Sunday, 22 February 2015

Prince and the grace revolution.

What is it with the gospel and success? Can anyone tell me? Does anyone know?

When the gospel was known only to 12, it was fiercely persecuted. The authorities spat at it, hated it and wanted to suppress it. Amidst the persecution, it stubbornly persisted. So, it grew and soon attained cult status; albeit hidden in the shadows, tucked away to be starved of publicity but not popularity.

Still, it just simply refused to go away. It refused to disappear. It was definitely not a one-trick pony. Many saw that it was different. It looked different. It sounded different. It felt different. It was a sort of diamond in the rough, a revelatory sparkle in a lover's eye, an irresistible magnetism that many were helplessly enthralled, even spellbound. The dizzy hold took flight with a secret meeting in an upper-room and the fire was unquenchable ever since.

Alas, the gospel was blessed with a jack-sparrow-like rebellion and the authorities, especially the religious strangleholds, could not stand the sight of it. But what a sight it was! 12 became 500, 500 multiplied to 10,000, and from there, it was a runaway best-cellar hit, an underground spiritual fermentation of sort.

But of all the miracles ever witnessed then, that is, the blind saw, the lame walked, the diseased healed and the possessed delivered, the greatest miracle still eluded this nascent Jesus cult. It was the miracle of the rulership's blessings that was missing. This was clearly ironical since it already had the king of kings' seal of approval. Somehow, the edict from heaven took its time to be delivered to the rulers on earth. The divine messenger was unfortunately derailed.

But arrived it did. By the Edict of Milan 313, King Constantine gave the bloody Calvary message his tolerance, blessings and even indulgence. From there, the gospel received the hallowed embrace, almost like a royal spa treatment. However, with freedom and power came its spoilt cousins, exclusivity and abuse. The institutionalized gospel sadly flourished into an overbearing commonweal with it tentacles-like hold on the feudal lives of many, even at times sleeping with its political enemies for political patronage, enrichment and domination.

As it came out of the shadows, from the velvet undergrounds, it was supposed to lift up the emblem of truth for all to see. But instead, it casts another shadow, a foreboding one, a shadow that monopolized truth. Alas, knowing this institutionalized, repackaged truth did not set people free. On contrary, it kept them in religious cages of fear and control. So, this time, no doubt another irony - an even starker one - truth went underground while deception took its place to reign above ground.

More pertinently, and even stranger, as the tainted gospel grew horizontally, conquering large tracts of lands by religious encyclicals and papal decrees, it shrunk vertically, that is, it lost touch with the divine source that gave it life in the first place. This perverse inverse relation between the metaphorical horizontal growth and vertical shrinkage is glaringly unsettling, even up till today.

Then came the ugly and violent Protestant split. It started with a solo earthly act of church door vandalism by a devout and obsessed priest and it ended with the death of thousands in the European wars of the seventeen century. This all originated from Calvary where a solo divine act of selfless sacrifice, albeit redeeming thousands, also resulted in the deaths of thousands in the many religious wars that had been mindlessly fought over the centuries. But of course, such conflicts were more the result of religious  fanaticism than the product of true transformation.

So, this brings us to where we are now. The 21st century. After all its history, the good, the bad and the ugly, the gospel still survived it all. From underground to above-ground, from low ground to high ground, from hard ground to bloody ground, it is sadly anything but grounded in the truth. Of course, many had lived and died a martyr's pledge and have thus honorably preserved the purity of the gospel. But there were even more who had lived and died a hypocrite's pact and forever devalued the gospel.

Many religious actors in their regaling tutu have pirouetted their pious pageantry on the world stage under the glare of the media to standing ovation and personal enrichment. Each of them touting a carefully varnished gospel, claiming to be different from the rest, promising promises that promises more promising promises. Yet, none of them is new. None of them is even an improved version of the old - for how do you perfect perfection?

Therefore, none of them have kept their promises. Their mediagenic, mirage-like assurances hid this subtle message: It's mostly re-packaging. Maybe a shinier cover, a glossier binding, a laminated overall, but the message has remained the same since the day that Jesus proclaimed, "It's finished!"

It is indeed finished. The work is done. The sacrifice made. The atonement paid. The love is complete. The gospel is finished. No more editing. No more creative modifications. No more abridgment. The gospel is the gospel is the gospel and anything more or less is nothing more than self-serving reproductions. If anything, it can be said that Jesus was the gospel's first and last inspiration and author. It was a personal and loving memoir of his life, written in blood, and dedicated to all. And in his death, the magnum opus of his life and victory was finished. He therefore allowed for no addition to or subtraction from it. Neither any interpretation and application of it that are misleading.

