Sunday, February 14, 2016

Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me: Note for a lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"

image from article

By KATE BOWLER FEB. 13, 2016, New York Times

Durham, N.C. — ON a Thursday morning a few months ago, I got a call from
my doctor’s assistant telling me that I have Stage 4 cancer. The stomach
cramps I was suffering from were not caused by a faulty gallbladder, but by a
massive tumor.

I am 35. I did the things you might expect of someone whose world has
suddenly become very small. I sank to my knees and cried. I called my
husband at our home nearby. I waited until he arrived so we could wrap our
arms around each other and say the things that must be said. I have loved you
forever. I am so grateful for our life together. Please take care of our son.
Then he walked me from my office to the hospital to start what was left of my
new life.

But one of my first thoughts was also Oh, God, this is ironic. I recently
wrote a book called “Blessed.”

I am a historian of the American prosperity gospel. Put simply, the
prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with
the right kind of faith. I spent 10 years interviewing televangelists with
spiritual formulas for how to earn God’s miracle money. I held hands with
people in wheelchairs being prayed for by celebrities known for their miracle
touch. I sat in people’s living rooms and heard about how they never would
have dreamed of owning this home without the encouragement they heard on

I went on pilgrimage with the faith healer Benny Hinn and 900 tourists to
retrace Jesus’ steps in the Holy Land and see what people would risk for the
chance at their own miracle. I ruined family vacations by insisting on being
dropped off at the showiest megachurch in town. If there was a river running
through the sanctuary, an eagle flying freely in the auditorium or an
enormous, spinning statue of a golden globe, I was there.

Growing up in the 1980s on the prairies of Manitoba, Canada, an area
largely settled by Mennonites, I had been taught in my Anabaptist Bible camp
that there were few things closer to God’s heart than pacifism, simplicity and
the ability to compliment your neighbor’s John Deere Turbo Combine without
envy. Though Mennonites are best known by their bonnets and horse-­drawn
buggies, they are, for the most part, plainclothes capitalists like the rest of us. I
adore them. I married one.

But when a number of Mennonites in my hometown began to give money
to a pastor who drove a motorcycle onstage — a motorcycle they gave him for a
new church holiday called “Pastor’s Appreciation Day” — I was genuinely
baffled. Everyone I interviewed was so sincere about wanting to gain wealth to
bless others, too. But how could Mennonites, of all people — a tradition once
suspicious of the shine of chrome bumpers and the luxury of lace curtains —
now attend a congregation with a love for unfettered accumulation?

The riddle of a Mennonite megachurch became my intellectual obsession.
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.) These ideas about
mind power became a popular answer to a difficult question: Why are some
people healed and some not?

The modern prosperity gospel can be directly traced to the turn-­of-­the-century
theology of a pastor named E. W. Kenyon, whose evangelical spin on
New Thought taught Christians to believe that their minds were powerful
incubators of good or ill. Christians, Kenyon advised, must avoid words and
ideas that create sickness and poverty; instead, they should repeat: “God is in
me. God’s ability is mine. God’s strength is mine. God’s health is mine. His
success is mine. I am a winner. I am a conqueror.” Or, as prosperity believers
summarized it for me, “I am blessed.”

One of the prosperity gospel’s greatest triumphs is its popularization of
the term “blessed.” Though it predated the prosperity gospel, particularly in
the black church where “blessed” signified affirmation of God’s goodness, it
was prosperity preachers who blanketed the airwaves with it. “Blessed” is the
shorthand for the prosperity message. We see it everywhere, from a TV show
called “The Blessed Life” to the self-­justification of Joel Osteen, the pastor of
America’s largest church, who told Oprah in his Texas mansion that “Jesus
died that we might live an abundant life.”

Over the last 10 years, “being blessed” has become a full­-fledged American
phenomenon. Drivers can choose between the standard, mass­-produced
“Jesus Is Lord” novelty license plate or “Blessed” for $16.99 in a tasteful
aluminum. When an “America’s Next Top Model” star took off his shirt,
audiences saw it tattooed above his bulging pectorals. When Americans boast
on Twitter about how well they’re doing on Thanksgiving, #blessed is the
standard hashtag. It is the humble brag of the stars. #Blessed is the only
caption suitable for viral images of alpine vacations and family yachting in
barely there bikinis. It says: “I totally get it. I am down­-to­-earth enough to
know that this is crazy.” But it also says: “God gave this to me. [Adorable
shrug.] Don’t blame me, I’m blessed.”

