Thursday, February 26, 2009

When Bad Things Happens to Good People - Holes in the Evangelical Prosperity Narrative



I’m ashamed to admit that I have never read this book by Harold Kushner. When it was first published, 20 years ago, I was a hard-core Evangelical and we were taught that the book was full of hearsay. We were told, by pastors etc, that the book presented a God who is too weak to overcome difficulties in this world. I really need to read the book for myself to see if this is really his conclusion. I mean, the same pastors would say the same about my position . . . which is the furthest thing from the truth.

But I’m using his title and book photo to introduce this topic. This topic, in many ways, is a continuation of my last post.

While some people write blogs with careful research and thought (I think of Michael Spencer here and some of the more scholarly blogs he quotes from) I type rapidly, between patients, and from the gut. So, I often have typos and thoughts that should have been developed better. But if I don’t do it this way, then I don’t do it at all. It’s a time issue. I work about 50 hours a week, I’m back in graduate school, I’m on there boards of directors . . . the chair of one . . . plus I have several reading and writing projects going. Sorry to digress.

In summary, my post yesterday is about the fact that I have a close friend who is dying from cancer. It is really upsetting me and it is about all I can think about.

My friend Terry had a form of cancer that most people recover from. He started out on a good track and we heard constant reports of his progress and little “miracles.” Then he had a sudden and unrepentant rapid decline. This week the news was even much worse . . . as if his disease was following the worse possible path. This is despite a lot of people praying for him, he being in the hands of great doctors and the family doing every thing right.

Then I noticed the odd turn in events. Our church (we go to the same one) was oddly silent about him this week. I thought it would be the main topic since his terrible news came in just on Friday.

This is where we as Christians, especially Evangelicals (and I’ve written about this before) paint ourselves into a corner. The narrative that we love to read and hear about is where the Christian beats the odds . . . where miraculously they are healed when the doctors said there was no hope. Or, the plane goes down and the Christian, Bobby or Betty, are the only survivors . . . and they survived against great odds. These are the books that fill our mall’s Precious Moments Christian Bookstore.

What happens though, when Bobby or Betty (The faithful Christian-hard church workers-with wonderful Christian parents) are the ONLY ones killed on the plane. And, imagine, that the plane crash was minor.

My first encounter with this problem was when I was 18 years old and a new Christian. I had jumped with both feet from the Bible belt upbringing into hard-core Evangelism. One of my Christian friends, Amanda, was a wonderful gal. Great church worker even (although she was only 16) helping her older sister to lead their youth group. Amanda had just gotten her driver’s license. She asked if she could borrow her dad’s pick up to take one of her first solo drives, down the hill, to the store, to buy milk. She got in the truck, drove very carefully (about 35 MPH from what I was told). However, the edge of the tire dropped off the pavement. This pulled the truck towards the ditch. The steepness of the ditch made the truck turn over. I’m not sure what happened. Either her head came out the open side window or something came it . . . but everyone agrees, it was a “freak of nature” that Amanda was killed.

I was devastated and very, very confused. I knew guys in high school that drove their supped up cares at a 115 MPHs on those twisty Appalachian roads, and with a 1/5 of Jack Daniels half drunk. These guys hated God (by their own words) and did as much evil as they could find to do. They are in their 50s now and have never had a car wreck. Why did Amanda.

As a young evangelical I did the same thing as I see Terry’s Christian friends doing. I went silent. I never visited Amanda’s parents again nor her older sister, who had been a good friend. I simply didn’t know how to process the loss. It is one of the biggest regrets of my life.

When really bad things happen, when fate follows the worse possible road, it leaves us out on some type of theological limb with a saw in our hands. The response usually takes one of three forms. Like me, and our church right now, we go silent. Or, we blame someone. For example, the doctor’s made a mistake. The patient was a smoker. He didn’t take care of himself. Finally we get into the “God’s wonderful plan” narrative. In Terry’s case, I expect people start to talk about God had this “wonderful” plan for Terry to suffer really bad, then go through an agonizing death . . . for a good reason.” Often people start the name the reason, teaching someone something or bringing a relative of the victim to the Lord. But often people settle on (thinking it is a great expression of faith) simply, “Only God knows . . . but he did it, he is in complete control and I trust that he knows what he’s doing.”

I will continue this thought in a Part II.

6 comments:

Onward, Forward, Toward… said...

I too was told the exact same thing about Kushner's book. Maybe I need to get myself a copy and read it for myself.

