… Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Aftermath
When Darkness Descends
A sudden troubling disappointment seemed to wash over me one Sunday morning not too long ago as I sat alone in church. It was my first time returning for worship since the COVID-19 crisis stirred up all the shutdowns. I was struggling with how much my ideals for Lord’s Day worship culture (and a church culture and Christian community at large) were feeling like a dream that died long ago—years before SARS-CoV-2 was a thing.
I caught a hope and a vision years ago about being part of a church where we all shared a common zeal for a common liturgy, a common confession, a common mission, a common discipline—a life flourishing as one high-functioning model family among many in thick and rich Christian community. A repristinated and glamorized micro-Christendom.
It’s often fleeting where and when such a thing exists. And for many modern Christians, they thirst for some version of it, but they can’t have it and can’t make it work. For those who find that it conveniently does work, it becomes its own self-reinforcing and filtering mechanism. It’s a brand and a product. But its promises pave the way for disappointment and disillusionment for some as reality inevitably has its way.
This is the particular seductive prosperity gospel to which my heart has succumbed more than once. And when it’s not seducing my hopes, it’s a dark spell’s accusation on my mind that tells me I’m the accursed failure behind this hope not coming to pass in my life.
Gospel and Kingdom, Present and Future
The true Gospel in its fullness is about the Kingdom of God. And the Kingdom of God in its fullness is about the world to come in the future. All false prosperity gospels are some distorted version of an over-realized eschatology—false or misguided expectations for a restoration and transformation that isn’t realistic and isn’t promised for us in our life in the present world.
The particular prosperity gospel I have in mind is one which I found in Reformed circles, specifically among theonomic or reconstructionist postmillennialists. It’s ironic that this over-realized eschatology is marked by something of a functional reversal of our forward motion in history and a backtracking to the world before the Fall followed by an alternate world where the Fall didn’t happen. I describe it as retrolapsarian. It’s a hope and a vision where faithfulness in all things leads to a golden age in the present world that recaptures the edenic life. It’s marked by dominion, fecundity, and succession, and insofar as it’s still reckoning with a postlapsarian world, it’s marked by triumph over the enemies of God. It takes the Dominion Mandate of Genesis 1 and maintains it with little or no accounting for the christological and christotelic fullness and fulfillment of it.
It some ways, it’s a lot like dispensational premillennialism’s expectations of a millennial kingdom that isn’t the final eschatological eternal state and world to come. Old Testament passages (describing the future world in restored edenic imagery) that dispensationalists interpret as descriptions of a millennial kingdom are the passages that postmillennialists interpret as descriptions of a golden age before the Second Coming. The dispensationalist expects Christ to return to earth and establish his halfway eschatological kingdom, while the postmillennialist expects Christ to remain enthroned in heaven and establish his rule over the nations through the agency of his church on the earth.
I’m not entirely dismissive of the scriptural weight and a sizable measure of truth behind postmillennialism as it shares a number of features in common with amillennialism. And I’m not fully persuaded that formal eschatological views force these sort of outcomes. I’m at least as inclined to think that prior commitments to mindsets and attitudes seek out an eschatology that fulfills them.
Less theoretically and more practically, the retrolapsarian prosperity gospel has its effect when its adherents establish local attempts at a microcosm of the hopeful vision. When a community is founded and grown on this vision, it starts to unfold itself. And the subtlety of this prosperity gospel is that it doesn’t actively promise the perfection of these things; it merely tempts the mind to adopt this false hope through omission and negligence.
Sketch: Seeing Thoughts out of Sight and out of Mind
So what does this particular Reformed retrolapsarian prosperity gospel look like?
It’s the expectation that the institution of the nuclear family is so expansively central that everyone is reckoned solely according to his or her assured place on the path through the institution of the biological nuclear family—young men and women on their way into the system and old men and women on their way out of and over the system as new resident experts. No other mode of valid agency is meaningfully addressed. The family goes from merely appropriate sociopolitical centrality to an all-consuming meticulous universality.
It’s the expectation that every man will be a physician, lawyer, professor—something that will provide a single income that will ensure a suitable house in suburbia, a homemaker’s lifestyle for his wife, a humidor stocked with cigars and a cabinet stocked with fine liquor, a classical homeschool education followed by private liberal arts college for his children, and a seat of respect and honor in the gates with the elders of the church and community.
It’s the expectation that if a wife and mother ever has to get a part-time job, then the man of the house requires an intervention. There can never be a valid reason for this. He’s just not being sufficiently diligent. The same applies to enrolling children in the public school system. There can never be a valid reason or circumstance in which to do that.
