Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a bit of a fanboy of Kate Bowler, author of Everything Happens for a Reason and other Lies I’ve Loved, and also The Preacher’s Wife. Bowler is an Assistant professor of American religion at Duke Divinity School and this book Blessed was her first published back in 2013. Now it’s in paperback, and I managed to get a copy to review. I’m really glad I read this book and it’s been particularly poignant reading it in the year of COVID-19 and the 2020 USA presidential election.
This is a fairly chunky academic book, around 300 pages including footnotes and appendices. But, as with all of Kates writing it is extremely readable. The way bowler rights is a blend of theology sociology and ethnography. In this case (while she was living with a diagnosis of cancer) she spent a lot of time going to prosperity gospel churches and conferences, seeking to get inside and understand the psyche of those who believe this offshoot of Christianity. Early on in the book we read that “prosperity leaders represent the Christianity of the American market place“. Further it’s fascinating that “a recent time poll found that 17% of questions survey and identify themselves as part of such a movement, while 31% believe that God increases the riches of those who give. The full 2/3 agree that God wants people to prosper. A pew survey reported 43% of all Christian respondents agreed that the faithful receive health and wealth… American audiences have made this gospel their own.“ This is not by any stretch of the imagination a small issue. Whilst Bowlers focus is on the American church, much of what she says can be applied carefully in both the UK and other contacts. She has done a service to the church in collating the questions and challenges that prosperity theology raises, but also providing a clear and dispassionate analysis of which churches and individuals fall into this group.
This book does a number of things very well. As I note above, this is a dispassionate and yet engaged piece of research. The author is honest and personable, whilst also letting of the people she is studying and engaging with speak for themselves. There is an expression “hoisted by your own petard “and that can certainly be seen to apply here for many of the prosperity preachers and teachers that Kate engages with, listens to, or digs into what they have written. The questionable exegesis of many prosperity teachers and preachers is laid bare often simply by being quoted and not commented on. There are also many facts, figures, pictures, and diagrams which help to illustrate the book and explain simply and clearly the connections between many of the figures involved and the scale of this movement. This book makes for uncomfortable reading perhaps for many people who think ‘it’s probably okay to listen to (insert name here)’, And will be a helpful guide to pastors and other teachers seeking to gently engage with members of the congregation around there listening and reading habits.
I clearly liked this book. I will recommend it warmly and firmly to pastors, particularly in the charismatic and evangelical traditions with which I interact. That said, it is not perfect. There are a number of slightly passing references to figures and traditions which would definitely not be in the prosperity gospel/teaching stream. A more clear nuance and distinction between mainstream charismatics/Evangelicals and prosperity teachers would have been useful. It is also interesting to note the spread across denominations, racial divide‘s, and education/urban/rural differences. Just goes to show the truth of 1 Tim. 4:1-2:“now the spirit expressly says that in later time somebody apart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of Demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared“. For Bible believing Christians of any movement or denomination, the emergence and success of the prosperity gospel movement should come as no surprise. Kate Bowler has done a great job in showing us what the movement is, what the movement teaches, and some of the key figures involved. No doubt some readers of this review will have their own views of which teachers and churches are involved, I strongly suggest that they read the book and come to their own conclusions.
I want to warmly and firmly recommend this book to pastors in particular. I am aware of many, across streams, who are concerned about members of the congregation reading books by people who are named in this book. This book should be seen as an essential part of the contemporary pastors toolkit, particularly in the age of coronavirus when many are turning to the Internet for teaching, struggling financially, and thus prone to the possibilities of this particular false teaching. This book will also be of interest to those concerned by the “Christian “advisory board around President Donald Trump, particularly figures such as Paula White. In this book, the author arguably foresaw all of the events around Trump and Christianity with impressive clarity. Again, this book is not about Trump and politics but is a vital piece of the puzzle in understanding our present cultural moment. This is an extraordinarily important book, I am glad to see it in paperback, and hope that it will be widely read and its lessons pondered.