Book Review: Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, by Kate Bowler
Kate Bowler. Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 337 pages. $34.95.
Flip to just about any TV channel with religious programming and you are likely to encounter the prosperity gospel. From Joel Osteen’s perma-smile to T. D. Jakes’s mopped brow, from Jan Crouch’s bouffant cotton-candy hairdo to Benny Hinn’s Nehru jackets, America’s electronic preachers tell us there is a God of inexhaustible abundance ready to bless us with our own personal miracle. Whether our troubles are financial, physical, or emotional, God will change our fortunes if we will just pray in faith for the desired outcome, proclaim it ours, and then act on the certainty of its arrival in our lives.
Of course, it helps to sow seeds if you want to reap a harvest, so a gift given to the ministry is a tangible sign of our faith that God will do as we say. And the bigger the gift, the larger the faith. Lest we doubt this simple spiritual formula, we need only look at the extravagant lifestyles with which the good Lord has blessed prosperity preachers. It’s all so straightforward and appealing, as American as mama’s apple pie and a 30-year mortgage. Evidently, we can’t get enough of the stuff.
THE ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL
In a thoughtful and engaging work, Kate Bowler unravels the origins and development of the prosperity gospel into a multi-billion dollar industry. Although there are several varieties of prosperity gospels with subtly different animating convictions and practices, Bowler sensibly lumps them together as birds of a feather, a range of species in the same genus. “Word of Faith,” “Positive Confession,” “Health and Wealth,” and so forth, they all share a bedrock conviction that God chooses to bless his children with material prosperity in body, mind, and brokerage account, awaiting only our willingness to get on board.
Origins: Pentecostal Healing and New Thought Mind Power
Bowler locates the origins of the prosperity gospel in turn-of-the-century Pentecostal healing and New Thought mind power. Nurtured in the radical Holiness movement of the late nineteenth century, divine healers insisted that Christ’s atonement secured health for our bodies along with salvation for our souls. Just as prayer in faith would bring forgiveness of sins, prayer would release Christ’s healing power for aching backs, cancers, and tuberculosis, all of which arose from sin, personal or collective. The key was to believe. Pray and hold onto it, believe that it is yours, and act out the healing even if “lying symptoms” persist.
Meanwhile, the monistic New Thought movement viewed divinity as an impersonal power that people could access through right thinking. The key to a healthy body and a successful life was to eliminate harmful negative thoughts and use mantras and other techniques to reinforce positivity.
Both Pentecostal healing and New Thought mind power relied on a perfectionist anthropology. Human beings are troubled by sins and failings, but through our choice to apply the right knowledge and techniques we can be empowered and fulfilled, perhaps even releasing divine attributes within ourselves.
Early Twentieth Century Through the Bakkers
In the first half of the twentieth century, E.W. Kenyon united Holiness-Pentecostal and New Thought themes by combining divine healing and the power of the mind to shape reality into an incipient prosperity gospel. Along with Kenyon, Pentecostal healing revivalist John G. Lake added the notion that God intends us to be “god-men” through our faith, while F.F. Bosworth and others provided a bridge to the healing revivals of the late 1940s and 1950s, which rejuvenated the audacious supernaturalism of early Pentecostalism.
Mid-century positive thinkers like Norman Vincent Peale also united New Thought with at least a veneer of Christianity. His Power of Positive Thinking (1952) sold millions of copies to those eager for peace of mind and bountiful harvests. Thereafter, the Charismatic movement of the 1960s and following brought Pentecostal sensibilities to many mainline and evangelical churches, priming believers for the gifts of the Spirit and the tangible presence and power of God.
Planted in this fertile soil, the prosperity gospel took root in the 1950s and 1960s, then grew apace in the following two decades. Key figures included Kenneth Hagin, Oral Roberts, and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Hagin taught that God established basic spiritual laws such that our words spoken in faith shape the reality of our lives. His Rhema Bible Institute in Tulsa has been a major launching pad for prosperity ministers, while Roberts’s eponymous university combined with his popular television ministry to lend support to (and draw support from) the movement. For a time, the Bakkers were prosperity superstars, until Jim’s extramarital activities and misappropriation of ministry funds proved his downfall. Humbled by a prison sentence, Jim Bakker not only repented of his sins but rejected the prosperity gospel, seemingly one of the few figures to turn away from the lucrative trade.
