Kate Bowler’s history of the prosperity gospel movement
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. If you’ve never heard of a Christian Movement Scholars call “the prosperity gospel,” chances are you’ve at least heard of some of its most famous proponents like Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, or Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. The prosperity gospel is not officially associated with any particular denomination. It’s more like a style of Christianity that emphasizes God’s desire to bless people—particularly and literally when it comes to wealth and health; through your faith you can become healthy and rich. When historian Kate Bowler set out to write a book called Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, she found herself being pulled into the book’s narrative herself in surprising ways. Bowler recently published a powerful follow-up column to Blessed in the New York Times. She’s here to help us understand the frequently lampooned but incredibly influential prosperity gospel movement. Questions and comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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HODGES: Kate Bowler is assistant professor of American religion at Duke Divinity School and she’s the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. Kate, you join me today from Atlanta. Thanks for being on the show.
KATE BOWLER: So glad to be here.
ON TOUR WITH FAITH HEALER BENNY HINN
HODGES: So the “prosperity gospel.” This is something that deals with wealth and health and other issues like this. It’s a way of viewing Christianity with those things foremost in mind. But it’s not an organized church. You describe it more like a network of preachers and conferences and media networks that all hit on these similar themes—how Christianity relates to wealth and health.
Your book is a rare book of academic history, because you bring the story right up to the present and you even include your own direct experiences and observations here. You’re not just a detached researcher of bygone eras where no one can argue back with you. You’re like a present observer. So I thought it’d be cool to begin with your experience on a Holy Land tour in 2008 with Benny Hinn. Talk about Benny Hinn and what that that experience was like.
BOWLER: Sure. Well, it was one of those things where you’re desperate to do research, you’re a graduate student, and you need money. Sweet, sweet money while studying a theology of money and it makes you feel like a hypocrite. [laughs] So actually, originally I ended up seeing Benny Hinn both when he came to Raleigh, but also in the land where Jesus walked, in part because the only money they had for graduate students was international, so I was like “well, Holy Land, here I come!”
HODGES: That’s not too bad though, that’s a good—
BOWLER: Right? It’s only slightly pernicious. So yeah, I went with eight hundred or nine hundred American tourists (mostly) to see all the different major sites of Jesus’s ministry. But it ended up being… I tried to answer a whole series of questions I’d had. The first was, what will people pay for a miracle of their own—I mean these are vastly experience trips and for the most part Benny Hinn is known as a famous healer so were these people expecting a miracle? Was this just tourism? What are their hopes and dreams as they go into this?
And it was everything I could have hoped for and more. I met the most delightful people as I traveled around on a bus in the heat of an Israeli summer, [laughs] which as it turns out is a perfect opportunity to see people use “positive confession” that we’ll talk about later—the use of positive words in action. So there was this one delightful person named Debbie who was tailor-made for the prosperity gospel. She was always walking ten or fifteen feet in front of the tour guide explaining to us what we were about to see—not because she was trying to be obnoxious, because she was so excited to be there. She was like “isn’t it wonderful!? Can you even believe we’re here!?” I mean the number of times I heard her say “just pinch me!” She was the kind of consummate prosperity person in action.
HODGES: With catch phrases—
BOWLER: Oh my gosh yes! She had her own, absolutely, just perfectly soundbite ways of expressing her theology. And then there was this other lovely lady who was seventy-something and she was travelling by herself and you could tell she was there mostly for the apocalyptic stuff, and they weren’t getting into the sweet juicy details of Armageddon enough for Megiddo, the kind of mountain top where, at end times, armies can be seen. So she was a little annoyed by the whole thing, and she was accidentally negatively confessing all over the place. And so you could just see people turn against her [laughs] very quickly and be like “don’t confess that, don’t make it true!”
And so it was kind of fascinating on a personal level to look at the kind of little ecosystem of what prosperity theology is like in action.
HODGES: You’re seeing this group of people who, you talk about positive and negative confession, it’s all about the type of impact that a person can have in their interaction with God depending on just the words that they use.
BOWLER: Absolutely, that words are themselves a spiritual power that can be unleashed with direct negative or positive consequences. Normally we kind of look at the health and the wealth, but it was kind of much more fun to see it on a very mundane level in the way people try to inculcate this as a kind of spiritual habit.
HODGES: And you kind of got sucked into the story a little bit here as well when you say in the book “a very un-scholarly thing occurred, I got sick.” And then you kind of became part of the story through how the other tourist reacted.
BOWLER: [laughing] Oh I was a giant puke fest. It was terrible! But you know I had heatstroke and I’m terrible at drinking water and then all of a sudden my eyes are squeezed tightly shut as I’m just trying to get through this bus ride to one of the highlights of the trip, which was supposed to be this healing service on the sea of Galilee. And it was kind of one of the only times in which Benny Hinn actually showed up to these events, because normally he was actually quite inaccessible. So everyone was really excited. Meanwhile they kept having to pull over the bus [laughs] for me to be violently ill. And meanwhile, just with my eyes squeeze shut on the bus, whenever I get back on I could just start to feel hands touching me, just trying to pray for me, but mostly to try to exercise what they worried were demons that had kind of managed to get—what they would say—a foothold because of maybe unconfessed sin… I mean that’s the thing about the prosperity gospel is, they actually have produces list and lists of things that might be wrong with you if you find the symptoms to be true. So if something bad is happening to you here’s a list of things you can look through to see if you done any of them wrong. So they were very happy to list them for me [laughs], I mean, super kind people…
HODGES: Did they know you were a researcher, could that have played a factor, like “this is not a believer like we are” kind of a thing?
BOWLER: Yeah, I think they felt… I mean who knows what they really thought but my sense from what they were saying was they thought I was… it was that I was an incomplete Christian. That there’s just a few extra steps that I could take and that in this case maybe, and they were very helpful [laughs], it was like “well you said you talk a lot, maybe it’s something you said!” So that I had sort of unleashed the negative spiritual forces that caused these demons to come inside of me.
HODGES: Did any of them suggest that Benny Hinn could come and, you know he’s a faith healer so what about people who were here on the trip that had—not just you—but other people I assumed that had conditions?
BOWLER: I thought it was so odd that they are so deeply American, bootstraps, do it yourself. And you’d think that on a celebrity tour with a faith healer that they would bring me right up to the front. But instead they each had sort of careful instruction of things that I could by myself and that this would be the sustainability of my faith. Like “well you could do it once here in the bathroom, then you can do it anywhere you like.” And I think a lot of them practice their faith in that way, which these healers… and even healers are inspirational, but that they really believe that this is a journey they have to take alone.
TRYING TO DEFINE THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL MOVEMENT
HODGES: So we’ll circle back around at the end of the interview to talk more about how your ethnographic research, your personal interaction with believers helped shape the book’s story. But right now let’s take a look closer at how you define the prosperity gospel, what it is at the moment. You include an appendix where you dig more deeply into definitions. There’s a fascinating line in the appendix where you say “believers themselves may avoid labels but they do observe boundaries.” In other words, what you’re calling the prosperity gospel isn’t necessarily how these believers would self-identify. So let’s talk about that.
