Monday, June 24, 2013

Kate Bowler's "Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel"

Kate Bowler is Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity in the United States at Duke Divinity School.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, and reported the following:
By page 99 this book finally starts addressing what readers assume the prosperity gospel is all about: money. Until that point, I have been trying to convince readers that the many tangled threads that make up this movement are better thought of as developing ideas about how the mind works. Do your thoughts have power? What is the relationship between your spiritual thoughts (your faith) and your circumstances? I show how very different groups of people, from touring mesmerists to Holy Ghost prophets to business literature gurus, have been promoting various prosperity gospels that trace benefits in health and wealth to a person’s thoughts. But now this thing I’m calling the prosperity gospel comes out of the post-WWII economic bump and a group of pentecostal preachers who argue that faith can produce spiritual as well as financial rewards.

On page 99, I show how these financial promises are starting to get really specific.
Automobiles were marked as heaven-sent with vanity plates boasting PRAYED 4, BLESSED, 100 FOLD, and LUKE 12:31 (“But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you”).

The “hundredfold blessing” served as the most common calculus of God’s “money-back guarantee.” It was often said that God rewarded givers a hundred times their original donation. Gloria Copeland, a famous evangelist in her own right, calculated the returns: “You give $1 for the Gospel’s sake and $100 belongs to you; give $10 and receive $1000; give $1000 and receive $100,000.... Give one airplane and receive one hundred times the value of the airplane. Give one car and the return would furnish you a lifetime of cars. In short, Mark 10:30 is a very good deal.”
The world became a treasure-trove for the faithful, who just needed to find the key to God’s bank. I argue that these promises became more and more abstract—less tied to money earned and more about money you could earn—with the gross inflation of the 1970s and its corresponding invention of credit cards. Preachers started to encourage their followers to give money in order to receive, rather than donate money they had in their pockets. Though the prosperity gospel certainly has robust theological categories that make it so satisfying to insiders, page 99 shows that even preachers are sensitive to the changing economic mood.
Follow Kate Bowler on Twitter, and learn more about Blessed at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue