TV Prosperity Gospel Preachers Exposed
John Oliver a couple of weeks ago did an expose on wealthy TV televangelists and the IRS regulations about churches.
Some of us are old enough to remember that this is pretty much a stock news piece. Every few years someone will be “shocked”, and not without cause, by various religious huxters. Exposing hypocrites is public fun. We get to feel holier and more righteous than someone else. It’s especially fun when secular people can feel morally superior to religious people. It confirms our suspicions that religion is really just a bunch of superstition and that morality is a result of rational willpower.
This isn’t just a church problem of course. If you lived in India you’d be familiar with the wealthy (750 millions dollars) and powerful “God-man” Asaram Bapu who is currently on trial for raping a 16 year old girl. He’s not alone. This piece declares that India’s elite gurus have a “rape problem”. In the US multi-millionaire yoga gurus Bikram Choudhury and John Friend have fallen under similar charges.
In all fairness we should reflect on the fact that in most cases these are the wealthy and powerful people complaining about other wealthy and powerful people. John Oliver makes 2 million a year for not promising to heal anyone. The CEO of Comcast who owns NBC who did an expose on Benny Hinn in 2009 has a net worth of over a billion dollars. They might not promise susceptible and desperate people divine miracles for their healing, they make their money selling time to commercial entities that promise all of us heaven on earth by purchasing and using their products. While I think God will have a special judgment for those who make false promises in his name, growing wealthy off of common commercial false promises is pretty shallow moral high ground.
It is deeply ironic that multi-millionaires who stand on the platforms furnished by corporate welfare complain about the few religious bad apples who take advantage of tax breaks designed to support non-profits promoting the common good. Cable companies (Time Warner owns HBO which pays John Oliver) have long benefited from local government sweetheart deals that preserve their monopolies. Christians should call out charlatans like Robert Tilton but they are small fish compared to the commercial media industry in terms of turning profits off of the false hopes of desperate people benefiting from government favors.
Playing the God Card
Implicit even in the most secular complaint is the outrage of violating the sanctity of God and his reputation for personal gain. The Bible on this subject is mostly clear (Simon Magnus in the book of Acts of example) yet it is true that especially in the Old Testament wealth and good fortune are sometimes seen as evidence for God’s favor. Think about Abraham, Jacob, Job, David and Solomon. God is in a way the ultimate legitimizer and worldly success is easy to interpret as God’s stamp of approval. Case in point: celebrity pastors.
The book of Joshua is for some critical scholars one of the most controversial books in the Bible. Most regular believers who read and revere the Bible are completely unaware of this. Many scholars regard the book of Joshua as a legitimizing narrative for Israelite identity claims to the disputed land of Canaan.
While the Bible hosts a narrative of promise from God to Abraham through Moses and now to Joshua of an enslaved people coming into a land owned by the God of heaven and earth, the lack of extra-biblical evidence for such a migration and conquest has encouraged scholars to assume a different origin story of the Hebrew people apart from the one that common Bible readers are familiar with. These scholars then understand the book of Joshua as a legitimizing story written to afford the people of Israel a national identity and a claim of legitimacy on the land of Canaan, especially the land west of the Jordan River.
This claim meets an uneasy reception in the West as we have our own struggles with conscience over our own histories of conquest and cultural genocide against aboriginal peoples. Wealthy and educated Western moralists feel badly about what Americans did to Native peoples and reflect those feelings back onto the God of the Hebrews. We’d feel better about the Bible if Joshua were more of a preacher like Jesus than a conqueror armed with a claim that God had given the land to Israel and this God was free to give this land to whomever He pleased. This line of argument reads Joshua as kind of a tribalistic sports narrative where the genocidal mandates were mostly boasting by a relatively weak people telling stories to make a claim. It would be, perhaps, as if some minor North American tribe told their stories in a way that made their god give them claim over most of the United States and took their story to Washington DC to force the government to give back their land.
Whether you’re a TV preacher or a dispossessed people the God card is a powerful one, or at least it is imagined so. The problem with the God card is that just about anyone can play it. There are various strategies for playing the God card:
- Leverage trusted institutions
- Leverage trusted documents (the Bible, Quran, Book of Mormon, etc.)
- Leverage trusted cultural artifacts like dress, language, liturgy
- Claim to produce supernatural outcomes
The last point is the most powerful, and while televangelists use all these tricks the last point is both the most difficult and the most powerful. This is part of the reasons televangelists and large stage productions work best for these promoters. I’m not saying that people are never healed, but as long as the majority of the evidence is disconnected from a personal relationship vague hopes can be indulged and manipulated at least enough for some to cough up money and allegiance.
