Jon Stewart, recently-retired as host of The Daily Show, may well find his greatest legacy is the raft of bright, insightful comics who honed their bent toward biting social commentary in his 16-year-long shadow. Stewart’s protege, John Oliver, proved his mettle with his remarkable expose of the—ahem—“seedy” side of faith: televangelists who are purveyors of the so-called Prosperity Gospel, reaping rich rewards and very un-Jesus-like lifestyles by preying on the poor and the weak who are often literally seeking a lifeline in the church. They manipulate the misfortunate through an intentional mis-reading of the Christian scriptures sometimes called “seed faith.”
This notion, that you “sow a seed” in the direction of having your own prayers answered, inevitably requires the followers of these televangelists to send their offerings to these self-described ministries. But that is often just the beginning, as Oliver blisteringly exposed through his seven-month long trail of correspondence with televangelist, Robert Tilton. Posing as a small donor, Tilton’s ministry again and again encouraged—even chided—Oliver to up his giving.
This “seed faith” dynamic can reach tragic proportions in the lives of the gullible. Oliver relayed the painful story of Bonnie Parker, a woman who responded with thousands of dollars in gifts to Kenneth Copeland’s faith message rather than seek medical treatment for her terminal cancer.
A few years ago now, I traveled to Kenya and Ethiopia and learned that this Prosperity Gospel has remarkably spread to Africa, its own unique kind of colonial cancer. Like a lottery, there are just enough “winners” to keep the losers playing, sowing their bits of seed into the pocketbooks of the shrewd and callous messengers of this perversion of the message of Jesus.
The War on Faith
I fear that Oliver’s insightful-if-irreverent piece will fail to be the corrective message the Christian church needs to hear. Too many of my brothers and sisters have determined to circle the wagons and will view Oliver’s report as the latest volley in the “war on faith” trumped up by news outlets who, for example, recently described the dreadful shooting in a church in Charleston, South Carolina as an “attack on Christianity.”
I hope instead that we will take to heart the words of Jesus himself in Matthew 7:3:
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (NIV)
These slick salesmen, selling a false and shiny gospel that benefits none but themselves, must be disavowed by the faithful. The so-called “war on faith” ought to be instead a battle waged within Christianity, rooting out the wolves in sheep’s clothing. Why are so many “Christian” networks enabling these flock fleecers? John Oliver’s voice is, in this case, a prophetic call to restore the pure, clear, manipulation-free message of Jesus. It is time for Christians of good conscience to wage the “war on fraud.