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Photograph of John Oliver: HBO

Comedian John Oliver saw the opportunity – and pushed in on the Pope of Prosperity! He started his own church!  He has done what “the church” has not: he has initiated a hostile take over on unchecked greed. He has, according to Nigel M. Smith, “eviscerated mega-churches, which earn millions every year by preying on the vulnerable to donate hefty, tax-free donations – but are somehow exempt from paying taxes” (the Guardian).

This is about the churches that exploit people’s faith for monetary gain,” he declared on his HBO late-night program, before launching into a 20-minute segment that revealed the findings of a seven-month investigation conducted by his show.

To expose the industry’s fraudulent activity, his team got close with leading celebrity televangelist Robert Tilton of Word of Faith Worldwide Church. After mailing Tilton $20, with a request to be added to his church’s mailing list, a correspondence was reportedly struck up, which resulted in the televangelist requesting larger and larger sums of money.

As Oliver said: “As of tonight, I’ve sent him $319 and received 26 letters – that’s almost one a week. And again, this is all hilarious until you imagine these letters being sent to someone who cannot afford what he’s asking for.

Ironic Entertainment Industry

It is ironic that anyone in the entertainment industry has anything to say against “prosperity.” But here is John Oliver political-correctly siphoning the funds he is asking for – in order to give them to Doctors-without-borders. The entertainment industry has very little moral authority to speak to financial abuse, since the prosperity gospel business is merely a subsection of the ever growing e-industry that is perpetuated primarily by mass media.

When a former colleague of mine complained about a television broadcast he watched of one of the prosperous preachers, he demanded my defence. I had none; this isn’t defensible:

“I don’t watch those guys, and would advise you do the same; turn off your television, or at least, change the channel.”

Indeed, one way to change the channel was to invite him into my community of faith, humble as it is. Why be annoyed or succumb to the regular bombardment of financial requests with strings attached, when you can enter into the mystery of fools and faithful learning to walk with God?

It doesn’t matter much if Oliver has his rapier wit set only on those prosperous mega churches that exploit, or if he means to stick it to every church and the person of Jesus too. What does it matter in this day of ubiquitous Christian-bashing, when western Christians themselves (myself) have not done enough to be a clear light on a hill.

No Place to Lay His Head?

How would He who had no place to lay his head respond to the Robert Tiltons among the prosperity gospel gangs who scavenge the vulnerable, and who threaten to co-opt the Christian gospel message as thoroughly as western Islamists have claimed that ISIS has co-opted any other Islamic message.

For years I have had to endure correcting misconceptions – pointing people to Jesus revealed by Scripture, and by my own humble lived-out spirituality (humble as in “not spectacular,” or “mere”), over and against the misrepresentations by that most pernicious of American mutations: the prosperity gospel. This lesser gospel that is no gospel at all is in contrast to the “audacious subversion of prayer“; Alan E. Lewis writes in reaction to the prosperity gospel’s “sickening abuse”:

To ask for things from God, as we witness with constant embarrassment in public displays of self-regarding religiosity as well as in the private recesses of our egos, can be prayer’s most sickening falsification and abuse.

The sickening abuse actually contorts into a mutated sense of entitlement where the worst of bad theology expects “God to owe us something for what we pay him” (so to speak), as Eric Demeter writes in “The Prosperity Gospel Creates Poor Christians.”

Recent Events:

As if on cue: the City Harvest megachurch scandal is the biggest corruption case squeaky-clean Singapore has seen in years. It may not be the worst corruption – it’s just the most recent (I don’t have enough space here to confess all the North American examples).

In contrast, in time for Black Friday a few weeks ago, “Reverend Billy Talen” arrives to promote his “Church of Stop Shopping“.  Again, another expression of the ironic entertainment industry speaking “prophetically” into hyper consumerism (see his rendition of “Blessed are You” – a contemporary take based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5).

The Church of Stop Shopping has been around for 15 years. Talen first developed his Elvis-meets-Bill Graham preacher character in the alternative theaters of San Francisco. The character and the church soon morphed into a vehicle for protesting against what he sees as the destructive rise in consumerism. At first, the group was resisting “consumerism in the broadest sense”, says Talen. Then he identified targets. (Read more here)

Oh, and then there’s me

Add to these misrepresentations, those I embody, and you might wonder what is the “good news of the Christ of Christmas”? Variants of stories, interpretations, and outright falsifications, it comes with/from the mouths of sorry messengers every bit as suspect as those early shepherds who told a fantastical story of the Messiah’s birth. It doesn’t matter if you believe their story anyways, since shepherds were a distrusted occupational group so as not to be allowed to give testimony in Jewish courts. Why believe any of it?

To the cynical and disbelieving, no testimony will do, but to the pure in heart seeker, just a word will. It takes faith; as much faith as atheists need to believe the intricate and self-contradictory theories that form their world views. It takes faith, but perhaps a better word is – it takes trust – and trust doesn’t come from mere intellectual inquiry – it comes through relationship.

Merry Christmas?

This season, let me encourage you to search for the Christ of Christmas – or rather – the Christ whose birth inspires Christmas – who comes out of the manger and off the page, as it were, and reveals Himself in person to you.

He is more enigma than dogma.

For a profoundly alternative view to materialism, see “Me, My Stuff, and God: Making Space in a Culture of Want” – a Regent College Vodcast.