Tough love and faith – Lent, Sacrifice, and the Prosperity Gospel

I am not Orthodox (I would, however contend that I am ‘o’throdox), but this is a great opinion piece relating Lent and the Prosperity Gospel. Think about it – during this time when so many undergo ritual sacrifice of some sort, supposed men and women of God are begging for money and promising great wealth in return. I do not think of Andrew of Crete from the 8th century, but of Ignatius and Polycarp, Paul and Peter, and Christ Himself, who asked nothing of themselves, but begged to do the will of God. Christ never promised riches, but required us to sacrifice our lives, so that those who die with Him, will live with Him.

In the first week of Lent, we Orthodox Christians traditionally pray the eighth-century canon of St. Andrew of Crete, which, to contemporary American Christian ears, might as well have been written on another planet. The long prayer is  an epic journey into awareness of sin and intense longing for repentance and mercy. It will, rest assured, harsh your mellow.

Well, good: Our collective mellow needs some harshing. The strong words of the long-ago saint have the effect of hacking away the sentimental accretions American Christianity has slathered like butter cream icing on the Gospel. How much better off we would all be in this time of economic trial if we had less Joel Osteen and more Andrew of Crete.

Nothing personal against Osteen, the pastor of massive Lakewood Church in Houston, who seems like a nice guy — but that’s kind of the problem. We middle-class Americans are so accustomed to a therapeutic approach to religion that we’ve lost touch with the reality of sin and the need for a strong ethical guide to life. We need commandments, not suggestions.

A few years back, I showed up at Ash Wednesday services at a Catholic parish where I then worshiped, still reeling from having caught an advance screening of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ two days earlier. The film had torn my conscience to pieces, shattering my spiritual complacency, forcing me to understand the seriousness of sin — my sin — and what Jesus suffered to deliver us from it.

A middle-class message

And then, in his homily, the comfortable middle-class priest in our comfortable middle-class parish instructed the congregation that the Lenten season is all about — no kidding — learning to love ourselves more.

If Andrew of Crete could see us today, would he conclude that the problem with Americans is they don’t love themselves enough? To the contrary, our problems consist chiefly in that we love ourselves and our pleasures entirely too much.

I don’t mean to single out this Catholic priest. I sense that this kind of thing is general in American religion today. It is what the late Philip Rieff, a non-believer, called “the triumph of the therapeutic” in his famous 1966 book of the same name. Rieff said our civilization has done away with its “thou shalt nots,” which were intended to tell us how to be good, and instead substituted a psychological pseudo-religion meant to help us feel better about the way we live.

It’s unsurprising, perhaps, that a narcissistic middle-class culture that has produced schools where the children have to all be above average would embrace a religion whose purpose seems to be to reassure its practitioners that they’re all A-plus students, rather than to lead them to the hard work of repentance and authentic renewal.

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, of course, but when educated middle-class people do so, they typically have the resources to ameliorate the damage that can result. Not so the poor, whose attraction to more fundamentalist forms of religion tends to mystify and even appall the middle classes.

Take Maria, a Mexican immigrant who used to clean my house. Born a Catholic in a poor village, she became a Pentecostal. With her broken English, she told me that the Catholic priest in her village just said Mass, but didn’t help the people know how to live. The Pentecostals weren’t like that, she said. They changed people’s lives.

Now, I’m the sort of person who would normally have at this point launched a theological defense of Catholicism. But I listened to Maria tell her story, and I came to understand that the Pentecostals who preached to her in Mexico, and who ministered to her here in Dallas, mixed in with their exuberant worship a stout message of moral rigor. For this, she was grateful.

It’s not hard to see why. Maria the maid is raising two teenage daughters in Dallas virtually alone, given that her husband’s job keeps him on the road. Statistics show that Hispanic teenagers are more likely to get pregnant than not. Maria needs the pastor at her storefront Pentecostal church to talk openly and clearly about sexual purity. And she needs the support of the church community to reinforce those values — as well as preaching and practicing overall self-discipline.

The ranks of the poor

The point here is not theological, but sociological. Even so, it should be clear now that the U.S. economy has been wrecked by indebtedness — in particular, debt accrued by middle-class folks living far beyond their means. Indeed, the poor aren’t the only ones who need to hear — and to hear loudly, clearly and repeatedly — hard truths about repentance from their religious leaders.

But there’s another class twist on this as well. I know plenty of Christians — Orthodox, Catholic and Reformed — who left the church in which they were raised to join a church that was more serious, either morally, liturgically or both. I’m one of them. One thing we all have in common: We’re middle-class intellectual types.

Not long ago, I had a conversation with a wise Orthodox priest. I told him that it was great to see so many converts coming into the church, in search of deep tradition. Yes, he said a bit sorrowfully, but they’re all middle class. What he meant was that something was wrong when very few of our converts come from the ranks of the poor.

It’s not that ours is a wealthy church or a morally permissive one — far from it in both cases — but that its highly stylized way of worship is something alien in this culture. To me, that is one of Orthodoxy’s great strengths, in that it calls the worshiper out of himself. My Latin Mass Catholic friends see their liturgy in the same way. And my Lutheran and Reformed friends love the intellectual heft of their own services.

But I wondered when I worshiped in my middle-class Catholic parishes, as I wonder in my mostly middle-class Orthodox parish today: What do we have to offer the rough, uneducated, poor man who might walk in our door one Sunday, in need of spiritual sustenance? Would he find both repentance and mercy preached, and preached in a way he finds inwardly compelling? Or would he more likely encounter bourgeois self-help nostrums, with or without smells and bells? Would he leave wanting to change his life, or would he depart in boredom or self-satisfaction?

If the latter, then that’s not the kind of cheap-grace therapeutic religion the poor can afford. Many of them know that, which is why they seek out the fundamentalist and charismatic churches, which aren’t afraid to stand on the old-time religion. In downtown Dallas last Friday, I passed an old black man, modestly dressed and holding up a well-worn Bible like a torch. “Obama can’t save you!” he said, nearly shouting. “Only my Jesus can save you! This book is the only change you can believe in!”

You’d never catch bourgeois me doing something like that. I bet Andrew of Crete would have, though. Poor me.

Rod Dreher, a Dallas Morning News columnist, writes the Crunchy Con blog on

Joel L. Watts
Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

4 thoughts on “Tough love and faith – Lent, Sacrifice, and the Prosperity Gospel

  1. If only American Christians could find the love for God that causes them to love themselves less and love God and others more through sacrifice for Him. We would all be better off.

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