New York Times
Durham, N.C. — ONa Thursday morning a few months ago, I got a call from my doctor’s assistanttelling me that I have Stage 4 cancer. The stomach cramps I was suffering fromwere not caused by a faulty gallbladder, but by a massive tumor.
I am 35. I did thethings 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 waiteduntil he arrived so we could wrap our arms around each other and say the thingsthat must be said. I have loved you forever. I am so grateful for our lifetogether. Please take care of our son. Then he walked me from my office tothe hospital to start what was left of my new life.
But one of myfirst thoughts was also Oh, God, this is ironic. I recently wrote a bookcalled “Blessed.”
I am a historianof the American prosperity gospel. Put simply, the prosperity gospel is thebelief 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 toearn God’s miracle money. I held hands with people in wheelchairs being prayedfor by celebrities known for their miracle touch. I sat in people’s livingrooms and heard about how they never would have dreamed of owning this homewithout the encouragement they heard on Sundays.
I went onpilgrimage 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 theirown miracle. I ruined family vacations by insisting on being dropped off at theshowiest megachurch in town. If there was a river running through thesanctuary, an eagle flying freely in the auditorium or an enormous, spinningstatue of a golden globe, I was there.
Growing up in the1980s on the prairies of Manitoba, Canada, an area largely settled byMennonites, I had been taught in my Anabaptist Bible camp that there were fewthings closer to God’s heart than pacifism, simplicity and the ability tocompliment your neighbor’s John Deere Turbo Combine without envy. ThoughMennonites 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 numberof Mennonites in my hometown began to give money to a pastor who drove amotorcycle onstage — a motorcycle they gave him for a new church holiday called“Pastor’s Appreciation Day” — I was genuinely baffled. Everyone I interviewedwas so sincere about wanting to gain wealth to bless others, too. But how couldMennonites, of all people — a tradition once suspicious of the shine of chromebumpers and the luxury of lace curtains — now attend a congregation with a lovefor unfettered accumulation?
The riddle of aMennonite megachurch became my intellectual obsession. No one had written asustained account of how the prosperity gospel grew from small tent revivalsacross the country in the 1950s into one of the most popular forms of AmericanChristianity, and I was determined to do it. I learned that the prosperitygospel sprang, in part, from the American metaphysical tradition of NewThought, a late-19th-century ripening of ideas about the power of the mind:Positive thoughts yielded positive circumstances, and negative thoughtsnegative circumstances.
Variations of thisbelief became foundational to the development of self-help psychology. Today,it is the standard “Aha!” moment of Oprah’s Lifeclass, the reason your unclehas a copy of “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and the takeaway forthe more than 19 million who bought “The Secret.” (Save your money: the secretis to think positively.) These ideas about mind power became a popular answerto a difficult question: Why are some people healed and some not?
The modernprosperity gospel can be directly traced to the turn-of-the-century theology ofa pastor named E. W. Kenyon, whose evangelical spin on New Thought taughtChristians to believe that their minds were powerful incubators of good or ill.Christians, Kenyon advised, must avoid words and ideas that create sickness andpoverty; 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 awinner. I am a conqueror.” Or, as prosperity believers summarized it for me, “Iam blessed.”
One of theprosperity gospel’s greatest triumphs is its popularization of the term“blessed.” Though it predated the prosperity gospel, particularly in the blackchurch where “blessed” signified affirmation of God’s goodness, it wasprosperity preachers who blanketed the airwaves with it. “Blessed” is theshorthand for the prosperity message. We see it everywhere, from a TV showcalled “The Blessed Life” to the self-justification of Joel Osteen, the pastorof America’s largest church, who told Oprah in hisTexas mansion that “Jesus died that we might live an abundant life.”
Over the last 10years, “being blessed” has become a full-fledged American phenomenon. Driverscan choose between the standard, mass-produced “Jesus Is Lord” novelty licenseplate or “Blessed” for $16.99 in a tasteful aluminum. When an “America’s NextTop Model” star took off his shirt, audiences saw it tattooed above his bulgingpectorals. When Americans boast on Twitter about how well they’re doing onThanksgiving, #blessed is the standard hashtag. It is the humble brag of thestars. #Blessed is the only caption suitable for viral images of alpinevacations and family yachting in barely there bikinis. It says: “I totallyget it. I am down-to-earth enough to know that this is crazy.” But it alsosays: “God gave this to me. [Adorable shrug.] Don’t blame me, I’m blessed.”
Blessed is aloaded term because it blurs the distinction between two very differentcategories: 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 itwas 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 Americandream is based on hard work, not luck.
If Oprah couldeliminate 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. Alot of divine order. But I don’t believe in luck. For me luck is preparationmeeting the moment of opportunity.” This is America, where there are nosetbacks, just setups. Tragedies are simply tests of character.
