Friday, September 7, 2007

Jesus Can Get You Bling!

The Gospel of Prosperity: Does Wealth Mean You're Blessed?
Part One of a Three Part Series on the Black

By Angela Bronner, AOL Black Voices,

Hip-hop soul legend Mary J. Blige has always let it be known that God was an important part of her life and upbringing. From vignettes on her album to her oft-present cross, the born-again Christian insists that God wants her to have nice things. In a recent 'Blender' magazine article, the sometimes downtrodden diva stated:

"My God is a God who wants me to have things. He wants me to bling. He wants me to be the hottest thing on the block. I don't know what kind of God the rest of y'all are serving, but the God I serve says, 'Mary, you need to be the hottest thing this year, and I'm gonna make sure you're doing that.'"

Could Mary J. be a proponent of what many term ''The Gospel of Prosperity?"

Though not an organized religion, the prosperity gospel is an increasingly-popular view commonly found in televangelical preachings and in Pentecostal churches; it claims God wants Christians to be successful in every way, especially in their finances. Given face by African-American television minsters such as Creflo Dollar and Rev. Frederick K.C. Price (real names), prosperity proponents state that the true Christian has only to ask for material wealth and it will be granted.

Yet, if a Christian is not enjoying these benefits, then it's because they either have not asked for them or because they have some blockage in their lives which is preventing God from blessing them. Furthermore, some critics of these individual preachers and the movement itself say the only ones becoming prosperous are the ministers themselves.

"It's materialism, it's the marketplace, it's also about the black middle class trying to alleviate its conscience about dealing with those who are less fortunate," says minister, author and professor for Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Michael Eric Dyson. "Why didn’t we have the Gospel of Prosperity during King's day? All of a sudden, we can track it. The expansion of the black middle class has also created the necessity for a theology that will justify our status."

Dollar, 41, who is not obligated to disclose his finances because his church is tax-exempt, appears to be financially fit. His World Changers megachurch, founded in Atlanta in 1986, now has over 25,000 members with an annual operating budget of over $80 million. Dollar, who has a multi-million dollar mansion in Atlanta and two Rolls Royces, flies on his private jet every Saturday to New York City, where in October 2004, he started a congregation.

He owns a $2.5 million Manhattan apartment in the exclusive Time Warner Center, and collects over $345,000 a month for the New York church, which he says stays there to build it. Before making the physical move to New York, the city was Dollar's largest television market.

Packed to the rafters with people of all ages and races, Rev. Dollar's World Changers New York fills Madison Square Garden's Theater each week. Dollar's affable manner, clever witticisms ("I'ma preach a wig off your head tonight!") and clear rules for living based on the Bible make for good television and an even larger congregation.

"To be broke means you lack," shouts Dollar from the stage, filled with a modern choir and five-piece band, including violinist. Overhead hangs a huge "World Changers" banner with people of all colors looking fulfilled. There is also a translator for the hearing impared.

Dollar always qualifies prosperity as not just material things, but also love, relationships and health. "I'll never be broke another day in my life," he commands the audience to say. "Turn to two people and say it."

Two offerings are taken before the reverend began his main sermon, the audience reflecting an almost game-show like atmosphere, as Dollar asked those who experienced "increase this week" to bring up their offerings. Hundreds of blue envelopes flood the air as people wave them madly. "If you have experienced increase this week, and would like to make a first offering, we rejoice."

Richard "Ricke" Williams, 24, a film producer from Patterson, New Jersey has been attending World Changers New York services since September, 2005. "I joined that day," says Williams. "It's been great. I've grown a lot as an individual; I'm a different person."

"Prosperity is key, but not necessarily financial prosperity," continues Williams. "[Rev. Dollar] gets in trouble with the media about this, but he wants us to prosper in our soul, health, family; mentally and spiritually. You can have a million dollars but your family is in disarray. You can have money and not be prosperous. Finances is just one part of it."

There are as many Bible verses to support prosperity as there are to skewer it. Dyson, like many critics of the prosperity churches, points out that many prominent Christians and even Jesus himself, was not a rich man. Dollar, however, points to Biblical titans such as Solomon and David, who were wealthy. For every verse that says it's easier for a camel to get through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven [Mark 10:25] , there is another which states that Jesus came so that "they may have life, and they might have it more abundantly." [John 10:10]

"So now, we have a theology that says that the only way, or the primary way God blesses us is through having a Mercedes or a nice Rolex or some nice diamonds or some nice clothes and a nice place to live," says Dyson. "All that's great, but the question is, is that the unalterable sign of God's blessing? If that's the case, Jesus was the greatest failure as a Christian we've ever seen."

Dyson continues, "Jesus was a revolutionary. Jesus spoke against the common order of the day. Jesus spoke against the status quo. That Jesus didn't go to the White House to try to curry favor. That Jesus spoke prophesy in ways that made leaders uncomfortable, in fact, they wanted to kill him," he says. "We have to ask the question, what are you doing? Do these ministers speak about racism? Do they speak about sexism or homophobia? Do they talk out against the issues of the day? Yes, people call His name, but they're not preaching His gospel."

"[Dollar] doesn't get paid from the church, but from writing his books, his travels and tape sales," states Williams. "Our tithes and offerings stay in the church to build it. If you think about it, he has a huge flock. I realized that [my offerings] are for God. At the point of giving, you give because you love God."

Williams, who says his finances have not necessarily changed, says his soul has in fact prospered since becoming a member of World Changers, and that eventually, when he can correctly apply "the system God works on" he will be blessed on the material plane. As for Mary J. Blige's quote, Williams pretty much agrees.

"She's using very worldly words," he qualifies. "But if you think about it, she's recognizing Him. If they always see you broke, and not prospering and depressed, why would they try to understand [Christianity]? I can see why God wants to see her at her best."

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