Christianity’s week of magical thinking
As COVID-19 struck, the faithful were desperate to believe that God keeps you healthy.
I started to wonder if they really believe that God will “bless” them with health (and wealth) because they’re so damn good. Like when a big gathering of faith healers was cancelled at the news of COVID-19 being so contagious. Or when a megachurch known for its many “miracle healings” called off trips to the hospital. Maybe the Pope really thought, when he prayed to that special crucifix that maybe stops plagues, that it might work. He later says the virus is God’s payback for sin against the environment.
The Pentecostal talk show host Jim Bakker, of course, got on the bandwagon selling his ‘Silver Solution’ cure, until the state shut him down. Shouldn’t his followers have shut him down? When he says, “It’s like God created it in Heaven to help us”—I wish they’d laughed at him.
John Piper, of course, realizes that COVID-19 is God trying to get humans to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” He uses the occasion to warn not to watch porn—as if it’s all connected.
And Christianity just feels a long, long way from reality.
They whipped out the apocalyptic thinking!—because for many Christians, the world is always trying to end. Isn’t that why God made it? To put an end to this horror! I got that feeling, when I was growing up Evangelical, though the same style crops up throughout Christendom.
“We’re living in the final part of the last days, undoubtedly in the final part of the final part of the last days shortly before the last day of the last days,” says the Jehovah Witness honcho Stephen Lett.
How about your just help people through difficulties, and help them get better? And help them when they don’t.
The Pentecostal “prophet” Shawn Bolz proclaimed on February 29th: “The Lord showed me the end of the coronavirus. The tide is turning now!”
Maybe you’re not supposed to know the future. Maybe you’re supposed to know the present—by observing it.
The Catholic Cardinal Raymond Burke knew just how to comfort the sick, dying and grieving. It’s their fault! “There is no question that great evils like pestilence are an effect of original sin and of our actual sins.” He’s thinking, of course, of transgender people. “We need only to think of the pervasive attack upon the integrity of human sexuality . . .”
For a minute it felt like we were back in the 17th century, when syphilis was ravaging Europe and clerics pronounced judgment on the afflicted. “God has raised up new diseases against debauchery,” intoned John Calvin.
I like to think that adversity, problems, devastation and pain can be part of your understanding of how God works. But in Christianity, so often, it’s magical thinking 24/7. You’re supposed to put yourself on God’s side, somehow, and then the bennies keep flowing.
Speak your faith, start seeing miracles … Owner of your first home! Best selling author … Mother of handsome sons and beautiful daughters! Businessman who is prosperous and fruitful! Your brother’s salvation, your sister’s healing … Speak it into being! Speak it into being! Speak it into being! Amen!
It’s amusing to review the words of pastor Carl Hentz when he’s now disclosing he has the Coronavirus. Maybe we’re not in charge of our fates. Maybe we’re not supposed to “speak” the future into being, or to live in expectation of miracles.
Maybe we’re supposed to deal with the present?—in reality?
I kept waiting to see if Christian thinking would come to mean clear, coherent thinking that intended great respect to all the powers of the Created world—from humans, to viruses. We need boundaries, but that doesn’t mean bugs are bad, or that they’re punishing your enemies.
“I pray a divine reversal and supernatural intervention to this pandemic COVID-19,” writes the Evangelical minister Paula White. She’s the one who works in the White House.
On cue, there’s been reports in Alabama, Louisiana, Indiana and other places — of churches defying the social distancing orders, and holding “laying on of hands” services. I’ll tell you the assumption, lodged deep in the Christian subconscious, that he is not disclosing openly, and may not even be able to express openly. It goes something like this: Since you’re on God’s side, He’ll keep you healthy! And punish your enemies with disease.
I wasn’t that surprised, then, when Jerry Falwell, Jr., tried to bring students back to the campus of Liberty University. “I think we have a responsibility to our students — who paid to be here, who want to be here, who love it here — to give them the ability to be with their friends, to continue their studies, enjoy the room and board they’ve already paid for and to not interrupt their college life,” he said.
It must be hard to let go of the idea, if you’d accepted it, that the Creator isn’t giving you special rules that keep you healthy, and sending healing rays of magic through your cleric’s fingers for when you’re not.
Or sending viruses to kill your enemies.
That might have to involve some reflection on nearly two decades, from the 1980s into the 2000s, in which Christianity, almost universally, celebrated the illness and deaths of AIDS victims.
There was a lot to think about, to repent from. But you can still go to John Piper’s Evangelical go-to website, ‘Desiring God’, and find his 2002 article on why people are dying of AIDS even when they’re not homosexual.
All sin comes with a price. And many pay the bill who never did the sin. This means that we must speak carefully about the cause of AIDS. If any epidemic ever spread because of disobedience to God’s Word, it is AIDS. But millions are infected because of someone else’s disobedience, not their own.
These are the kinds of ideas rattling around in the cultural psyche of Christianity, and leaves them at a loss in responding to COVID-19, where even the “good people” can get sick. And where even—or especially!—church services can lead to further outbreaks. They don’t want to hear that.
A Christian friend of mine seemed like he was getting sloppy in his social distancing, and I reminded him to keep it up. He was in a risk group. “I just think that God will take me home if He wants to,” he said.
God protects you! The thought structures bury themselves in your brain, and it’s hard to think differently. An equally good reading of the Bible, it seems to me, is that God is tasking you with becoming wise, which means learning to live in the world He made.
That feels to me like a gesture of respect.
There should’ve been two decades since of shutting down the faith healing charlatans. I grew up Evangelical, and we’d look down on Benny Hinn and all the other Pentecostal-types who promised miracle cures. It was distaste, though, as much at their style of church services—never at the idea of injustice or fraudulence. We weren’t so much protesting any harm done to those in pain. That wouldn’t be a very Evangelical thing to do.
Instead, there was a doubling-down on the faith-healing. Only months ago, much of the Evangelical world, a few months ago, was waiting the resurrection of a deceased child. This is not a religion even near to the point of thinking about reality, or even of subtle subjects like grieving.
The last decades could’ve seen a religion learning more about its own sacred texts. There is no link ever between God’s love and good health.
This could’ve been a religion learning that the scenes of “healing” in the New Testament aren’t about getting rid of every malady of the body, or about making God’s favorites healthy.
The Bible isn’t a manual of magic medicine. It’s not giving you rules to keep you healthy. That is never true.
As the Dead Sea Scrolls have illuminated, the mentality at work behind the New Testament sees any “healings” as special events concerning malign spirits. A healing was an exorcism, with any physical maladies being seen through a complicated theological lens. As the scholar Cecilia Wassen writes: “Most obviously, these evil forces were thought to be the root cause of illness and physical disability.”
Any healing that Jesus does in the gospel narratives is a sign of authority over the spirit causing that particular complaint.
The ideal is never for everyone in the world to be perfectly healthy, but for the world to operate without evil spirits being able to intrude.
His work leaves the world with a reality that humans were meant to inhabit: a physical world that is full of injury, disease, and death. Where there’s humans and bugs, and the need to learn to live with each other.
Christianity might ask now: What does spirituality look like if you take out the idea that your clerics have magical healing powers?
Or maybe just that clerics don’t get to sell magic.
And that they don’t get to point out “sinners” who are bad, and say who’s being punished. They don’t get to do that.
But such concepts are so ingrained in Christianity that it feels like you’re not being Christian if you stop doing them.
It feels like, instead, you’re being human.