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'Prayer of Jabez' sells big-time, but many not sold on its message

AP, June 8, 2001
http://www.chicagotribune.com/ Off-site Link

ADDKEYWORDS, religion news report provides news of interest to those who work in Christian apologetics and countercult ministriesn.  It includes information about religious cults, sects, new religious movements, and related issues, such as religious freedom, religious tolerance, and cult crimes.

CUMMING, Ga. -- Bruce Wilkinson is sitting on the deck of his massive house an hour north of Atlanta, looking heavenward as a gee-whiz grin spreads across his face.

He has just heard the latest sales figures for "The Prayer of Jabez," his half-inch thick, index card-size book that has sold nearly 5 million copies and remains atop the bestseller lists.

"This book, the success, wasn't predicted--or even imagined," he says. "This isn't really a Barnes & Noble-type book."

Yet he's not entirely surprised. The book, which likens prayer to a stockbroker's request for a huge portfolio, suggests God is waiting to bestow "exponentially expanding blessings" to just about anyone who requests.

Wilkinson says the book's phenomenal success is a perfect example of his belief in action.

It is anchored atop many major bestseller lists--The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today--whether it's classified as non-fiction or self-help. Its companion Web site bulges with gushing testimonials.

Not everyone is buying the idea. One camp of conservative theologians believes "Jabez" is stunning in its selfishness, using verses buried in the Bible as a religious excuse for wanting money and material goodies.

"American culture is very oriented toward paychecks and big houses," says Rev. Daniel L. Gard, graduate school dean at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Ind., a Lutheran school. "This basically gives those same secular values a religious shellacking."

Gard lumps the bestseller with what he calls megachurch Christianity, the sort of money- and power-driven religion that came to be symbolized by the rise and fall of televangelists such as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart.

But Wilkinson says he is not preaching materialism.

"One of the biggest misunderstandings of the book is that I'm teaching prosperity gospel. I don't believe that," he said.

The theory, according to Wilkinson's book, is that it's perfectly OK to ask God for tangible blessings, just use them well. If a poor family needs a car, they should ask. If Wall Street brokers can use a big portfolio to spread good in the world, they should ask.

He admits that asking God for things--actual merchandise that you can touch, rather than abstract wishes for world peace--feels awkward.
"They're overwhelmed that God is good," he says. "People think God is kind of irritated, busy, off running the peace talks, and could care less whether or not you're having a bad day. He'll take care of you--but you've got to ask him."


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