October 9th, 2013
07:07 PM ET
Opinion by Kate Bowler, Special to CNN
(CNN) - Money. Women. Fame. Church.
That's a day in the life of “The Preachers of L.A.,” a new reality show centered on the lives of megachurch pastors of the so-called “prosperity gospel.”
The show, which premiers Wednesday night on the Oxygen Network, is a chaotic mix of prayer, "house porn," and neatly orchestrated dust-ups between senior pastors and their “first ladies.”
In some ways, the combination of the prosperity gospel with the “Real Housewives” format is a match made in Oprah-produced heaven.
Men of the cloth cruise Southern California in lavish cars weighed down by their gold watches and tiny dogs.
As Ron Gibson, a bishop in the largest Pentecostal denomination in the country, explains: “P. Diddy, Jay Z. They’re not the only ones who should be driving Ferraris and living in nice houses.”
Clarence McClendon, said to be so good-looking that he must take out restraining orders on women in his church, concurs: “The Bible says that I wish above all things that you would prosper and be in health, even as your soul prospers.”
He grins. “I believe that.”
To critics, "The Preachers of L.A." represents the distilled toxicity of Christianity combined with a money-obsessed generation of American preachers.
Even to sympathizers, the show seems to reaffirm all the negative stereotypes about greedy prosperity preachers more interested in bling than the BIble.
So why would six well-established prosperity preachers put so much on the line, with so much to lose?
I have spent the last decade studying the prosperity gospel and trying to convince readers that, underneath all the hype about the lifestyle of its preachers, there is serious theology at work.
The prosperity gospel is an offshoot of Pentecostalism that centers on a new understanding of faith. Faith, rather than simple trust, is re-imagined as a spiritual power released by positive thoughts and words.
This faith formula was a blend of early 20th-century American theologies of self-help, popular psychology, metaphysical philosophy and can-do attitudes about the power of the mind.
During the economic boom of the 1950s, tent-toting Pentecostal healers like Oral Roberts, Kenneth Hagin and A. A. Allen began to expand on what this newfound spiritual power could do.
By their teaching and their example, they showed a generation of believers how they could use their faith to change their circumstances. Faith could heal bodies, multiply finances, restore families and bring a taste of heaven down to Earth.
The prosperity gospel is predicated on the belief that your life—your body, wallet, family, career and full head of hair—is a witness to whether your faith is effective.
Having traveled the country to visit these churches, I have seen preachers make this point in a thousand ways: from boasting about their perfect health (“I’ve never been sick!”), giving tours of their airplane fleet, even handing out cash in the Sunday service.
In "Preachers of L.A.," when Bishop Noel Jones of the 20,000-member City of Refuge rolls out of his Sunday service with his entourage in a gleaming town car, fawning women pressed up against the glass, his celebrity status is confirmed.
But this is not just show-and-tell bragging. It’s meant to be a spiritual witness, concrete proof that God is present. Look at what God can do!
What's most dangerous for a cast of prosperity preachers, though, are the unwritten rules of all reality shows: The rich and the mighty must prove that they, too, are plagued with “real-life” problems. They might be in a Lear jet, but they are suffering in a Lear jet.
“Being a pastor is very dangerous, because you have to be perfect at all times,” says one L.A. pastor.
“People put you up on a pedestal that you can’t live on,” complains another.
Or as Pastor Deitrick Haddon bemoans behind designer sunglasses: “I’m a pastor, but at the end of the day, I’m a MAN.”
The problem is these ministers gave up being “just a man” when they became prosperity preachers. The movement places a great weight on the spiritual power of leaders as living proof of what the prosperity gospel can do.
You will find a theological justification for this every time a journalist asks a prosperity pastor a few pointed questions about why he or she needs a plane or a vintage muscle car collection or a personal rare bird sanctuary.
The answer is always the same: What I have, I use for the ministry. If the prosperity gospel worked for me, it can work for anyone. I’m commissioned by God with special gifts for special purposes.
These pastors’ Midas touch provides endless sermon illustrations designed to tantalize audiences: If only you believe what I believe, you can have what I have, too.
Because these leaders are symbols of more and better, some argue that the prosperity gospel’s primary aim is to inspire. It infuses people with optimism and a desire to want, expect and make steps toward achieving greater things.
But don't mistake the prosperity gospel and its preachers for religious sideshows or easy targets.
If you look past the Rolexes, Mercedes, gold chains and monogrammed pocket squares, you might see something surprising. These pastors, bejeweled as they are, would never want their lifestyle to be a barrier to their evangelism.
Precisely the opposite. They still want their message and their ministry to transcend—and be mediated through—their material "blessings."
There is a reason why the prosperity gospel represents a powerful stream in American religious life.
As my own research shows, millions of American Christians have turned to the prosperity gospel to help them understand God as deeply invested in their everyday lives. They want a God who cares about their heath, their mortgage payments and their ability to afford a better life.
Many believers in the prosperity gospel will despise the “The Preachers of L.A.” for advertising the humanity of the man behind the message. Still others will tune in because of their deep belief that the high life might actually be divine.
Kate Bowler is assistant professor of the History of Christianity in the United States at Duke Divinity School and author of "Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel." The views expressed in this column belong to Bowler.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.