Kate Bowler. Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. New York: Oxford Univesity Press, 2013. 337 pp. $34.95.
Let me begin with full disclosure: I am the co-author of what has become probably the bestselling evangelical book published in the last few years on the prosperity gospel: Health, Wealth, and Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ? I say this not to promote my own volume, nor to present my credentials for reviewing a book on this topic, but to let you know I cannot avoid reviewing Kate Bowler’s fine work, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, without looking through the lens of my own.
First, some essential background information about the book. This is Bowler’s first book. She is an assistant professor of religion at Duke Divinity School, where she did her doctoral studies. As you might expect, being her first book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel is an adapted version of Bowler’s PhD dissertation. She’s clear about her purpose in producing this volume: “This book seeks to show how millions of American Christians came to see money, health, and good fortune as divine” (7). A worthwhile purpose, indeed. Bowler understands the prosperity gospel to center on four main themes: faith, wealth, health, and victory. These four themes constitute the topics of the major chapters in Blessed.
Upon grabbing this book off the shelf and thumbing through it, it’s evident Blessed is a substantial volume. The 30 pages of small-print endnotes immediately grab attention, as do the appendices, lengthy index, and 25-page bibliography containing roughly 500 resources. Yet the thoroughness of this text ought not scare prospective readers away. After reading the first few pages, it’s also evident Blessed is a carefully organized and readable volume. It isn’t just a doctoral dissertation with pretty artwork on the cover, in other words. Clearly, Bowler has spent considerable time adapting her academic work for the average layperson.
Another attractive facet of Blessed is Bowler’s dispassionate writing style. The prosperity gospel is an interesting topic in that many of its greatest proponents are media stars, megachurch pastors, and bestselling authors. Given these dynamics, if one agrees with the prosperity message it’s easy—even in an historical analysis—to turn the leaders of this movement into mini-messiahs. Conversely, if one disagrees with the prosperity message, it’s tempting to cite especially egregious statements in order to caricature the movement’s leaders and de-contextualize their teachings. Avoiding these traps, Bowler comes across as a fair, unbiased observer who has read thoroughly, attended the conferences, and visited prosperity gospel churches in order to gather information.
One additional accolade to bestow on Blessed is that, despite the balanced style of her prose, Bowler isn’t afraid to name names. In addition to identifying the early 20th-century founding fathers of the prosperity gospel (such as Phineas Qwimby, E. W. Kenyon, and so on), Bowler discusses contemporary hard proponents of the prosperity gospel such as Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, Fredrick Price, Creflo Dollar, Eddie Long, and Joyce Meyer, as well as contemporary soft peddlers of the prosperity gospel such as Joel Osteen and T. D. Jakes. Bowler even (rightly in my opinion) calls out the evangelicalized prosperity gospel in Bruce Wilkinson’s bestselling book, The Prayer of Jabez (228).
The above accolades notwithstanding, I have some concerns with the book. While Bowler’s even-handed style may be viewed as an example of good writing (see above), given the danger—indeed, the eternal consequences—of this movement, I don't think she is critical enough of the prosperity gospel. In fact, Bowler is hardly critical at all of the message itself. Rather, in her introduction, she provides a two-page caution against reading her historical analysis as a critique (8-9). Moreover, in discussing the goodness promised by the prosperity gospel, Bowler concludes her opening chapter saying: “The Gospel is good news. Just how good is for readers and the faithful to decide” (10).
While Blessed is a great history of the prosperity gospel, it’s a terrible theology of the prosperity movement. Thus, while this book is rich in its historical analysis and reporting—even mentioning many of the pragmatic abuses of the prosperity movement—there is little theological substance. Consequently, the main teachings of the prosperity gospel are neither held up to Scripture nor analyzed through an orthodox theological rubric. Instead, prosperity teachings are examined in view of their historical precedents or utilitarian results. One would need to look carefully through Blessed to find a Scripture reference, let alone a Scripture quotation. My fear here is that an unbeliever, or even an immature believer, could read this book and actually find the historical presentation of the prosperity gospel attractive.
These concerns notwithstanding, Blessed is worthwhile reading for what it is—a history of the prosperity gospel and not a theology of the prosperity movement. I’ve benefited from time spent working through it and would recommend it to those seeking to learn about this topic.
David W. Jones is associate professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.