Monday, May 09, 2005

The Buzzkill of the Cross

My friend Dan recently began a topic thread on Beliefnet's Christian-to-Christian Debate forum about "The Dangers of the 'Prosperity Gospel'" . It's turned into quite a long and involved discussion between more mainstream Christians and adherents of what a former pastor of mine called gumball theology, where you insert X amount of faith or good works or devotion into God's cosmic gumball machine and -- ka-ching! -- health, wealth and other worldly goodies come tumbling out.

Having read through and indeed participated some in this debate, the thought crossed my mind that Lutherans and other Christians who reject the theology of glory and the gumball model of God's saving action have their work cut out for them countering this mindset in our narcissistic and entitlement-minded society.

The "kenosis hymn" of the Epistle to the Philippians praises a Christ who "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave...and became obedient, to the point of death -- even death on a cross." Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." Dan Erlander writes, "We live by trust and not by certitude...we live in ambiguity. Life is joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, good and evil, health and sickness. Having no proof that God cares, we take the 'leap of faith.'" Dorothee Soelle and Luise Schottroff, in their book Jesus of Nazareth, note, "Embracing the cross is a Christian gesture which chooses life. It means taking into account the difficulties, the lack of success, the fear of standing alone. This tradition has never promised us a garden of roses."

Compared to the happy talk of TBN preachers who promise their hearers money and stuff and success and miracles and blue skies -- what masochistic idiot would instead embrace the theology of the cross, which guarantees not a free ticket to Fat City, but rather a life that will be, in many ways, much harder than it would ever be otherwise?

But we do. We do. Sometimes we can't always articulate why we've said "yes" to this proposition...sometimes we don't even really know why, other than that we're unable to say "no."

I think the best way any of us who claim the Christ who calls us to take up our crosses and follow him can explain this holy madness of ours is to simply tell our stories as people of faith. Most of us are not going to have tales of miraculous healings or sudden material blessings or a divinely finessed life; maybe quite the opposite. But I think all of us can relate being, as C.S. Lewis put it, surprised by joy -- the joy of relationship and meaning beyond mere existence, even in the midst of sickness or failure or rejection or want.

A friend of mine says, "I don't need a theology for when I'm happy and the world is going my way. I need a theology that's there when I'm face down in a ditch, coughing up mud, unable to get up."

There's a hymn in the Lutheran Book of Worship that puts it this way: "The peace of God, it is no peace/but strife closed in the sod/yet let us pray for but one thing/the marv'lous peace of God." God help me, I think I almost know what this means.

Crucifixion at the Barton Creek Mall by James Janknegt Posted by Hello


Anonymous said...

Did Bonhoeffer really say that? Could you give the context or book title?

LutheranChik said...

It's from "The Cost of Discipleship." And the context is...counting the cost of discipleship.

bls said...

My brother and his wife were into that "prosperity gospel" thing. God promised "abundant life," they said, and they took this absolutely literally. It was one of the things about their religion that turned me off the most.

But you know, I think what you're talking about here - "a life that will be, in many ways, much harder than it would ever be otherwise" - might be actually an attraction at some point. Remember that in modern life, we have it fairly easy in most ways; there aren't any real "rites of passage" anymore or "stern tests of fortitude and personal character." But I think human beings are hard-wired for things like this at this point. Perhaps this hard life will at some point be appealing again, for these very reasons.

bls said...

(Thanks for the link to B'Net; I'll try to read that thread - but 333 posts! Oh, well.

I haven't been over there for months and months, actually.)

Anonymous said...

Bonhoeffer's context was unique. Clearly, he felt God was calling him to go back to Germany--and be killed. I doubt that he advised everyone to follow his own example. What I have read of his work says that only a suffering God, a Christ who suffers with us, can help. I believe that is true.

LutheranChik said...

Bls -- I've had to cut back my dosage of that forum quite a just makes me too crazy. And a lot of the content isn't worth reading -- some of the same dead-horse-beating topics that make me flatline after awhile. But if I detect that my friends are getting rhetorically clobbered and could use some affirmation, or if someone says something SO egregious that I can't keep my hands off the keyboard...well, then bring it on.;-)

LutheranChik said...

