Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel [First Things]
(First Things Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel BY KATE BOWLER OXFORD, 352 PAGES, $34-95
He took your place in poverty, so you could take His place in prosperity!" "If you have an abundance of faith in your spiritual account, you can enjoy plenty of everything-wealth, health, good relationships, peace, success!" "Name it and claim it!"
Such is the good news proclaimed by the preachers of the American prosperity gospel. While scorned by mainstream Christians, the healthand-wealth gospel brand continues to spread, boasting over one million American adherents and many more millions abroad.
Weaving historical research with first-person narrative, Kate Bowler, an assistant professor of American religion at Duke Divinity School, traces the emergence of the American prosperity gospel from its late nineteenth-century roots in metaphysical mesmerists and itinerant healers, through its growth in the post-Second World War Pentecostal revivals, to its megachurch flowering today.
The early history of this movement reads like a case study in Nietzschean "will to power" psychology. Victorian America's fascination with the power of mind over matter provides the anthropological foundation for the movement. Belief in mind power increases when Pentecostal preachers announce faith's legal claim upon God's blessings. Add in the upward aspirations of America's Gilded Age, and the transformation is complete: The power of mind over matter has become the power of mind over health, wealth, and God himself.
Bowler notes a distinctively American character in the prosperity gospel, whether it is the early "hard prosperity" of E. W. Kenyon's "dominating faith" or the contemporary "soft prosperity" of Joel Osteen, T. D. Jakes, and Paula White. (The straightforward message of the nineteenth century is now often finessed with subtler language.) The movement of "god-men and conquerors rang true to a nation . . . steeped in the mythology of individual effort."
The prosperity movement was constituted by "the deification and ritualization of the American Dream." This is Bowler's critique. A more damning one may be found in the picture Bowler paints. It appears not in the positive image but in the startling absence of a certain stumbling block and obstacle.
-Dominic Verner, O.P., a former summer intern at First Things, is a student at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.
(c) 2014 Institute of Religion and Public Life
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