BOWLER: Sure. It was the main sort of thorn in my side for doing this project. And I think partly why scholars hadn’t really done it before was that no one likes to be call a “prosperity preacher.” It’s kind of a dispersing term. The problem is there’s no good alternative. I tried desperately to convince everyone to call it the “faith movement,” but then it was just more work for me and no one understood what I was talking about laughs].
HODGES: And faith is such a fundamental principle…
BOWLER: [laughs] I know, like they’re for it!
HODGES: Like where’s your non-faith Christians at? [laughs]
BOWLER: Yeah that’s right, they are going strong! Exactly. So it ended up being so awkward because it mostly just ends up being a list of people you like or don’t like. That’s why I had this endless appendix and series of appendices because I wanted to show people, look, there’s different kinds of markers that we can try to use to create some sense of framework of what we’re looking for. And I do think that these labels are fluid, I mean I’ve seen people be prosperity preachers at one season of their life and kind of move away from it. I think we need to realize just how shaped we are by our associational connections. Anyone, any of you lovely scholars out there who once used to say “I speak to another person” or “talk about this” now uses the word “discourse.” [laughs] Notice that we all just start to look and talk and sound alike, it’s why we all wear tweed.
So, you get the same thing with these preachers. You can see people, and I can just watch them year by year gravitate into a new kind of language. And sometimes too it’s also topical. Like someone will go through a fundraising campaign for a new building, and it’s not just that they’re trying to get money—which, there is a natural connection with fundraising—but people are grappling for language they can use. And very often they’ll kind of draw in a specialist in the prosperity gospel. It’s like “okay, this our language, ‘faith for blank’.” So different things I looked for included their discourse, sort of talk about which language they use. So are there any weird words—to us—that they might use that help mark them off as a discrete community. So words like “rema” or “special revelation,” “a hundredfold blessings,” so anytime someone’s using spiritual math. So I looked at language, I looked at different—
HODGES: Names for God is another one…
BOWLER: Yes, that’s right, names for God. There’s always “Jehovah Jireh, my provider.” I like my friends who say—any prosperity person who says “Jehovah, Jirah, my providah.” There’s always a way to make it cool. I’ve heard it in a million raps already, so…
HODGES: And it’s hard because you cite a Time poll where only about seventeen percent of Christians self-identified as being part of the prosperity movement, but a full two-thirds of Christians polled agreed that God wants people to prosper. So this idea of God’s desire for his children to—not just survive, or not just help each other—but to actually like prosper in the terms of wealth and health is very prominent, even when people don’t self-identify that way.
BOWLER: And sometimes people can have—without a theological prosperity gospel—they can very easily have a performative one. So very often we might see in a megachurch with their living Nativity scene Advent experience, not just the slick and shininess of it but the implicit message that Christianity will always make your life better. This sort endlessly therapeutic…and becomes a series of formulas and guarantees. And this has just become such an inherent part of our culture, it’s sometimes very difficult to distinguish between a performative prosperity gospel and a theological one.
HODGES: How about denominationally? It seems that prosperity gospel can be found among different types of Christians. More fundamentalist-minded, Pentecostal, Evangelical. How did you see it mapping onto denominational identity?
BOWLER: It totally boggled my mind that every—I won’t say every—I’ll say almost every major denomination has one giant prosperity megachurch that makes them all a tiny bit embarrassed because they know it’s not theologically on par, but it’s so successful they just can’t bring themselves to kick it out. And so I’ve interviewed all kinds of denominational prosperity preachers who—it’s much easier to tell if you go into their bookstore that they’re much more comfortable in a neo-Pentecostal circuit in which they travel with likeminded people, but that they also typically went to a mainline or something seminary and have their own allegiances.
And so you can see…there’s a United Methodist Prosperity Church, there are giant Southern Baptist ones even though the Southern Baptist’s are typically the loudest and most vocal critics. I mean, when I went to the Joyce Meyer conference sometimes I just—I’m the loser who sits around and looks at which churches buses are there [laughs]. In the same way that when I go to a prosperity megachurch I’m always looking for vanity plates at the front that says PRAYED4. You know, if I look at the church vans there’ll be a Moravian church, A UCC church. There seems to be really no limits to its accessibility and appeal.
HODGES: How about regionally? This was really interesting, you had some maps in here where you showed that they’re actually view that exist in the Mountain West region of the United States, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming—did you get a sense for why that was?
BOWLER: Mormons and mountains were my only guess for that, that was my best guess. [laughs]
HODGES: Because we have Evangelical churches here in the region, so why not a megachurch?
BOWLER: Oh and I thought maybe like in the land of “focus on a family” surely there would be a bajillion, which is also a technical term, and those charts are tiny bit misleading because I was only able to track the theological proclivities of megachurches because that’s what I had access to. So it’s very likely that there are a million small ones. But I think there’s some really important work to be done on it as a southern phenomenon, but also the ways in which it has traveled and taken on different flavors. So it’s very popular in the northwest. I mean the number of Seattle prosperity megachurches—and they’re kind of cooler, like they’ve got their not completely distressed jeans [laughs]—
HODGES: [laughs] Distressed jeans—
BOWLER: —and their totally artful graphic tees.
HODGES: You don’t want to fully heal the jeans, leave them a little bit—
BOWLER: No! And it can’t be shiny. God forbid they be shiny. Yeah, they’ve managed to do the kind of puffy-vest-cool with never a soul patch in sight. And I love—they’ve managed to be…and I mean this is the thing about it being—if you just get to a national story if someone says “is this an American gospel?” Well that’s the problem is it’s so infinitely exportable that it might be American or it might be southern for a moment and then, because its wonderfully market savvy, then poof it’s suddenly completely different.
HODGES: Yeah the underlying messages of achieving wealth and having good health and this idea that God wants that for you, so that’s adaptable to all sorts of different cultural settings.
HODGES: How about congregation size?
BOWLER: Well, this was the part I was most surprised about. It’s not dominant on the whole in megachurches. So if you look at the majority of megachurches, even the people who I think kind of accidentally collapse those categories, most megachurches are not prosperity megachurches. It’s just that they’re incredibly top-heavy. So they have more of the…I can’t remember what I put in my glorious chart only because I’m…it may be forty percent or something like that? of the largest churches, so ten thousand plus, are prosperity. So there really is a tight association between market and media savvy and the ability to have language— the resonance between church growth language and formulas for growth and a prosperity message—they’ve managed to draw all those things together into a really powerful recipe for success.
PROSPERITY PREACHERS AND CELEBRITIES
HODGES: And then some of the leading celebrities. We’ve mention Benny Hinn. You mentioned Joyce…
BOWLER: Mhmm. There’s Creflo Dollar, TD Jakes, Paula White, I could go on.
HODGES: And these people sometimes…some of these leaders also display—conspicuously—wealth in the sense that they might have expensive suits and vehicles and things like this. Some Christians would look askance at that and sort of say “this is unseemly.” But within the prosperity gospel it’s almost as though these figureheads serve as representative of the promises that are open to anybody. And so it makes sense within their context for them to display what they would call God’s blessings.
