Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A gospel of hope, but also the dollar

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Jesus had a lot to say about money -- mostly about its dangers.

Among other things, he noted people can't serve both God and money, and it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

Money might have been a dangerous thing for Jesus, but not for many of his followers today. For many followers of what is called the prosperity gospel -- the idea that God wants to bless people with material wealth -- money is a sign of God's blessing, and the goal of the Christian life is to be as rich as possible.

Churches that preach the prosperity gospel can be found around the world, but the belief is especially prevalent in the U.S. where it is seen by many as a religiously sanctioned way to achieve the American dream.

Exploring the history and popularity of the prosperity gospel, especially in the U.S., is the goal of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel by Kate Bowler, a professor of American Christianity at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C.

Bowler -- a former Winnipegger -- first became interested in the movement here in the city when she visited a local prosperity gospel church. What followed was eight years of research, with Bowler visiting prosperity gospel churches across the U.S.

"The prosperity gospel provides a Christian vocabulary for self improvement and spiritual progress that helps people think about their bodies and finances as being of interest to the divine," says Bowler, who formerly attended Fort Garry Mennonite Brethren Church.

In the book, she traces the movement as an offshoot of Pentecostalism in the 1950s and 1960s, when preachers added financial blessings to promises of divine healing, through the TV preachers of the 1980s such as Jim Bakker, Oral Roberts and Jimmy Swaggart, to the mega-church pastors of today like Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes.

The main message of prosperity gospel churches is victory -- the idea that "things can and will get better for believers" if they have enough faith, she says.

But the idea of faith in these churches is different from how many define it; it's not a strong belief in God, or a trust in God's care. Instead, she says, faith is seen as a "spiritual power unleashed by words and thoughts... the idea that God gives believers the ability to claim things they want."

For many prosperity gospel followers, these things are usually health and wealth -- a bigger house, a better job, a new house or car or other material benefits. For many people, especially those who are poor or struggling with finances or health issues, this is an incredibly positive and attractive message, says Bowler.

The downside of the prosperity gospel is that it can be abusive and exploitative, she says, adding that it can be especially hard on those for whom life never gets better. Why won't God answer their prayers?

This is where the negative side of the prosperity gospel reveals itself; since God rewards people according to their faith, not getting what you want means you don't have enough faith. This has the effect of "turning God into a monster," Bowler says. "If bad things happen, it's your own fault."

But while the movement has downsides, Bowler also sees some positives.

People in prosperity gospel churches "see everyday life as significant in God's eyes," she says. "They see every day as an opportunity to see God at work. It's a vital and enthusiastic Christianity that helps people address everyday challenges."

For her, the big takeaway is that these churches offer people hope -- "the stubborn assurance that the Gospel is good news." This, she says, is something other churches could take note of, even if they don't preach prosperity.

Of her book, Mark Noll -- one of the pre-eminent scholars of American religion -- says that "until Blessed, no one has attempted a balanced, informative, inquisitive survey," of the prosperity gospel.

Bowler's book, he adds, is a "godsend for those with an outsider's curiosity about one of the fastest growing religious movements in contemporary America."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2013 D15

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