And now we have our very own local and global superstar Pastor Prince, amongst others, and his grace revolution. His grace teaching is not new actually. It is not the first. Neither will it be the last. In a recent interview in New York, he claimed that God spoke to him in a clear, audible voice privately in 1997 when he was vacationing in the Swiss Alps. Below is an excerpt of the divine encounter as narrated by him.

God: “You are not preaching grace. 
Prince: “Lord I am a grace man. I preached faith. I preached grace.
God: “No. Every time you preach grace you try to balance it with the law. And therefore you neutralized grace.
Prince: “Oh…Lord that’s a low blow…whatever do you mean?” (audience laugh)
God: “…unless you preach radical grace…lives will not be radically transformed.”

In the same interview, in a subsequent divine encounter, this was what transpired between them for the second time.

God: “…would you like to know the secret of great faith?”
Prince: “Of course…”

He then said that God told him about the Centurion and the Phoenician woman in the Bible who received their miracle healings by proxy from Jesus and was accredited with great faith. He was quizzed by God about the common denominator between them. Pastor Prince struggled to find the common denominator and gave up midstream and eagerly asked God for the answer.

God: “…both were gentiles…”
Prince: “…what do you mean Lord?
God: “They were not law conscious. They didn’t know the ten commandments. But they were Jesus conscious. They knew who was standing in front of them.” (the audience broke out into applause)

Now, I am not here to question the two divine encounters Pastor Prince had. I am in no position to do so. Neither am I here to question the fact that Jesus commended the Centurion and the Canaanite woman for their great faith after his servant and her daughter respectively were healed and delivered. That’s in the Bible. But my bugbear is really this and it is phrased in a form of a rhetorical lamentation: If this message of radical grace is totally new, then why did God take two thousand years (and possibly more) to deliver it to a lone preacher of this modern age and not earlier to Jesus’ disciples or to the early Church fathers or to the Protestant reformers or to the Anglican pioneers or to the early-church revival evangelists or to the missionary martyrs? What was holding God back by hundreds of years after he had sent his son to die for us? And what were the disciples and others after them subscribing to before God gave Pastor Prince the word when he was holidaying with his wife in the Swiss Alps? Were they subscribing to a watered-down, less-than-complete, half-baked-version of grace?

Obviously, this scenario seems untenable. This leads me to my next lamentation, rhetorical no less.

If this message of radical grace is not new, then what makes it so fabulously popular, magnetic and irresistible even, to the listeners of this modern age who would come in swarms to get a piece of it? Haven’t the same gospel of radical grace so called been preached to generations before us, to all churches past and present, and to all denominational leaders? And if so, how did it go down with them? How were they transformed? Have their transformation been enduring? Did it changed the world as Jesus first intended?

Now, here is a thought experiment. I can imagine that Jesus’ disciples would have experienced radical grace – adopting the words of Pastor Prince’s divine revelation here - and were duly transformed as shown in their exemplary living and sacrificial deaths. Their lives were anything but normal, radical in fact. I can also imagine that Paul himself must have written, taught and preached about it – that is, “radical grace” - in no uncertain terms and he had in fact died for his belief. Was and is Pastor Prince’s radical grace then the silver bullet in the salvational salvo, that is, the gold standard for justification living by faith?

If it is so, and if it has always been so, how could the early church founders, the great theologians cum religious scholars, and the missionary faith planters have missed out on it for so long until God spoke to Pastor Prince in 1997? Was there a lost in translation after the disciples' and Paul's passing? Why didn’t those ancient luminaries of the faith pick up on it, deliver it as it is, and rode it triumphantly down the narrow Calvary road? Could they have been delivering a message of grace that is relatively inferior, less empowering, and more unpolished than those delivered during the post-Pastor-Prince era? Could this account for the state of the world we are living in today? And had they been able to evangelize the world with the same revelation as Pastor Prince had received from God during his Swiss Alps vacation, would the world have been radically changed, widely Christianized, and enduringly empowered by the faith? (Or could this be a radical transformation in quantity only and not in quality and it is only for a season until the hype and novelty fade away?)   

