was an over-reliance on the ancients for scientific fact.  That’s why Galileo butted heads with the schoolmen of his day. In this case, however, that reliance was correct.

As for Lactantius, he wasn’t exactly in the top shelf of Patristic writers, a fact also recognised in medaeval times.  One thing he was dead right on, however, was the rapacity of Late Roman tax collection methods, which doubtless hasn’t endeared him to the bureaucrats.

HT Tim Harding.

Chelsea Manning, the Perfect Democrat

Buried in all the other excitement this week was the announcement that Chelsea Manning, the transgendered Wikileaker, is running for the Senate in Maryland as a Democrat.  This announcement has gotten a great deal of adverse press from the right, but I think we need to stop and look at this in more detail.

First, the transgendered business: we need to face reality that, as long as we live in a society where one’s life is defined by one’s sexual activity, it not being optional or restrictable, this will happen, because it’s easy in a society as obsessed with conformity as ours to find oneself cornered by that obsession.  If we address the underlying cause, we will be closer to resolution, although it’s a steep uphill climb.

Turning to the leaker business, many Republicans and conservatives simply regard Manning as a traitor.  In this case that assessment really shouldn’t matter: it isn’t the job of Maryland Republicans to vote for a Democrat anyway.  Manning’s first contest is in the Democrat primary, and it’s here that things really get complicated.  He is the perfect Democrat in a party which loves perfection until it doesn’t.

I am one of those people who still think that the phrase “patriotic liberal” is an oxymoron.  Liberals (or leftists) are supposed to be internationalists.  They’re always telling us that other countries are better because they have things like lots of paid leave and holiday, universal health care, better educational systems, lower defence budgets, etc.  If other places are really better than we are, why be loyal to this one?

Our society, however, is highly duplicitous; liberals are glad to be internationalists as long as it suits them.  When it doesn’t suit them is when they get into power; all of a sudden, they become very patriotic, because it’s suddenly their country, and we’re all supposed to love it and be loyal to it even as they change its very nature.  That was very much on display during the years when Barack Obama was President.  He was obsessed with leaks and secrecy (as James Rosen found out) and even with those in the media who simply wanted to report the facts (as Sharyl Attkisson found out.)  Obama never pardoned Manning, he only commuted his sentence, probably as a sop to those in his party who, although wrong, are at least consistent.

And then there’s the matter of secrets themselves.  The simple truth is that our government keeps too many and collects too much information.  How much good it does is debatable; the Soviets’ intelligence gathering apparatus didn’t prevent the collapse of the USSR, and it’s not obvious that we’re looking at what we know with any more understanding than they did.  Our Congress supinely renews legislation to extend their powers to do so.  In reality, they’ve breached the “safeguards” built into this kind of legislation before, they can collect pretty much what they want and bury it in the classification system.

It’s interesting that some of Manning’s statements about the bureaucracy and security apparatus could have just as easily come out of an alt-right person.  Our political spectrum is actually circular; if those on either side of the ring gap could cut a deal with each other, things would be very shaken up in our society.

My guess is that Manning’s campaign won’t get any further than Code Pink’s Cindy Sheehan’s did against Nancy Pelosi.  Since the days of George McGovern, the Democrat party has been the home of people like Manning until it isn’t, and it isn’t when job security and power are on the line.  That’s especially true in Maryland; like Northern Virginia, which has pushed that state purple, the DC suburbs’ bureaucracy dwellers will probably look at Manning as an existential threat.  But such areas, to paraphrase Portfirio Diaz, are so far from God, so close to Washington, and Manning will find out that the proximity to Washington will, for the moment, trump the distance from God.

The Oyster and the Flying Fish

There are many ways of expressing the idea that you should be content where you’re at, but my favourite is this one, from Kevin Ayers’ 1970 album Shooting at the Moon:

The lyrics are as follows:

An oyster was a’travelling
Along the ocean road
He’d been some time preparing
And now he’d left the fold

He was sick of being oysterized
And he wanted to explode, to explode
Ooh la, ooh la, ooh la, ooh la
La la la la la la la la

He saw a pretty flying fish
And said if I could have one wish
I’d change into a flying fish
And then I would be happy, yes I would
Ooh la, ooh la, ooh la, ooh la
La la la la la la la la

The flying fish came down to see
Just who had made this plea
And seeing the poor oyster
Said this cannot be
An oyster has to stay inside
And a flying fish must flee, all the time
Ooh la, ooh la, ooh la, ooh la
La la la la la la la la

As the oyster turned to go away
The flying fish was heard to say
“If I could find a place to stay
I know I would be happy, yes I would!”
Ooh la, ooh la, ooh la, ooh la
La la la la la la la la

Growing up in South Florida, I remember seeing flying fish paralleling our boat as we went to and from the Bahamas.

