Updated: Jan 13
Last year, I started with exploring Messianic references in Isaiah and then ended up focusing on this book's messages for the modern American church today...and for myself. Along the way, our family suffered some major crises, most notably in my 16-year-old daughter’s cancer diagnosis. I found that part of the underlying issues in the American church are also endemic in the world-wide church and even somewhat in my own beliefs.
Forcing myself to read through every chapter, every line of Isaiah, including the confusing parts...including the parts that commentaries seem to cop out on (To the Reformers, all the references to sinister forces seem to pertain to the Pope! To hard-core dispensationalists, Isaiah might be the perfect primer for the Left Behind book series!).
Isaiah was very, very real. Not the depressed, in-the-muck real of Jeremiah, Lamentations, or even Ecclesiastes. But, nonetheless, quite real. And yet triumphant at times. And full of repeated warnings. I wish it ended on a more triumphant note, just like I wish my life consistently sung on a triumphant note. But in grappling with Isaiah's words and my life events simultaneously, I realized that there are continued adjustments needed for myself and others to rightly align ourselves (like going to a good chiropractor) to Scripture rather than the subtle mis-alignment that comes from just breathing the social air around us.
One sucker punch that came at the end of 2021 for me, was realizing how the Prosperity Gospel doesn't just appear in the lives (or eyes) of Tammy Faye Bakker and others. It leaks into our responses to, and avoidance of, suffering. It leaks into what we say and don't say to people who are suffering. And it leaks into the energy spent on insisting, begging, even commanding that our government, economic systems, and culture adjust to our vision of reality.
Admittedly, I’ve never directly participated in a faith tradition where this was a significant theological strain, and I’ve never directly believed in its central tenets. Yet, I was catching tendrils of it throughout 2021. Many modern scholars have astutely connected the Prosperity Gospel with the core of what is happening in American politics, social, and economics systems...and what has been happening for quite some time. We've also outsourced it throughout the world, particularly in areas with rapid Christian growth.
On one hand, I’m deeply grateful for this multi-ethnic movement that has resulted in the Gospel being shared worldwide, and rapidly. And yet, to what extent is it even the Gospel? Is it at all recognizable in comparison to what Jesus lived and preached? Are we, as well as churches in other countries, following a faith either subtly or drastically different from what Christ and the apostles preached, even if we don’t buy in wholeheartedly to the full caricature of the Prosperity Gospel?
It’s also a little ironic for me to take on this topic, since some of my biggest personal pet peeves are at least partially solved by proponents of the Prosperity Gospel. For example, I’ve come to the conclusion that my beloved Protestant Reformation kicked off what has arguably been a problematic period in church history for women. How so, one might ask? Surely things were awful for women in the past, but drastic improvements have occurred partly due to the Protestant Reformation and its close timing with Enlightenment and subsequent direct impact on progress in terms of safety, healthcare, and social reformation. True, true, true. But in terms of women's roles in the church, it’s arguably been quite less than stellar. We replaced convents, with women engaging in scholarly, community, and leadership activities, with....nothing. In contrast to the celibacy of monasticism, mothering roles (and the church-role equivalent: service in childcare) became significantly elevated, and the role of the family ascended to near-deification in modern Christianity. One significant notable exception has to do with the Word of Faith/Prosperity Gospel movement, which from its onset has mobilized women as preachers, teachers, faith healers, missionaries, writers, guides....you name it.
Still. Myriad problems exist with the Prosperity Gospel.
I learned by direct experience that the philosophies present in the Prosperity Gospel can trickle down to even someone like me who is almost rabidly Reformed and Contemplative, with my biggest faves being the classic reformers, modern Anglican theologians, and Christian monastics and mystics. All are about as far from the Prosperity Gospel as it can get, theologically.
But, this philosophy may be in the very air we breathe in the United States. While I have critiqued the uncritical view that we are still a Christian nation and ever fully were, perhaps in some sad way it is actually true. The American Dream is basically a prosperity gospel without God, and it is still deeply embedded in our views of what our lives ought to be. What happens when what one wants, what one wills to happen...doesn’t happen? What if the opposite happens? What if one’s “best life” looks increasingly like farce? Can our faith and theology account for this?
