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Sunday
Aug282016

Kate Bowler: Understanding the Prosperity Gospel

(Photo: Duke University) 


Dr. Kate Bowler is assistant professor of History of Christianity in North America at Duke University and author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (Oxford, 2013), which traces the rise of a Christian belief that emphasizes faith, wealth, health and victory. Her recent diagnosis with stage 4 cancer has cast a shadow on her life and work, but has also, paradoxically, led to a deeper spiritual understanding in the midst of suffering and loss. Roseanne Kydd interviewed her this past April.

RK: Could you define the Prosperity Gospel for us?

KB: It’s known either as the Prosperity Gospel (PG), or sometimes Health and Wealth Gospel where God desires all to be healthy and wealthy in this lifetime. In the eighties they called it the Name It and Claim It movement, referring to the importance of using positive language to bring spiritual reality into being. For those in the movement it suggests that God wants holistic, all-round prosperity for each and every person, and to critics it suggests that it has an inappropriate focus on a material proof of Christianity in ways that overlap almost directly with the American dream.

RK: You were first drawn to this phenomenon in your home Mennonite church. Can you tell us about this “riddle” of a Mennonite megachurch?

KB: It was such an historical puzzle for me, so hard to reconcile in my mind people who used material things [such as plain clothing, hats, head coverings] to mark their own bodies with the difference between themselves and the world, and then a theology that in fact constantly uses material possessions [productive land, farm equipment, money in the bank] in order to prove their faith. That sort of piqued my curiosity by suggesting that the PG was endlessly exportable and able to grow in almost any soil. I ended up coming back and doing a number of interviews with Mennonites at this PG megachurch. They came for a variety of reasons. Some of them were rural and moving to the city for the first time and this was a place in which they felt like they could update their faith for a modern and urban environment. For others it was a little sweeter and a little sadder. They had experienced healing of some kind and their Mennonite church didn’t accept it. I’ve also heard the inverse in which people got sick in this prosperity megachurch and then, of course, left. PG does very well in any number of environments – rich and poor, across denominations, across racial divides. It’s incredibly adaptable.

RK: I loved your description of the phrase, “humble brag,” as a kind of substitute for “blessed.” Can you enlarge on this?

KB: Partly I wrote the New York Times piece (www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html?_r=0) because I was so frustrated by the way that the term “blessed,” in peoples’ minds, confuses the categories of gift and reward.  “I’m so blessed” validates what they already have while suggesting it was given to them by God and that the comfort and beauty in which they live is a direct reflection in some way of their having done things right. In other contexts it can be used as just pure gift in the sense that in our loneliness we’re not able to procure for ourselves the conditions for life without God. And so in one way it can be taken as pure praise and in another as a joyful pat on one’s own back.

RK: How did PG fare globally? While it may have begun in America, it certainly didn’t just stay there?

KB: The only way of getting at that is to try to figure out not what’s international about the PG, but what’s particularly American about it. It became an educational centre. In fact many of the leaders were early on students of T.L. and Daisy Osborne, Christ for the Nations Bible Institute in Texas, or went to Kenneth Hagin’s Word of Faith Center in Tulsa. But a lot of their Bible schools turned out hundreds and thousands of graduates who went on to provide a lot of the theological infrastructure for budding PG internationally. Televangelism can’t be ignored. Media pioneering via large satellite networks in the 70s and 80s gave them global reach early on. 

RK: One of the very positive things about the PG is the focus on peoples’ everyday lives. This is something that is often just missing in the denominational picture. Did the PG ever point to a larger picture, away from just supplying immediate desires, towards the Kingdom of God and mission in the world? 

KB: Certainly in mission, they’re overwhelmingly evangelistic but in terms of a wider, perhaps structural, view of overcoming inequality in this life in order to usher in the kingdom, we can see some evidence of that in more denominational prosperity churches – black denominations in the States, like Church of God in Christ, Pentecostal Assemblies of the World. We do find that the biggest churches have housing for the elderly, health intervention in which they’ll set up clinics. It ranges from more individualistic like backpack giveaways, to wider structural interventions, to community social services.  And so, in those cases, we see a much more well-rounded view of how the Kingdom of God requires not just individual salvation but communal uplift. So I think we see a spectrum from individual to communal but it definitely tends heavily toward the individualistic.

RK: What about the failure of PG to work reliably? In one place you described, “PG makes God into a kind of monster.”

KB: In a theological world in which everything acts like a boomerang, for good or for ill, where everything comes back to you, it can be especially difficult when the conditions of your life are getting away from you: if you’re sick, if the market turns against you and you lose your house. The things that hold people up are actually quite delicate and in those situations prosperity churches have a very simple answer: it’s not God; it’s you. People will comb through their biographies, buy books with endless lists of things they can do better, and they’ll try to find the reason. And so for tragedy to turn into self-condemnation can be exhausting and in some cases devastating. It reacts like a bomb going off in the family. They’re unable to find the language to grieve at a funeral when the person himself was so mired in denial. In those ways, it turns against the person who is suffering, which runs counter to what we hope that the church is all about, which is our love of the weak, of the widow and the orphan.

RK: This undercurrent of judgement is a very real element in PG. Is that something that is addressed?

KB: They talk about it privately and people sometimes take this buffet-style, where they don’t always buy the explanation from a pastor of why someone has died, but there’s an incredible silence around funerals and suffering. It locks people into a very real, if virtual, isolation in these churches. So it might be done very carefully privately but there’s certainly no public space for it.

RK: What responses have you had from PG people who have read your book?

KB: For the most part I’ve really enjoyed the emails that I get from prosperity folk. I got one the other day that said “Thank-you so much for writing something kind when it’s so easy to dismiss us.”

RK: It’s a very delicate line that you’re walking, trying to listen and be sympathetic and honest. You’ve done very well, I think.

KB: Recently I’ve had more frustration. The only reason I’ve been much blunter lately is because I can see how much our culture is steeped in PG. Just in the reaction to my cancer, I’ve gotten endless emails from people trying to pour certainty on my pain, trying to force an answer, trying to say that everything happens for a reason, trying to run the spiritual math of why it is that some people get sick and some people don’t. Everyone wants to earn their way into or out of the things of their lives – but to live without that formula is what I’ve been asking them to do. This has created such an intense backlash.  I was really, really surprised and I think – this is our culture.

RK: That saying, “everything happens for a reason,” is a very powerful one.

KB: We want a closed spiritual universe. We want one in which all causality can be explained. That would be incredibly comforting if it were true.

RK:  Is PG still thriving in the US?

KB: It’s more popular than ever. It will not go away. It does well in recessions because it explains how people can use their thoughts to change their circumstances. It does well in economic boom times. It adapts. So for example, Joel Osteen sounds so much like what’s in the culture. It’s endless encouragement; it’s a soft psychological version of ‘everything happens for a reason,’ so now you have control over your circumstances. It’s bigger than ever.

RK: Do you offer a Christian story for those who do not experience healing or victory in this life? Have you got an alternative story here for us?

KB: I’m still stumbling through this I think, but there was something shocking, not just about the diagnosis, but about the overwhelming sense of peace and love that I received in the midst of it. That God surprises us with gifts of His presence and love and a sense that in the worst, that God is there in such a palpable way, and so I think if I were ever searching for proof, I shouldn’t find it in whether I have two cars or how big my house is or, you know, all the kinds of regular markers of success. If anything, the only true genuine proof I’ve ever had in a Christian experience has been when I have been at my very worst and have come to the end of myself. I think there’s a beautiful inversion there in which the Kingdom of God is revealed in those moments of being the least, whether we like it or not.   TAP 

 

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