Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Same as it ever was

A man walked along contemplating suicide, at the very moment a slate fell and killed him, and he died with the words: God be praised.

Joel Osteen has a book deal.

Given the success of "Your Best Life," Mr. Osteen last year gave up his $200,000 salary from his church. His teachings emphasize that consistent tithing — the giving of 10 percent of a person's income to the church — brings even greater rewards, both spiritual and otherwise.
I actually wrote a paper on this topic, in seminary.

I noted that people were much more willing to give money in exchange for some benefit, however token. In the small town (pop. 150) where I was living at the time, people would hand "sell" paper roses and small candies as a means of raising money for charitable efforts. It seemed more effective to make an exchange than to merely ask for money in exchange for knowing you had done some good with it for someone else, rather than made a purchase for yourself.

On this principle, Mr. Osteen has built, per the article, one of the largest congregations in the country. A Church of Meaning and Belonging, rather than a Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging. And what, pray tell, does that have to do with Christianity?

"It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." I've heard that saying explained as a reference to a gate into Jerusalem called "The Eye of the Needle," and an over-laden camel could not pass through it. But, the explanation goes on, remove some of the excess load, and the camel can get through. The thoroughly bourgeois basis of this explanation is obvious: and it is completely false. Jesus meant just what you think he meant. Although the needles of his day were certainly larger than the ones we use today, the contrast is the same. A camel, laden or not, could no more get through the eye of a 1st century sewing needle, than it could get through the eye of the #10 tapestry needle I use for cross-stitching.

So what Mr, Osteen is clearly advocating is that we can purchase our salvation, and, considering the rewards in the next life and, at least for him, in this one, it's a cheap and safe investment. But we not only purchase our salvation and our comfort, we purchase our spirituality as well. Which is as curious, and American, a notion as I've come across in quite some time.

Not so curious as all that, as I noted in the paper in seminary. We all prefer to obtain something for our efforts, to reap some benefit for our discipline, to exchange what we have for what is better. Which makes the parable of the pearl of great price so confusing; and the parable of the buried treasure, and the lost coin, and the lost sheep. How do you buy benefit from buried treasure without admitting to the community you cheated another for it? Why would you sell all you have to buy a single pearl? What will you eat now, what wear, where live? If you go in search of one sheep, who is guarding the others? If you lose a coin and wake me up when you find it and throw a party, what's the value of the coin? Jesus never talked about gaining anything, he only seemed to talk about losing things. He was homeless, he owned nothing, he lived off the kindness of strangers. It runs contrary to our expectations. We'd rather make an investment: give up a little, so we will gain a lot. And he tells us that if we can be trusted to invest the little we have, we will be given ever so much more in reward. But in that parable the servants put their master's money at risk, not their own. Which means they risked everything. Surely we should be more prudent in our ventures; surely we are wiser to expect some recompense now for even our smallest charitable acts. A paper rose, a piece of candy, a tax receipt.

Pastor Joel makes it easier than all of that. Just give 10% of what you earn to the right entity, to the right representative of God, and you will be repaid many times over, both spiritually and materially. Church as the ultimate investment club! But is, then, spirituality merely a commodity, like any other? And the way to attain it, is through the right investment plan, and the right amount invested? Of money, of course, of money. What could be more valuable than money?

And what could be more real than the material? Surely it is more real than the spiritual. Surely the spiritual is merely an aspect of the material. And if it is, if I can purchase it, either directly or indirectly, do I really need a spiritual life? Isn't that just another way of saying "material" life? Maybe a way of describing the pleasure I get from ownership, the pride I feel in what I obtain, the security I feel from surrounding myself with more and more goods, the comfort I draw from knowing I've put as many of the vagaries of life away from me as possible? If I can do that, what does spirituality matter anyway?

But is God then material, too, and not spirit? Is God purchased as easily and surely as a new book which will surely explain it all to me?

If there is no spiritual, if it is all merely an aspect of the material, a by-product of my pleasure, my comfort, my pride, then indeed: death, where is thy sting? If I praise God for what I want anyway, doesn't that mean God provided for me, God favored me, God looked upon me kindly and gave me peace? Which should mean an easy death, too, right? Or at least a comfortable inheritance to pass to my child, so he can benefit in this life after I'm gone, as Pastor Joel did when his father died and left the church to the family.

The spiritual rewards only come hen I get what I want first, of course. Because without material benefits, how can I hope to gain any spiritual benefits? Without material benefits, where would spiritual benefits come from at all? That eye of the needle, you know, is a narrow gate; but it's just a matter of how you pack the camel, I hear. Isn't that how it is? I unburden myself of a small portion of my money, I take a small thing in return for my gift, and make a downpayment on an even larger gift, one that I recieve here and now, if only eventually, and one that I receive then and later and for eternity? Isn't that what it's all about? How much you own now, and how much more you will get later?

But if it's all material, how can there be an afterlife, a spiritual realm that I can go to when I die?

I'm sure Joel's next book will answer all my questions. For an advance like he got, it's certainly an answer to his prayers. Since he's already established that it's all material. And it's money that matters.

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