In the early 1980s, two prominent religious teachers, among many others, in America were hocking a message—now known as the prosperity gospel—that would pervade Majority-World Christianity and call upon missionaries to protect and spread the true gospel of Jesus Christ.
An Indian guru known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh had gathered a formidable following of sold-out and well-off Westerners at his colossal wilderness compound in central Oregon. The 2018 Netflix documentary, Wild Wild Country*, narrates the colorful yet short-lived tale of his commune’s meteoric ascendance and dramatic demise in the American northwest over three decades ago.
The guru went by many names over the years. Bhagwan is one of several Hindi words for god, and the final appellation the teacher took is an honorific title ascribed to some Buddhist masters: Osho. In his book on the guru, Hugh Urban examines Osho’s life and teachings, tracing his exploits from India to Oregon and back again. Urban especially highlights one central theme that permeated Osho’s teachings: his concept of a budding new humanity where each member would be, paradoxically, “Zorba the Buddha.”
Under Osho’s spiritual guidance, such a person would come to see that true enlightenment – true religion – affirms material luxury without hesitation. As it turns out, the proliferation of this same idea among Christians has probably come to be the most formidable crisis that missionaries face in our day and age.
Zorba + Buddha = New Humanity
One of Osho’s many books was titled after the Zorba the Buddha concept. He explained that his homo novus (new man) would exhibit characteristics of Zorba the Greek, the hedonistic protagonist of Nikos Kazantzakis’s 1946 novel named for the character. Osho’s new man would be wholly in the world and fully participate in all the luxury that it has to offer.
As it turns out, the proliferation of the prosperity gospel among Christians has probably come to be the most formidable crisis that missionaries face in our day and age.
Members of Osho’s new humanity, though, would also hold values mirroring those of Gautama the Buddha. The Buddha emphasized the importance of meditation, pious living and even asceticism. Osho’s followers, too, would be spiritual and enlightened, connected to the transcendent.
Osho himself embodied this duality which, for many, has seemed to be a paradoxical ideal. While seeking to attain a higher consciousness, Osho also had an unabashed taste for all things shiny. Among other luxuries, he boasted a fleet of ninety-three Rolls Royces. Osho taught and lived the proud wedding of opulence and religion, and his American admirers were eating it up.
A Home-Grown Guru
Osho’s operation in Oregon was not the only game in town though. All the way across the country, the ebullient televangelist Jim Bakker was at the same time attracting nearly six million visitors a year to his sprawling theme park resort in South Carolina. Mostly through his wildly popular television program, The PTL Club, Bakker taught his followers that the God of the Bible is ready to dispense material prosperity to anyone who will ask in faith.
In his 2017 book named after Bakker’s television show, religious history scholar John Wigger biographs the televangelist vividly, quoting him as having said plainly, “God wants you to be rich. God wants you to prosper.” This message, which did not originate with Bakker but was arguably epitomized by him in the 1980s, is now often referred to as the prosperity gospel. ABC News released a 20/20 special documentary on the PTL phenomenon in 2019. Uncannily, both this documentary and Netflix’s Osho series depict blatant financial misdealing, headlining sexual scandals, and the eventual demise of a cultish religious empire.
To be clear, Osho’s and Bakker’s messages were not exactly the same. Where Bakker said that God wants you to be wealthy if you will only ask, Osho said that you are god to begin with, so it just makes sense to be wealthy. And in fairness, Bakker owned ninety-one less Rolls Royces than Osho did. However, both these religious teachers of the American 1980s promoted one very central idea: that being spiritual has everything to do with getting rich.
A Way Forward
Osho’s philosophies endure today through his published works and the diverse network of meditation centers around the world that bear his lucrative name. The US alone is home to around forty-two Osho centers from coast to coast. Modernity left us with countless masses disillusioned by the broken promises of secularism and humanism, and now the postmodern West teems with spiritual seekers demanding better answers. These Osho enthusiasts—flowing in and out of his American meditation centers from all around the globe—are among them, and if we go about things thoughtfully and humbly, then we Christians will meet them with a novel treasure that moths and rust can’t destroy (Matt. 6:19–34).
It’s crucial for believers preparing for cross-cultural mission—particularly mission in Africa or South Asia—to be familiar with the basis of the prosperity gospel and how to refute it from Scripture.
Here is the unsettling thing for missional Christians today, though: the prosperity gospel personified in Jim Bakker is more epidemically pervasive in Majority-World Christianity than Osho’s Zorba the Buddha concept ever thought about being in mainstream American.
While Osho’s teachings on opulence still resonate in some crannies of the Western world, Bakker’s message has become a fixture of global Christianity that cannot be ignored. Expert acknowledgement of this pandemic is coming in from all corners of evangelicalism, and missionaries are being called upon to protect the true gospel with ferocity around the world.
I recently attended what was billed as an evangelistic service at a small urban church here in South Asia. The guest speaker, a local ministry leader, was a riveting orator. Ebullient, you might say. The crowd was full of non-Christians who had never heard the name of Jesus, and to be sure, this speaker was carefully crafting his message to grab their attention.
But throughout his hour-long pep rally, the preacher never came close to mentioning anything that had the slightest resemblance to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We in the crowd did learn quite a bit about his new car, though, and I’m sure everyone will remember how much his watch cost. His message was that “God wants to give these things to you too!
But here’s what spooks me most about my experience that day. I sat in the front row throughout the whole show, and by the time it was over I had barely raised an eyebrow. Before that morning I hadn’t even heard of this preacher, but I still knew before we even got started that this type of message is exactly what would be proclaimed. It’s what everybody around here always proclaims.
I hope you can feel why it’s so crucial for believers preparing for cross-cultural mission—particularly mission in Africa or South Asia—to be familiar with the basis of the prosperity gospel and how to refute it from Scripture. The reality is that we are way, way behind in stemming the tide of Jim Bakker’s gospel. But if missional Christians in America and around the world will live and breathe the real gospel, proclaiming it boldly in our daily lives, then any “Zorba the Buddha” will be seen as a poor, unfulfilling substitute for the abundant life offered in Christ our King.
Caleb Cohen serves as a missionary with the International Mission Board in South Asia and is pursuing his PhD in World Religions from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Follow him on Twitter- @ecalebcohen.
*Editor’s Note: Wild, Wild Country is rated R and is not suitable for children. It contains graphic nudity, strong language, and scenes of violence.