Nov 4, 2013

Good news for the poor

There's no type of Christianity quite as despised in America as that of the prosperity gospel. That message of health and wealth and divine promises evokes a loathing that few other really popular religious messages do.

Many see it as a placebo, tricking the masses into not demanding real solutions to their problems, either political solutions or personal ones. The prosperity gospel message that faith activates victory is seen as a substitute for real work and responsibility. For actual change.

Some don't like the prosperity gospel because of what it does to the orthodox Christian message. Jesus, in this telling, doesn't save you from your sins like your Baptist grandmother might have said, but rather died so you could have a Rolex and a Rolls. The eternal streets of gold have been substituted with more temporal versions of the same thing.

Some don't like it, too, just because it seems gauche. It's embarrassing, above all. Improper. Impolite.

All that may well be true. And yet many many Americans are turning and have turned to one or another form of the prosperity gospel, and it's worth noting the very basic religious reason for that: hope. Good news. The message these believers wake up with every day is that something could be different, something will be better soon. The world -- their world -- is being transformed. Despite what they see, despite what they have seen, they know hope.

Critiques of this message do not often offer alternative ways to hope.

Looking at social inequality and the stubborn reality of poverty in America, CNN's John D. Sutter wrote of this good news in the life of the poor last week. Profiling one woman in Lake Providence, La., where income inequality is greatest in America, he accompanied Delores Gilmore to church.

This is what he saw:
Gilmore's Ford Taurus, filled with seven people, pulled up to the church about 30 minutes after the two-hour service started. There are a few dozen churches in the parish. That's no coincidence, especially south of the lake. Folks turn to God when the world around them becomes too much to bear. For Gilmore, it's a place of solace.
The family piled into pews in the back and watched as the Rev. Michael Owens, the storeowner who rarely sees customers, delivered a sermon about the economy.

It was far more than a sermon, really. Owens pressed his mouth up against a microphone and ran all over the front of the sanctuary as he half-yelled, half-sang a series of parables and proverbs about getting by in the modern world.

'I wonder if I have a WITNESS in here!?'

'Yes pastor!' said Gilmore. 
They went back and forth like that seven times.

'We got people that are desperate for jobs,' Owens shouted, eventually becoming so worked up that he wiped his head with a towel. Sweat seeped through his pink tuxedo vest.

'The Lord said, "I will supply all of your needs according to my riches and gold." He did NOT SAY he would supply your wants for ya.'

'All right pastor!' Gilmore said.

'If this town's gonna ever progress, we're going to have to come together!'

The more time passed, the more worked up Owens became. He walked out in front of the podium and stood on one foot, shaking violently. One of the amplifiers in the small, wooden church was misfiring, and the speaker system occasionally let out deafening squeals.

'I said, "He'll do it!"' the reverend said.

'Yes, he will!' Gilmore said.

'He'll comfort ya!'
Sutter highlights the church's social function as a place offering "solace," a comforting imaginary in which this woman and those like her can locate themselves. There's reason to suspect, though, that the stronger religious impulse among those struggling in "the most unequal place in America" is not comfort per se, not faith-as-salve, but faith-as-optimism.

They find, in such churches when "the world around them is too much to bear," a belief in the possibly imminent transformation of one's life circumstances.

Even in the snippets of the sermon quoted in the CNN piece, the message is divine comfort, but more specifically comfort in the sense that God is "The Provider." God promises to give the faithful what they need. Not whatever they want (the Lake Providence pastor's version of prosperity is decidedly moderate) but what they need. For people who, as Sutter ably documents, don't have what they need, can't get what they need, and sometimes even struggle to imagine not having daily, desperate needs, this is a powerful message.

It's a message of good news.

It's a message of good news for those who don't find any coming from anywhere else.

This Louisiana woman dreams a very earthly and yet Christian dream of a big house with many rooms: An upstairs and a downstairs, she says. Four rooms on each floor. The CNN reporter may not recognize the religious reference in this dream, but the dream of a mansion with many rooms is an old Christian one. It's the hope offered by Jesus in the Gospel of John and repeated in church songs for generations. It may be the case, for Gilmore, that the mansion with many rooms isn't a metaphor for heaven, but something more material. It may be the case, too, that her image of that place is taken from the media, news or entertainment or advertising. Yet, regardless, the hope that nourishes the aspiration, that makes it seem possible, is itself nourished by this good news: that prosperity is made manifest through faith.

"Her real living room floor," Sutter writes, "is made of splintered plywood. But the floors in the dream home were smooth as a skating rink. In the dream, Gilmore ran through the halls and slid across the floor in her socks."

This very despised form of Christianity says you should be able to slide on slick floors in your socks. It says you will slide on your slick floors in socks. It's what God wants for you.

This is a powerful thing to imagine. In Blessed, Kate Bowler writes that the history of the prosperity gospel is the history of "a transformation of the religious imagination" that started in the late 19th century and "has not yet ended."

She writes,
Believers of all stripes started to claim supernatural promises for joy, healing, sanctification, provision, self-worth, business sense, family unity, heavenly tongues, and Holy Spirit fire come down ... the prosperity gospel guaranteed a special form of Christian power to reach into God's treasure trove and pull out a miracle. It represented the triumph of American optimism over the realities of a fickle economy, entrenched racism, pervasive poverty, and theological pessimism that foretold the future as dangling by a thread. Countless listeners reimagined their ability as good Christians -- and good Americans -- to leapfrog over any obstacles.
That re-imagination is likely to be especially powerful in the places where so few options seem real. Of course, that's also where Jesus' message first took hold -- among the poor. The good news seemed like good news to them. This good news of faith-produced prosperity, unlike lots of other versions of the gospel, is experienced as good news by those struggling to make ends meet in America.

Political and theological explanations for why one's life won't get better aren't likely to counter the religious imaginations of possible, potential blessings.

The critiques of that message are often well developed and thought-out and thorough. But what good are they when you can't pay the electric bill? What good are they when you make $8.50 an hour and the roof starts to leak? What good are they when you have to find it in yourself to keep going, to get up out of bed, to do another day?

Perhaps the issue isn't really whether or not the news that sounds so good on the south side of Lake Providence is true or false.

Perhaps the better question is, what's the other choice to hope?