The Prosperity Gospel: Reflection on a NY Times Op Ed Called “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me.”

Kate Bowler, a professor from Duke Divinity School writes an opinion editorial for the New York Times about the prosperity gospel. This time she writes having been diagnosed with terminal cancer. These are some thoughts on her article and of the problems that exist with prosperity theology.

“Life and death and balanced on the edge of a razor.”

Homer (Illiad)

“Death is a debt we all must pay.”

Euripides

 We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.

Romans 5:3-5 NLT

 

Mark Driscoll on Joel Olsteen

Recently I saw an article on Facebook that was interesting to read. Marcia Kirby Rios from Lake Dallas, Texas posted the article and I found it quite interesting.  The article is by Duke Divinity professor Kate Bowler and is an opinion editorial in the New  York  Times about the prosperity gospel. Kate just published a book about the history of the prosperity gospel. Sadly it was also written by someone who has also been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The timing of this article is interesting as I also read an older Greg Boyd article at ReKnew that discussed what happens when God heals and not heals. Also I wanted to draw your attention to Chaplain Mike over at Internet Monk who wrote about this article as well.  I thought Greg Boyd’s article would be a good follow up to this New York Times article.  That said feel free to jump into the discussion below and let me know what your thoughts are on this article. From here on out I will be writing in red.

*****

SundayReview | Opinion

Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me

By KATE BOWLERFEB. 13, 2016

 

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.”

My father retired from active medical practice a while back. But he was a physician who spent years working in hospitals and private practice. One of the hardest things he had to do is break the news to a patient that their condition is terminal, and that there is no treatment that would work. Or  defer to the inevitable and instead finding out about quality end of life options. I could never do something like that or be in that type of profession personally as I am not suited for it. That said those paragraphs up above hit a chord in the following way. Medical illness has befallen my family a lot in the recent years. I had a close call in the hospital in 2012 with  a massive sepsis infection. My Mom had a close call with pancreatic cancer and deals with survivor’s guilt. My Dad dealt with a stage three brain tumor. I recall when my dad was diagnosed as to how angry and cheated my Mom felt. Especially for a neurosurgeon to be diagnosed with that illness. Can you imagine? Treating something for three decades and then to be struck by that yourself? Its like a cardiologist developing heart disease. Life isn’t supposed to work like that at all. So as I read the author’s words I got that pit in my stomach because I remember those phone calls and the emotions that came along with them.

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 Sundays.

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.

I hate to say this but the prosperity gospel is so widespread and rampant that its disturbing. Its overwhelming and more present in much of Christendom than people want to admit. I have to confess something to you guys here….I don’t pray for myself. I don’t because I fear going down that path where if a prayer is answered I am afraid that I am going to start walking down that path even if its subtle. So I don’t pray for myself at all, instead when I pray I spend my time praying for others. I feel so strongly about this that I am pretty entrenched. Prosperity theology is all over the place and yet you also see how flexible people are in doctrine. Case in point I started this post with a video of Mark Driscoll speaking about the prosperity gospel. Now look at the path he is going down, in the course of time I would suggest that he is going to become a prosperity gospel advocate. How sacred is doctrine in such situations? Many people claim how important “sound doctrine” is and yet they are often the first to sell themselves out under the right circumstances.  If people are going to be very honest and self reflective I think many would be ashamed to know how many people have bought into some aspect of the prosperity gospel.

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?

Speaking of ‘pastors appreciation day’ over the years I have seen that day grow, became inflated and in some ways pompous. I  find this especially true in the Neo-Calvinism realm because many make their pastors to be God.

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.

Here is a question I want to ask…does the rise of the prosperity gospel echo and follow the rise of the mega church movement? If you retrace the history of both would you find these two movements intertwined and linked?

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 sad part about this self help psychology is that it can be detrimental to other parts of psychology that is needed. I am a firm believer in medicine, mental health, psychology and psychiatry. This movement just afflicts and hurts those movements as well. Thinking positive and being optimistic is important however positive thinking wont get you out of every situation.  It gives reasons for fundamentalists to attack psychology.  Life is much more difficult than that, and this kind of thinking goes for a simple , easy life. Its why its so cruel. I will explain more down below.

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 other thing that is hurting evangelical Christianity is that it is subject to fads. And in the above paragraph you can sense how prosperity theology started out as a fad and has remained one. The other thing I would be fascinated to know is the prosperity gospel limited to first world countries? I know some of it has been exported to places like Africa. But has it stuck in Africa? Do you find the prosperity gospel in places like Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mali, Ivory Coast, and a host of other nation states?

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.”

