Reviewed by Martin Lindhardt (University of Southern Denmark)
Kate Bowler’s book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel is an important and highly readable contribution to our understanding of the history and significance of the so-called prosperity gospel, a Christian message of physical, financial and spiritual mastery that has become an increasingly dominating force within North American popular religion. The prosperity gospel has been successfully exported across the world, especially to the global south. It seems safe to say that this version of Christianity, which not only emphasizes the material blessings to which true believers are supposedly entitled, but also the duty to pay tithes and make donations, is as controversial as it is popular, with many (mainline theologian and other) observers wondering why people buy into it and expressing criticism of the excesses of prosperity pastors who have become media celebrities. Bowler’s agenda is not to provide any kind of theological or biblical evaluation of prosperity teaching and its main proponents, but the question of why it appeals to a large number of ordinary North Americans (17 percent of all American Christians openly identify with the movement, she informs us at one point) is a central one in her study. The argument, which she carefully develops throughout the book, is that the Prosperity Gospel, as exotic and un-familiar as it may seem at first glance, is in fact intimately entangled with different aspects of North American popular culture such as optimism, individualism, consumer culture and a firm belief in the transformative power of one’s personal will. The prosperity gospel, in other words, is presented by Bowler as a quintessentially American movement. At the end of the book, we do get brief nods to the Prosperity Gospel’s global expansion and different local appropriations, but Bowler’s main project is to unravel the history of the movement as it has unfolded in the US.
The prosperity movement as we know it took shape in the last half of the twentieth century, but Bowler provides a much longer history and traces its origin back to the late nineteenth century and the interweaving of three important streams: Pentecostalism with its emphasis on divine healing, an offshoot of Christian Science called New Thought, and finally a widespread popular belief in individualism and upward mobility. What New Thought added to this cocktail was an understanding of the power of mind to actually shape material reality. In the early history of the prosperity movement, the Holiness Pastor E.W. Kenyon was a particularly important figure in combining existing religious and cultural streams into an instrumental vision of faith as an activator of world transforming spiritual forces. In Kenyon´s vision it was in particular the spoken word such as positive confessions and prayers, sometimes framed more as demands than as petitions, that served as the template for activating spiritual power.
The development and growth of the Prosperity movement were further triggered by post Second World War healing revivals and, a decade later, by a charismatic revival that brought Pentecostal themes into mainstream churches. In this period, the theology of mind power and the electrified view of faith went from being minor to major themes. At the same time a number of preachers began to enlarge their vision of the miraculous results that faith and Christian speech could be expected to achieve. Key figures in popularizing the word of faith theology beyond denominational boundaries (in part through television ministries) included Oral Roberts, Kenneth Hagin, William Branham Kenneth Copeland, and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
The prosperity movement of the 1970s and 1980s was dominated by what Bowler calls “hard prosperity” preaching and teaching, which made financial miracles an everyday prospect and involved straightforward assertions of hard causality between acts of faith such as tithing and prayers and blessings. Bowler describes how formulas for receiving financial blessings from God grew increasingly specific, with some believers whispering their desires as they placed their envelope with tithes in the offering and others scribbling confessions on dollar bills. However, by the 1990s, a softer version of the prosperity message had become increasingly dominant. The “soft prosperity” message has a more therapeutic touch with prominent preachers such as Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer offering tools in the form of relationship guides and focusing on emotional healing, self-esteem as well as fitness and weight loss. This gradual transformation enabled the prosperity message to broaden its appeal and establish more points of contact and overlap with popular secular culture. Bowler provides interesting examples of such overlap as she explores how America´s diet and fitness culture captured the religious imagination of Christians who evaluated obesity on spiritual terms and started to look to the fitness of their own bodies as evidence of faith and spiritual progress. She further notes how the language of deliverance from demonic forces commonly held responsible for physical conditions was supplemented by nutritional and fitness advice.
All in all, Bowler’s book offers a comprehensive and very helpful exploration of the prosperity movement and the way it has shaped the religious imagination of many North Americans. Bowler’s project is mainly a historical one, but an ethnographic analysis based on her own field work in North American prosperity oriented ministries adds significant nuances to the study. In particular, ethnography enables Bowler to shed some light on how ordinary lay members interpret their experiences and life situations within a prosperity framework and, interestingly, how they sometimes question church authorities and come up with interpretations, for instance of illness and the absence of healing, that are contrary to official church teachings. The prosperity movement, in other words, is portrayed it its empirical complexity. As such the book is valuable reading for scholars and students with an interest in the Prosperity Movement, in Pentecostalism/charismatic Christianity in general, and in the history of Christianity and popular culture in North America.