Drift, Like Real Estate, Is All About Location

It’s almost like the Illinois Family Association overlooked the most important detail in their lament over the course of at least one Evangelical Covenant Church:

There’s something rotten in the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). It’s rotting from the inside due to the presence of wolves in sheep’s clothing like Peter Hawkinson, pastor of Winnetka Covenant Church…Hawkinson has been drifting in the direction of heresy for several years, but kinda, sorta started “coming out” in baby steps—always wearing sheep’s clothing—over the past two years beginning with the church leadership presenting to the congregation “a motion inviting the church leadership to propose to the congregation a specific program of purposeful discernment for addressing the issue of LGBTQ inclusion.” I kid you not. That’s what a December letter to the congregation said.

The reason why Hawkinson is doing this is simple: his location demands it.

When my grandfather was done (in his mind at least) with his aviation career in Washington and was ready to really take command at the family business, he bought a house in Winnetka.  My grandparents lived there until they moved to Palm Beach; we lived in the same house until we moved the business to Chattanooga.

Today Winnetka is one of the most expensive places in the United States to live, or at least buy a house.  It’s another one of those places which I cannot return to.  My guess is that Hawkinson’s church is pretty high maintenance; without a congregation that’s at least holding steady and has a strong demographic to fill the offering plate, the “system maintenance” will get him and his church will close.  He thinks that, if can appeal to an elite whose main goals in life are to get laid, high or drunk, he’ll be OK.  He’s going to find out that such a move is a Faustian bargain, but, as my father used to say, too soon old and too late smart.

Personally I’d rather go to churches where there’s lots people from places Donald Trump doesn’t like.  And I’d rather spend my time helping people not to have to move to this place.  But that’s just me, I guess.

Catholic and Christian, the Sweet Combination

Evident in the obituary for a Texas A&M classmate (we both were engineering majors) of mine:

Thomas Craig Kohutek, 63, was called home to be with the Lord January 1, 2018…A faithful servant of the Lord, Tom was an active member of St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church as well as the Knights of Columbus.

I’ve written before about the revolutionising experience my years at Texas A&M and the effect it had on my life.  That experience was as a Roman Catholic; you can see a video montage of that here.

Somehow I think that directness of commitment has gotten lost between the obsessive churchianity of #straightouttairondale or the loosey-goosey veneer of faith in liberal Catholicism.  To see this and to know some of its roots is refreshing.

But what really tugged at the heartstrings was this, at the end of the obituary:

For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor 4:17)

That sums it up.  So what about you?

Sometimes Science Takes a Detour

And it’s not the detour we’re told happens, either.  Consider this example from J.E. Gordon’s Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down, during a discussion of Robert Hooke and the development of the theory of elasticity:

In fact, throughout the eighteenth century, remarkably little real progress was made in the study of elasticity.  The reasons for this lack of progress were no doubt complex, but in general it can be said that, while the scientists of the seventeenth century saw their science as interwoven with the progress of technology–a vision of the purpose of science which was then almost new in history–many of the scientists of the eighteenth century thought of themselves as philosophers working on a plane which was altogether superior to the sordid problems of manufacturing and commerce.

It’s worth noting that the eighteenth century is frequently characterised as  “the Age of Reason,” when Europeans (at least, along with their cousins on this side of the Atlantic) began to shed their “superstitions” and move into “the Enlightenment.”  It’s one thing to say that we’re “enlightened” or “guided by reason” but it’s quite another to actually take all of this reason and put it to the solution of present problems.

Today people insist on us “believing in science” or whatever scientific thing they want us to agree with.  The minute we put the question as a subject of belief, we’ve not only missed the whole point; we’ve undermined any claims of our thought processes being guided by reason as well.  And if we simply make our goodness a product of our belief, we may feel better about ourselves, but leave the problems at hand unsolved.

Ah, for the Days of Wine and Imperialism

The left is getting nostalgic:

The American empire is crumbling.

What President Trump is destroying is a product of the postwar years. In the years after the Second World War, America constructed what amounted to a globe-spanning empire, with the active assistance of Western Europe. The immediate justification was to build a military coalition capable of countering and containing the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc — and an important secondary objective was setting up a solid economic system to ensure prosperity, manage trade, and avoid depression.