The word blessed is the word I most think of when I contemplate on the prosperity gospel. Blessed has been corrupted in the same way Christian has been corrupted. The Neo-Calvinists are in the process of corrupting and destroying the word gospel right now. But when I think of blessed I do get a twinge in my stomach and think of TBN type personalities who hammer about what it means to be blessed by God. The problem with prosperity theology is that it is at direct odds with the Bible. I take a sharp contrast with what Joel Olsteen said. To be honest Joel Olsteen turns my stomach as much as C.J. Mahaney does. The problem with what Joel is saying is that Jesus said that we would have a life filled with trouble. We will have a life full of pain, sickness, disease, heartache, suffering, trauma, etc.. that is a part of the human condition and will always be a by-product of the human condition. As long as humanity is around so will suffering. What humans can do to each other is horrific…just stop and think of all the wars, terrorism, and conflict alone in the 20th century. At the end of this article I want to spend some time addressing what I consider to be the cruelest aspect of the prosperity theology.

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.

I especially agree with hat the author is saying. A lot of people think blessed and they think its deserved. The think that by having faith they will be blessed. Like it comes in the package. That is not true and it sets up people for failure.

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.

Do you want to see the true test and problem of prosperity theology? Experience suffering. If you are reading this I have a homework assignment for you that will help reveal the problem of prosperity theology and the expectation of being healed. You are not going to hear me often say go read so and so author. Too many people do that, but there is something that fits in nicely with this topic. One of the best books I have read is be Philip Yancey and is called “Disappointment with God.” In the third chapter called “The Questions No One Asks Aloud” read about Philips’ conversation with a man named Richard. The story of Richard is of a man who lost his faith, and he recalled how it happened as he reflected on it. He talks about watching a mass healing service of Kathryn Kuhlman and then attending a service in a neighboring state. There at the service he had high hopes and expectations of God. He talked about how he skipped classes and drove a good distance to listen to her. He wanted to be touched by God. But of all the “healings” he witnessed one struck him incredibly. There was a physician from Milwaukee that was carried into the meeting on a stretcher. He walked on to the stage and told the crowd how he had incurable lung cancer. He also spoke how he had six months to live. But that night he believed God had healed him. Richard was so impressed that he wrote down the man’s name and almost floated out of the meeting. He now had proof of God based off what he had seen. He also wanted to speak to the man who proclaimed he was healed. So he called the directory for Milwaukee and got this man’s phone number. When the phone was answered Richard asked the following,

“May I please speak to Dr. S_______?”

There was a long silence and then the person asked the following,

“Who are you?”

Richard gave her his name and said that he watched the healing at the Kathryn Kuhlman meeting. He also told her he was moved by his healing and he wanted to talk to him.

Then there was another long silence and she spoke in a flat voice.

“My….husband…is…dead.” and hung up.

It devastated Richard and helped eat away at his faith. He talked about how much he cried and how he staked so much of his faith on that phone call. His faith became like a dying star and was extinguished. Everything else…going to Wheaton, Bible studies, was a grasping attempt to hold on to his faith.  The take away I had from reading this is that the prosperity gospel sets people up for disappointment. In light of this article I wondered how this man with terminal lung cancer came to and realized he was going to die. How did that happen? Or did it happen? In the last day of his life did he still cling to hope that he would be healed, and not only that but did it rob him of being able to say goodbye to his family and prepare for death?  But what did it do to his family and his wife? Can you imagine the additional pain it subjected them to? That pain came in the form of either believing  he was going to be healed only to realize he was not. Or can you imagine the arguments or disagreement and anger in watching some take advantage of someone fragile, and desperate in the last days of their life being manipulated. But go pick up Disappointment with God, and read it. It will be one of the best books you will have read. Trust me…when I was in my faith crisis and consuming Christopher Hitchens and Greta Christina this was the only author I read.

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.

I agree with the above. We are broken our bodies are broken. Cancer is going to exist because life and humanity is flawed and broken.  We need to accept that more and accept the reality that this world is broken.

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?

In this section I want to promote another article I wrote about pain and suffering and how different people have processed it.  The name of the article is called, “Thoughts on Pain and Suffering: Differing Perspectives from Scott Hamilton, Ben Petrick, and Derek and David Carr.” The prosperity gospel is an attempt at the problem of evil. One thing that I wish evangelical Christianity could become is more intellectual. I think that would deflate the balloon of the prosperity theology. As I learned in my faith crisis the problem of evil is the single greatest reason to reject the Christian faith. We need to do a better job of being able to discuss this issue. Currently we cannot.

