[Charismatic] Christianity and Wealth

It has been my privilege to spend a good portion of last year editing Bruce Shelley’s remarkably popular Church History in Plain Language.  The 4th edition is due in December.  I have ventured a humble effort to describe the nature of the Christianity which is expanding at an astounding rate around the Globe and especially in the Global South and China.  This expansion or revival is typically charismatic.  A recent conference may have strayed off course from critiquing the prosperity Gospel to offering a general condemnation of Charismatic experience; a panel discussion did strike a note of caution calling for patience for two evangelicals who were strangely open to the movement, John Piper and Wayne Grudem.  The following observations may be helpful.

1.  There are very grave challenges faced by the “new Christianity” sweeping around the globe; some are deficient in the doctrine of the trinity; some may be overly emotional and naive; some offer crude and manipulative instruction concerning money, indeed there are many other concerns.  I am not a charismatic but I am humbled to report a magnificent working of God across the globe.  Almost every revival has had similar criticisms and corresponding false and deviate versions of genuine Spirit phenomena.

2.  The biblical case is admirably summarized by John Piper; he cites I Corinthians 14:29 (instructing prophets be allowed to speak but be evaluated), I Thessalonians 5:20-21 (ordering the church not to hold prophesy in contempt but to evaluate it), I Corinthians 11: 4-5 (stipulating proper decorum for men and women prophets – Piper cautions about women exercising authority), and I Corinthians 13:8-10 (teaching that these disputed gifts would be in place until Christ returns).  The presumption that prophecy is unbiblical is unwarranted.

3.  Our concerns for Charismatic teaching and practice hold strange ironies for “first world” evangelicals.  One example will suffice.  I am deeply troubled about how many charismatics talk about money.  Too many times their teaching is crude and appeals to the worst kind of greed.  But I fear North American Evangelicalism has too little to teach them and too weak an example to give witness to a better way.  Are they much more sick on this issue that we?  They teach the Gospel carries with it the notion that believers who have nothing (especially the oppressed and abjectly poor) will receive reward; we teach the Gospel includes the caveat that wealthy believers need change little about the way they live or handle their money.  The desire for worldly wealth seems to drive both.   Jesus warned in Matthew 6:24 that Wealth / Mammon can endanger those who have wealth (Matthew 6:19 – 24) as well as those who have nothing (Matthew 6: 25-34).  We need a better way forward.

Jesus, Gnosticism, and the Vampire Culture

What follows is my retelling of observations made in a lecture titled “Did We Get Jesus Right? Jesus in the Canonical and Apocryphal Gospels” by Simon Gathercole and response by David Chapman at Lanier Theological Library on September 8, 2012.  My retelling will appear as a text box entitled “Understanding Gnosticism Today” in the forthcoming 4th edition of Church History in Plain Language.

Two analogies or comparisons may help us assess Gnostic claims about Jesus.  The first is about historical proximity.  The church’s Gospels are written about 30 to 65 years after Jesus’ life.  This span of time would be comparable to a professor’s (age 55 at year 2010 in our thought experiment) relationship to the Vietnam War or the Korean Conflict.  This professor can assess what he reads about these conflicts with his own living memory and that of his eyewitness contemporaries.  By contrast the earliest Gnostic Gospel is probably written 140 years after Jesus’ life (and much longer for all except the Gospel of Thomas).  This span of time would be comparable to our professor’s relationship to the Civil War.  Our professor would have no living memory of or connection to these events.  Fortunately it is one of the remarkably well-documented events in all of history; otherwise we would be precariously dependent upon a limited number of stories without living memory to serve as an anchoring restraint.

Another comparison centers upon the difficulty of offering historical reconstructions of events and persons.  There have been a great many books and movies that reconstruct the life and work of Abraham Lincoln.  These typically share some general consensus about the outline of his basic life story, family, and service but still vary about his motives, religion, and person.  But a very different reconstructing of his life emerges from the vampire mania of contemporary culture.  This carnivorous cultural phenomenon seems to offer a variety of takes on a seemingly endless variety of topics. Its reconstruction of Lincoln replaces some of the consensus story and supplements the surviving elements of the story.  Intriguing elements take on new significance; e.g. Lincoln was prone to long sleepless nights and he could handle an axe.  Even the overall reconstruction yields an interesting insight; slavery, like vampire wars, was draining the life-force from slaves and the nation for the sake of money (see the numerous reviews).  The book picturing Abraham Lincoln as a vampire hunter is typically understood as fantasy; but on the issues of proximity and methodology, it is an illuminating comparison to the Gnostic versions of Jesus.  The old narrative is replaced or supplemented to make a substantially different story.

But these observations or stories are but new and creative versions of a longstanding conversation. The second- century Irenaeus mocked his Gnostic opponents saying “there were no Valentians before Valentinus;” he drew attention to the publically accessible chain of custody (so Robert Wilken in The First Thousand Years, p45) – the church claimed to be recipient of eye witness testimony from Jesus’ followers.  Early churchmen were aware of the variety in the four Gospels which Irenaeus embraced, but they believed these Gospels had the right “big picture.”  Irenaeus compares Gnostic readers to bad craftsmen who take the pieces of a mosaic and offer a picture of a dog while losing sight of the noble royal subject.  The question was not who could come to a text and venture a creative reading but which text faithfully pictured Jesus and who read the text faithfully.

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