For me, personally, I found that my faith could, and my trust in God was unwavering. However, I needed to ferret out the seed of misguided belief. I didn’t struggle with the, “Why God?” question, because I was familiar with a reasonably robust theology of suffering. But, I really had to grapple with the, “How then shall I live?” question, since my life experiences were crashing into mistaken beliefs about what my life should be like. Have we largely focused on how Christ’s atonement has satisfied all, so that our job is to take hold of it and live a life of service to Him and others, shining as lights in the darkness? If so, this is based on Biblical truth, but a certain triumphalism can leak into the application.
I’d argue that this is at least partly due to another pet peeve of mine regarding a false dichotomy between the apostle Paul and Jesus' words. More in that to come in future posts! Dr. Tim Keller, in the book Uncommon Ground, writes,
At some point, a major realization set in. Kathy and I began to see that the biblical, evangelical faith that had changed our lives was out of step, not merely with liberal society (which consisted of both secular people and mainline liberal church people) but with traditional, conservative culture as well. Long before most people spoke of blue states and red states, we began to see that the gospel was not the property of either camp...While one culture was seeing the decline of marriage and family, and a growing obsession with self-fulfillment and individual happiness, the other was filled with self-righteousness, bigotry, and abuse of power. If we had never moved to the South from the more liberal, pluralistic culture of the North, we could have fallen into the error of thinking that Christianity was just another form of conservative traditionalism. We would not have seen that the gospel leads us to critique, sharply but humbly, both societies.
That last sentence in particular is exactly what I hope to do. Back to where the Prosperity Gospel leaks into evangelical theology, we may want to ask ourselves what our measure of success is. Money? Conversion numbers? Happiness? A good family life? Some of us may successfully avoid the money trap inherent in the Prosperity Gospel movement, but fall hook, line, and sinker for similar traps and idols when it comes to our children, family, health, jobs, and happiness. And we draw lines in the sand everywhere between the “haves” and the “have nots” when it comes to blessings, spirituality, orthodoxy, and overall righteous living. We decide democratically, it seems. Majority view wins.
In this year with multiple I Love Lucy media expressions, “Lucy, we have some ‘splaining to do”!
We're going to start here and then see where these musings take us, hopefully tapping into the Spirit's guidance and the needs of our time. A model that comes to mind is Jesus' frequent Sermon on the Mount phrase, "You have heard it said..." As this pastor (https://www.currentargus.com/story/life/faith/2021/12/04/you-have-heard-said-jesus-message-understanding-scripture/8856983002/) writes,
Every time Jesus says these words, he is correcting the abuse of scripture and the theological heresy such abuse causes. Jesus understood that scripture is both powerful and vital to cultivating an authentic relationship with God. Yet he also vividly understood how frequently—not to mention dangerously—the sacred words of scripture are bent out of context and used to hurt, not heal. It is a problem that continues to hinder the Christian faith to this day...Far too many Christians wield the Bible as a weapon to beat people down rather than as a valuable tool to build people up. Far too many Christians presumptively believe they are voting biblically when in actuality are only bowing to the pagan gods of nationalism...When Jesus says, “You have heard it said,” he is referring to the fact that popular interpretation and applications of scripture have been misunderstood.
I believe this is where we are today, and I hope to, by showing context around pet Bible verses, research, and greater width of Christian perspective on various topics, work out what living out Scripture might look like in an age in which many of us suspect that what we've heard ("you've heard it said...") has somehow shifted from Christ's original intent. Along the way, some themes we encountered in Isaiah are likely to appear again, because Isaiah is truly applicable to today, as we learned in 2021!
Join with me on being challenged to reconsider how we're living our lives today, what we're letting have the strongest influences on us, and where we let our allegiances, identifies, and loyalties reside.
Our family, back when international travel was a little easier than it is today...