Newsweek had an interesting cover story from Andrew Sullivan this week about the way politicians and pastors have misused the New Testament to justify claims Jesus would never have supported. I don’t usually get into religious matters on my blog except when it comes down to clear claims about what ancient texts do or don’t say. I previously wrote, for example, about the First Amendment and the Ten Commandments. But the Newsweek piece’s sidebar had a particularly fatuous claim from Joel Osteen, the “smiling pastor,” who believes in the so-called Gospel of Wealth that bothered me immensely.
This seems to be a textual claim about what the Bible does or does not say. I’m sure Osteen has a good reason for what he says (though he couldn’t articulate it to Katie Couric a decade ago when she asked him where the Bible says God makes people rich), but doesn’t this contradict the very words of the Christ Osteen claims to serve?
Osteen’s theology brings to mind the apocryphal story of the rich man who wished to prove he’d get into heaven by having a camel ground down and woven into a string to prove it could pass through a needle’s eye. Christian apologists have argued that the “Eye of the Needle” was actually a city gate in Jerusalem, thus meaning that the rich can easily pass into heaven; this seems prima facie false since no such gate exists or ever has. It’s a medieval fabrication invented to justify sending the rich to heaven. Besides, Jesus had just finished saying to a rich man “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:21). This is hardly a resounding call to hoard wealth.
This “Gospel of Wealth” goes back to Calvinism and the belief that God predestines some people to heaven and some to hell and that these can be distinguished by their bank accounts, for God pre-punishes the hell-bound with poverty while rewarding the heaven-bound with a taste of heaven on earth in the form of money. Because, you know, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). No, wait, that can’t be right… Anyway, wealthy evangelical pastors are sure that the richest among us are heaven-bound, while Catholic priests, with that whole vow of poverty thing, tend to think the poor are going there first, even if their bishops live in mansions and the pope in a gilded palace. Because the God who wanted His house to be a tent (e.g., Exodus 33:7) is all about palaces.
The long and short of it is that the “Gospel of Wealth,” the idea that God wants us to be rich, is a modern fantasy with no basis in ancient texts, and no support from archaeology or history for the fact claims (like the Eye of the Needle Gate) that supposedly support it.
In this, it is no different from the ancient astronaut theory or alternative archaeology except that the pastors promoting this alternative theory take a lot more money from believers. Ancient astronaut theorists get by on speaking fees and book and TV royalties. Gospel of Wealth pastors have all that plus 800-numbers for direct donations and the imagined sanction of God himself. At least ancient astronaut theorists don't claim the aliens need money--yet.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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