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Her story starts on the eve of a two-day prayer marathon the year before. It was the woman's wedding anniversary and she didn't really want to spend it at church. She did, though, after telling God that she expected some signs from him that she had made the right choice. The first couple of signs are ho-hum, but she describes them as supernatural events: The Lord compelled a friend to call to make sure she was going. Jesus guided her husband to tell her the prayer meeting should come before their anniversary dinner.
She's weeping by the time she gets to the third sign. A few hours into the prayer meeting, she reports, she was overcome by a euphoric feeling. She jumped up and ran down near the stage. She just stood there, she said, until she snapped out of her reverie and made her way back to her seat. She was sure she looked vain and foolish, but when she sat back down, her seatmates assumed she had gone to the bathroom. The man sitting behind her tapped her on the shoulder and pointed to the armrest on her seat, where a gold ring sat. While she was gone, the man told her, another man had come along and carefully placed the ring there.
She twists it from her finger and holds it over her head. When she realized it fit perfectly, she immediately knew it was her third sign and knew its significance: She was the bride of Christ on her anniversary. Her spontaneous sprint to the stage had been a bride's trip down the aisle, and the ring bonded her to him in marriage, proving that she was worthy of his love. The crowd is still talking about her in awed tones as people file out.
Never underestimate humans' tendency to believe in magic, says Paula Cooey, a professor of religion at Macalester College: "We're a sign-hunting people." The signs are crucial to understanding why people keep coming and keep giving when all they get in return for putting their grocery money in the collection basket is a little further behind.
"Psychological studies show that once you've bought into an ideology, you'll walk on hot coals to defend it," says Cooey. Psychologists call the phenomenon ideological formation: Challenged with evidence contrary to their beliefs, people prefer fine-tuning a creed to abandoning it. Most will ultimately swallow any number of explanations as to why the formula hasn't yet worked for them.
"It's a way of making sense, a hopeful logic. 'If I'm good, if I give, I'll get back,'" says Cooey. "You're living from paycheck to paycheck and thinking, 'This is my way out.' Or, if you're doing well, 'I got this, I deserve this.' It's very hard to live in a world where you're not going to get what you deserve, and where instabilities are visible on TV everyday."
And often the formula does work, Cooey notes, at least for a while. When people join, family budget troubles often do relax a little, she says: "When you quit drinking, smoking, and gambling, what happens to your income?" Then, too, churches preaching the prosperity gospel tend to spawn the kind of networks that help people with job hunting or prospecting for customers.
As part of the research for her book Bait and Switch, author Barbara Ehrenreich attended a number of Christian job networking events in Georgia. Ehrenreich didn't end up with any job leads, but she did emerge with a sense of what makes the formula so appealing.
"What we want from a career narrative is some moral thrust, some meaningful story we can...tell our children," she writes. "The old narrative was 'I worked hard and therefore succeeded' or sometimes 'I screwed up and therefore failed.' But a life of only intermittently rewarded effort—working hard only to be laid off, and then repeating the process until aging forecloses decent job offers—requires more strenuous forms of explanation. Either you look for the institutional forces shaping your life, or you attribute the unpredictable ups and downs of your career to an infinitely powerful, endlessly detail-oriented God."
What happens when you've tithed and contributed to the capital campaign and you haven't been prospered with anything other than a stack of unpaid bills? The doctrine holds that you haven't believed sincerely enough. And if you already possess all the tools for prosperity, then you can believe the failure's all yours, too.
"There's a lot of self-blame," says Lin. "You didn't do this or that. The formula is often so complicated that it's not step one, step two, step three—it's step one, step 1.2, step 2.5, and so on."
Macalester's Cooey adds that because people usually work so hard for so long to prop up their belief, when disillusionment finally sets in, it's bitter. "You'll adjust and adjust and adjust," she says, "and when you finally break, it's severe and dramatic."
Pastor Mac has an answer for those who might hear Cooey's words and feel a satanic seed of doubt trying to enter their hearts: If you manage your finances in a godly fashion, you won't fall prey to hucksters. The tithe comes first—off one's gross income, in fact, since income taxes are man's law and not God's—and then one's own family, he insists in Simplifying Your Life.