Ah, those golden days of Euro-made Steve Reeves Hercules flicks.
Got to thinking about heroes the other night. I caught an episode of Law & Order, something I do less and less because the show’s become preachy about “issues.” But I still have a soft spot for it and record the episodes so I can watch if they’re good drama and dump ’em if they’re political sermons.
Oh, right, heroes. The other night’s episode took on the prosperity gospel, which Britannica defines pretty well as
the teaching that faith—expressed through positive thoughts, positive declarations, and donations to the church—draws health, wealth, and happiness into believers’ lives. It is also referred to as the “health and wealth gospel” or “name it and claim it.”
Prosperity preachers are heroes to people who struggle in a system that seems built to frustrate them. The preachers put out the message that the faithful, if faithful enough, can come into the prosperity that the preacher flexes for them, as Hercules flexed and did wonders in the face of hostile gods.
Prosperity preachers are heroes in the ancient sense of that word. The gods messed capriciously and cruelly with Hercules, just as the people who celebrated his myths felt the gods doing to them. And the hero pushed back, giving the beat up people some vicarious wins. The prosperity preacher does that for marginalized people. The preacher excels in the system that’s against them.
The rub is that Hercules wasn’t real, even if his story gave some people a boost in the real world. And the properity gospel isn’t real, even if it gives people a shot of hope and improves some lives in the real world.
Gregory J. Riley’s One Jesus, Many Christs explored how the hero tradition in the Mediterranean world probably prepared many for the arrival of the Gospel. (Note: the title and cover of the book are misleading. The publishers evidently felt more secure with a diversity message – worthwhile as that might be – than in the more pointed content of the book. Such is publishing.)
Jesus might well have been perceived as a mythic hero, but he was represented by a church that demonstrated reality. The church came to challenge the systems that made life an affliction, and the church was content to suffer the same indignities as those who heard its message. The apostolic witness was not, “Hey, we can do super human feats (a la Hercules) and be richer/prettier/healthier versions of you slobs (as per the prosperity gospel). The apostles lived out what many Christians heard in church this morning:
For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:2-5)
That power was in the God who came to be with and like the people in every way, except sin,
to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:17)
He doesn’t fix all of our problems. But because he shared them and overcame the ways they warp us, they have lost their claim to define us.
His heroism was not in transcending us and telling us to try harder, but by joining us in all the frustration of life; the injustices, the injuries, the inevitable death. Our calling is to join him in suffering those things in faith that they are not the final word – that He is the Word…
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)
Or you can cast about for someone else…
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