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Taking Our Chance with the Eye of the Needle; Part 1 of 2 – by Roman A. Misula

January 14, 2013

Last week, Dan posted about the dangers and fallacies of the increasingly anti-intellectual bend of American Christianity. I am thankful for Dan allowing me to post about a more specific heresy thriving in the broader anti-intellectual stream of modern religious thought, something termed “New Thought”, or Kenyon theology.

It does not take an overtly observant person to see them in every Christian section of a bookstore: the glossy covered Joel Osteen books promising the reader his best life now, if only he follow some simple steps to win God’s favor. It’s the prosperity gospel, marketed to a culture obsessed with material possessions, and it’s been popularized by the Hagins, Copelands, and Creflo Dollars of the world, and they make an easy target for any critic of Christianity, secular or not. Much has been written about the devastating effect of the prosperity gospel, and I won’t regurgitate it all. But I do want to look at the origins of the movement taking American religion by storm.

And take it by storm, it has. A recent Poll of Pentecostals found that prosperity theology is now eclipsing “tongues” as the defining attribute of modern charismatic Christianity: only half of American Pentecostals reported having spoken in tongues, while 66% saw a direct correlation between a person’s godliness and their wealth. Though Charismatic worship and prosperity theology has long been consistently intertwined, I think the elements underpinning this version of “anti-intellectualism” permeate across denominational lines, and it would behoove us to take a brief look at the history of this movement.

As a caveat: most of the things written here are not original. Particularly, I would like to draw the reader’s attention to Ross Douthat’s book “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics”. I strongly recommend this book to anyone struggling with the state of the Christian Church in America. His chapter on the Prosperity Gospel does a much more comprehensive job than I can do here today. Pertinent also is John MacArthur’s Charismatic Chaos, though I would caution that his work is much more polemical in nature, and can turn the reader off.

  1. New Thought

The late 19th century gave birth to a new movement of spirituality, known as New Thought. It was a loosely affiliated collection of authors, activists, organizations, and pastors, who became united by their belief in the extraordinary potential of the human mind. New Thought proponents argued that mental and spiritual realities shaped material events, and that the “Infinite Intelligence”, or God, pervaded the universe. Therefore any physical realities that a person experienced—be it riches, or poverty, sickness, or health—was rooted in the mental and metaphysical sphere.

Thus, the emphasis became of aligning the mind with the “divine” in the universe. In other words, positive thoughts would lead to positive results in the physical realm. Some new thinkers left religion out entirely, claiming that this was a scientific practice (think L. Ron Hubard’s Church of Scientology). Some left the door open to any God—popularized by Rhonda Byrne’s book The Secret (“You can have whatever you want in your life, no limits. But there’s one catch: you have to feel good. And when you think about it, isn’t that all you ever want?”).

But still some saw New Thought as a kind of fulfillment of the New Testament Gospel. I mean, didn’t Christ’s incarnation evince the triumph of the spiritual over the physical? Isn’t Christian prayer but an attempt to bring a person into alignment with God’s will? Jesus did tell his disciples that if they had faith, they could do incredible things. Specifically, wasn’t Jesus’ invocation that his disciples could cause a tree to be uprooted, with some faith, support for the idea that Christians can bend the universe to their purpose by using their will? (Sounds like Neo bending the spoon in the Matrix, doesn’t it?) The criticisms are legion. At its core, New Thought is most emphatically NOT Christianity, but a pantheistic spiritualism that denies the core teachings of Christianity: the Fall, man’s depravity, God’s distinction from man, etc.

  1. E.W. Kenyon

But it was the E. W. Kenyon (1867-1948) who married New Though to Christianity in a lasting way, though he didn’t live to see it popularized. Kenyon blurred the distinction between God and man, emphasized God’s immanence (God being in everything) and humanity’s perfectibility, and even suggested that “the believer is as much an Incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth.” It followed, in Kenyon’s thinking, that the believer could wield a near-omnipotent power thought the act of prayer. Prayer, to Kenyon, was a legal transaction, not a supplication to God. Through His life, death, and resurrection, Christ gave all believers power to “demand” things from God. Thus, a Christian who was faithful would not experience poor health or financial difficulty. Kenyon went on to write, much ahead of his time: “God never planed that we should live in poverty, either physical, mental, or spiritual”.

Kenyon died in 1948, largely obscure. But he is remembered today largely because of the work of a preacher by the name of Kenneth W. Hagin. Hagin claimed to receive a message by divine revelation: believers can exercise the same world-changing power as God, so long as we “think God’s thoughts after him and speak his words after him”. And so was born the “Word-Faith”, or “Name it and Claim it” movement. Much of Hagin’s work was plagiarized from Kenyon’s writings over the years (MacArthur’s work, particularly, does a good job of lining up Kenyon’s writings with Hagin’s— the plagiarism is blatant). Kenyon’s theology reached several thousand people in his lifetime. Hagin reached an audience of millions, and saw a horde of preachers seize his Americanized form of the gospel—Joel Osteen’s father among them. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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