That empire carried out a slew of atrocities and war crimes — a variety of coups, pointless and failed wars, and abuse of powerless poor countries. Elsewhere, America made a cynical peace with brutal dictatorships. Africa and the Middle East especially did not fare well.

 

Just an aside: it can be argued that the whole saga of Iran, from the Mossadeq coup to the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic and the backlash we’re seeing now is the result of ill-conceived imperialism on our part.

It used to be that it was hard to find anyone on the American left–I mean leftists, not these liberals who drifted along during the Cold War–who thought that the projection of American power could be beneficent by any standard.  But today, they lament its decline.  You just can’t make this stuff up!

Of course, there is a method to their madness: during the Obama years, they saw the possibility of the projection of their idea (especially getting laid, high and drunk) on the entire world.  Trump proposes a pullback, they see those dreams going up like smoke.

The blunt truth is, however, that with our large national debt, crumbling infrastructure, and (until recently) weak economy, the resources necessary for us to remain the world’s only superpower were slipping beyond our grasp.  It’s interesting that Trump of all people is facilitating a pullback.  But that’s something else I though I’d never see: the right cheering such a pullback on.

Now if someone could make the right feel better about the precipitous drop in living standards necessitated by the ill-considered solutions to carbon dioxide emissions, that would be something.  But that’s a rabbit out of the hat that will have to wait.

The Sheep Thief: An Episcopal Story

It’s another year and another opportunity to start it with a “monumental post.”  Unfortunately, as the Anglican Curmudgeon points out, there aren’t many good things to report these days.  Our political system has gone dangerously stupid, completely in thrall to those who judge the merits of any proposal on who proposed it.  The Anglican Communion has come to the realisation that its supposed primus inter pares, Justin Welby, has sold the pass (which I’ve been waiting to happen for a long time.)

With all that, for this post I’m going back to my days at Bethesda (a church very much in the news even now.)  During most of my time there, our rector was Hunsdon Cary, whose relatives got caught in Jon Bruno’s bullying in California.  My father preferred to characterise him as a vacuous Episcopal divine, but he did manage a couple of durable accomplishments during his time: the founding of the Church Mouse (which was really the work of others) and the Boar’s/Bore’s Head celebration, which is just about the highlight of the year at Bethesda.

Our ministers would like to think that their profound theological musings are the most memorable part of their sermons.  In the case of the Anglicans this is especially problematic, but in reality the things that stick are the illustrations, something that you who preach sermons need to keep in mind.  I’m almost positive it’s Dr. Cary’s and it’s remained with me until now.

In an old village they raised a lot of sheep, and they are subject to theft.  One young man tried to make a livelihood out of it, so he was a sheep thief.

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What a sheep thief might have seen in the “old country” while plying his trade, atop Hergest Ridge, 1976.

He eventually got caught, and since they didn’t have the budgets for putting people in prison like they have now, they branded his forehead with “ST”, or “Sheep Thief.”  In a small village that was punishment enough; you were literally “branded for life” and short of taking off for London or America there weren’t many options.

Well, this sheep thief evidently took the comforting words of the Prayer Book to heart and decided to “truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways.”  He spent the rest of his days doing good deeds for people in the village, and gained a good reputation doing so.  When he was very old, while walking about, one young person asked another, “What’s the ‘ST’ on his forehead mean?”

“I don’t know,” was the reply, “I think it means Saint.”

We like to think we live in a “tolerant” time, but the reality is that it’s pretty easy to get your reputation ruined (with the consequences of that following) with one act.  In the sheep thief’s case at least he knew his act was illegal when he did it; these days the rules can change and you can get in trouble for stuff that wasn’t illegal (or considered wrong) when you did it.  And with digital memories it’s hard to shake something.  Human memory may fade but the record doesn’t.

As we start the New Year, the lesson of this illustration–in many ways harder to do now than even when Dr. Cary used it–is that we need to quit flying off at the handle and relying on virtue signalling to show the world that we are “good people.”  One of the serious consequences of the de-Christianisation of society is that we no longer know that only God is good and the rest of us need a Saviour.  That puts our “goodness” on our own efforts, and given the erratic nature of the human condition that’s an impossible order to fill.

It’s probably too much to ask at this stage in history, but at this point we as Christians need to keep the possibility–really, the imperative–of redemption in front of us, even for those whom we dislike and who hate us.  (We don’t need to confuse real reconciliation with just going along to get along, always a temptation in this society.)  Life will be a lot sweeter for us–and for others–if we do.