I started perusing a new book simply called Blessed. The book is by Kate Bowler and is a history of the American prosperity gospel. Its seems no matter where I turned I got caught up in her discussion which suggests I need to start and the beginning and make the effort to read the entire book. Here’s an excerpt from her chapter on “Wealth.”
Three arguments grounded the movement’s defense of biblical wealth. First, prosperity theology turned to the cross as the solution to all human needs. Jesus’ death and resurrection abolished not only sin and disease but also poverty. In order to understand this financial provision of the atonement, we must recall the priority placed on spirit by the movement. Poverty took on spiritual dimensions as a demonic force that separated people from their godly inheritance. Poverty—as an evil spirit—required a spiritual solution. Jesus reclaimed dominion over the earth from Satan when he took on the spiritual debt of poverty on the cross. ‘He took your place in poverty,’ argued the African American pastor Leroy Thompson of Word of Life Christian Center in Darrow, Louisiana, ‘so you could take His place in prosperity.’ As a result, believers could claim wealth as one of their rights and privileges in Jesus’ name.
Some teachers found it more difficult to explain wealth than they did health. Jesus’ crucifixion tied the atonement to suffering as a corollary of sickness, but there was no moment teachers could point to that signaled Christ’s defeat over poverty. Only those who specialized in divine finance approached the subject with much gusto. Pastor Thompson described Jesus’ resurrection as the moment when ‘He couldn’t stand being broke any longer! He came up on the third day! He said, in effect, ‘Enough of this!’” Jesus rose from the grave as the redeemer of poverty’s curse.
Second, believers argued that they followed in the Master’s steps. Jesus himself possessed great wealth, and it followed that his devotees should also. Snippets from Jesus’ life offered a few clues. ‘As soon as Jesus arrived, that anointing to prosper acted like a magnet, drawing wise men with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.’ Argued the Kenneth Copeland protégé Creflo Dollar. ‘Those were not cheap gifts, either. Prosperity attached itself to baby Jesus immediately, and that same gift to prosper has been given to us as heirs of Christ.’ That the guards divided Jesus’ cloak among them at his crucifixion suggested that his belongings were valuable. . . . Thomas Anderson [argued] Mary and Joseph’s donkey ride to Bethlehem . . . was the contemporary equivalent of a Cadillac. Rich God, Poor God author John Avanzini detailed Jesus’ designer clothes and expensive anointing oils as further evidence. To be sure, the matter caused some disagreement. Kenneth Hagin Sr. and Oral Roberts established a strong precedent for the argument that Jesus lived a wealthy life but defeated poverty on the cross, while others seemed to be content that Jesus’ lifetime of poverty was part of his messianic purpose.” (95-96)
From the selections that I’ve read I find Bowler to be fairly objective. She’s not attempting to refute as much as she is describing the movement although some things cry out for comment such as these topics from a church financial seminar:
- How to Prove Tithing is in the New Testament
- How to Deal with Delinquent Tithers
- How to Double the Pastor’s Salary
- How to Complete Your Pledges in 120 Days
- How to Prove that Non-Tithers are Robbers. (131)
When she glides over things such as reports of Joyce Meyer’s $23,000 “toilet set” she may be charged with feeding ill-founded rumors or misinformation. (136) Even so here she notes that these kind of things don’t seem to bother followers of these preachers rather “It was when pastors mishandled funds that believers typically lost faith. When Jim Bakker defrauded shareholders of Heritage USA, the problem at first was not that he profited. That he resorted to deception undermined the ground logic of his gospel: wealth comes to any and all who ask. If accumulation was easy, why do it secretly? And why must he do it at the expense of others? Bakker, by his actions, had seemed to live a world of not-enough.” (136-37)
This will be one book I’ll have on my reading list.
Blessed is from Oxford University Press. It is a hardcover with 352 pages and sells for $34.95.
Kate Bowler is Assistant Professor of American Religion at Duke Divinity School.