BOWLER: Absolutely. I mean, and it really kind of gets down to their sense of the economy, being Gods economy. So in that sense it’s not limited—it’s not defined by the downturn. There are no barriers to economic success. And so what works for them can work for anyone. All they have to do is show them how.
HODGES: And that underlying principle is, “God desires to bless you.”
HODGES: So they’re less focused on “Jesus saves” or “you’re a sinner and you need Jesus,” not that they don’t ever talk about that, but that they’re more focused on Gods desire to bless.
BOWLER: Well, it does get back to their atonement theory. I think I underestimated before I did the project how much of this they root in resurrection power. So they really do think that on the cross God breaks the power of death and of sin’s stranglehold over us, but also poverty and disease. And so that’s where you get into some slightly awkward theological wrangling where it’s got an easier visual analog to say that Jesus died for our sins when they have all the language of “by his stripes we are healed,” we see a suffer in Christ, and so in that there’s a profound connection between our suffering and Christ’s. But it’s harder with the money stuff because they really had to reach for it. There’s a lot of, baby Jesus gets—What does he get, Blair?…
HODGES: [laughs] Yeah, it’s gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
BOWLER: [laughs] Yeah he didn’t get seaweed crackers, he got the whole bonanza. So there’s that—
HODGES: I like the one of Joseph and Mary on a donkey and “that was like the Cadillac back then!”
BOWLER: It’s just like that, yes, or “his robe must have been really nice, that’s why they tore it,” or “they needed to have a treasurer and so we must of have lots of money.” But those are—it’s usually only the very—it’s the Mike Murdocks, it’s the not-worried-about-being-disreputable-sometimes types who are more likely to go for gold and make those arguments.
HODGES: So that kind of gives us an overview then, the prosperity gospel is this movement with Christianity that focuses on wealth and health; it’s not specific to any particular denomination; there regional expressions of it; its involved in some megachurches; congregation sizes vary; there are celebrity preachers that are involved who have ministries, not just locally where they’re at, but also through television and the internet; and this underlying idea that God desires to bless and that the individual can tap into that. So that’s it kind of in a nutshell.
HODGES: That’s Kate Bowler. She’s assistant professor of American religion at Duke Divinity School. We’re talking about her book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.
NINETEENTH CENTURY BIRTH OF THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL MOVEMENT
HODGES: Kate, let’s talk about the historical developments. So rewind back to the nineteen century, and you locate the roots of it in these three intersecting streams: there’s Pentecostalism, there’s something called “New Thought” and then just American ideals of pragmatism and individualism. So talk about—especially New Though I think might be a new idea for people. Let’s start there.
BOWLER: Yeah. New Thought is one of those things where you’ll recognize the ideas before you recognize its origins—the idea that the mind is a very powerful incubator, that what you think can possibly come true, that your words are potent spiritual forces that can bring things into reality. So all of this probably sounds to us just a little bit like Oprah but in truth—
HODGES: The Secret.
BOWLER: Yes! Always The Secret. It has religious, kind of sectarian religious roots in which this group of thinkers and speakers who had inherited a lot of their ideas from Christian Science decided that Christian Science’s elevation of the mind over the body was not entirely accurate, but perhaps it was that the mind could realign the body such that we could—and alignment is the right language because they kind of thought of it like a divine channel between us and God. And so its founder—well it’s not really like that because it’s kind of a loose conglomeration—but its kind of main thought-founder is Phineas Quimby who was a touring mesmerist for a while—
HODGES: That’s a great name too. [laughs]
BOWLER: [laughs] Yes, Phineas Quimby. And I long to be a touring mesmerist!
HODGES: Yes! Where have all the mesmerists gone? Alright, anyway—
BOWLER: Exactly. My dad did want to write a series of historical novels in which the detective is a touring mesmerist [laughs]
BOWLER: —who solves problems in mysterious ways. But, so New Thought. Its founder is Phineas Quimby. And he has this experience in which he’s quite sick but his horse carriage breaks and he’s forced to run up a hill alongside his horse and he finds that, strangely, he actually feels better than he did before. And wondered that perhaps his mind might be more powerful than he’d realized. At the moment, Americans were sort of high on self-discovery, there was a real rhetoric of self-mastery, and home gyms were big, the muscular Christianity that saw the titans of industry as commanding and changing America. So there was a real sense that people were more powerful than they perhaps had once thought. And so New Though picks up on this and says “yes, the mind is incredibly powerful.” And they become popular writers for like Ladies Home Journal and… not only kind of more purely academic religious texts, which is how they started, mostly focused on healing, but then gradually became popularizers of their own message. And in so doing kind of disappeared into the American ethos. So it became very hard for people to even really remember where those thoughts came from because they had popularized so very quickly.
HODGES: You call it a “high anthropology,” It’s this idea that rather than being sort of “depraved sinners in the hands of an angry God” you have children of God that God created for the purpose of blessing their lives and sort of exalting them.
BOWLER: Yeah, that’s one thing I forgot to mention is that you started off with health in the sense of alignment of mind and body and were kind of popular healers, but by the turn of the twentieth century they had turned toward wealth and success literature that was becoming more common more broadly. And so they were very quick to say, “this is going to change your life in every possible way, from getting you that job to helping your family to bringing in that extra income.” So they become, kind of, some of the first real prosperity preachers.
HODGES: So you talked about the death and resurrection of Christ as being this source of power that people can tap into. So they saw the way into that power as positive thought, positive thought will lead to positive outcomes. That was faith. So Jesus purchased salvation on the cross but also guaranteed his followers prosperity if they would tap into the power that he’s made available.
THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL MOVES INTO THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
HODGES: So that’s the nineteen century. Now we get up into World War I, World War II, people are looking for miracles at this time. What are some of the things that are happening in the movement now?
BOWLER: Sure. Well New Thought kind of gave it its language of the mind, but it was Pentecostalism that largely gave it its Christian framework. And so in the twenties there was just a peak of healing revivalists travelling around the country. And they were grappling with the question of “why do some people get healed and some people don’t?” And they’re looking for that recipe, which of course they are because they’re results-based healing revivalists who have to be accountable for those questions all the time under these big tents around America. So they very quickly tap into New Thought language, I think quite unconsciously about—
HODGES: It was just in the atmosphere.
BOWLER: Yeah, I think that’s right. And you know there’s some sense that sometimes some of them shared libraries or definitely knew about each other, but I think for the most part it was just the way people were speaking. And it became such a—it suited their sense of justification and sanctification so easily that it just sort of slipped in. And so by the time we get to after World War II and everybody is experiencing an economic influx for the most part—except African Americans who’ve largely been barred from these often government subsidized privileges. We see new cars in people’s driveways, new modern conveniences, and all of a sudden the language of healing that have been so popular before World War I is not quite the miracle many people are looking for.
HODGES: Medical science had improved as well, too, so there’s that.
BOWLER: It’s less terrifying. They don’t need to call it “heroic medicine,” people need to be a little less heroic to get it [laughs]—
BOWLER: —and all kinds vaccinations had poured in making previously terrifying childhood diseases no longer quite so scary. So people are looking for a language that both explains and sometimes justifies of this new boost. So Pentecostals really start to expand on the language of health and extend it into wealth. So the same promises they would make for a healed body they’re now willing to make about miraculously multiplying wallets and new promotions.