Growing up pentecostal/holiness, there was another dynamic at work as a response especially if the person who endured the suffering was young.

Blame the victim...... (unless they were an deacon and family, the biggest financial contributor and family, or the pastor and their family then it was called 'the great Satanic attack')

He/she must have lacked faith, 'secret sin', disagreed with the pastor or some Christian mega celebrity (aka touching the anointed), must have done something so bad that angered God to the point of wrath, didn't pay his tithes, or not praying long and hard enough.

If that was not bad enough. When that person eventually died, those pastors would preach their funerals about going to Gloryland and the following Sunday while the family was absent from church still grieving, then preach to the congregation that the person was in a state of eternal torment of hell because they died so young and therefore must have lacked faith, 'secret sin', disagreed with the pastor or some Christian mega celebrity (aka touching the anointed), must have done something so bad that angered God to the point of wrath, didn't pay his tithes, or not praying long and hard enough.

It rains on the just and the unjust.

I am looking forward to part 2 and pray that your friend will see a miracle.

Anonymous said...

We were told, by pastors etc, that the book presented a God who is too weak to overcome difficulties in this world. I really need to read the book for myself to see if this is really his conclusion.

My gut feeling is, it's probably another attempt to resolve the paradox between these three axioms:
1) God is all-powerful and all-knowing.
2) God is all-Good.
3) Evil exists.
Any two of these three make sense. All three of them together, and you get a paradox that burns out your brain like the supercomputer on that episode of Star Trek. And Rabbi Kushner is just the latest one to tackle it and come up short, probably by downplaying axiom 1.

I was devastated and very, very confused. I knew guys in high school that drove their supped up cares at a 115 MPHs on those twisty Appalachian roads, and with a 1/5 of Jack Daniels half drunk. These guys hated God (by their own words) and did as much evil as they could find to do. They are in their 50s now and have never had a car wreck. Why did Amanda.

1) "God looks out for drunks, fools, and the American Army."
2) "Shit Happens." Just like that tower collapse in Siloam...

As a young evangelical I did the same thing as I see Terry’s Christian friends doing. I went silent. I never visited Amanda’s parents again nor her older sister, who had been a good friend. I simply didn’t know how to process the loss. It is one of the biggest regrets of my life.

At such times, I'm usually at a complete loss myself. I tell them that "at a time like this, anything I say is going to sound real stupid" and then I just BE there and don't say much.

In Terry’s case, I expect people start to talk about God had this “wonderful” plan for Terry to suffer really bad, then go through an agonizing death . . . for a good reason.” Often people start the name the reason, teaching someone something or bringing a relative of the victim to the Lord. But often people settle on (thinking it is a great expression of faith) simply, “Only God knows . . . but he did it, he is in complete control and I trust that he knows what he’s doing.”

Question, JMJ, OFT: How does that differ from the Total Blind Faith or Resignation to Fate you find in Arab tribal culture? And if it doesn't, why are you not Extreme Muslim, drinking that kind of "Inshall'ah" Faith on the rocks instead of watered-down?

-- Headless Unicorn Guy
(in a really down-and-bad mood today)

MJ said...

Thanks for your comments.

Steve Martin said...

First off...there are NO good people.

MJ said...

The term "Good" is a relative term. If you are saying that everyone is crap (which I don’t think you are) then I disagree. God made us . . . then he said his handiwork was “good.”

Then we get into the area of deserving of consequences. One could say that everyone deserves to burn in hell forever because they were born into sin. Okay, that’s a fair statement.

But then if you say, “A six month old baby gets burned with cigarette butts then starved and beaten . . . finally to death by their mother’s abusive boyfriend and they didn’t deserve it." and that would be a fair statement too.

That’s what I’m talking about. My friend Terry doesn’t “deserve” to suffer and die from cancer any more than you or I. So, in a relative sense, “He’s a good guy.” Of course I’m not saying it in am absolute sense that he is without sin nor am I; nor am I less of a sinner than the most hideous of them.

My friend Amanda was a “good gal.” I’m saying these things in opposition to the Evangelicals who claim that if you are “good” or follow “God’s will” then you will prosper and be protected by God. Listen in church. You will hear it every day. Every TV evangelist says it.

Steve Martin said...

MJ,

I agree.

Bad things do happen to "good people".

In this sin-soaked world, there is enough pain and suffering to go around.

We all have to deal with it and that's just the way it is.

Even the Son of God had to be mocked, tortured and murdered.

And He was really good!!