Review: Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel
I’d had this book on my wishlist for a while; it seemed like the prosperity gospel was as popular as it was egregiously wrong—and it was increasing in both respects. It seemed so impossible to take it all seriously; I was hoping someone could help me understand its origins and teachings.
Then the author of this book, Kate Bowler, who is my age, wrote a beautifully profound article on her own terminal cancer in the New York Times, and before I completed the piece I bought her book.
I listened to an audio version, read well by the Bowler herself. I apparently missed out on the appendices (though I skimmed what I could on Amazon), so my review may be slightly skewed.
I’ll start with the (apparent) criticism and end with the praise: Bowler doesn’t manage to create much of a narrative. Her chapter titles—Faith, Wealth, Health, and Victory—do develop themes within prosperity teaching, but throughout much of the book, the word “concatenation” kept coming to my mind. I felt like I was being introduced to preacher after preacher, ministry after ministry, with very little coherence to hang all the details on.
I found this frustrating. Bowler is an openly professing Christian (of what sort I do not know)—I was hoping for insight, evaluation, even of the somewhat sallow kind allowed Christians writing for secular dissertation committees. I felt I got more insight into the prosperity gospel from her Times article than from her book.
However, as the book drew to a close moments ago, I found I couldn’t resent the author. I think that her “failure” to find a coherent narrative or theology in this group was not indeed her fault. It’s instead testimony to the absence of coherence in the movement. It’s a “spiritual” marketplace in which product pitches replace ad campaigns replace marketing strategies; I don’t expect Coca-Cola to make their new commercials follow in some sort of logical line from their old ones, or to develop some sort of sustained case for why I should consider their beverage. All I expect to hear is to see a gleaming glamor shot of a model saying, “Taste the Feeling™.” I expect an immediate appeal to my desire for pleasure. Searching for a unifying philosophical-theological center in the prosperity gospel is like parsing a Twinkie.
Bowler does find something of a story merely by tracing the history of the prosperity gospel from the New Thought of the 19th century through to the Hillsong, Joel Osteen, and Creflo Dollar of today. But this is a movement which doesn’t take its own ideas seriously enough to ground them in anything but the flimsiest appeals to the Bible and the flagrantest appeals to telegenic charisma—what do I expect?
Bowler did her homework for this book, spending eight years attending prosperity churches and conferences, even traveling to Israel with Benny Hinn. She manages to find some genuine praise for the movement, focusing as it does on giving hope to the down-and-out (even if it costs them all their extra money and more). And she speak with endearment for several individual prosperity parishioners with whom she interacted in her research. She has none of the disdain for her subjects that I have felt in certain other scholarly treatments of religious people. She did manage a few wry remarks, but miraculously held herself back from more. For that alone she deserves her Ph.D.
One of the most poignant things Bowler wrote about was the prosperity gospel followers who get sick or poor. They’re ignored, she says, and tacitly shamed by their fellow believers. The upside of pinning your health, wealth, and victory on yourself is that you feel you have “agency.” You can do something about your trials: just tap into the divine power that is so readily available. The downside is that if you’re not healthy, wealthy, and victorious, it’s your fault. You didn’t have enough faith or plant enough seed money in the pastor’s wallet. I am praying as I write for Kate Bowler and for her family as she struggles with cancer. She knows that the prosperity gospel is not good news. May she find rest in the one truly cohering narrative in this created-but-fallen world.