And this of course coincides with the advent of the popular new television. So we have a new kind of celebrity preacher, an Oral Roberts who is both handsome and rugged, the roll-up-your-sleeves kind of healer who also wants you to touch the screen against his hand so that you too can be healed. He’s wonderfully charismatic and compelling and you just have a whole host of these types who are promising money and a healed body and restored families and all the goods that we all long for and it becomes very, very popular with Pentecostalism.
HODGES: It’s increasingly contractual, too. You talked about in the book Kenneth Hagin, his Law of Faith, that almost sets out this exact formula.
BOWLER: Oh yeah, early on they loved formulas. They would have to back away from it eventually. But I think they were just trying to think pragmatically about what they could guarantee people. And so they were willing to make quite bold promises.
HODGES: There were some people that started withdrawing support, right, some believers, even Pentecostal denominations, started backing away and saying “okay, there are excesses here that we don’t agree with.”
BOWLER: Oh! I mean, in the 1950s the prosperity preacher was not a reputable figure in the Pentecostal denominations. I mean I’ve read these sweet, sweet stories in archives from Pentecostal denominational leaders and they’re like “ugh! This guy again,” like “what are we gonna do!?” [laughs]—
HODGES: [laughs] I see, they’re an embarrassment to them—
BOWLER: Yeah, and you could see even through the typewriter notes, that they were just like “Blergh! Not you.” So it was certainly, it took almost a full generation for many Pentecostal denominations to deal with the fact that they just weren’t going to go anywhere.
HODGES: You also talk about the rise of therapy culture that sort of continues to this period, so Norman Vincent Peale has his Power of Positive Thinking, and so this is still in the atmosphere as well.
BOWLER: Yeah it sure is. I mean it was pretty amazing that by the time psychology became its own profession in the late eighteen hundreds and then enter the mainstream that therapeutic language, and what’s better, the therapeutic pastor, became such an American standby. And so it’s almost hard for people to use language that isn’t psychological, it became so completely persuasive. This just became really sort of crystallized in the positive thinkers. So in the Norman Vincent Peales and his lovely wife Ruth. In the Robert Schullers and his lovely wife Arvella who use to go around and take out the negative words from hymns, like “saved a wretch like me,” because it just wasn’t theologically appropriate. And so we see a kind of turn away from Christian language toward that high anthropology that we were talking about in which people no longer want to be thought of as sinners but as people capable of so much more.
MATERIAL, MONEY, AND THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL
HODGES: Fundraising becomes important, you say, at this time. There’s this idea of sewing and reaping. And I don’t know if you saw it, John Oliver had a piece on his HBO show just a little while ago where he started responding to these mailers where they would say “sew a seed, give us five bucks, it will turn into…” this type of thing. So this has roots back here post-World War II era when these ministries really start fundraising.
BOWLER: Yeah. That’s right and I mean partly it’s because it is incredibly expensive to keep things on the air. So there’s a natural relationship, then, between needing to raise more money and having a more aggressive or more specific series of certainties. That was always my favorite thing in college was I was many people’s only Christian friend and so they would put these mailers in my mailbox so I have decades worth of healing green oil and special—
HODGES: Yeah and like a napkin or something—
BOWLER: Well it is—I mean Pentecostalism, like Catholicism, is a wonderfully material faith. So for example after a famous preacher would be done with his giant tent from a tent ministry, then they would cut it into squares and mail it out as part of a fundraising campaign assuming that sort of all of the spiritual energy of what had transpired there had somehow absorbed into the fabric. I mean it’s an almost sacramental theology in which things take on more importance. So just regular practices we have historically done for healing, like laying on of hands or any of those things, become just much more important. It’s a very tactile faith.
So yeah, the stuff really kicks off after World War II in particular. But in truth by the late nineteen seventies just everything about American churches is getting bigger. They’re getting savvier, church growth movements have really taken off. So we have the advent of the mainstream megachurch in the eighties and the nineties and everything has just grown by scale and because of that the fundraising grows correspondingly.
PROSPERITY GOSPEL CONTROVERSIES
HODGES: In fact, so let’s talk more about wealth in particular. In the book you write “the most controversial aspect of the prosperity gospel movement was its radical claim to transform invisible faith into financial rewards.” We already mentioned some of the unusual justifications they would give from the Bible such as the gifts that were given to Jesus representing the gold and things so this is what God wants for you—the donkey of Joseph and Mary. But then scandals and divisions started to break out in the movement based on excesses. So let’s talk about that. To be honest, when I picked up the book to begin with this is the first place my mind went, was to think of TV preachers asking for money and this sort of thing. What sort of scandals happen that rocked the movement?
BOWLER: Well the late eighties were a tough time to be a prosperity preacher. Three things kind of seem to happen in succession and congealed in the American public the idea that the television preacher was not to be trusted. And the first one was that Oral Roberts had fallen, I think at least seven million dollars or something, short in a fund raising campaign. I will say—though I never thought I’d use the words “in oral Roberts’ defense” [laughs]—it was money for his hospital, The City of Faith, which is adjacent to the campus.
HODGES: He was trying to marry his faith with healing, with scientific principles—
BOWLER: That’s right—
HODGES: —to find a way to make them work together.
BOWLER: Exactly right. To have a doctor that prays with you beforehand and then thinks about both spiritual and physical causes, absolutely. And if you’re ever seen the campus, it all shimmers in gold. It looks like the Expo pavilion from the sixties has just been spray painted, everywhere. It has this, he made it futuristic in a way—
HODGES: I like the sculpture of the hands that you have a photograph of in the book. I actually think that’s a pretty cool—
BOWLER: [laughs] It is enormous!
HODGES: —Yeah! It looks really cool.
BOWLER: Well, and his City of Faith was enormous. They’ve had to find all kinds of uses for it because it was such a big building. But it has a huge tower beside it whose windows just kind of glitter, gold.
HODGES: So why was it a scandal? That he didn’t hit his fund raising goal, or what happened?
BOWLER: That’s right, so he was far short on the money he needed and then he sent out a letter to fundraisers—or his son did, I can’t quite remember—that said that if this money was not raised—that he had gone into his prayer tower which is a tower in the middle of campus, and that he would not come back home, that he was there to pray but if the money was not raised that God would “ransom him home.” So there was kind of an apocalyptic threat. And then he sent a series of follow-ups that didn’t help. And the result was just pure hilarity for anyone who didn’t like it, and so of course he was—
HODGES: They would just say he was mercenary or something? Like, “oh, he’s basically holding himself ransom?”
BOWLER: Yes, that’s exactly what they would say, that he was holding himself ransom.
HODGES: To take the sympathetic view, he really wanted his hospital to succeed. Did he see it as mercenary in that way, or did you find in the records discussions where people—like he was being duplicitous about this? Or that he just was using what came to hand?
