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Please Lord, make me rich

The Times (England), May 10, 2001
http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/0,,7-126898,00.html Off-site Link


The Prayer of Jabez, a book based on a passage in the Old Testament javascript popup window, has sold four million copies in America with the message that greed is Godly It is a message that has struck a welcome chord with both well-to-do and cash-strapped Americans: greediness is next to Godliness. That is why a slim volume has sold four million copies - even more, in some states, than Bridget Jones's Diary.

The Prayer of Jabez has been the publishing sensation of the year, which is unusual for a work of biblical exposition - especially one that deals with Chronicles, a stretch of the Old Testament as arid and hard to cross as the Gobi Desert.

Of course, there is a gimmick: Jabez prayed for more cows, more sheep and more land; and by updating his prayer, modern Americans believe they will get more money.

It has worked for the author, Bruce H. Wilkinson, an Atlanta evangelist whose organisation ''Walk Thru the Bible'' has grown steadily for the past 30 years: he claims it is represented in 40 countries. There are five full-time WTTB workers in England, with another 25 part-timers or volunteers, but the book has not sold outside the evangelical ghetto here.

Even the American publishers expected the book to sell only 30,000 or 40,000 copies. But two things seem to have led to its startling success. The first is that the book is being sold, and bought, as if it were any other piece of merchandise. It costs only $9.99 (£7) and is extremely small. According to The New York Times, people are buying hundreds of copies at a time to give away. One woman bought 500 for her wedding guests.

This means that The Prayer of Jabez has broken out of the core evangelical constituency and into the general market for ''spirituality'', along with The Little Book of Calm and similar works. These are not really designed for reading, any more than a coffee mug is - and you can buy coffee mugs printed with the prayer as well. Instead they are a kind of good luck charm, to be sold in the same way as any other popular trinket.

In America, religion has been bound up with merchandising for at least a century and probably for longer. It is not just coincidence that the country's religious Right pioneered many of the techniques of modern politics, including the use of huge databases containing lists of sympathisers to whom personalised letters can be written in their millions by computers. American evangelism is funded at least as much from merchandising as from collection buckets.

Now, to believe in a miracle is a form of gambling, and the Protestant churches have always been ambivalent in their teachings about gambling. Some, such as the Methodists, have shunned it utterly. There is one policy that will, with luck, lift you out of poverty: do not drink, do not bet, do not cheat, and work hard. But that does not always work, even in the long term, and it has been counterbalanced by a belief in sudden miracles that grows stronger the more that people need them.

Any cancer sufferer will discover, either in themselves or in someone who knows them, a sudden, fierce faith in miraculous healing. It is true that some people are too poor to gamble: they cannot afford to lose. But others are too desperate not to gamble. They can't afford not to win. And they form an eternal market for the miracle workers. The success of The Prayer of Jabez comes at a time when there are more Americans to whom the promises of miracle-working religion sound real and important than there have been since the recession of the early Nineties.

It is not just that the return of a Bush administration has brought back the message that ''greed is good'': greed has not seemed so necessary since the last Bush was President.

The key words are ''miracle'', ''life change'' and ''breakthrough''. They have a specifical evangelical meaning: if you go to Dr Wilkinson's website, you are told to ''get ready for a life change'' (if you have the right technology; otherwise your life remains the same until you have downloaded the Flash plug-in). The story of evangelical religion is bound up crucially with life-changing moments, and with conversions. Its adherents believe they have been born again and will be raised in the twinkling of an eye when they have died. But there is also a secular meaning, of regrettable precision. ''Life change'', ''breakthough'' and even ''miracle'' are all terms that abound in get-rich-quick schemes, and we can expect to hear more of them as the recession bites and more Americans get deeper into debt.

The Jabez prayer represents, on one level, the return of the ''prosperity gospel'', a doctrine that has enriched many Pentecostal evangelists since the 1950s. In essence, this says that God wants his people to be rich; so it pleases Him to be asked for money and He will show his pleasure by rewarding the godly. It has never been a popular doctrine in this country, although one offshoot did arrive from South Africa.

I once saw, at a Morris Cerullo show, a side stall advertising a scheme whereby God would multiply your investment a thousandfold if you handed it over for ''godly purposes''. It is easy to laugh or shudder at such obvious con tricks - and there is never any shortage of established religious figures to point out the blasphemy of treating God as a gigantic slot machine, with prayer as the handle you jerk to make Him disgorge a huge pile of money.

But the prayer of Jabez does raise questions. Scientifically educated, modern Christians tend to be unhappy with prayers that ask for favours. They fail to see how God can work in that way; and some, such as the former Bishop of Durham, think that it would be immoral of Him to do so. Why should He favour bishops and allow children to starve in Africa? Yet that is one reason why faith can fade among the educated. If God does not intervene to help His chosen followers, what is the point of Him?

The Jabez prayer will spread through America for as long as people can still hope. In this country it is not even offered for sale on the ''Walk Thru the Bible'' website. Perhaps that is because we are not as gullible or as desperate as the Americans. Then again, whatever the chances of the Jabez prayer working, they must be higher than your chance of winning the National Lottery. And millions of people bet on that each week.