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Capitalism consecrated

11 April 2014

Jesse Zink on a United States religious export

Blessed: A history of the American prosperity gospel
Kate Bowler
OUP £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £20.70 (Use code CT127 )

IT IS easy to look on the prosperity gospel with derision. In its grossest caricature, prosperity teachings conjure images of televangelism, flashy clothing, and a too-simple exchange between faith and wealth.

Kate Bowler, an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School, moves past these stereotypes in her overview of prosperity thinking in American religion. She traces its roots to "New Thought", a combination of metaphysics and Protestantism in the 19th century which interacted with the Divine Healing movement, Evangelicalism, and, in time, emergent Pentecostalism. As she follows the story, she shows the complex ways in which the prosperity gospel overlaps with, but is distinguishable from, fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, and the Charismatic Movement.

Bowler's story is primarily one of a diverse collection of individuals - ranging from Norman Vincent Peale and Oral Roberts to T. D. Jakes and Joel Osteen - who have shaped prosperity thinking. She distinguishes between the "hard prosperity" of leaders such as Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker in the 1980s, who postulated a direct connection between tithing and future success, and the "soft prosperity" of Osteen and others, who emphasise the more nebulous "victory" to which God is calling his followers.

Part of the appeal of prosperity thinking to its adherents is that it is "applied Christianity. It was a faith they could put to work." A key part of Bowler's book is that the prosperity gospel is about more than financial wealth. It addresses issues of illness, success in life and family, and a generalised connection to progress and forward thinking. This can have awkward results. Bowler finds only one major prosperity church that marks Good Friday. The service begins with a "chipper greeting" of "Happy Good Friday!" and moves quickly past the crucifixion to a celebration of the resurrection, "pre-empting Easter by two days".

Bowler concludes that the prosperity gospel is a "deification and ritualization of the American Dream" which "consecrated America's culture of optimism". This seems true, but also incomplete. At several points, she notes the parallels between developments in economics and prosperity thinking, but the book would have been better served by a more thorough analysis of these links. It seems no mistake that the most advanced capitalistic economy in the world has also produced a form of religion that best helps believers accommodate themselves to capitalism's dictates.

Relatedly, the focus on individual leaders obscures the people who fill the pews - or stadium seats - of prosperity churches. Who these people are and what makes them commit themselves - and with what seriousness - to these churches is largely left unanswered.

Ultimately, the great gift of this book is that Bowler takes the prosperity gospel on its own terms and offers it the kind of sustained engagement which has so far been lacking. Whatever our judgement, these churches remain a dominant force on the religious landscape not only of the United States, but around the world. This book helps us begin to think seriously about that influence.

The Revd Jesse Zink is assistant chaplain at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and the author of Backpacking through the Anglican Communion (Morehouse Publishing, 2014).

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