From “Hard” to “Soft” Prosperity Preaching
Bowler identifies the 1970s and 1980s as a period dominated by “hard prosperity” preaching involving the straightforward proposition that a prayer for blessing offered in faith will automatically bring that blessing, usually health or wealth. By the 1990s, prosperity preachers broadened their appeal by offering a “soft prosperity” infused with therapeutic themes of emotional healing, fitness and weight loss, improved self-esteem and capacity for work, and more. Health and wealth were still front and center, but they shared the stage with inner peace, shapely bodies, and a positive self-image.
One prominent example of this trend is Joyce Meyer, whose personal account of triumph over childhood abuse and marital failure shapes her ministry to audiences composed mainly of middle-aged women whose pain and hardship includes struggling with weight loss, relational challenges, and anomie.
CRITICALLY ENGAGING THE BOOK AND THE MOVEMENT
The prosperity gospel spreads through relational networks built around telegenic stars, with electronic media, schools, conferences, and megachurches like Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston and Creflo Dollar’s World Changers Ministries outside Atlanta as crucial nodes of influence. Bowler visited several dozen of the 115 megachurches that she identifies as prosperity-centered, and she engaged in sustained ethnographic participant-observation of a small prosperity church in Durham, North Carolina. Bowler conducted interviews, though she acknowledges that it is hard to get people to speak openly about their continued struggles with health or finances. To speak a negative word is to undercut the coming blessing, so people sugar-coat their experiences with spiritual bromides.
What Happens When It Doesn’t Work?
In an environment of relentless claims of miracles and changed lives, outsized expectations of endless and appropriable divine abundance create palpable excitement, but one suspects there is a deep well of sadness, fear, and personal anxieties. Unseen and unheard, forcibly silenced by a theology that insists the only plausible reason for their inability to grasp money, power, and health is their own failure to hold onto true faith, these folks carry on in the hope of better results or slink away disillusioned.
Bowler’s work would have been strengthened by giving a microphone to some of these voices. If the power is in your hands and the results don’t materialize, what then? Who do you have to blame but yourself? What does that do to one’s faith in God?
Quintessentially American Movement
Bowler nods toward the enormously influential overseas spread of the prosperity gospel, but her focus remains on the American context. This quintessentially American “gospel” has ridden several major cultural currents: incorrigible optimism, individualism, the consumer culture of advanced capitalism, our coddled self-esteem, and an undying conviction in the world-changing power of one’s personal will.
How many of us grew up hearing that we can be anything we want to be, as though will-power were the only agency needed to shape our lives and the world to our liking? The prosperity gospel offers a divine wingman to smooth the ride.
Muted Critical Voice
Although clearly not a prosperity adherent, Bowler’s fair-mindedness keeps her critical voice muted. It is easy to take shots at the gauche vulgarities of prosperity preaching but harder to take the movement seriously. Bowler succeeds in this important task, though one might wish for a more robust analysis of its failings.
From a Christian standpoint, the prosperity gospel is a classic heresy based on the primordial sin: you will be as gods. It takes several truths—the goodness of God, divine blessings, the importance of human choices, and more—and distorts them out of all proportion, rendering a grotesque program of personal advancement in lieu of Christ’s gospel. In the name of prosperity, it robs the gospel of its true riches; in the name of power, it offers spiritual impotence.
RESPONSE? PREACH CHRIST AND PREACH HEAVEN
Yet it is impossible to ignore the prosperity gospel’s pervasive influence, including in the lives of the people in our pews. In the face of deceptive and tempting prosperity thinking, posing in both Christian and secular garb, let us preach Christ crucified, the hard but nourishing truths of a loving God in the midst of a suffering world.
And let us proclaim the hope of heaven. Indeed, God will perfect us in Christ, but this side of glory we struggle with sin, disappointments, broken dreams, and damaged bodies. “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Cor. 12:9; NIV).