AUTHOR: Kate Bowler
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013, (352 pages).
Comprising five major chapters and a conclusion, Bowler begins with a chapter on the gospels before concentrating on four major themes: faith, wealth, health, and victory. This progression makes sense because before anyone can properly discuss about the marks of prosperity gospel, one needs to understand what prosperity gospel is perceived in the first place. Aware of the divergent views on what prosperity gospel means, Bowler limits the discussion to the American scene, focusing on a specific offshoot of Pentecostalism, and how it is coloured by the various popular personalities through history. The chapter on Gospels is an important one to prepare readers to understand the contexts of Bowler’s study. There are three strands of thinking which all intersect: 1) Pentecostalism; 2) New Thought movement; 3) American gospel of “pragmatism, individualism, and upward mobility.” Different churches adopt various combinations of these three strands in developing their own style of Word of Faith practice. First introduced by EW Kenyon, the 19th Century New Thought’s Mind Power is the seed that got it all started. It uses new thinking that combines control and efficacy, philosophical idealism, and metaphysical realm. It tells people that there is a gap between God and man, and New Thought is needed to close the gap. This presupposes more “thought” than “substance” with positive thinking putting spiritual things on a higher priority than material world. New Thought also becomes popular in a culture increasingly obsessed with healing. Within Pentecostalism, people like Fred W. Bosworth are influenced by EW Kenyon, soon introduce into Pentecostalism, the mentality of seeing healing as a “legal right” made possible by positive thinking. Other elements of external signs include speaking in tongues, hypnotism, exorcism, spiritualism, and gospels of wealth. Initially, positive thinking is used to stress the priority of mind over matter. Over time, people start to wonder why can’t they include the material wealth instead of mere optimism. Spurred by popular figures who had great success, like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, more people believe that sheer will, pragmatism, self-reliance, risk-taking, hard work, and religion can all combine to a good life. Bowler calls these new thought as “theologically thin but thick with guarantees of success.” Well put.
Faith is seen as a key “activator” to turn imagination, thoughts, wishes, and all manner of desires (often material) into reality. In the 50s, the catchword is “Healing Faith” with people like Oral Roberts, Gordon Lindsay, and Jack Coe leading the way toward healing, prophecy, and evangelism. They focus on methods to invoke divine help. They look for spiritual formulas for power. One young man was so influenced and having a personal experience of healing, went on to promote laws of faith that help believers find salvation, be protected, and be victorious over all things. This man was Kenneth Hagin. From the 50s to the 70s, other movements include “positive faith,” “prosperous faith,” and “charismatic faith.” It even brought interest among mainline churches and the Roman Catholic church.
Wealth received is a measurement of faith. Televangelists like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker promoted a belief that transforms faith into monetary results. People flock to prosperity preachers at conferences, churches, and gatherings. The Rhema Bible Training Center was founded by Kenneth Hagin to become the center of the Word of Faith movement. With preachers like Frederick Price, Carlton Pearson, Tommy Barnett, many believers buy into the abundant riches paradigm. Theologically, they use three arguments. First, the cross is the solution to all human needs and poverty is the devil’s work. Second, they say Jesus himself attracted great wealth, using the gifts of the Magi to justify their claim. Third, they extend God’s promise of favor and riches to Abraham and transpose them to their modern churches. With formulas toward prosperity becoming an increasingly exact science; ministries growing into megachurches; the global reach of TV evangelist; hope becomes materialized as being overcomers, being prosperous, and being generous. Leaders often lead by example by showcasing their wealth as well as their giving. For example, Creflo Dollar tells his congregation: “I own two Rolls-Royces and didn’t pay a dime for them. Why? Because while I’m pursuing the Lord those cars are pursuing me.” The tragic thing is that, for some of these preachers, they use the wrong means (methods to get prosperity) for the right ends (meeting Jehovah Jireh the God of more-than-enough).
Health obtained is another measurement of faith. Bowler calls it the “defining feature of the American prosperity movement.” While the wealth are things external, healing is very much internal. Leading with spiritual promises, leaders will teach the practices for healing. Some use public meetings to dispel private sins. Others use religious objects to ward off negative spirits, or evil spirits. Creflo Dollar even suggested putting dollar notes in shoes to get rid of poverty! Sundays are opportunities offered to congregants for divine healing. Critics often say that while there are many who appear healed during such meetings, their healing are not sustained over time which led to questions on whether such healings are genuine in the first place. Benny Hinn teaches deliverance. The author, while traveling with Hinn on one occasion suddenly got sick. She was asked to exorcise her “spiritual demon” causing her sickness. Rather than to overthink one’s illness, why not pray it away, she was told. For Bowler, it was a classic American style “Do-It-Yourself” healing. In the early years, Medicine was also seen as a spiritual competitor to faith. Eventually, there were greater harmonizing of medicine and faith, incorporating “supernatural health care” together with natural ones. At the heart of these health emphasis type of belief are four general interpretations of “failures.”
- Don’t judge a person on the basis of the sickness, especially when spiritual forces are believed to be at work. It could also mean a person fear that by judging, they could fall into the same situation as those who are failing.
- Silence is preferred until a healing has occurred. Death interpreted as failure, with diseases equated with demons. It is only when one is healed will one publicly profess.
