In my previous post I compared the American prosperity gospel as presented in American Gospel: Christ Alone and the teachings I have heard here in Tanzania about prosperity. There was significant overlap both with the American prosperity gospel and with the American critics of it. Then there were some teachings that went in a completely different direction from either. I hope what it illustrated is that Tanzanian prosperity teaching is it own thing; you cannot talk about it as an import from the US even though there have been American influences.
I want to offer two additional comments.
First, American Gospel: Christ Alone attacked the extreme wealth of preachers like Benny Hinn. Costi Hinn spoke of the lifestyle he gave up when he realized how heretical and exploitative his uncle’s ministry is. All the contributors suggest that the Christian life is about suffering, even deprivation for the glory of God.
However, these 50 or so contributors were also by and large all well-dressed, well-nourished, well-educated men. Many sat in large, beautiful churches and auditoriums. Several were filmed in front of personal libraries of hundreds of books or at desks which had one or more personal computers. These are wealthy men! I too experience these blessings and a calculator I did suggested I am in the top 15% of the world’s wealthy. While it is by no means the same level of extravagance as the Hinns, and I am not suggesting that these men are exploitative, nevertheless, they are speaking about wealth and blessing from the perspective of those who are wealthy and blessed in economic terms.
The one example of giving up wealth was the pastor who went to Peru where he lived in the jungle and had to draw water from the well and have bucket showers. After 4 years, he returned to the US. There were beautiful and very moving examples of people living with terrible suffering, but these were all about illness not poverty.
1. No western theologian should expect to say anything to an African about the prosperity gospel until they have lived in Africa long-term. From the comfort of the west, how could you possibly expect to understand the appeal of the prosperity gospel, to grapple with the worldview behind it, or to respond compassionately towards it?
2. The extremes of the debate sadden him. In an effort to deny that God can be manipulated, opponents of the prosperity gospel often neglect the theme that God is the giver of all good things, and they portray the Christian life as one of doom and suffering. Their version of God is just as offensive.
3. While prosperity gospel exists in the west as well, there is great anxiety about it ‘taking over Africa’. If it is just a problem in Africa, why do western theologians not listen to the local responses to it and critiques of it? They act as if importing western solutions will work for an African problem. An example of this kind of import is expecting that it’s only in the context of a whole biblical theology of blessing that an antidote to the prosperity gospel can be found.
Secondly, American Gospel goes hard on John Piper’s theology of ‘God is the gospel’, deploying catchphrases such as ‘loving the gifts not the Giver’ and calling them idolatry. One speaker said that it’s like getting married to your wife for her money.
Yet, it is only in western romantic ideals of the last few centuries that love has been the dominant factor for marriage with no reference to economics. In Cross Cultural Partnerships, Mary Lederleitner suggests that in the west, our friendships are able to be primarily emotional because we are, for all intents and purposes, wealthy. We are far less communal and far less dependent on our friends. Bringing money into friendships makes us uncomfortable; we feel it threatens the authenticity of the relationship.
But in Tanzania, as in many communal and patronage cultures, you show that you’re serious about a relationship by it having an economic component. Emotional attachment is great, but to use an English phrase, put your money where your mouth is! An example I often refer to is that we introduced two families to each other once and they got along really well. As a sign that they wanted the relationship to continue, one of them went the next day to the bank and opened a bank account in the name of the other one’s child!
I think it’s very easy for us westerners to read our ideas about how friendship and relationships work onto the gospel, missing that being beholden to one another – including economically – can be a way of drawing closer in some cultures and that we may have missed this component when we have read our Bibles. Talking about gifts from the Giver is not necessarily an expression of wanting to extract from the Giver but of commitment and love to him.
Imagine in this context fronting up to someone and saying: God is the gospel, he gives you himself, never mind about the stuff he can give you. It’s a nonsense! God is a package deal and to try to separate that out is to make God a withholding God, one who does not give himself fully to us.
Tanzanian prosperity preachers absolutely still talk about loving God and pursuing him before money or success, but I suspect this cultural insight might help us to parse why prosperity looms large for them.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.