The beginning of this commentary will sound familiar to those who have read “The Counterfeit Gospel” (Jan. 29, 2022). The beginning through “The Gospel of Jesus the Loser” is edited and amplified. Everything from the rubric “From Prosperity to QAnon” is original to this post.
A Question of Glory
Donald Trump and I each claim a footing in the Presbyterian Church and its Reformed theological tradition. It’s hard to remember much of what happened in Confirmation Class. But it’s hard to forget the first article of the Shorter Catechism. The way to a meaningful life is “to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever.” None of us understood it, of course. But one thing was clear: We are not to glorify ourselves.
The Workshop for Cranking Out Idols
The Reformed faith tradition focuses on the majesty of God and our propensity to bow before an infinite variety of substitutes for the Infinite. The issue for faith is not belief or unbelief. The issue is idolatry. Earth is the theatre of God’s glory. Yet human nature is a perpetual factory of idols. –Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion,1556.
Author theologian William Stringfellow described idols as “imposters of God,” — the finite, manageable works we crank out that take the place of the Ineffable and Infinite.
There are gods and there is God. There is the finite and there is the Infinite. The gods are nearer-to-hand stand-ins, substitutes that promise what they cannot deliver. The world is beautiful and filled with goodness, yet the underlying goodness is twisted against itself. The idols are endless and varied. Nation, work, money, status, race, religion, political party, ideology take center stage in “the theater of God’s glory.”
The Gospel of Jesus the Loser
By the standards of the Prosperity Gospel, Jesus of Nazareth was a loser. Yet the loser will not go away. The loser executed on a Roman cross was raised as the archetype of authentic humanity. Unless the church gets that straight, everything it gains is loss. In spite of all attempts to circumvent, delete, or deny it, the cross remains the primary symbol for those who seek to follow Jesus. Whoever spends time looking at Gustav Doré’s painting of the crucifixion cannot dismiss the horror of it, the cruelty of it, the god-forsakenness of it.
From Prosperity to QAnon
It’s a short distance from the Prosperity Gospel to QAnon. Neither pays attention to Matthew or Luke’s vivid narratives of Jesus in the wilderness. Is Satan real? Yes and no. Satan is not someone’s name. It’s a title — the Shatan, the Diabolos — for the diabolical. It has no other home than our hearts and minds, the blacksmith shop that never ceases. The factory that cranks out idols. Satan is the Adversary of the Divine. QAnon says little about God but sees Satan everywhere. QAnon is the latest metastasis of a simplistic theology that divides the world between God and Satan, good and evil, saved and damned, elect and non-elect, heaven and hell, soldiers and cowards. If those characteristics sound familiar, it’s because they are.
“You people seem normal”
Thanksgiving is a day of mostly cheerful moments, but some Thanksgivings are also epiphanies. My younger son’s college friend opened a window to his experience of Christian faith and practice. During a light-hearted conversation around the Thanksgiving table, the student guest took what seems like a risk, but it landed on ears that understood how he felt. “I don’t know quite how to say this,” he said with eyebrows rising, “but you people seem normal.” The conversation the followed focused on his view of Christians as whackos. The whackos held the worldview described in the previous paragraph. Why did he think so? While changing channels he had stopped in on Jimmy and Tammie Baker, Jimmy Swaggert, and other televangelists who had not seemed normal. They were abnormal by almost any standards mental health, reason and sanity.
The Lure of Prosperity
The Prosperity Gospel preachers proclaim it can all be yours, if… If you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior, if you stop thinking negatively, it can all be yours. It can all be yours in a secure gated community. It can be yours if you climb to the top. It can all be yours if you just close your eyes to the homeless who disturb an otherwise beautiful day. It can all be yours, if you stop thinking of yourself as a school drop-out ditch digger and think of yourself as (fill in the blank).
Flights from Ambigiuity
What is missing in the Prosperity Gospel and QAnon are the biblical stories of Jesus in the wilderness with Satan. Any study of the Gospel of Matthew’s or Gospel of Luke’s narratives lead to a conclusion that life is more ambiguous than we would like it to be. It is good that our material needs are met. It’s not good when we turn needs into greed. In the same way, religion can go either way. It is good to praise God and practice a tradition’s wisdom, but religion can become, and often is, a form of idolatry that substitutes itself for the Eternal and Ineffable it claims to worship. But the third scene in the wilderness narratives that leaps from the page in America today, is the one about power and authority described below.
You may or may not hear much about Satan from Prosperity Gospel preachers or, for that matter, from the pulpits of traditional churches. It’s either because it’s not popular. It won’t attract new adherents. Or it’s an embarrassment. Or the biblical texts that speak of Satan or the Devil require an inordinately long explanation than a sermon allows. Not so for QAnon where the talk is all about Satan.
What has been lost is a literary and emotional understanding of the complex and confounding character of the biblical Satan. Satan is the personification of the diabolical. The Trickster, the Deceiver, the Twister, the Half-Truth Teller, the Liar. Beauty, truth, and goodness are given lip service, but beneath the talk of beauty lies ugliness, beneath the tributes to truth lies deceit, beneath the salute to goodness lies a tornado twisting goodness into its opposite.
The most poignant of the three wilderness scenes
William Blake paints the most poignant of the three episodes of Jesus’s 40 days with the Diabolos in the wilderness. The scene is a mountaintop where Satan and Jesus the Christ have in view all the nations and kingdoms of the word. Blake’s painting gives visual expression to the narcissistic lure of political power and authority. “Then the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. ‘All this I will give you,’ he says, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’ Jesus says to him, ‘Begone, Satan, for it is written ‘you shall worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'” (Matthew 4:10 NIV and NRSV combined)
Where was God?
Those who see the countenance of God in the face of Jesus the Loser face a challenge that won’t go away. Where was God when America’s First People were being stripped of their homeland, slaughtered, stripped of their religion and culture, and consigned to reservations and Christian boarding schools? Where was God when White hoods with torches burned their crosses and formed a congregation gathered around the lynching tree? Where was God at the whipping post? Where was God during the Holocaust, the “Final Solution”? Where was God at the gun massacres at Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland? Where was God when Narcissus was dying of dehydration at the edge of the pond?
You will find God there
Jesus the Loser tells us where. God was among those who were robbed of their homeland. God was shuttled off to the reservations. God was hanging from the lynching tree. God was whipped at the whipping post. God was on the trains to Auschwitz; God was among the children, teachers, and parents at Sandy Hook. God was among the Losers — the tortured, the poor, the starving, the dying and the dead. God was in the pond inviting Narcissus to drink. We will find God there.
Letters and Papers from Prison preserves a poem from the cell of a pastor, theologian, professor, and resistor of the German Third Reich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at Flossenburg Concentration Camp April 9, 1945 as the Nazi regime was collapsing.
CHRISTIANS AND UNBELIEVERS
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, July, 1944
Men go to God when they are sore bestead,
Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning or dead:
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.
Men go to God when he is sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead:
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.
God goeth to every man when sore bestead,
Feedeth body and spirit with his bread,
For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead:
And both alike forgiving.
Gordon C. Stewart, Presbyterian minister (H.R.) and public theologian, Brooklyn Park, MN, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), available in kindle and paperback.