BOWLER: Yeah, I don’t know what his state of mind was, but I do know that he was incredibly—he was just a force of nature. He was the kind of person who had a vision for something and then made it happen. And he was able to do that mostly through sheer force of his personality because he was such a magnetic figure. I mean when he believed in projects he wanted to see them through to the end and so I personally doubt that he was sort of planning this maliciously, but he certainly had a flare for drama that he was willing to use in multiple ways throughout his ministry.
HODGES: So that’s one. What other kind of scandals cropped up at this time—
BOWLER: Yeah…So then we get to “P.T.L.,” Praise the Lord, the empire of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. And Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were America’s first lady and president of televangelism. They were royalty in so many ways. They had this incredibly public marriage in which they would fight and tease and laugh and joke live as they did an entire marathon of shows and both of them—
HODGES: As if like a good reality show a little bit—
BOWLER: It really was very early reality programming. And they wanted to make Christianity fun. That’s why the center of their empire wasn’t a church, it was a theme park where people could bring families. And that’s partly why they wanted their million shows—with what became twenty-four-hour programming—to be incredibly over the top and of course very prone to satire. Saturday Night Live had versions of them. Tammy Faye was famous for her over-the-top makeup, but people loved that very joyful sort of…yeah. They kind of embraced the absurdity and made it work for them. So when Jim was accused, first of homosexuality by a fellow Christian celebrity—a news or radio personality—and then the one that stuck, and that there was a very public trial for, was a fraud. That he had oversold the shares for their Grand Heritage Hotel that they had, it was kind of one of those time share arrangements, and that he oversold it to make money and that he had use that money—or someone from his organization had—to pay off their twenty-one-year-old secretary Jessica Hahn for the tryst that they had. Which of course Jessica Hahn went on to do a very exciting Playboy video in which she does her own voiceovers. [laughs] I mean the whole thing was just—
HODGES: So, yeah, this is a big mess—
BOWLER: It got really public. I mean, the news reporter who broke the story, I think he got a Pulitzer or something for it. I mean, just like a huge award. This was a major breakthrough to have found a financial paper trail and the fraud story just went over the top. And because they were already such dramatic personalities there was a lot of weeping and singing. You know, it became pure theater.
HODGES: As you’re writing about it from a historian’s standpoint, did you feel tabloidy at all? I mean, were only a couple decades removed and so—
BOWLER: Yeah. Well, I mean…Well, they’ve spoken so much about it that they kind of came to see that as accidentally defining their ministry. And so it was easy to find so many sources of them just thinking through what led to it, and then the way they tried to define themselves after it. But in truth, it was the biggest Christian scandal in, you know, anyone’s memory, and really I think defined the downfall of Christian Televangelism.
And then there was one right after. Robert Tilton, who was very famous and no one acknowledges how bonkers-famous as he was before his fall because of course everyone disowned him after—Diane Sawyer made her reputation showing how a whole staff of people would take the money out of the prayer envelopes and just throw out the prayers. And so people were so horrified by that footage. These were all scandals, one after another after another, that it seemed like the Televangelists was an unredeemable figure.
HODGES: But we still have something like the 700 Club today. There’s Pat Robertson—was he connected to the movement at all, and how did he survive all of the scandals? And now we have Creflo Dollar and people like Joel Osteen and these types of people that have shows…
BOWLER: Oh, yeah. I mean, it didn’t go anywhere. I mean, there’s a great dissertation—it became a book that was written right at the time—that tracked all the numbers. And what looked like a huge media death spiral was actually something like audiences went from fifteen million to ten million. So that’s still ten million people.
HODGES: Yeah, that’s a big chunk. And cable TV is sort of on a rise at the time.
BOWLER: Yes, that’s right. And part of it was just because there were too many preachers on television and there was a natural hemorrhaging as they’re trying to consolidate TV shows. So it’s in part just that people couldn’t…there was less funding to go around and it was just a bit of a tough time in terms of the market. So it wasn’t necessarily that people were just giving up on televangelists. And in truth, televangelists re-marketed themselves so quickly that you could barely—I mean, you could just barely catch your breath before the new breed of cool postmodern televangelists were on the screen.
DIFFERENT MODES OF PROSPERITY GOSPEL EMERGE—HARD AND SOFT
HODGES: And there are also some developments in the prosperity gospel movement on a basement level, I think. You differentiate between “hard prosperity” and “soft prosperity.” Talk about the difference between those and how that came about.
BOWLER: Well, as I studied the movement, I began to see such a spectrum in the way—I mean, they were still all promising the same things. Using faith to gain wealth, health, and ultimate victory. So rhetorically and for all kinds of other reasons they still looked and sounded and talked the same. But they had a different understanding of the nature of causality. So for hard prosperity, there seemed to be a very direct result from unleashing of positive confession. So speaking of positive words and then the result. And there was always a very supernatural sense that things would be answered, often quite immediately. So prayer became a very direct spiritual power.
HODGES: Would a positive confession be something like “I want to be…” Or, what would an actual positive confession sound like?
BOWLER: Oh, not even “I want to be rich.” Like “I am rich.”
BOWLER: You can download any number of—a lot of people, megachurches, put their positive confessions online as kind of a vision statement for the church. So “I am healthy, I am wealthy, I am happy. All God’s gifts are mine.” I mean, just any number of affirmations.
HODGES: So that’s hard prosperity? It’s like huge promises and immediate results?
BOWLER: Yeah. And there’s kind of a sense that once you’ve said it, it is accomplished. That’s how powerful your words are. So for people who are, for example, sick. They’ll very often be discouraged from perpetual prayer because it will be seen as a sense of unfaithfulness. Like “well, we already asked for it. It’s already accomplished.” So hard prosperity will be a Creflo Dollar, a Kenneth Copeland, Kenneth Hagin, Mike Murdoch. These people are willing to offer spiritual math, like “hundredfold blessings.” They’re often quite specific in what they think God will do as a result.
A soft prosperity is very often incredibly easy—it’s very therapeutic language to describe the nature between faith and results. That’s a Joel Osteen, a Joyce Meyer, a T.D. Jakes. It’s there and the infrastructure is there, but they might assume that it’s a more gradual result. So you might smile and the boss notices you and you get a promotion. That would be described in the same language as the hard prosperity mysterious envelope of cash, you know, next to your car or something.
THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL AND RACE
HODGES: Okay. So I wanted to talk about race at this point. Now race plays a part throughout the book, but I thought it would be interesting at this point to zoom in a little bit because there’s this tension within the prosperity gospel movement between individualism versus communal effort. So as you mentioned before, African Americans didn’t receive the same kind of benefits financially after World War II so there were difficulties there. So it might have been a harder pill to swallow to think about—it was easy to believe in the prosperity gospel when you were already on your way up. And so people that weren’t, especially in African American communities, they wouldn’t have the same drive to the prosperity gospel. Yet here we have African American communities that are very involved in the prosperity gospel. So situate them.
BOWLER: And first I’ll say that the prosperity gospel is so adaptable racially, but also just across classes. And so for those who “have not,” it’s a language of aspiration, of hope. For those who already have it, like the middle class who are also still aspirational, it’s a language of ambition and frequently language of justification. And for the very wealthy, I mean, it’s just an explanation for what has already happened. And so, in that sense, it really kinda traverses all economic situations.
