November 2006

God, mammon now on speaking terms

By Katharhynn Heidelberg

Martin Luther must be spinning in his grave. The dyspeptic monk who excoriated the Catholic Church for its advertising jingle — “when a coin inside the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs” — would doubtless take a dim view of the indulgence’s modern equivalent.

OK. So the likes of “Reverend Dollar” and the Heritage Foundation’s Bishop Dennis Leonard aren’t going so far as to tell their followers they can buy their way out of hell. But they do come perilously close when they advance the idea that God wants you to be wealthy. And not just “blessed,” or rich in friends, family and good health, but the my-wallet-runnethover- with-cold-hard-cash kind of wealthy.

Televangelist Creflo Dollar heads up World Changers Church in New York. He and Leonard, who was the subject of a Denver Post expose last month, are proselytizers of the “prosperity gospel.” With cargo cult-like fervor, they preach God will bless everyone materially if only everyone is willing to give enough.

They sort of ignored scriptures that contradict the notion. Like the whole bit where Jesus drives money-changers and vendors out of His father’s temple. Or that part about choosing between God and mammon because ya just can’t serve both. Then there’s this oldie-butgoodie, the oft-misquoted: “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Secular wisdom is also appropriate here: “You can’t take it with you when you go.”

Thus, another disturbing element to the prosperity gospel. If Dollar is preaching the getting and keeping of wealth on earth is important, how are his followers going to be able to let go of such attachments long enough to be spiritually fulfilled? He told the New York Times that he’s got that one covered. Prosperity, he of the million-dollar home and fleet of luxury cars piously insisted, is not just about money.

Perhaps he should’ve insisted a little louder. The NYT profiled a couple from his church, regular tithers, who gave even though they weren’t able to buy food. It was friends and neighbors, not Dollar, who came through with food and winter coats. The couple saw this as proof, not just of God’s mercy in the wake of their own stupid (yes, stupid) decisions, but as proof that Dollar’s “prosperity gospel” is right. They remain confident, not in the goodness of humankind, but that they will become materially wealthy. Some day.

Leonard’s flock seems to be of the same mind. Though in October he told church members there’s no pressure to tithe and not everyone will get rich, they told him in a poll that “not tithing” was one of the top two sins in their lives. That’s hardly surprising when, according to the Denver Post story, he preached in 2005 “...after the test comes the testimony. You can’t have the ‘mony’ without the ‘test.’ You can’t have the money without passing the tithes and offerings test.”

If the Post report is correct, it’s this message some people take to heart, tithing even their unemployment checks. After all, tithes support the church’s charitable works, like the good bishop’s Rolex collection — I mean, the rent assistance for lowincome parishioners! So, essentially, the people most in need of charity are funding those same charities. Imminently sensible — if you’re the sort who defines “sensible” the same way I define “shell game.”

Now, there is a biblical basis for tithing, and the Good Book also says “cast your bread upon the waters and it will come back a hundredfold.” Thing is, by “bread,” God did not mean bread. He meant you get what you give; that the act of giving will enrich you in many ways, none of which can be measured by the dollar. Or Dollar.

Down at Leonard’s church, not even the symbolism is subtle. Just what are we to think of a church that has an ATM in the lobby and a cross that spells out “JESUS SAVES” in neon? All hail St. Bling-Bling and the Church of the Holy Cash Register. Glory to God. Hallelujah. Amen, cha-ching.

Here’s hoping that all this is simply my failure to get the “real” message of Leonard and Dollar. But regardless my intellectual deficiencies, these two need to realize (assuming they’ve truly sinned in ignorance) that they are coming across as spiritual hucksters to everyone but the most credulous. And that harms Christianity more than “growing” a church by such means can help. If a convert is only in it for the money, it’s unlikely he’s experienced a true conversion — despite whatever financial suffering he inflicts on himself in order to obtain a bigger slice of pie.

Church is where we go to interact with like-minded believers. It is not where we go to learn how to swell the bank balance. If that’s what you want, try a financial seminar. If you — by whom I mean Dollar and Leonard — want God’s stamp of approval on your avarice, though, you’re out of luck. Avarice is one of the Seven Deadlies. I checked.

Katharhynn Heidelberg writes from Montrose.