Legitimacy and Memory
If you read Joshua 3 and 4 the whole pageantry, the miracles, the sanctioned leader and the memorial stones are all designed to communicate to a people and a broader audience a specific message.
- The God of heaven and earth has decided to give Israel her own land
- Joshua replaces Moses as his instrument, bearing His authority
- God commands Joshua and Israel’s armies to take possession of the land away from the current residents
- God intends to demonstrate his power and authority publicly and broadly not just to Israel but to the inhabitants of the land
- A monument will be erected to memorialize the events and instruct future generations
Fearing the Book of Joshua
Joshua for some looks like a book version of a televangelist. Many readers will implicitly interpret the elements of Joshua in a personal way.
- If I obey then God will be on my side.
- Since God owns all the land he will give it to his favored people (me)
- God’s sanctioning justifies the violent seizure of other people’s property and their death or genocide
Just as we saw with Deuteronomy there is an implicit interpretive leap that we might make, identifying ourselves with Israel in that time and space. This leap in fact has been made on a number of occasions by Christians to justify genocide and seizure of property. Lest once again secularists feel too much joy over pointing out Christian moral failures we should note that genocide and land seizures are in fact the norm for human history and take place with or without multiple interpretive religious claims. This is not a Christian problem or a Bible problem it is in fact a human problem.
The New Joshua
If Christians take a step back from an instinctive, implicit interpretation they might note a couple of things.
Joshua and Jesus have the same name. Jesus is a Greek version of the Hebrew Joshua.
The story of Jesus doesn’t in any facile way merely undermine the story of Joshua it is intended to follow it to in fact develop it.
If we take the story of Joshua and God’s gift of Canaan to Israel as revelatory the tensions within the story in fact heighten, rather than simply justify violence.
The message of Joshua was not that a powerful people can take what they want with religious justification but rather that God, who owns heaven and earth was going to help this nation of former slaves to actually live in a land of rest.
The story of Joshua understood as Israel’s true history actually posed a problem for Jesus’ contemporaries. How could this powerful God who stopped the Jordan allow the perpetual subjugation of his chosen people even in their own land?
Many of Jesus contemporaries, including John the Baptist expected Yhwh to show up to violently drive out the Romans, the Greeks and the Jewish collaborators. This was in fact what many were hoping Jesus, Joshua’s name sake would do?
Jesus doesn’t nullify the rights of Yhwh to give the land to Israel, he nullifies the claims of Israel to stake her own rights to the land. Israel’s deliverance was always a function of the LORD’s grace, just like the book of Joshua says. Jesus changes the narrative to make the book of Joshua point in a much larger, longer, more critical story about human rights and ownership. Jesus in fact broadens the narrative to be able to make it not simply a story about God’s people verses enemies, but God in fact changing enemies into his people. Israel in Jesus’ day is so frustrated with Jesus precisely on this point. Jesus changes how we read Joshua.
Christians Reading Joshua
Christians I think should read the book of Joshua at face value, understanding it as the declaration of a sovereign God’s decision to create a space for a wounded people even at the expense of others. God has the right to pick and choose. The most important word in the book of Joshua is “inheritance”. The book of Joshua declares that God can give the earth to whomever he chooses.
Christians fail the book when they imagine that our obedience gives us claim to the earth. Is the message of the Bible claim that the obedient, or the moral or the circumspect inherit the earth?
Jesus, the new Joshua in many ways fulfills the message of the book when he declares “the meek shall inherit the earth.” Israel in the book of Joshua is in fact meek. They have no capacity to take the land apart from the LORD which is precisely what the miraculous crossing of the Jordan intends to signify and the memorial stones are set to remind them of.
Joshua and the Televangelists
The problem with Christian televangelists is not that they promise too much, they in fact promise too little. They stand in shoes of those who would read the book of Joshua as a script for tribal claims on the favor of the LORD. They invite the meek to receive but they don’t position themselves with the meek. They become the strong of the land who take and devour, not unlike the other strong of the land who criticize them.
I do believe that God does, at the sample rate of miracles, hear the meek who seek him even through huckster false prophets on TV. Why? Because in fact this is the kind of God he is and the kind of heart he has. This is in fact the message of the book of Joshua that the meek will inherit the earth.
When Jesus declares that the meek will inherit the earth he himself goes on to demonstrate it. He who was strong, did not prevent the petty strong of Rome and Jerusalem from torturing and killing him on false charges. He in fact goes to the cross and the tomb only to be raised again. The story of Israel receiving her inheritance is a pre-echo of the larger story of the meek inheriting the earth.