But African Americans have contributed to the prosperity gospel in so many interesting ways. In part because they were the first to really tap into the importance of the high anthropology of the prosperity gospel. So you already have famous prosperity preachers in the twenties and thirties—so, that is to say, in the height of American wealth and the depths of American debt and joblessness. So highs and lows, you have very famous prosperity preachers adapting to those situations and telling people that money and health and “the dream” is possible for them. These are your Sweet Daddy Graces and your Father Divines, they’re very often very direct about their New Thought influences. And you can track different famous African American prosperity preachers, you know, from the early twentieth century until today.
I think the key is understanding how important the kind of dignity that money and health brings. Like Sweet Daddy Grace for example, who had his own toothpaste brand, he was so famous. And you know, I put a picture in my book of the lovely outfits that his church dressed in for this church banquet, in which they’re given names like Prince and Princess and Queen. They’re all dressed in white beautifully. And I think he’s dressed in fur or something at the front. And people always used to make fun of the kind of ostentatious of the black preacher, when in truth, they had settled on such an important point. That God finds dignity in their bodies. That their bodies can be a source of spiritual power when they say these certain words. And I’ve just found that that high sense that they are spiritually capable of anything has been such a tremendous theological resource to people who, in the midst of Jim Crow are denied so much. So I think we can see all kinds of reasons that people join the prosperity gospel.
But you know, just in terms of the contemporary context, one real cultural marker is that black prosperity churches dress up a lot more. And historically, black churches in historic denominations typically dress up more. But here it has a theological point. Look at what the Lord has done. See the difference that my faith can make, you know. And I’ve always found that there’s such a sense of pride when I do interviews in home ownership and car ownership and just the specificity of the way that they feel loved by God. And that, I think, is one of the strongest arguments for what a high anthropology in this theology can do.
HODGES: And the book goes on to talk about how there are tensions within black communities over prosperity gospel which is very individually driven versus—black people who saw the need for systemic approaches to overcoming inequality and things like that and that caused a lot of difficulties.
BOWLER: It really flies in the face and gets back to historic debates of “what will be the solutions to systemic evil and injustice?” And so is it that God will uplift individuals, righteous individuals, who act in righteous ways? Or does God uplift communities? And in what way? And so black churches were probably among the first of the denominational Pentecostals to be like “oh boy, this is gonna be a theological problem.” And very frequently, the first to criticize, which is completely appropriate because it’s an insider conversation about the future of the black church.
HEALTH AND THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL
HODGES: So that’s talking about wealth. Again, the book expands quite a bit more than what we’re able to touch on here. But moving on to health, it’s taps into the same fundamental idea that God’s intention for his children is health and wellness, that Jesus on the cross earned redemption from sin and that people can tap into that—not just for wealth but also for health. And we’ve already mentioned the power of objects where people would have handkerchiefs or things like this that they thought would deliver healing properties. There’s also this idea of “acting as if” and you hinted at this a little bit earlier.
BOWLER: Yeah. I mean, they really believe in a performative health. You know, I’ve seen people pretend not to have their limp or try to walk without their cane. I mean, some of these comes out of late nineteenth century faith healing movements. But a lot of it is just the sense that—the pretending isn’t a lie. It’s a kind of declaration of what God is already doing.
And so, I mean, that has good things and bad things. I mean, there’s all kinds of studies for example about the role behaviorism can play in seeking better health outcomes. So maybe you feel tired but you get out of bed. In this case, it can also have more dangerous consequences. So there’s been examples on a more extreme level. So there’s one kind of—in this, there’s a kind of spectrum of where they see medical interventions. So on one side, there’s been famous examples of people letting, you know, letting kids die because they only wanted to pray for them. Or Hobart Freeman was very famous in the seventies and he let an ulcerated leg lead to his early death. He was, again, much more famous than people will give him credit for.
So yeah, there’s all kinds of ways in which—so I think there was recently a controversy over whether Kenneth Hagin’s church in their “Eagle Mountain something” headquarters had spoken against immunization, and whether that had led to some kind of outbreak. So there’s always a debate about how much people should be acting as if they’re already healed no matter what the medical intervention, or if it’s more of a buffet style in which you can pray for it, you can act like it, and you can also see your doctor.
HODGES: One of the things you did as a researcher was you actually attended a church, the Victorious Faith Center in North Carolina. And there you encountered people who were heavily invested in the prosperity gospel including the health elements. But some of them were healthcare workers themselves. What kind of personal exchanges did you have with believers there on this topic?
BOWLER: Because people always assume, especially with black churches in poor areas, that the only reason they’re praying for faith healing is because they don’t have access—the thought is Jesus is the only doctor they’re gonna see. And yet here they had access to some of the best healthcare in the world. And so it was very interesting for me to talk with them. Some of them were anti-immunization. Others would accept medical intervention to the point where they felt like, “nope, I’m just gonna pray about it.” Others would accept partial surgeries or whole surgeries. I mean, they were quite discriminating, which, you know, kinda going through my own health problems right now, I mean there’s a real wisdom actually in being discriminating in what you’ll accept. And they I think have rightfully intuited that black bodies don’t always get the same care as white bodies. And that they need to be their own advocates and maybe even assume that they have solutions the doctors don’t have. So I think there’s kind of a “both/and” to the nature of their relationship to the healthcare system.
HODGES: Underneath it all, again, is this idea of “God will make you well if you have faith for that” or “God will make you wealthy if you have faith for that.” And you brought us up to the present a little bit earlier in the discussion. One thing we haven’t touched on is sort of the fact that the prosperity movement has gone global. In fact, I guess you did talk about how people say it’s an American movement, but that you’ve seen it manifest itself globally in different contexts. And what does that look like, prosperity gospel gone global?
BOWLER: Well, there’s certainly hubs in which it’s very popular. So Nigeria is both a tremendous place for prosperity preaching and a huge exporter. So the largest Protestant church in Ukraine for example is ran by a Nigerian pastor, Pastor Sunday. So there you’ll see Nigerian preaching with Ukranian folk dancing. And it is incredible.
HODGES: Have you been there?
BOWLER: Oh, no! Just YouTube it. YouTube it.
HODGES: Oh, okay.
BOWLER: Yeah. Oh, how I would love to go to Kiev right now.
BOWLER: But I’ve been to rural Texas to go to the annual conference for the Redeemed Nigerian Church of God, so which is—No, sorry, it’s Redeemed Christian some—oh, gosh. Who knows? It’s Redeemed—
HODGES: So long names usually. [laughs]
BOWLER: —Christian Church of God I think? But it doesn’t have the word Nigerian in it, but it is a Nigerian denomination. And it’s one of the most powerful exporters of missionaries globally. Just like the Full Gospel Church in South Korea, in Seoul, it used to be ran by Paul Yonggi Cho. It was reported at one million believers, the largest church in the world with a soft prosperity message. And they have sent out, I mean, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of missionaries globally.
So you see hubs, you see a lot of crossing borders and adaptability to new cultures. You’ll also see places that just confuse me. Like it did really well in Sweden in the eighties. I had a little talk with someone about that the other day, but the assumption is these are places without robust systems that will support people if they get sick. You know, not the most, one of the most, egalitarian societies on earth. So I still haven’t figured out most of the puzzle that is the international prosperity gospel’s incredible diversity.
