In her new book, Will Jesus Buy Me A Double-Wide? ('Cause I Need More Room For My Plasma TV), veteran journalist Karen Spears Zacharias takes on prosperity gospel hucksters. What began as a humorous look at a troubling phenomenon took a serious turn when the U.S. economy tanked in 2008, and another when Zacharias lost her job. Prosperity preaching wasn't just something to report on; it was a personal attack on her faith.
I know what that's like. After Janet Jackson scandalized U.S. audiences by exposing her breast at the 2004 Superbowl, I wrote an essay on the indecency of Christian television. In it, I critiqued a married televangelist couple's shows. A producer from one of those shows invited me to be a guest for what she thought would be a "lively discussion." I politely declined. The host e-mailed me directly. She took me to task, saying my article was misleading and that I was pompous. Never mind that she had claimed gold was literally raining down in her studio in one of the episodes I examined. She wrote, "The bottom line is that you have a small theological box that you live in and it wouldn't matter what I said because until you open your mind and heart to the supernatural things of God, you will be quite content writing your cynical judgmental articles and watching your public television station," which her network was suing to purchase against its wishes.
In her trumped up thinking, the fourth estate is spiritually bankrupt. I don't see that any more than I saw the gold on my TV screen. Instead, I see prosperity theology as truncated, deceptive and dangerous, as do many Christians and as does Zacharias. In the introduction to her collection of stories about how people view the relationship between God and money, she writes, "It's a terrible theology for the poor and downtrodden. When hard times hit, it must mean that God is put out with us. We've been unfaithful or otherwise not measured up." Her scope is broader than any particular denomination, however. "We Americans," she writes, "want to believe that God loves us best of all and that all of our nation's riches are the result of our faithfulness to God. ... Entitlement theology may very well be the bastard-child born from the mating of Calvinism's strong work ethic with Capitalism's get-all-the-goods-you-can mentality." Ouch!
Zacharias is a braver woman than I am. She did a 700 Club interview about her book with Pat Robertson's son Gordon. As the interview unfolded, Robertson said, "In reading your book, I notice that you don't particularly like TV preachers and I was trying hard not to take it personal, but you're really starting to skewer some of my friends in here." To which Zacharias retorted, "Some of your friends in there deserve to be skewered." A friendly debate about Joel Osteen ensued and Zacharias concluded, "When you go before the masses and tell them that their 'best life now' is tied up into the things that they own, the size of their garage or anything materially oriented, I think you're missing it." In the book, she says, "If there's a secret to living your best life now, it's this: Stop imagining all the ways in which the universe can serve you and start figuring out how you can serve others."
I talked to Zacharias as she was preparing to travel from her home in Oregon to Washington D.C. for board meetings of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Fund and the Vietnam Women's Memorial Foundation. She serves both organizations for good reason: her father was killed in Vietnam when she was just a girl. (She tells that story in her memoir, After the Flag Has Been Folded: A Daughter Remembers the Father She Lost to War -- and the Mother Who Held Her Family Together.)
She said, "The thing I'm trying to address here is not just about money. It's about saying to the 14-year-old girl whose father died in Vietnam that I didn't measure up, that I wasn't enough or that my mother wasn't. [There is in prosperity theology] no taking into account that the Vietnam War had more to do with capitalism than it had to do with Christianity."
She continued, "The problem with the whole formula of God's faithfulness plus my obedience equals untold riches is that it's a great formula as long as life's going your way. ...The moment it all comes crashing down, you don't have a faith because that God doesn't exist anymore."
One of the many compelling stories Zacharias tells in Will Jesus Buy Me A Double-Wide? is about a friend of hers who she calls "the Redhead." After the Redhead was diagnosed with cancer, her husband lost his job. She cleaned houses so they could afford to attend their child's wedding in Australia. Zacharias grew up in a single-wide trailer and yet couldn't imagine herself cleaning other people's toilets, much less envision her elegant friend doing it. The Redhead told her that she prayed for her clients as she did her work. "It's a kingdom choice to live with a grateful heart in the midst of all this," she said. Zacharias reflects, "That's not the power of positive thinking; it's saying, 'No matter what, I trust You.' ...That seems to me to be what faith is about."
I've always thought that if I could have faith in light of other people's suffering, then I best not second guess it in the face of my own. Zacharias and I have this in common. The television host and I, not so much; she closed her e-mail by saying she was content to let God judge between us and hold us accountable for our sins. I'm pretty sure that was a prayer for God to rain judgment down on me.