It’s the expectation that no marriage will end in divorce. And it’s the expectation that you don’t have to burden your mind with thinking about what will happen when there is one.
It’s the expectation that no one will enter the community as a divorcee and single parent. Maybe a young widow(er). And finding him or her a new spouse will be the only strategy. Not that it’s a bad strategy, but it will be the only strategy.
It’s the expectation that no couple will have infertility problems. At least not permanently. Eventually, there will be a conception (and more to come). The long string of miscarriages will eventually end. None of this is worth fretting about beforehand (which is true), since heaven and earth will be moved to make it happen (which is troublesome). A therapeutic solution will be found. A surgery will be performed. Just as long as there are no abortive side-effects, the “pro-life” brand can be retained. Fecundity is the imperative. There shall be dominion even over stubborn barren wombs. But little or no thought will be given to the notion that such an attitude over one’s body betrays a theology of the body in which fertility treatments and technologies exist on a continuum with practices like surrogacy, birth control and sterilization, designer infants, elective abortion, and sex reassignment surgery. A host of contradictory positions from the “pro-life” perspective. But partners in crime from the perspective of manipulating one’s self-perception as a biologically sexed creature of God by asserting power over one’s embodied existence.
It’s the expectation that no child will ever have a learning disability or a neurodiversity challenge. At best, there will be feeble attempts to awkwardly tip a hat to the situation. But in the final analysis, it boils down to silent glares that say, “bad parenting”.
It’s the expectation that any sort of childhood congenital or development problem (which will be rare, of course, far too rare to be worth discussing in advance) will conform to an approved list of acceptable conditions that can be pitied or paraded effectively. Physical handicaps will be accommodated. There will be no discussion or expectation of intersex deformities or emergent aberrant sexual desires. This would blemish the universality of the biological nuclear family expectation. But if the situation arises, it’ll be appropriately managed and mitigated by a pastor who is an expert in everything under the sun.
It’s the expectation that a mother’s heart will be devastated and a father’s legacy will be sullied if a child has been dealt a future where he or she isn’t going to marry and provide grandchildren no matter the reason. The young man or woman had better die a martyr’s death to even have a halfway plausible excuse.
It’s the expectation that none of these sorts of exceptions will be addressed in advance or accounted for in the regular standing teaching of the community. It’s a plan to not plan to account for the fullness of reality. Thus it’s a plan to fail everyone who is a deviation from the grand communal vision of the Good Life.
I think you catch the general drift by now and can apply the template.
It’s the expectation of strength, triumph, and victory without the paradoxical expectation that such things happen through weakness, failure, and defeat. It’s the expectation of the Church’s ministry of blessing to the world without the Church’s ministry of suffering on behalf of the world. But that sort of paradox is a hallmark of the Christian Faith and Life.
The mojo that makes this particular Reformed retrolapsarian prosperity gospel work isn’t so-called “faith” (i.e. sheer force of will), as is the case with the vile Word Faith prosperity gospel, but so-called “faithfulness” (i.e. performance and subsequent success).
This is Deuteronomy 28 (which might possibly somehow be appropriated in some way) without any accounting for generalities and exceptions or especially for the Fall (which can’t possibly be realistic or wise). This is Proverbs without Ecclesiastes. This is taking sides with Job’s lousy friends who accused him just as Satan did.
Some Concluding Thoughts
Remember, this is a prosperity gospel when your heart is tempted to believe it by what you’re tempted to overlook and exclude from all consideration. This is not a prosperity gospel that’s taught and caught through what’s actively communicated but is taught and caught through what goes unsaid, then what goes unconsidered, and then what becomes desired. It’s a prosperity gospel when you hold yourself to false expectations of success that God hasn’t given you (and has certainly made quite evident in due time) but which a community or movement may well be unconsciously reinforcing upon itself.
Did I devise these descriptions from my own experience? Some of it comes from my own experience. Some of it comes from my own observations and ruminations. And some of it comes from the experiences, observations, and ruminations of my friends who move in these Reformed circles with me. They’re the result of unrealistically naive and polished dreams that were sown in myself and others which didn’t materialize into reality. Our Good Lord in his wisdom granted something else that came to pass.
I have to open my eyes and see where the grace of God is at work in my life. And it’s often in places where the church is more invisible or more diffuse in the here and now. It’s with brothers in Christ who have the same weight on their minds and share the same struggle.
Let’s be realistic about the Here and Now between the Already and the Not Yet.