Anonymous: I think you're taking the text WAY too literally. He's not talking, necessarily, about physical death -- although of course for him and for many others throughout history that has been the ultimate "cost of discipleship." He's talking about a dying to self; and he talks quite a bit about this, both in The Cost of Discipleship and in his other works.

I'm thinking perhaps you're new to Bonhoeffer? There's a link over in the "Blogs In My Own Eye" column to a weblog called The Thinklings, whose participants do book discussions. They've just finished up a discussion on Bonhoeffer; you might want to scroll through that and read their insights.

Anyway...I'm sensing you're not real comfortable with all this kenosis/theology of the cross stuff. Can you explain to me what it is that's troubling you?

LutheranChik said...

Bls: BTW, I agree with you that the rigor of sanctification/discipleship is the "in," if you will, through which the Holy Spirit moves -- God's version of "Be All You Can Be." And...I think some people who have been involved in the prosperity gospel movement may finally crash and burn, as it were, when the "Where's my pony?" prayers don't get answered.

And I don't want to sound like an elitist here; I mean, despite pretensions to theological sophistication, I've prayed my share of "Where's my pony?" petitions: Usually starting out with the ol' soft-soap approach ("If it be Thy gracious will that I might possess such as this, then shalt I praise thee unceasingly..."), gradually cutting to the chase ("Dear God, I'd really like that pony,"), eventually degenerating into, "So where the hell is the pony?" and finally ending with a whimpering, "If I'm not supposed to have a pony, then why do I keep wanting a pony? You're in charge of everything -- FIX THIS!" Yes, this is the dark underbelly of LutheranChik's prayer life, some days. (And why I so appreciate fixed prayers like the Daily Office, that keep me from taking myself and my issues too seriously.;-))

*Christopher said...

Amen. What a great post. I just wrote a long essay that also addresses some of this, but you say it so well with a good strong Lutheran perspective.

BTW: On my blogroll is a great blog, In Today's News, by Joe, a Roman Catholic and progressive whom I respect very much as a conversation partner. He has posted on the strong possibility of reunion of the Lutheran Churches and Roman Catholicism under +++Benedict XVI. I pointed out my reservations. I would be interested to have a Lutheran post there, however, on how you see things from the inside.

LutheranChik said...

Christopher: Thanks! And I will have to check out that blog.

I'd have to agree with you, BTW, that a reunion with the RCC is highly unlikely anytime soon. I'd be happy if they'd just let Lutherans and Anglicans (officially) commune with them, but I don't even see that happening, in my lifetime at least.

Anonymous said...

Dear towonda, you're right, I haven't read much of Bonhoeffer. Dying to the self--yes, I agree with your point. And I agree with Spong: "To be in Christ is not to be religious, but to come alive--to discover the fullness of living, to turn on to life, to be made whole, affirmed. We share the power of Jesus when we are free to be the self we were created to be, as Jesus was free to be the self he was. Only in this way do we imitate him."

That's the only "prosperity gospel" I know.

greg said...

I love this post. I finally went back to church about 18 months ago after about a 30 year hiatus.

Well, it has been quite a ride. I get inklings of what you describe in your third paragraph, and it really isn't what I expected. Somehow I thought that embracing a particular religion (Lutheranism, as it happens) would involve a calm learning and acceptance of a particular path toward God. A strengthening of my sense of understanding the world. In fact it has been quite the opposite. Things that I thought I understood I find that I know nothing about. Questions that I thought were trivial have become unanswerable. Things that I thought were important now seem not so. It certainly feels like the death of something.

And yet.... I am "suprised by joy", and while it scares me to death, I just can't let go.

LutheranChik said...

Welcome to the process, Greg! ;-) I'm thinking of the part in C.S. Lewis' Narnia books where one of the children asks if Aslan the lion is "safe," and the reply is, "Aslan is good. But he's never safe."

I've just briefly mentioned it on this blog, but I took a Christianity hiatus as well...long enough for me to come back with something akin to "learner's mind," which I think has been a great blessing to me; sometimes I look back on my arrogant ueber-Christian youth and just shake my head at what a sanctimonious little twit I was.;-)

Anyhow...may the peace of Christ;-) be with you.

bls said...

Yes, that's well-put, Greg.

I had the same experience, in fact - I left the Church for 30 years also. And I think I'm having the same sort of experience you are curretnly, too: a sort of profound undoing of my previous ideas and even of my previous self. This has happened to me before - in recovery in A.A. we have to go through an "undoing" or else fail completely - but it's different this time, in some way.

You don't notice this much, though, until somebody brings it up - so thanks for that.

Andy said...

I would think that simple reality would be enough to refute the prosperity gospel. I can't imagine what keeps it going.

Do you think maybe it feeds on American self-absorption and isolationist individualism? I imagine a church full of people who are expending enormous effort in putting up a front while inwardly suffering under the burden of thinking that they are the only one it doesn't really work for. While all the time, everyone else in the church feels the same way.

Or maybe under a charismatic leader masses of people really can convince themselves that their life is rosy and the "occaisional" misfortune is just a minor glitch in the system or, worse, their own fault.

LutheranChik said...

Mel, I think maybe both elements -- the self-delusion and the lack of perspective -- are there. And they both hearken back to that perpetual human problem of curvatus in se. One thing the theology of the cross does is help us "get honest" not only about how the world works but about how we work inside.

Tom in Ontario said...

Those on a "prosperity gospel" kick ought to read Ecclesiastes or Job without the happy ending tacked on. They noticed that the old ideas of "reward for being good" and "punishment for being bad" don't always hold true.

LutheranChik said...

The thing is, Tom -- when you're in that mode, you really want to believe.

After I went on my Christianity vacation many years ago, I briefly explored the sorts of alternative spiritualities that tell you you can bend reality in the directions you wish if you have a clear enough intention and strong enough will. While my skeptical side thought, "This is such a bunch of b.s.," part of me really wanted to believe.

And especially for people feeling marginalized and alienated, "prosperity" thinking, Christian or otherwise, makes people feel as if they've got one up on The Man, or the patriarchy, or the godless heathen, or whomever they feel is keeping them down.

TransatlanticGirl said...

>>>I've prayed my share of "Where's my pony?" petitions: Usually starting out with the ol' soft-soap approach ("If it be Thy gracious will that I might possess such as this, then shalt I praise thee unceasingly..."), gradually cutting to the chase ("Dear God, I'd really like that pony,"), eventually degenerating into, "So where the hell is the pony?" and finally ending with a whimpering, "If I'm not supposed to have a pony, then why do I keep wanting a pony? You're in charge of everything -- FIX THIS!" >>>

LOL! Oh, man. This is such a perfect summary of the kind of prayer I've been doing all too often; it's uncanny.

It's only been within the past few days that I realized that I needed to reassess not just my approach to prayer, but my entire expectations of my relationship with God. Since then, things have been going much better between us.

LutheranChik said...

Stephanie: I'm still in negotiations with The CEO regarding at least one pony;-)...well, the conversation's been more like this (to paraphrase Marcus Borg, everything that follows is true, and some of it is actual dialogue):

ME: I'm not getting this pony, am I?

THE CEO: No. No, you're not.

ME: [sigh] I didn't think so. But -- damn -- I mean, darn -- I really wanted that pony.

THE CEO: I know you did, sis.

ME: So now I'm sad.

THE CEO: I know you are.

ME: But I'll get over it.

THE CEO: I know you will. And remember, sis -- ponies or no ponies now, you're inheriting the whole ranch with me.

ME: And I appreciate that...really, I do. But -- just for the record, now -- you're just saying, not this particular pony, not now? It's not like you're against my ever asking for a pony? Or against -- um -- this particular breed of pony?

THE CEO: Right.

ME: Just so I know.

THE CEO: Now you do.

ME: 'Cause a pony would be nice.


ME: Oh, all right.

THE CEO: Oy gevult.

This is how we talk, sometimes.