I don’t get “prosperity Christianity” or, as it is known in non-denominational circles, “abundance spirituality.” At all.
An early purveyor of this outgrowth of the Protestant Work Ethic, Norman Vincent Peale made a bundle from his book, The Power of Positive Thinking, in which he promoted the Gospel of Prosperity. Apparently, Peale didn’t think too positively about Catholics and opposed the candidacy of John F. Kennedy, fearing that the election of Catholic president would destroy American culture. His career received a pretty damaging blow as a result of his anti-Catholic bigotry and initiated an ironic chapter of his life that might be called “The Power of Negative Thinking.”
He is hardly alone in preaching prosperity. Throughout the last five decades, Unity minister Catherine Ponder has turned prosperity Christianity into superabundant cottage industry, cranking out titles like The Millionaires of Genesis, The Millionaire from Nazareth, and Pray and Grow Rich on a regular basis, turning her leaden prose into the kind of gold anyone could bank on.
More recently, televangelist Joel Osteen has been the most prominent exponent of pious prosperity, persuading viewers into his ministry of fiscal hope through his chipper demeanor, optimistic attitude, and non-threatening humor. Osteen’s estimated worth is at about $40 million, which is not too shabby for a guy who never finished college. It’s easy to like the boyish Osteen, just as it’s easy to like the idea of prosperity. But I don’t see what either of them has to do with Christianity.
An honest reading of the New Testament doesn’t disclose anything like “prosperity,” if by this word we mean material well-being. Jesus, for one, does not seem to have been flush with cash at any moment during his earthly life, and the Virgin Mary does not appear to have employed a housekeeper. The apostles, for another, left prosperity (and their professions) behind when they started following the rabbi with the pretty extraordinary message about the Kingdom of God.
Saint Paul reaped plenty of rewards for following Jesus. First he was blinded. Then he was beaten and imprisoned. Then he was shipwrecked. Then he was imprisoned again. Then he was shipwrecked two more times. Then he was imprisoned again. Then he was beheaded. In 2 Corinthians 12—for the only time—he acknowledges his complaints to God about the “thorn in the flesh” that he thought compromised his happiness (whether the affliction was physical, psychological, or material, he does not say). He also shares the answer he received: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” No one told Paul that he should pray and grow rich, and he told no one to embrace the power of positive thinking so they could turn theirs into lives of abundance.
It is no surprise, I think, that prosperity Christianity arises out of Protestant religious contexts. As many scholars have argued, the secularization of Western culture has been an unintended consequence of the Protestant Reformation which emphasized the individual’s relationship to God and the free interpretation of scripture over the community’s participation in Christian life and ecclesial authority. Prosperity Christianity, on the other hand, seems to have been an intended consequence of the Reformation and the emphasis on the PWE, at least on the part of certain individuals. Many Protestants, of course, would argue that this is an aberration of Reformed religion. It is.
Though many Catholics and Orthodox have no doubt been influenced by the presence of prosperity Christianity—especially through the agency of American popular culture—I cannot think of any Catholic or Orthodox writers or clerics peddling a spirituality of abundance. Why, exactly, I cannot say. I do know that my more than sixteen years of Catholic education emphasized a spirituality of poverty, of sacrifice, and of placing others first. The Christianity I grew up in, that is, was not one of prosperity, but of the Cross.
In one of her spiritual dialogues with Christ, St. Teresa of Avila complained that she was suffering too much for his demands: that the work was too hard, that her efforts seemed ineffective and under-appreciated, and she was tired of so much mistreatment. “That is how I always treat my friends,” he answered. To which she wryly replied, “That must be why you have so few friends.”
As recent polls have indicated, Jesus can count on fewer friends on his Facebook account. His market is dwindling. The only abundance he promises is one of life. And life, too, for our culture, has lost its value.
Spero columnist Michael Martin is a professor of English literature at Marygrove College.