Blessed is a loaded term because it blurs the distinction between two very
different categories: gift and reward. It can be a term of pure gratitude. “Thank
you, God. I could not have secured this for myself.” But it can also imply that it
was deserved. “Thank you, me. For being the kind of person who gets it right.”
It is a perfect word for an American society that says it believes the American
dream is based on hard work, not luck.

If Oprah could eliminate a single word, it would be “luck.” “Nothing about
my life is lucky,” she argued on her cable show. “Nothing. A lot of grace. A lot
of blessings. A lot of divine order. But I don’t believe in luck. For me luck is
preparation meeting the moment of opportunity.” This is America, where
there are no setbacks, just setups. Tragedies are simply tests of character.

It is the reason a neighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that
everything happens for a reason.

“I’d love to hear it,” my husband said.

“Pardon?” she said, startled.

“I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and
sour way he has.

My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee. But there was
a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and
others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order
behind this chaos. Because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a
toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s
awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless
and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.

One of the most endearing and saddest things about being sick is
watching people’s attempts to make sense of your problem. My academic
friends did what researchers do and Googled the hell out of it. When did you
start noticing pain? What exactly were the symptoms, again? Is it hereditary? I
can out-­know my cancer using the Mayo Clinic website. Buried in all their
concern is the unspoken question: Do I have any control?

I can also hear it in all my hippie friends’ attempts to find the most
healing kale salad for me. I can eat my way out of cancer. Or, if I were to follow
my prosperity gospel friends’ advice, I can positively declare that it has no
power over me and set myself free.

The most I can say about why I have cancer, medically speaking, is that
bodies are delicate and prone to error. As a Christian, I can say that the
Kingdom of God is not yet fully here, and so we get sick and die. And as a
scholar, I can say that our society is steeped in a culture of facile reasoning.
What goes around comes around. Karma is a bitch. And God is always, for
some reason, going around closing doors and opening windows. God is super
into that.

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. It’s also distressingly
similar to the popular cartoon emojis for the iPhone, the ones that show you
images of yourself in various poses. One of the standard cartoons shows me
holding a #blessed sign. My world is conspiring to make me believe that I am
special, that I am the exception whose character will save me from the grisly
predictions and the CT scans in my inbox. I am blessed.

The prosperity gospel holds to this illusion of control until the very end. If
a believer gets sick and dies, shame compounds the grief. Those who are loved
and lost are just that — those who have lost the test of faith. In my work, I have
heard countless stories of refusing to acknowledge that the end had finally
come. An emaciated man was pushed about a megachurch in a wheelchair as
churchgoers declared that he was already healed. A woman danced around her
sister’s deathbed shouting to horrified family members that the body can yet
live. There is no graceful death, no ars moriendi, in the prosperity gospel.
There are only jarring disappointments after fevered attempts to deny its

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. At some point, we must say to ourselves, I’m going to need to let go.

CANCER has kicked down the walls of my life. I cannot be certain I will
walk my son to his elementary school someday or subject his love interests to
cheerful scrutiny. I struggle to buy books for academic projects I fear I can’t
finish for a perfect job I may be unable to keep. I have surrendered my favorite
manifestoes about having it all, managing work­-life balance and maximizing
my potential. I cannot help but remind my best friend that if my husband
remarries everyone will need to simmer down on talking about how special I
was in front of her. (And then I go on and on about how this is an impossible
task given my many delightful qualities. Let’s list them. …) Cancer requires
that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and
plans I didn’t realize I had made.

But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive. Even when I am
this distant from Canadian family and friends, everything feels as if it is
painted in bright colors. In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the
Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help
noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and
whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so
beautiful. Life is so hard.

I am well aware that news of my cancer will be seen by many in the
prosperity community as proof of something. I have heard enough sermons
about those who “speak against God’s anointed” to know that it is inevitable,
despite the fact that the book I wrote about them is very gentle. I understand.
Most everyone likes to poke fun at the prosperity gospel, and I’m not always
immune. No word of a lie: I once saw a megachurch pastor almost choke to
death on his own fog machine. Someone had cranked it up to the Holy Spirit

But mostly I find the daily lives of its 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.

This is surely an American God, and as I am so far from home, I cannot
escape him.

Kate Bowler is an assistant professor of the history of
Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School and the
author of “Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity

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