Photo from Kate Bowler’s first book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, available from Oxford Press
In the Sunday Times, author Kate Bowler, who recently published ‘Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel”, shares the tragic news that she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer shortly after finishing her book. Her work was focused on illuminating and understanding the ideas behind the prosperity gospel; the idea that ‘everything happens for a reason’ and that people receive Earthly blessings in exchange for solid faith.
Bowler has a personal connection to the prosperity gospel, and her own incredulity led her to explore the surprisingly popular movement. It started, she tells us, when the Mennonite church in her hometown started giving money to a pastor who drove a motorcycle, donated by congregants, onstage for church each week. Her own experiences growing up around Mennonites, and marrying a Mennonite, made the idea of the normally austere and counter-cultural Mennonites embracing a megachurch oriented toward financial affluence baffling.
Her article traces the evolution of these ideas, originating with the late 19th century movement called New Thought, in which positive thinking was thought to have metaphysical repercussions, to self-help positive thinking and Oprah’s affirmations, to the social media hashtag #Blessed, #SoBlessed, and finally, the explosive growth of a small early 20th century focus on prosperity in faith.
Bowler also shares what it is like to die surrounded by critics who fervently believe that such illnesses are manifestations of God’s disfavor; noting that friends and neighbors seem to just want to find a reason, or a way to control what is happening, she explains her own thoughts on what cancer means.
From the essay:
The most I can say about why I have cancer, medically speaking, is that bodies are delicate and prone to error. As a Christian, I can say that the Kingdom of God is not yet fully here, and so we get sick and die. And as a scholar, I can say that our society is steeped in a culture of facile reasoning. What goes around comes around. Karma is a bitch. And God is always, for some reason, going around closing doors and opening windows. God is super into that.
Bowler has a genuine love for the people she has chronicled, despite her staunch disagreements with them, and a nagging suspicion that they will use this opportunity to tut-tut about her condition; she expresses that love and admiration in her concluding paragraphs, which you can read online or in the weekend paper.
How do you cope with the tragedies and suffering of life? Do you see the delicacy and error-prone nature of life as evidence that the Kingdom of God is not yet here, or do you have another theological perspective?