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 in other words turned God into a vending machine where you just pray and get what you want. The other problem with prosperity theology is that bad theology fuels bad theology. The prosperity theology drives a reaction in Neo-Calvinism. So bad theology in one area drives bad theology in another area. That is one of the other things that angers me about prosperity theology.

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 inevitability.

The prosperity gospel is evil. That’s what I came to realize it plays with people’s emotions, thoughts, feelings in a time when they should not be dealing with it.

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.

Indeed the prosperity gospel is a unique American phenomena. Here in the United States we are all about self rule in many ways. Walk into any shopping mall, watch television, surf your Android  and you will realize and see this daily. Its at odds with our humanity, as humanity is fragile. The other day I learned of two situations that were stunning. One person had a stroke and the other person had a sudden turn of event sand was in end of life care. I just saw on Facebook how the person was grateful for their Mom still being with them. Then on a dime it all changed. Movements like the prosperity gospel deny our fragile nature. Jesus said we are broken and will be broken. The prosperity gospel is one of the most selfish forms of theology that exists.

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 think many Christians are in denial about how hard life is. It is truly hard. Many people in naivety think, “that is not going to happen to me.” Life can instantly change. I learned that in college and family illnesses reinforce that deeply. It’s only when it happens to you do you take notice and start to face your mortality. The other thing about cancer which this author points to is that it puts life in priority. We are often obsessed and fight over trivial and minor things that in the end are meaningless. We fight over things we should not. This is one of the reasons why I can’t stand fundamentalism and get angry over individuals like Mark Driscoll or C.J. Mahaney. Life is short enough, it’s hard enough…they are robbing and taking from life by telling people to submit and follow them and their leadership. Let’s focus on the basics of loving and serving God and not getting wrapped around the axle of so many pointless issues. Sadly, sometimes it takes cancer to get a person’s attention and make them to realize what is truly important in life: family, friends, and people in our midst.

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 maximum.

Now this paragraph is brave and shows the depth of Kate’s faith. She knows what people in the prosperity camp are going to say. She knows what to expect from them, and yet she responds with a deep faith. She’s brave enough to write about her situation publically in the New York Times.

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 Gospel.”

Now up above I made some references to why I believe the prosperity gospel is evil. I would like to explain why and how it hurts. The prosperity gospel hurts in many, many ways. It leads for people to come into hospital rooms and tell someone who is on their deathbed that they lack true faith. If they had faith they would be healed. It interferes with people grieving and dealing with a raw situation.  For those on the flip side who are into the prosperity gospel it creates problems as well. You can’t die well. Instead you are going into death thinking and believing you are going to be healed. It can also keep your family and relatives from being able to say their goodbyes in some way because you are in denial about the situation. After all you believe you are going to be healed. Let me say the following thing very openly. We are all going to die. You me, and everyone reading this will all die one day. Nothing can prevent that from happening. Its my hope that more people will confront and challenge the prosperity gospel. There are a few articles for you to read if you are interested. I tried to grab a couple. Its my hope that you will practice discernment. As always I love you guys! 

Christianity Today

Huffington Post

The Gospel Coalition

5 thoughts on “The Prosperity Gospel: Reflection on a NY Times Op Ed Called “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me.”

  1. accidentally deleted?? Yikes…Eagle…who would have thought?? But you sleep bro…well written article. Just this week my wife was asking some questions and we actually listened to a presentation that Joni Erikson Tada made at Strange Fire conference. Well spoken. Other than I knew of Joni’s paralysis, I did not know Joni battled cancer for 10 years. Also, in the early years, Joni stated she attended a healing event hosted by Kathren Kulman (sp?). Point being, Joni used some scripture from Mark 5 that was well presented and how it was applied. Worth listening to youtube podcast. Answers many questions for those suffering.

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  2. Reading this article and your comments on it makes me grateful for how my father’s death occurred. He had Alzheimer’s and when he could no longer swallow, that was the end, but it took six days. At least there were no people around the bedside proclaiming that he could be healed. I don’t think I could have taken that.

    Oh, and by the way, the prosperity gospel is HUGE in Africa, huge. Here’s just one article from 2014, which I came upon when searching on T.B. Joshua (a prosperity preacher) and his “blessed water” he claimed would heal Ebola. Now there’s a story. 😦

    http://newafricanmagazine.com/nigeria-rise-prosperity-preachers/

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    • Thanks Mirele. I am sorry for your father’s loss. Maybe in the future I can research and put together an article about how the prosperity gospel has been exported to Africa. Thanks for your insight I really appreciate your wisdom. If you protest Mark Drisocll’s new church we’ll have to get water out to you to show our support! 🙂

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