Kate Bowler is an assistant professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School, and the author of “Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.” She also has Stage 4 cancer, a catastrophe she first, briefly thought of as “ironic,” and one, she suggests, which some devotees of the gospel of prosperity might consider retribution, even though she says her book wasn’t all that hard on them.
Bowler married a Mennonite, and she later grew perplexed when the Mennonite church in her home town threw a “Pastor’s Appreciation Day,” during which they presented the preacher with a motorcycle; these people, formerly devoted to austerity and simplicity, had turned to worship of the Almighty Dollar. So she became an historian of the prosperity gospel.
The prosperity gospel, in Bowler’s words, is “the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith.” The right kind of faith is, in essence, a distillation of the old (ancient, in fact—ancient Greek, and not Biblical) adage that God helps those who help themselves. The gospel itself is summed up by Oprah, the Great & Terrible, as quoted by the author:
“Nothing about my life is lucky. Nothing. A lot of grace. A lot of blessings. A lot of divine order. But I don’t believe in luck. For me luck is preparation meeting the moment of opportunity.”
Exquisite. It was divine order that placed the Queen of Kitsch on her throne. That, and God as schoolmaster, giving out stars for good work.
Bowler credits the prosperity movement with popularizing and spreading the word “blessed.” Being blessed is a species of humble brag: “Look at me. What can I say? I’m blessed.” It’s justification for one’s self-regard. As Joel Osteen, the preening pastor of America’s most mega of megachurches, explained to Oprah while hosting her in his mansion: “Jesus died that we might live an abundant life.”
It is this interpretation that particularly rankles the author. Starting with a faith centered on the contemplation of a dying man who called on us to surrender everything, the prosperity gospel has twisted it into a celebration of having it all. “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” you can almost hear Jesus saying, “and get started right now here on earth.”
As Bowler notes, doubt, the linchpin of any faith, is a dirty word to adherents of the prosperity gospel.
“The movement has perfected a rarefied form of America’s addiction to self-rule,” she writes, “which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare down our deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder.”
To its credit, Bowler says, the prosperity gospel tries to make sense of sickness, suffering and death. But its explanation offers small consolation to those who miss out on the payoffs. All it can say is “Everything happens for a reason,” while implying that maybe you didn’t work hard enough, pray hard enough, believe hard enough.
The God of the prosperity gospel is a uniquely American one, Bowler notes. Instead of the stern but loving father or the exacting tyrant, He is nothing so much as a business partner.
Read Kate Bowler’s essay, “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me,” at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html