Blessed: A history of the American prosperity
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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
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
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).