Painful certainty

But rather than further eviscerate the prosperity gospel, Bowler’s study attempts to render this movement understandable.

Drawing from her ethnographic research in prosperity gospel churches, she shows how this movement is not simply about “praying yourself rich,” but is instead a “comprehensive approach to the human condition.”

Far from lazily hoping that God would somehow fix all their problems, Bowler found that the prosperity gospel requires practitioners to cultivate an intense mental discipline in order to constantly suppress thoughts of negativity or doubt.

The idea of the prosperity gospel as a system for controlling one’s thoughts may explain its popularity in a country where 18% of adults suffer from anxiety disorders. Americans spend an estimated $42 billion a year treating these disorders.

Bowler’s findings suggest that one reason for the prosperity gospel’s popularity is that it serves a function similar to therapy or medication. With some discipline, it may, in fact, be possible to feel “too blessed to be stressed.”

Even though historians of religion are trained to avoid making normative claims about how religions should be practiced, several reviews of Blessed were critical of Bowler’s sympathetic portrayal of the prosperity gospel. They felt she had downplayed the outrages of figures like Tilton. Some even called her an apologist.

But in her editorial, Bowler is able to speak with a more personal voice. She offers some wise critiques of the prosperity gospel and the broader project of finding meaning in human suffering.

Emphasizing her perspective as a Christian, as well as a historian, she writes:

The prosperity gospel has taken a religion based on the contemplation of a dying man and stripped it of its call to surrender all. Perhaps worse, it has replaced Christian faith with the most painful forms of certainty. The movement has perfected a rarefied form of America’s addiction to self-rule, which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare down our deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder. At some point, we must say to ourselves, I’m going to need to let go.

In other words, while the prosperity gospel clearly “works” for its believers, its benefits come with a price. The promise that we can have whatever we want leaves us ill-equipped to confront the realities of death and suffering.

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