It is the reason aneighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that everything happens for areason.
“I’d love to hearit,” my husband said.
“Pardon?” shesaid, startled.
“I’d love to hearthe reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has.
My neighbor wasn’ttrying to sell him a spiritual guarantee. But there was a reason she wanted tofill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old andfussy 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, andpeople can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to bea reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unluckyas everyone else.
One of the mostendearing and saddest things about being sick is watching people’s attempts tomake sense of your problem. My academic friends did what researchers do andGoogled the hell out of it. When did you start noticing pain? What exactly werethe symptoms, again? Is it hereditary? I can out-know my cancer using the MayoClinic website. Buried in all their concern is the unspoken question: Do I haveany control?
I can also hear itin 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 gospelfriends’ advice, I can positively declare that it has no power over me and setmyself free.
The most I can sayabout why I have cancer, medically speaking, is that bodies are delicate andprone to error. As a Christian, I can say that the Kingdom of God is not yetfully here, and so we get sick and die. And as a scholar, I can say that oursociety is steeped in a culture of facile reasoning. What goes around comesaround. Karma is a bitch. And God is always, for some reason, going around closingdoors and opening windows. God is super into that.
The prosperitygospel tries to solve the riddle of human suffering. It is an explanation forthe problem of evil. It provides an answer to the question: Why me? For years Isat with prosperity churchgoers and asked them about how they drew conclusionsabout the good and the bad in their lives. Does God want you to get thatpromotion? Tell me what it’s like to believe in healing from that hospital bed.What do you hear God saying when it all falls apart?
The prosperitygospel popularized a Christian explanation for why some people make it and somedo not. They revolutionized prayer as an instrument for getting God always tosay “yes.” It offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules, and God willreward you, heal you, restore you. It’s also distressingly similar to thepopular cartoon emojis for the iPhone, the ones that show you images ofyourself 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 grislypredictions and the CT scans in my inbox. I am blessed.
The prosperitygospel holds to this illusion of control until the very end. If a believer getssick and dies, shame compounds the grief. Those who are loved and lost are justthat — those who have lost the test of faith. In my work, I have heardcountless stories of refusing to acknowledge that the end had finally come. Anemaciated man was pushed about a megachurch in a wheelchair as churchgoersdeclared that he was already healed. A woman danced around her sister’sdeathbed shouting to horrified family members that the body can yet live. Thereis no graceful death, no ars moriendi, in the prosperity gospel. There are onlyjarring disappointments after fevered attempts to deny its inevitability.
The prosperitygospel has taken a religion based on the contemplation of a dying man andstripped it of its call to surrender all. Perhaps worse, it has replacedChristian faith with the most painful forms of certainty. The movement hasperfected a rarefied form of America’s addiction to self-rule, which deniesmuch of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare downour deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder. Atsome point, we must say to ourselves, I’m going to need to let go.
CANCER has kickeddown the walls of my life. I cannot be certain I will walk my son to hiselementary school someday or subject his love interests to cheerful scrutiny. Istruggle to buy books for academic projects I fear I can’t finish for a perfectjob I may be unable to keep. I have surrendered my favorite manifestoes abouthaving it all, managing work-life balance and maximizing my potential. I cannothelp but remind my best friend that if my husband remarries everyone will needto simmer down on talking about how special I was in front of her. (And then Igo on and on about how this is an impossible task given my many delightfulqualities. Let’s list them. …) Cancer requires that I stumble around in thedebris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and plans I didn’t realize I hadmade.
But cancer hasalso ushered in new ways of being alive. Even when I am this distant fromCanadian family and friends, everything feels as if it is painted in brightcolors. In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammedfilter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing thebrittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole. I findmyself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful.Life is so hard.
I am well awarethat news of my cancer will be seen by many in the prosperity community asproof of something. I have heard enough sermons about those who “speak againstGod’s anointed” to know that it is inevitable, despite the fact that the book Iwrote about them is very gentle. I understand. Most everyone likes to poke funat the prosperity gospel, and I’m not always immune. No word of a lie: I oncesaw a megachurch pastor almost choke to death on his own fog machine. Someonehad cranked it up to the Holy Spirit maximum.
But mostly I findthe daily lives of its believers remarkable and, often, inspirational. Theyface the impossible and demand that God make a way. They refuse to acceptcrippling debt as insurmountable. They stubbornly get out of their hospitalbeds and declare themselves healed, and every now and then, it works.
This is surely anAmerican God, and as I am so far from home, I cannot escape him.
Kate Bowler is anassistant professor of the history of Christianity in North America at DukeDivinity School and the author of “Blessed: A History of the AmericanProsperity Gospel.”