The Common Good

Five Traits of a False Prophet

Somehow I’ve had the good fortune until recently not to know who Theresa Caputo, (AKA the Long Island Medium) was. The long and short of it, in case you’ve been similarly privileged, is that she has a reality show and claims to speak to dead people. She also has a book, which I saw in the airport bookstore, and tours extensively (including where we are on vacation). Before I knew who she was, just looking at her book cover and the related press around her, I assumed she was the latest in a long string of prosperity gospel preachers.

Photo courtesy of Christian Piatt
Most prosperity preachers offer hope in exchange for something, which is not real hope. Photo courtesy of Christian Piatt

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It got me thinking about what folks like this have in common, be they prosperity-preaching ministers, self-help “Jesus light” media darlings, or channels for the dearly departed from Jersey Shore. Following is a list of traits they all seem to have in common.

False Perfection - All of the folks who take on these personas (yes, they’re playing characters) put on an air of flawlessness that seems kind of grotesque and cartoonish from arms-length. But this is a very necessary part of the formula, because they represent the absence of every problem that you or I seek to escape. Their teeth are whiter, bank account is bigger, and they are never, ever sad. If they just seemed like a regular person, why would we want to emulate their lives?

False Authority

False prophets always claim to have access to information you can’t otherwise access without them. but seriously, if your loved one who died wanted to connect with you, do you think that they’d  do it through a bleach-blond in stiletto pumps? Similarly, if God had a message for you, don’t you think it could be conveyed by a mean other than through a guy with perfect hair, capped teeth, and a $5,000 suit?

False Hope

Along with this authority, there is some sort of reassurance or certainty offered. But it’s always transactional or conditional in nature. Buy tickets to my show, purchase my book, come see me on tour, or put your check in the offering plate and I’m make sure you get the hope you’re looking for. But that’s another thing about this brand of hope: it’s always hope in exchange for something. But God isn’t a vending machine. God doesn’t sit back and wait for us to pray hard enough or earnestly enough before giving up the goods. True hope is independent of conditions or circumstances, just like real love doesn’t require anything in return. Both simple exist for the sake of themselves. Conditional, contingent hope is really just a wish.

False Gospel

Your life could be so much better, more meaningful, more complete, if only (fill in the blank). This kind of good news hucksterism, which is hardly the sole purview of Christian preachers, always suggests that all of the imperfections, problems, senses of lack, want, etc., can all go away if you get the formula right. Ultimately, all of these schemes are about chasing a fleeting feeling or some nonexistent sense of total fulfillment which simply isn’t real. And to suggest that Jesus’ primary message was that it’s all about you, and that your happiness is what matters most, is a gross distortion of the Gospel.

False Healing

Along these lines, there’s a temporary sense of fulfillment that comes from throwing yourself completely into the illusion that this person can give you everything you want or need. There’s a rush, not unlike doing drugs, or skydiving, or having sex. But just like those things, the good feelings fade and you’re still you in the end, with all the same longings, scars, and imperfections. Only now, you still have the lingering realization that the thing you tried to heal yourself from all of these woes didn’t work. So you’re left with trying to chase after the next thing that promises the same kind of healing, or with the knowledge that you’ve been suckered. And by then, the false prophet has already moved on to the next mark.

A true prophet is a truth-teller, one who sees and names things for what they really are, not for what we want them to be. They’re often unpopular for their claims, because they challenge the false constructs of a culture that it tries to use to distract itself from dealing with its real issues. But even if the truths such prophets claim aren’t necessary pleasant, they do present an opportunity for liberation: from the illusion that suffering or pain is your fault; from the misconception that the goal of life is personal satisfaction; from the wasted time, energy, and money expended on trying to achieve such nonexistent aspirations.

You can try to be perfectly happy, or you can be free from the suffering that comes with believing you can — or even should — be perfectly happy. And only one of them works.

Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.
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