I remember in 1999 a documentary making quite an impact in the church I attended. The film Transformations recorded instances where whole communities had been changed, it was claimed, by God. Not only had people become Christians but as a result the whole community had in some way been positively changed or transformed. The film pointed to the fact that churches had come together in prayer for their communities and God had answered. I seem to recall our leader making a fresh push with other church leaders to pray for our town after watching this convicting film.
One of the remarkable and memorable stories, was of the town of Almolonga in Guatemala. You can see the story here (42:50-56:14) and the carrots at (51:25):
It’s a powerful story. But is it true? Well, maybe. Recently BBC journalist Ben Zand also visited Almolonga and indeed the carrots are huge! But was it God or overuse of pesticides?
The whole film is worth watching but the section on Almolonga starts at 9:15. Zand is sceptical (which as a journalist is reasonable) and not aggressive in his questioning. The film has the overall effect though of showing up the shallowness of the prosperity teachings which seemed to have infected Guatemala.
What these two films highlight though is a cultural narrative that reigns in the UK and Europe in particular. In Transformations Christianity pushes out the mythical superstitions of ancestral worship and the damaging consequences of these dark beliefs. But 20 years later it is Christianity which is the darkness, the superstition, the unenlightened. Zand’s film wishes, as many in the West do, that education, a more ‘western’ outlook would liberate these poor souls from captivity to a belief system that is exploiting them. Only this time that dangerous belief system is not in ancestral spirits but in Jesus.
Let’s be clear prosperity churches do exploit the poor for the material gain of a few pastors. I agree with John Piper when it comes to the prosperity message (I refuse to append the word ‘gospel’ to it). Zand shows this up but the overall effect is that Christians look like charlatans and praying for healing looks like dangerous deception.
The two films sit awkwardly side by side for the Christian who believes in miracles and the supernatural power of God, especially those who swim in the cultural waters of cynicism and unbelief that pervades the West. It would be easy to watch the second film and simply conclude that it’s all fake.
That’s not necessary. Transformations pointed towards a deeper truth. The Gospel had changed lives in Almolonga. Men had given up drinking and stopped beating their wives. People started working harder and became more prosperous. Lives were changed. And as the farmer in Zand’s film said, God have us science, so we’re thankful. That simple faith of gratitude, of appreciation, of hard work stands in stark contrast to the blessed lives of the prosperity preachers.
The unfortunate conclusion though is that money that used to be spent on drink has instead bought pastors BMWs and fine houses and a life that no one else except may drug dealers gets to enjoy.
I wish Zand had dug a little deeper, sought for the other angles, allowed in some other voices that would have given perspective or perhaps shown some of the good that these churches do but it’s not his job to make Christians look good to the world. It is our job to stop looking bad and instead continue to point to the power of a transformed life – it’s the one story that today will communicate the most.
Photo by Gusjer