Or maybe, there is another twist to this radical grace thingy?  Maybe there is really nothing new under the sun. Maybe everything that has been said before has been said before. Maybe the grace flowing from Calvary is the same grace that has been flowing since the beginning of creation to the time of Jesus' crucification to the time of the Protestant Reformation to the time of the Industrial Revolution to the present postmodern generation. What is therefore different is that this so-called radical grace has been repackaged and milked for maximum exaggerative and sentimental effects.  But all that glitters from it is really just gold-dust sprinkled on a rusty metal frame and the message of human redemption is still the same since the beginning of time to Calvary to the end of the days. In essence, Jesus did not come to abolish sin once and for all. Neither did he come to dispense with the need for confession nor repentance in our walk with Him. Sin is still very much a part of our life after salvation as is pride, lust, greed, hate and envy. Closing our eyes to them doesn't make it go away. Jesus however came to overcome sin and to fulfill the law. He came to show us the journey and not to complete it for us. 

And if the radical grace is not new, and neither is it radical, what makes Pastor Prince’s divine revelation different from the grace that Jesus’ disciples had received after Calvary?

Personally, I guess what I consider “new” or “radical” – even audacious - in Pastor Prince’s grace revolution is that it appears to have that one-size-fits-all feel to it. In essence, it promises everything good, erases everything bad, and in the meantime, it covers everything ugly. Apparently, you cannot go wrong with such a gospel of universal and unconditional blessings. It appears that such a gospel has God covering your back in everything that you do after salvation. He is at your service. Here is what I mean in one unwieldy paragraph.

I can imagine the grace revolution to be a gospel that forgives all your sins present, past and future, without any need for confession after salvation, and where you are the subject-matter of unconditional love, almost as of right, with a passage to heaven fully guaranteed, that promises you overflowing riches and successes beyond what you can ever imagine in your life, whose only requirement is your unwavering commitment to the mantra of the grace revolution, regardless of whether it is just too good to be true, and such gospel is preached with the sincerest of heart no doubt, by an affable preacher with charisma, looks and all, under the momentous force of a sold-out congregation, which are expected to give of their time and money equally unconditionally to the ministry, and whose collective spiritual fermentation burnishes the apparent image of the authenticity of the message, even though only some, and not all, could truly testify to the full effectiveness of such a name-it-and-claim-it gospel, for which proof of such effectiveness can only be considered at best by correlation and not by credible causation, and the question then has to be this: How can such a movement not multiply in great numbers regardless of whether the message itself reflects what the Bible (or the will of God) has truly intended for each believer?

Of course, this is not to say that Pastor Prince is preaching another gospel different from his Savior. He in fact claims to be a humble servant of the Most High. He wholeheartedly serves Jesus. There is undoubtedly some truth in what he is preaching every Sunday. And I believe that many are deeply touched by his ministry for the right reason. That much is established. That much is clear.

However, what I am concerned with is not just the crux of the message (which tend to take the sacrifices or "inconveniences" out of believing), but also the cult of the personality. Understandably, the perception of those who follow and adore him is unfortunately beyond his personal control (but it is nevertheless not outside his sphere of responsibility). Every successful leader will be followed. And every follower will be led. The leader and follower relationship is intertwined. The leader reinforces his followers and vice versa. It is therefore only human and almost inevitable that many will perceive what they can humanly perceive and attribute to what they can humanly attribute to. Especially in matters of religion, the message delivered is often overshadowed by the person delivering it. Therefore, the risk of misattribution is high for those who are eagerly faithful. Underscore "eagerly".

Alas, in such a relationship that is mutually reinforcing, the person worshipped is often missed for the person leading the worship (and the person being preached about is often missed for the person doing the preaching). Our focus is often easily swayed because of this simple fact that perceived absence (that is, physical absence since faith is the evidence of things not seen) makes the hearts flounder and perceived presence (especially regular Sunday stage-presence, in a leathered coat, with agreeable hairstyle and a charming smile) makes the hearts swoon with wonder. Underscore “perceived”.

Let me end by saying this. It is admonished that we are supposed to walk by faith and not by sight. Well, sadly, that is easier said than done. Most times, what is visible in the flesh has more influence over that which is invisible in the spirit. This is seldom admitted but difficult to deny. Although some of the believers may claim to be walking by faith, in reality, even unconsciously, the direction they are inching towards may be led more by what is visibly projected before them than what is quietly admonishing within them. I recall St Ignatius of Loyola (the founder of the Jesuit order) once described the Jesuit ideal as the constant striving to be ordinary. Somehow, and most unfortunately, I am afraid that this is one ideal that a highly visible Christian leader enamored by his followers will find most difficult to strive for. And going back to the question I asked in the beginning of this post: "What is it with the gospel and success?" I guess my answer is that the gospel of success is just not the same with the success of the Gospel. Cheerz.

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