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What does Word of Faith say about American culture today?

“I say again that the opportunity to get rich, to attain unto great wealth, is here in Philadelphia now, within the reach of almost every man and woman who hears me speak to-night, and I mean just what I say.” (Conwell, 1890)

This quotation taken from Rusell Conwell’s Acres of Diamonds, perfectly encapsulates the essence of the movement called Word of Faith. This movement, also known as the prosperity gospel, is a Christian movement that teaches how God wants us to be wealthy, healthy, and “equate[s] Christian faith with material … particularly financial success” (Burton, 2017). In the same article, Burton, who holds a theology doctorate from the University of Oxford, argues that “it’s possible to trace the origins of the American prosperity gospel to the tradition of New Thought”, a nineteenth-century movement, according to which “if you could correctly channel your mental energy, you could harness its material results”. Taking into account the emphasis that prosperity gospel puts on the power of speech, one can observe the correlation between the two doctrines.

One of the prominent leaders of this movement, Joel Osteen, in one of his sermons claims that “When you’re poor, broke and defeated … it doesn’t bring any honor to God”. He argues that Christian teachings on humility do not “bring a smile on God’s face” and that instead, God wants us to prosper financially. Osteen teaches that our prayers and positive mindset can make us wealthy, but what happens when despite our prayers, we end up poor? Does that mean that God has forgotten us, or that we haven’t prayed enough? In his text Orthodox Privilege, Graham explains that “privilege makes you blind — that you can’t see things that are visible to someone whose life is very different from yours” (2020). Being a multimillionaire himself, Osteen makes such statements nonchalantly, the ones that only sound good but do not rely on the biblical truth. Or, as John Piper, a renowned theologian, put it: “the prosperity gospel will not make anybody praise Jesus. It will make people praise prosperity”.

Although the prosperity gospel faces unfavorable criticism, it gained popularity among many. Kate Bowler, an associate professor at Duke Divinity School and the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, claims that: “Joel Osteen is not the flashy money-grubber that people imagine when they think of a prosperity preacher”. As she put it, his charismatic persona makes people believe that he is a fraud, but on the contrary, he is an inspiring and encouraging preacher. (as cited in Turner, 2017)

Having acknowledged that there are different views on the Word of Faith movement and its leaders, let us see what that says about American culture today. It is clear that the “increasing love of well-being” (Tocqueville) is becoming ever more dominant, but why is that? One explanation may be that in this unreliable and uncertain world, we turn to money as it provides the sense of being in control. But what we do not realize is that by succumbing to the short-term pleasures money promises, we fuel its power, and actually lose all of the control we think we have. In a world where money controls everything, we are creating our own version of god. One who is a genie in a bottle, who will suit our needs and fulfill our wishes. But remember, a genie can only fulfill three wishes.

References:
1. Conwell, R. H. (1890). Acres of Diamonds. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/368/368-h/368-h.htm
2. Burton, T. I. (2017). The prosperity gospel, explained: Why Joel Osteen believes that prayer can make you rich. Vox. https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/9/1/15951874/prosperity-gospel-explained-why-joel-osteen-believes-prayer-can-make-you-rich-trump
3. Graham, P. (2020). Orthodox Privilege. http://paulgraham.com/orth.html
4. Turner, L. (2017). The Joel Osteen Fiasco Says A Lot About American Christianity. BuzzFeed News. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/lauraturner/people-were-waiting-for-a-reason-to-hate-joel-osteen#.pbMdj5nE6
5. Tocqueville, A. T. (1835). Democracy in America. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/815/815-h/815-h.htm#link2HCH0003

Declaration of academic integrity
I hereby confirm that this work is solely the result of my own independent scholarly work and that if any ideas, text passages, or diagrams from books, papers, the Web, or other sources have been copied, paraphrased, or in any other way used, all references – including those found in electronic media – have been clearly acknowledged and fully cited.

M.J.

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