- Strong belief in righteous suffering. Some would not believe they are responsible for their illness, and by praying or believing their faith away, they will press on.
- How can a believer experience failure? Especially in tragedy, there is an unwillingness to go public about failures because such things imply personal problems.
Victory is the hallmark of true belief, that there is nothing too difficult for anyone who believe to be triumphant in all things. Such is a gospel of triumph. Believers are overcomers. Joel Osteen, the “smiling preacher” is a major poster boy for this movement. They use “prayers of agreement” to have believers united in prayer to make the praying more powerful. They invoke God’s Name specifically as a source of strength. They repeat Jesus’s Name, God’s Name such as Jehovah M’Kaddesh (my Sanctifier); Jehovah Jireh (my Provider); Jehovah Nissi (my Banner); Jehovah Tsidkenu (my Righteousness); Jehovah Shammah (my ever Present One); Jehovah Rophe (my Healer), and so on. They dwelve into angels and angelology, believing that every one of us have an angel watching over us. Prayers are also directed at spiritual warfare. Triumphs include huge sanctuaries built, major landmarks, and big recognizable places. Even racism is linked where white evangelicals believe that racism is more about individual prejudices rather than social structures. The way to racial unity is thus to build cross-cultural friendships rather than to tear down social structures. There has been some success in this strategy. The test of such triumphalism comes during recession times. A popular strategy is to be counter-intuitive, to give more even when one is getting less. They promote confidence and hope to help people tide over the hard times. Some may say that it was their way to maintain the ministry’s level of revenue. The argument turns any complaint on its head by saying: “If you don’t exercise faith, the recession is yours, not the world’s.”
Is the prosperity gospel movement an American Blessing? How then do we explain the huge crowds gathered each week? Bowler sees a tight relationship between the American tradition of self-reliance and the individual exercising responsibility. The prosperity gospel plays into this relationship by putting the responsibility of a good material life on the faith of the individual believer. The sense of optimism and hope squares very well with the American triumphalist spirit. Bowler offers four cautions for anyone trying to make sense of the prosperity gospel. Firstly, seeking prosperity and goodness is something that is fundamentally normal. Who wouldn’t want a good life? Many good things have happened as a result of rich giving, like University Endowment Funds, scholarships, and social welfare. Before we become judgmental about anything, be aware that we may very well be beneficiaries of the very movements or organizations we are criticizing. Secondly, religion and money matters are closely related. That is why we cannot be too quick to dismiss the significance of money and prosperity even when discussing spiritual matters. Thirdly, there are many variants of the prosperity gospel and Bowler in this book chooses to narrow it to a part of the American religious history. In other words, the “prosperity gospel” in Bowler’s study is not representative of all historical backgrounds of the American prosperity gospel scene. Fourthly, Bowler takes on an agnostic position with regard to prosperity gospel, opting not to claim it as a good or bad force but to describe it as a “decisive theological, economic, and social force shaping American religion.” This is an amazing book that is well-researched and storied. Not only will readers understand the background and the historical developments of the movements, we get to know more about the major characters of the prosperity gospels of health, wealth, victory, and word of faith. It can be difficult to classify each individual leader or preacher because they often weave together different degrees of emphasis at different times. At the same time, not everyone would confess to being a prosperity preacher himself, especially when the label carries a largely negative connotation. Bowler tackles this under Appendix B of “Naming names” where she deals with this in a detailed manner. The way she does it is via the rhetoric used in the church; their publications; personalities; symbols and spaces; institutions; education; performances; and with a summary of how she derived the above.
The book is a culmination of eight years of research, based on the author’s PhD dissertation; many visits to various prosperity churches all over the United States; interviews with leaders of churches; plus a travel to Israel with Benny Hinn in 2008. Bowler gives readers a comprehensive list of prosperity megachurches with the name of the Church, the leaders, the attendance numbers, the location, as well as the year it was founded. While Bowler has said that she does not take sides, there is an underlying sarcasm that can be detected as I read the book. There is an initial openness to the possibility of efficacy especially when she was sick on her trip to Israel with Benny Hinn. With clear headed thinking and an objective frame of mind, Bowler avoids letting the subjective interfere with her objectives of the dissertation. That is one reason why this book serves as a good benchmark for anyone wanting to snapshot the Prosperity Gospel scene. That said, the religious scenes are never static. Things will continue to evolve over time. From the days of EW Kenyon's New Thought experiment to the modern feel-good preaching of Joel Osteen, this formula of sharing personal testimonies of the past, planting hope for the future, and dealing with present emotions in a world in flux will continue to draw people from all over America, with the use of the Internet and social media. While there are serious theological flaws with the whole Prosperity Gospel movement, one thing continues to baffle many. Why are these churches growing so rapidly? Why are there so much life-giving testimonies and excitement for the Christian faith? While the means may not justify the ends, what if the means is God's first step in turning people to the Truth? While I am skeptical of the ways of the Prosperity Gospel movement, I am also careful not to dispense with the hope that many brothers and sisters there genuinely believes in. Perhaps, there are some things that we can learn from these churches. While theologically they are weak, perhaps, the rest of us can learn from them how they manage to connect so well with the people.