PUT YOURSELF IN THE SHOES OF A PROSPERITY GOSPEL CHRISTIAN
HODGES: And I think this gets one of the stereotypes that I had going into the book, which is the idea that the prosperity gospel offers big promises for little effort. But in reality, there are some manifestations of the prosperity gospel that can be very demanding on people.
BOWLER: Oh, man. They work harder, they were just the spiritually hardest working people in show business. I had never seen believers spend as much time preparing for Sunday spiritually as the folks I met. And I really came to admire that. Their sense that God is revealed in the details of their life I thought was very inspiring. And it wasn’t just that they wholesale accepted whatever the preacher said. It’s that they were making their own judgments whether publicly or privately about what was best for them. And that wasn’t nearly as, yeah, stereotypical as you might expect.
HODGES: I think it’s easy for a lot of outsiders who don’t align themselves to that movement to look at the few famous examples that we talked about, some of the scandalous things and some of the excesses of prosperity gospel preaching and just dismiss it out of hand without really trying to understand who the people are that it’s appealing to. And your introduction includes a caution that seems to try to get people to understand that they actually probably share some things in common with people who are drawn to the prosperity gospel.
BOWLER: Well, I think you’re right that it appeals to universal claims. That we all have these very fragile, very basic desires for our life. We want to be healthy. We want to have enough money. Many of us want kids, and if we have them, we just desperately want them to turn out okay and for them to be healthy and for them to have enough money. I mean, what seems like a simple life is a list of very long and very difficult to secure demands, no matter whether you live in America or Botswana. And so, you know, it’s easy for academics in particular, and me at that point writing from my neo-Gothic spires of Duke, to be dismissive of people who are talking about money and looking for money. And then I go to my dramatically bedazzled church on Sunday [laughs], but it’s bedazzled, you know, in tasteful stained glass. And suddenly, we are not talking about God’s promises, we’re talking about “stewardship” and then suddenly, I’m okay with other kinds of gods of wealth. So yeah, I find that people, they forget how very delicate we all are, how much we just need the basics. And the prosperity gospel is great at the basics. They understand that the baseline of what we need and want from God and from each other is so very obvious. And they make promises directly related to our deepest needs.
HODGES: And so this book features your own personal voice and perspective, as we’ve talked about, I think more so than a lot of histories do today. Do you think that your direct experience with actual people—like these worshippers, these people you spent time on a bus with, or that give you advice, or that spoke to you about their most personal beliefs—how did that impact your work as opposed to a work of history where you’re just dealing with records and people that are long gone?
BOWLER: Sure. I mean this is a problem for so many of us who crisscross out to other disciplines— doing sampling and sociology and in particular ethnography—that we are written into our stories in ways that are so uncomfortable. And I tried to embrace how very uncomfortable it was by showing them what I wrote, as much as I could, for comment and for suggestion. Not to make it nicer, though that’s always a temptation, but we miss a lot. And especially we miss a lot when we think something’s slightly absurd. And I find that people—you know, you develop such a thick sense of irony sometimes, even when you’re trying to understand people at the most fundamental level. So sometimes when I just didn’t understand, it was the kind of point at which you get quiet and you write something down because you think, “oh my gosh, this is research gold!” That’s actually the best point to ask another question, to say, you know—So for me, in my interview with this lovely nurse, I’m finding that she hops off the table at this moment when the doctor says she should get her—I can’t remember what it was—get her appendix or something out, just a simple surgery, and she’s like, “No. I’m gonna pray about it.” She hops off the table. And I realized I just had a million other questions, like “well does it hurt now?” And “what do you do if it hurts now?” And “you’re a nurse so you have to diagnose people, is that the same thing as negative confession? And what do you about that?” And she had answers for all of them that I would not have anticipated. And so just trying to step into the awkwardness of our subjectivity I think can… I will make a pitch for that giving us better data than if we pretend we’re not having on our own reactions to what people are saying. So, I mean, we learn a lot from anthropologists, really.
HODGES: That’s Kate Bowler. She’s assistant professor of American religion at Duke Divinity School. She’s also the author of the book Blessed: A History of The American Prosperity Gospel. We’ll take a brief break and come right back.
WHEN KATE BOWLER’S HEALTH DRAWS HER FURTHER INTO THE STORY
HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. We’re talking with Kate Bowler. She’s a professor of American religion at Duke Divinity School. And we’re talking about her book Blessed, which talks about the American prosperity gospel.
So Kate, I received your book, I think, back when it came out a couple of years ago, but hadn’t got to it until now. And I actually saw a piece that you’d recently written in the New York Times that prompted me to take another look at the book. There’s something in your book’s introduction that took on new meaning when I read the New York Times piece. In your introduction to the book, you write, “It’s a strange occupation to be a historian of divine wellbeing as your own is getting away from you.” What was going on health-wise at the time you were writing this book?
BOWLER: I had weirdly lost use of my arms. I was typing and then all of a sudden they felt weird, and then they just went limp. And I, over the next year—I had just gotten my dream job. I just thought my life was finally kind of taking off. And then I spent the next year seeing over a hundred doctors looking for a diagnosis. And that went from everything to people saying I was crazy, that I was making it up, to them trying to remove my top ribs, and that just led to like a million theological jokes about rib removal. I took that [inaudible, laughing] as much as I could. And to any number of sort of ill-advised arm surgeries that I contemplated or had. And as silly it was, it was such a mystery and the mystery was so frustrating. And in truth, it ended up being something super simple that eventually we could solve. I have overly lax joints which, when leading to too much instability, leads to cutting off circulation, and then the lack of feeling. It’s just that the kind that I have is a little bit weird. And so what ended up being—When I finally found treatment, I got better, you know, within another six months. I still have to maintain it but at the time, it really seemed like—I mean, I would get locked in bathrooms that I couldn’t get out of because my arms were too weak to turn the door handle [laughs]. So I couldn’t type anymore. I had to find new ways of taking notes. I mean, my entire academic life was done for a while because—a whole semester of students that I was teaching had to get all their comments in emoticons. I was like, “okay, your paper makes me feel ‘STAMP’ happy.” [laughs] I had no use of my arms! And so trying to just like keep your courage, and your sense that something might turn out while you’re navigating a complicated healthcare system, while you’re daily interviewing people who probably think it’s your own fault. So I was always at healing revivals with arm casts, you know, which always led to theological conclusions. And it was both a tough year but it was also academically quite fruitful because I stepped into the message—the pain of loneliness, of feeling judged. But also, just their many, many ways of explaining pain to be really intellectually helpful though it was emotionally often really tough. So that’s probably why my healing chapter is like a little more pangy than the other chapters. Maybe if I was desperately poorer, it would have been a money chapter. But I was really sick.
HODGES: So I’m really glad to hear that they got that situated. More recently, you published this kind of a follow-up—
BOWLER: [laughing] But there’s more! Wait!
HODGES: —Exactly, this piece in the New York Times. So I thought it would be best just to have you maybe read from the beginning of that article to give people an idea of where you’re at now.
