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Al’s Thoughts: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Prosperity Gospel

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the former Lew Alcindor, often has insights into American culture that don’t necessarily line up as conservative v. liberal. His achievement as an athlete climaxing with fourteen years as a L.A. Laker (Detroit Pistons’ great Isiah Thomas called the greatest basketball player of all time. This from someone who played against Michael Jordan) has made him aware of the relationship between the natural inequalities of talent and the importance of personal responsibility to do what one can to overcome these natural inequalities.

His attack on the prosperity gospelers is welcome although he is simply repeating what Christian critics have been saying since its inception. The teaching is drawn from some junk mind science teaching from the 19th century blended with Pentecostal Christianity. In Dangers to the Faith I spend some time on the New Age/mind science versions like Rhonda Byrnes’ The Secret with a touch of Oprah.

The Prosperity Gospel is usually traced back to E.W. Kenyon (1867-1948) and took off in the 1950s healing revivals that brought Oral Roberts to prominence. It grew through the 60s and began gaining momentum in the Word of Faith movement in the1970s that exploded in the 1980s with Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland and the father of Joel Osteen who today is among the three or four most powerful influences in Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity in America.  (Osteen is so far different from Billy Graham that you can’t imagine how “evangelical” can be applied to both.)

The African American genealogy is a little different with figures like Father Divine and Reverend Ike being part of the family tree. Most African American prosperity teachers, however, owe more than a debt of spiritual gratitude to the Word of Faith movement of Hagin and Copeland. Prosperity thinking is has been endemic in African American churches for a half generation. Kareem shows awareness of this. His story about Creflo Dollar represents much of what I’ve seen in smaller measure in Detroit African American prosperity churches.

 Why is Kareem sensitive to this? Maybe just from being an American interested in spiritual things and watching televangelists. But maybe there is something more. What’s interesting to me is that Kareem took his Muslim name (1971) when he learned that Alcindor was his family’s slave name given him by a French planter from Trinidad in the 18th century. Kareem claims that his family was Muslim and among the Yoruba. The Yoruba, however, are a multi-religious people with many conflicting traditions. Voodoo, reincarnation, folk religion, Christianity, Islam are all represented among the Yoruba. BUT today Pentecostal Christianity seems to be strong including some big name prosperity teachers. Just look at these guys. http://www.yorubafilm.com/yoruba-pastors/index.1.html   Is this one reason Kareem’s warring against prosperity gospelers? Not only do they break the relationship between personal responsibility and success, they infect his Yoruban ethnicity and the twisted Christianity so common among American blacks?  See Watch This!: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism by Jonathan L. Walton for an academic look at this phenomenon. For those who want to deal with the theology of the prosperity gospel. Here’s a more biblical look from an evangelical Protestant apologist who, as I remember him, has no love for Catholicism. The Word-Faith Controversy: Understanding the Health and Wealth Gospel by Robert M., Jr. Bowman. Here is an old one from a writer I’ve lost track of but had great respect for The Health and Wealth Gospel: What’s Going on Today in a Movement That Has Shaped the Faith of Millions by Bruce Barron. I can’t resist throwing in Gordon Fee’s The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospel. Gordon Fee is an Assembly of God New Testament scholar and one of America’s greatest. His daughter’s no slouch either.

Read Kareem’s article “Prosperity Gospel Is War on the Poor” here.

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