Monday, November 30, 2009

The Prosperity Gospel

This passage (from Sullivan's blog) struck me:
It's staggering really that modern American Christianism supports wealth while Jesus demanded total poverty, fetishizes family while Jesus left his and urged his followers to abandon wives, husbands and children, champions politics while Jesus said his kingdom was emphatically not of this world, defends religious war where Jesus sought always peace, and backs torture, which is what the Romans did to Jesus.
It occurs to me that the Prosperity Gospel, as it has been called, is not something that occurs organically from Christianity. It is a perversion, even a negation, of the actual message of the religion, but it cannot be completely understood apart from a broader social context. The Prosperity Gospel isn't a cause, it's an effect, and it's an effect of the broader notion that there's some sort of relationship between wealth and goodness, which necessarily posits that the poor are morally unfit. Some liberal bloggers might insist that this is a cornerstone of conservatism, which isn't necessarily true in a philosophical sense, though this sort of Randism is awfully convenient to a lot of conservatives' priorities.

Jesus himself, of course, insisted that one cannot serve both God and money. Ever since, people have been trying to figure out ways to do both. Such is the nature of man. My view of this has long been that humans possess both material and spiritual dimensions to their existence, and this is why money can both buy happiness and it cannot. Adding more material possessions can fulfill the material dimension of existence but never the spiritual. And despite the religiosity of most Americans, my experience has been that relatively few are drawn to the faith for spiritual reasons. What appeal the thing possesses is similar to the appeal of something like Americans' simplified reading of concepts like Karma: that, eventually, following the discipline will make them tangibly better off. For quite a few people, Christianity is less a lifestyle than a smart business decision. PG speaks to this.

In the end, the increasing popularity of PG merely proves the fundamental lack of spirituality among many Americans. Spirituality is not directly related to religion--I've met many examples of people in which those characteristics were disjoint--but the latter is meant to help guide the former. Materialists will no doubt reject the entire division I've described, but I think there's a clear argument to be made here. A human race made of pure materialists wouldn't have bothered to try to understand the world better through art. All literature would just be self-help tracts. And there would never have been any religion at all were it not for some sort of spiritual longing. If human happiness were merely a factor of material wealth, there would be no sad rich people. There clearly are a number of them. That doesn't imply that poor people are going to be happier, as they do indeed lack on the material dimension of human existence.

In the end, though, I am pretty sure that the PG trend will really last. Admittedly, it has nothing to say to the billions of people around the world living in poverty, many of whom are Christians and haven't any wealth to show for it. There are plenty of rich assholes out there, and plenty of great poor people as well, and plenty of the reverse in both groups. The worldview underlying PG is not particularly rigorous, but it doesn't need to be. It is not an attempt to explain the world, as it fails miserably at that. It exists largely to make lots of people feel better about themselves and their present lifestyle. And that is a need that will exist for some time to come.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.