BOWLER: Sure. Let’s see. “On a Thursday morning a few months ago I got a call from my doctor’s assistant telling me that I have stage four cancer. The stomach cramps I was suffering from were not caused by a faulty gall bladder but by a massive tumor. I’m 35. I did all 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’m 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 the first thoughts was also, “oh God, this is ironic. I recently wrote a book called Blessed.”
HODGES: So where are you at now with that? Thank you first of all for reading that. I know this obviously is difficult to talk about. But it’s something that you’ve been willing to talk about. Do you think your background and your research has helped you want to talk about this publicly?
BOWLER: I don’t know. I mean I still kinda go back and forth. Honestly, the only thing I really wanted to do was make an intervention into how people talk to sick people. Because all my time with the prosperity people taught me how much we all love our certainties. We all love our guarantees that our very delicate lives will all turn out. And as we know, as most of us know or have had glimpses of, life is really hard. I mean, even just in seasons, life is so hard. And so it was hard for me to go from the kind of dispassionate historian to the making a few normative claims about what I think is right and wrong about the way that that movement addresses healing. In part, you know, just with our training, we don’t wanna step in there and it just felt weird. But at the same time, I have to make more adjudicated decisions about how I spend my time because I don’t really know how much time I have. At first it was—I mean, it’s all still very dramatic, but at first they gave me very low survival rates for five years. And so I was looking at about two years. And that was just so intense. And now I’m in a clinical trial in Emory, actually so we’re talking from Atlanta because I have to fly here every week for treatment. And so I’m grateful to have a new drug to try. But this is my first time with everything, you know. It’s my first time being not just a historian. It was kinda nice to have history as a pure category before, it was like my mental vacation, that I could go and just do my work. But now I’m a little bit professionally cancerous [laughs] just because there’s so much overlap between this world I lived in and just the reality of what I live in now. Like I cannot go ten feet without someone giving me advice about what to do, and not to eat sugar, and have I tried this, and—
HODGES: What kind of religious ideas are people bringing to you, or that you picked up during your research? You say you’re also trying to do an intervention here about the way people talk about this, so what kind of religious things do you encounter?
BOWLER: Oh, man! Because I didn’t realize how much it was shared—So I’ve gotten eight hundred discreet emails from strangers telling me usually the worst things that have ever happened to them. You know, their children dying of cancer, and the video they created of the things they wanted to say to their dying parent. So it’s been a lot of that. But there’s been a lot of, you know, “I’m an atheist,” “I’m an agnostic,” “I’m fundamentalist,” “I’m prosperity person.” Just all kinds of, the religious gamut. And you know, a lot of them got the point, which was that it is very painful for people to pour certainty on your pain, especially in the midst of it. I mean, we have these very trite ways of explaining and reacting to pain in our culture that are not just facile but they’re just sort of obnoxious to people who are trying to just live it.
HODGES: Give us some examples. Like what—
BOWLER: Oh! Everything happens for a reason, man, everything always happens for a reason!
HODGES: Everything happens for a reason, right.
BOWLER: And I mean, I got an email from someone the other day that said that he knew that, and he really, you know, “just so you know, everything does happen for a reason. And I figured that out when my cat died.” Like I’m so happy for you. If that is the peek at cancer, I’m happy for you. Or “God is always opening doors and closing windows.”
BOWLER: It’s just totally his jam. A lot of it is… attempts at health solutions. So you know, I joked about it in the piece but like a lot of “have you tried this kale?” Non-stop kale! Man, the kale evangelists are out in full force!
HODGES: Kale. [laughs]
BOWLER: A lot of “have you read this study about sugar, you shouldn’t be eating that.” I mean, people have all kinds of helpful suggestions for people in pain. And they love to give them. And my little sister, I think she said something so wise, she was just like, “Well, it is because, you know, they love you.” Yes. Well, not those strangers. They don’t love me. [laughs]—
BOWLER: —but people are frantic. And frequently, you know, they just grab for whatever’s there. And what’s there is ideas about the power of the mind to overcome all things. I get a lot of that. “There’s no such thing as luck.” “You just need to try harder.” “I’m sure there’s a way out of this.” I mean, people are fine kinda with the sudden death. Yes, very tragic. Or sudden healing. But the ambiguity of staring down death, which I am required to do because at this point I still have inoperable tumors. So if this drug doesn’t go well, I don’t yet have other choices. So I live in this interim time in which every sixty days I get a scan that tells me if I get another sixty days. And that’s how my life works. So it has a very short mental tether in which I am not able to enjoy certainty. And that requires me to live in the present with my beautiful kid and my perfect husband and my lovely life that I am now more grateful for than ever before.
So it’s hard to move people away from these lovely conveniences, these joyful illusions that prop up our lives and help us feel sure. But I mean, the truth is none of us knows what’s gonna happen to us. So I just have to live in it in a more ridiculous way.
HODGES: There’s a sense in which we feel driven to tell someone what the story is. Like we need an explanation.
BOWLER: That’s right. That’s exactly right.
HODGES: But we’re like drawing them in to a story that’s not their story.
BOWLER: Yes. Yeah.
HODGES: You know, I’ve experienced loss in my own family and there’s a sense in which…It’s like you say, for a lot of these people that come to you, you understand that there’s a desire to care there. That this is not malicious.
HODGES: But it does not take away the pain that those types of approaches can bring to you. Now, the tricky part then is, we still want to comfort people or we want to be there for people. What kind of advice would you give for someone who has a family member who’s diagnosed with an illness like this, or that has a friend? What types of things are available? I mean, you’re a Christian—
HODGES: —So what types of things do you suggest to people consider?
BOWLER: Yeah. Well, I mean, I’m new to this. But the two things I think of a lot are, I have the present, I have the beautiful now. The fact that it’s gorgeous out. I get to talk to you. I get to do fun things in my job. I mean, what’s happening right now. And then there’s the kind of eschatological horizon of the in-breaking of the kingdom, the beauty of God’s vision of us, and the what-will-be. And if someone has questions for those things, you know, you can be patient and loving and do your very best or defer them to other stuff. But most people want you to live in the dead zone of the in-between, of the talking about outcomes and certainty and forcing you to retell the story, and then respond to their anxiety about the story, and I think of it like the place between borders, right? Like no one is allowed to live there. It’s just a dead zone. And I find that there’s just no life there for me. I cannot live there and just stay and live my life. And so if you can, in any way, not ask people to be professionally their disease by forever asking them to live in that dead zone—and mostly just realize that people don’t want your certainties. Like they’re struggling with their own. If they bring it up and they have their own stuff then great. But mostly, they just need loving presence and encouragement in the face of just a hug or really a “just praying for you.” No one wants to hear “I know it’s gonna be okay” because guess what? You don’t. And neither do I. And asking people to pretend for you is exhausting. So yeah, it’s just living in the ambiguity and just being willing to walk alongside I think is the most beautiful thing you can do for somebody.
HODGES: That’s Kate Bowler. Today, we talked about her book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. I really appreciate you taking your time to talk about this book, Kate, and also to talk about your personal life as well.
BOWLER: Thanks. So glad to talk to you, too.