Sunday, February 28, 2016

Prosperity gospel

A gripping, gut-wrenching New York Times opinion piece alerted me to Duke Divinity School professor Kate Bowler's Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. Fortunately the author had read it as an audiobook, so I downloaded and listened to it. But when I came to write about it here, I discovered that I could not obtain a hard copy from either of my usual sources -- the San Francisco Public Library (status: missing) or the library at the University of San Francisco (never acquired).

I appreciated the book and Bowler's insights so much that I did want to say something about it, but I am left to start with some description of the work from Bowler's NYT article:

No one had written a sustained account of how the prosperity gospel grew from small tent revivals across the country in the 1950s into one of the most popular forms of American Christianity, and I was determined to do it. I learned that the prosperity gospel sprang, in part, from the American metaphysical tradition of New Thought, a late-19th-century ripening of ideas about the power of the mind: Positive thoughts yielded positive circumstances, and negative thoughts negative circumstances.

Variations of this belief became foundational to the development of self-help psychology. Today, it is the standard “Aha!” moment of Oprah’s Lifeclass, the reason your uncle has a copy of “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and the takeaway for the more than 19 million who bought “The Secret.” (Save your money: the secret is to think positively.) ...

After outlining the intellectual history of this very American-exceptionalist form of Christianity, Bowler relates and elaborates on her experiences among property gospel adherents on the themes of wealth, health and victory. In her Times article, she sums up some conclusions from the experience of researching the book:

... The prosperity gospel tries to solve the riddle of human suffering. It is an explanation for the problem of evil. It provides an answer to the question: Why me? For years I sat with prosperity churchgoers and asked them about how they drew conclusions about the good and the bad in their lives. Does God want you to get that promotion? Tell me what it’s like to believe in healing from that hospital bed. What do you hear God saying when it all falls apart?

The prosperity gospel popularized a Christian explanation for why some people make it and some do not. They revolutionized prayer as an instrument for getting God always to say “yes.” It offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules, and God will reward you, heal you, restore you.

... The prosperity gospel has taken a religion based on the contemplation of a dying man and stripped it of its call to surrender all. Perhaps worse, it has replaced Christian faith with the most painful forms of certainty. The movement has perfected a rarefied form of America’s addiction to self-rule, 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.

So why did I call Bowler's Times article "gut-wrenching"? Because, it begins with her announcement that she has been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and is necessarily living the antithesis of the controlled certainty that her prosperity gospel research subjects spend their lives and substance grasping for. Again, just read it.
Blessed was for me a sort of Lenten exercise, an opportunity to look at my reactions to the book and ask what those feelings meant about what sort of person I am. You see, I found Bowler's careful ethnographic descriptions of churches where pastors enjoined their flock that God wanted them to become rich (and enrich their pastors too) viscerally repellent. I believe that Jesus's injunction that we cannot "serve God and money" is simply true; the notion that the great goal for our lives is material accumulation strikes me as living in "camel through the eye of the needle" territory. For middle class and better off Americans, Christian practice ought to be about not hanging on to the bounty we enjoy.

Yet throughout Blessed, Bowler insists that we not approach the good and frequently quite poor believers in this Christian perversion with supercilious scorn. And she's right. These folks are doing their best within the constraints of their country and the leadership they find in their surroundings. (Those leaders, on the other hand ...) My instinctive reaction to their beliefs is mostly just rationalized class and educational privilege.

Bowler sees better what matters in that same article:

... mostly I find the daily lives of [prosperity gospel] believers remarkable and, often, inspirational. They face the impossible and demand that God make a way. They refuse to accept crippling debt as insurmountable. They stubbornly get out of their hospital beds and declare themselves healed, and every now and then, it works. ...

Before leaving the topic of the prosperity gospel, it seems timely to share this on why many U.S. evangelical voters may be attracted to the seemingly so un- and even anti-Christian Donald Trump:

For many evangelicals, Pentecostals and charismatic Christians, magical thinking has found its expression through the prosperity gospel, much to the consternation of Christians who consider it a heresy and a fraud. A uniquely American contribution to the evolution of Christianity in the modern age, the prosperity gospel teaches that God wants believers to be rich.

It’s also called the health and wealth gospel: Its adherents believe that God blesses the faithful with great wealth, keeps their health robust and cures the faithful of every malady. Successful televangelists boast of revelations received directly from God and of their ability to produce miracles.

If you’re poor or if you’re sick, that’s a sign of a lack of faith. Or in Trump’s parlance, a loser.

religion reporter Sarah Posner, Washington Post

If I thought a literal Hell existed -- which I don't -- I'd think there would be a special place in Hell for the peddlers of this rot.


Susan Leone Starr said...

This is the first time Jan has convinced me to read a book, because I am not that person. But I must know more about this woman's thinking and experience. My grandfather was a Midwestern farmer and evangelical pastor who ended his life feeling he had disappointed God somehow because why else would He have caused the workhorse to spook and crush grandpa's leg, leaving him unable to feed his family? And this man who never had two coats in his life because his bible told him to give one away if there was a poor man in need nearby loathed the "prosperity" men when they came along. He preached AND "organized" against them, running one of their camp meetings out of town by having members of his own congregation witness, surrounding the service reading bible versus about material wealth being not exactly recommended.

Brandon said...

I should read the book sometime. I know a woman who staunchly believes in the prosperity gospel, and she used to go to our church. Her younger brother, a friend of mine who goes to my church, staunchly does not.

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