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Church Culture Opinion

“American Gospel” Shows Real-Life Consequences Of Poor Theology

NetFlix documentary traces the actions and teachings of Prosperity Gospel preachers like Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn

Editor’s note:  This article comes to MinistryWatch as a result of our partnership with Religion Unplugged, where it was originally published.  For more about Religion Unplugged, click here.

The 2018 documentary “American Gospel: Christ Alone” is now available on NetFlix, and it shows in gory detail the often grave consequences of theological illiteracy. Interviewing several pastors, faith leaders and Christians who have encountered the Prosperity Gospel, launched counter-initiatives or climbed out of its grip, the documentary takes a two-fold approach to the issue. It addresses both the theological roots and errors as well as the tangible ramifications of this distinctly American theology. 

The Prosperity Gospel is an offshoot of Evangelicalism in the United States, promulgated by household names like Kenneth Copeland, T.D Jakes and Joel Osteen. It brings with it many buzzword phrases like “name it and claim it” and “health, wealth and happiness.” 

Central to the teaching is a fundamentally broken Christology, the documentary suggests.

It navigates the theological mechanics of the movement with surprising nuance and accuracy while avoiding the temptation to aggregate all of American Christianity, or even all of American Evangelicalism, under a single, pejorative header. It grapples with the pervasiveness and evils of the Prosperity Gospel without issuing a universal condemnation of Christianity.

“American Gospel” traces the actions and teachings of Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn, but these clips are countered by interviews with prominent Christian leaders like Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church, and Jackie Hill Perry, a Christian author, poet and hip-hop artist. Interspersed with these household names are academic authorities, other pastors and Christians who perceived themselves as deceived by the Prosperity Gospel and have since left the movement.

Central to the storytelling is the narrative of Costi Hinn, the nephew of Benny Hinn. Growing up in an environment saturated with the Prosperity Gospel and heavily involved in his uncle’s ministry, he provides a key perspective that is brutally honest without being uncompassionate.

As an adolescent, he worked as a “catcher” in his uncle’s ministry. It was his job to catch the bodies of people who received “faith healings” as they fell to the floor.

He recalls sitting at his own private pool at the Grand Resort Lagonissi in Greece, that cost upwards of $20,000 a night, overlooking the Aegean Sea — the same sea the apostle Paul traversed to carry the Gospel to new nations.

“Here I am, word of faith Prosperity kid, looking out where Paul was shipwrecked, where he went through chaos and hell on earth just to get the Gospel out to people, and now I am staying at 5-star hotels and preaching the same gospel, I thought, as Paul,” Hinn said. 

The film takes an extended look at the “name it and claim it” doctrine, one of the Prosperity Gospel’s most famous and troubling teachings. It encourages practitioners to, in the words of Marilyn Hickey, “speak to your checkbook. Say you, checkbook, have never been so prosperous…you’re just jammed full of money.”

This shocking idea that people can simply speak things into existence through their words comes from a broken Christology that removes the divinity of Christ and subsequently divinizes human beings. The documentary does not shy away from the theological mechanics of these ideas, but confronts them with full force and refreshing accuracy.

It is the “little Gods” idea, the teaching that all people do not merely have the spirit of God in them, but are actually God themselves.

“Jesus was man until God touched him and put the spirit of the living God on the inside of him,” Prosperity preacher Victoria Osteen said in a video clip from Nov. 23, 2011 (53:19). This distinction is subtle but important. Her words imply that Jesus was not God, but was simply acting on the power of God, and that there is nothing Jesus did that you cannot do.

The documentary highlights the pervasiveness of this theological error, using Pastor Bill Johnson of Bethel Church — the congregation behind the popular band Jesus Culture — as a sort of case study. In his book, he claims that Jesus performed miracles not as God, but as a man in perfect relationship with God.

Their message is clear: if you also live in perfect relationship with God, the whole universe can bend to your will.

“American Gospel” shows that theological errancy and illiteracy is more than an academic issue. Conversations about Christology, theodicy and metaphysics are not simply for classroom elites, but have tangible impacts on the day-to-day life of an average Christian. 

A misunderstanding of the divinity of Christ can leave someone thinking he has the power to shape reality by simple speaking things that are untrue as if they were true. “Proclaim I am healed! I am rich! I am young! I am beautiful,” as one of Osteen’s mantras teaches.

Suffering, sickness, violence and death are parts of life, and no amount of talking will banish them from the human experience. A truncated or non-existent theodicy, or theology of suffering, leaves Christians without a framework to understand a central part of life and their faith — the reality of serving a crucified Christ who promised persecution, not prosperity. 

We become like Christ not in his glory, but in his death (Philippians 3:10).

While the documentary dexterously handles Protestant theology and makes a compelling case for the importance of teaching that goes beyond “Coffee and Jesus,” it misunderstands Roman Catholicism and adopts simplistic dichotomies prominent in low-church denominations.

The documentary makes a casual equivalence between Prosperity Gospel teachings and “Roman Catholic religion,” labeling them both as “gospel +” movements. Both of these groups, the documentary suggests, teach that human works are a necessary addition to the justifying work of the cross. In the Prosperity Gospel, it is extreme faith to claim blessings. In Catholicism, it is rituals and sacraments.

However, this rendering of Catholic theology oversimplifies the issue and completely ignores the 1994 ecumenical council at which the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation issued a joint statement on Justification, correcting many of the misunderstandings. 

“On the basis of their dialogue the subscribing Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ,” the Lutheran World Federation said in a statement.

Aside from this somewhat glaring error, the film does an excellent job of navigating theological subtleties and arguing for their importance in day-to-day-life. The Prosperity Gospel is a case study in poor theology and an example of the tangible consequences of seemingly far-off, academic topics. Christology and theodicy matter outside the classroom, now more than ever.

Liza Vandenboom

Liza Vandenboom is a student at The King’s College, an intern at Religion Unplugged and a religion columnist for the Empire State Tribune.