RELIGION IN THE NEWS
Fall 2001, Vol. 4, No. 3

Table of Contents
Fall 2001

Quick Links:
Other articles
in this issue


From the Editor: The Civil Religion Goes to War

Religion After 9-11:

Good for What Ails Us

Falwell and Robertson Stumble

Islam is Everywhere

Pacifism on the Record

When Our Allies Persecute

No Bad Sects in France

The Stem Cell Conundrum

On the Beat: Covering Religion in Hard Times

Letter to the Editor and Reply


 

Gain, No Pain
by Andrew Chase Baker

The publishing sensation of 2001 has been a slim religious tract entitled The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life. Since it appeared on the shelves a year ago November, the $10 volume has sold more than 8 million copies, spending months atop the New York Times bestseller list of books sold through religious retailers.

What Atlanta-based evangelist Bruce Wilkinson (and his second-billed wordsmith David Kopp) did was create a cash cow of Biblical proportions out of a couple of obscure verses of Scripture.

For those of you who were nodding off somewhere between Kings and Ezra, Jabez is a Hebrew who makes an appearance among the begats of the tribe of Judah in I Chronicles, chapter four, verses 9 and 10; to wit:

"Now Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother called his name Jabez saying, ĎBecause I bore him in pain.í And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, ĎOh that you would bless me indeed and enlarge my territory, that your hand would be with me, and that you would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!í So God granted what he requested."

Since "Jabez" in Hebrew means one who causes (or will cause) pain, Jabez seems to be praying not to live up to his name. But the lesson Wilkinson draws is that Christians should not be squeamish about asking for Godís blessing. As the chapter entitled "So Why Not Ask?" puts it, "Even though there is no limit to Godís goodness, if you didnít ask him for a blessing yesterday, you didnít get what you were supposed to have."

The book distributes the two verses among seven chapters, each titled with a suggestion to the reader and subtitled with a portion of the textóas in, for example, chapter six: "Welcome to Godís Honor Role: Jabez was more honorable than his brothers." The chapters are fleshed out, sermon style, with additional quotations from Scripture and personal anecdotes from Wilkinsonís ministry.

Near the end of the book the reader receives a four-point guide to living like Jabez: 1) seek to be blessed 2) enlarge your territory in Godís service 3) overstep your boundaries and seek Godís help 4) flee temptation. By way of explaining point two, Wilkinson writes, "If Jabez had worked on Wall Street, he might have prayed ĎLord increase my investment portfolios.í"

To dozens of secular journalists who turned their attention to the book, this looked an awful lot like the "prosperity gospel" of the 1950s and 60s.

John Blake of the Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionóWilkinsonís hometown paperówas the first reporter on the story. In an April 14 article, he skewered the book simply by juxtaposing texts. For example:

"He left it entirely up to God to decide what the blessings would be and where, when, and how Jabez would receive them." (Chapter 2)

"When Christian executives ask me, ĎIs it right for me to ask God for more business?í my response is ĎAbsolutely! If youíre doing business Godís way, itís not only right to ask for more, but he is waiting for you to ask.í" (Chapter 3)

Two weeks later, Blake followed up with an interview in which Wilkinson foreswore the prosperity gospel. "It grieves me when people say thatís what Iím teaching," he said. "I donít believe in that. Iím not neutral. Itís the opposite of what I believe."

But the media werenít buying. In the May 20 New York Times Book Review Judith Shulevitz wrote, "The Jabez prayer grants the supplicant full access to the American cult of success, an adoration of power and material satisfaction untroubled by any sense that the world may be a tragic place or the fear that the enlargement of oneís territory might leave othersí diminished."

Lauri Githenís June 5 article in The Buffalo News suggested that Wilkinson was preying on the weak. "Smack in the middle of a skittish economy, itís not hard to fathom why Wilkinsonís if-you-donít-ask-you-wonít-get philosophy has pushed its way to the top of best-seller lists, particularly in the depressed Buffalo-Niagara region."

"Let me see if I have this right," wrote Knoxville News-Sentinel columnist Ina Hughs July 18. "God will bless you with a bigger paycheck if you promise not to squander it on high living, and He will give you a Cadillac if you promise to drive it to church now and again."

And in a post-September 11 piece, San Francisco Chronicle religion writer Don Lattin, declared, "Of course, itís hard to top the spiritual corruption of Osama bin Laden. But his perversion of divine revelation can help us understand the temptation of Christians to use one little part of the Bibleóin subtler and less violent waysóto justify our love affair with wealth, consumerism and endless economic growth."

Nor did the international press hesitate to pile on. "The British have always looked down on such religious vulgarity," sniffed Andrew Brown of the London Times. "Even the large and thriving evangelical churches in London would never sell something in such bad taste."

Tom Baker of the Daily Yomiuri imagined Mother Theresa "sighing in dismay at the realization that she could have gone through life contentedly fingering an eight-strand pearl necklace after all." Wilkinsonís "gee-whiz" approach to religion, noted the Ottawa Citizen, "is even creeping out some Christian booksellers."

But the problem here is not only Wilkinsonís. There is an inherent tension in the Chronicles account. Jabez doesnít want to cause pain, and he also wants pelf. What almost all of the media reviewers overlooked was that Jabez seeks Godís blessing for a reason.

One of the few who picked up on this was the Heritage Foundationís Joseph Loconte, a regular commentator for NPRís "All Things Considered." Jabez "asks God to keep him from evil, that he might not cause pain," Loconte said in a May 3 broadcast. "Now thereís a refreshing thought: Live a life untainted by deceit and unentangled by selfish ambition."

What Jabez conveys is a variation on the classic conversion message of evangelical Protestantism. As Wilkinson puts it in chapter 4, "When was the last time your church got together and pleaded for the filling of the Spirit? When was the last time you petitioned God regularly and fervently, ĎOh, put your hand upon me! Fill me with your spirit!í? The rapid spread of the Good News in the Roman world couldnít have happened in any other way."

If this isnít the social gospel of the mainline churches, neither is it the shallow materialism of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker in their heyday. Make no mistake about it. Wilkinsonís spiritual mission is not to make his readers rich but to bring them to Christ, and enable them to bring more people to Christ. When a Christian asks God to "enlarge my territory," heís talking about Godís territory too.

The sequel to Jabez, entitled The Secrets of the Vine: Breaking Through to Abundance, was rushed into print in April. A conventional Christian discourse on suffering and faith, it has already sold over 4 million copies and has helped silence a few Wilkinson critics.


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