A Review of
Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel
Hardback: Oxford UP, 2013
Buy now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
Reviewed by Douglas Connelly.
If you are looking for a critique of the prosperity gospel or a biblical evaluation of its teaching, this is not the book for you. In her first book – an adaptation of her doctoral dissertation – Kate Bowler tells the story of how the American prosperity gospel began and developed, and she introduces us to some of the main prosperity preachers. But Bowler does not take a side in the debate over prosperity teaching. Instead she tries (and largely succeeds) to give an even-handed account of how such teaching set its roots in American religious culture and how it grew into the mega-influence it is today.
Since many of the proponents of the prosperity message are media stars or best-selling authors, it’s easy in telling their stories to be either swept away with their charisma or to be hyper-critical of their excesses. But Bowler seems to walk the narrow line of the historian. She is not afraid to name the biggest names – Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar, and Frederick Price – and even the softer peddlers of the prosperity gospel, like Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, and T. D. Jakes. She even (correctly, I think) encompasses the evangelical version of the prosperity message in Bruce Wilkinson’s, The Prayer of Jabez. But, while she accurately reports what these teachers promote and model before their followers, Bowler never seems to defend or attack the preachers or their teaching. In a historical account, that is a good thing, but I think it will leave some of her readers wanting more in the way of analysis and evaluation.
There is very little theological or biblical substance in the book, and that might be a danger. An unbeliever or an immature Christian might read this book and be attracted to the prosperity message. The main teachings of the prosperity gospel are never held up to the light of Scripture or analyzed from a theological perspective. More than 500 references are listed in the bibliography, but the reader has to search hard for even one Scripture reference or quotation.
Maybe I expected too much from the book. Bowler promised a history of the prosperity movement and that’s what she wrote. The history was interesting and enlightening, but I wish there had been more evaluation.
The one conclusion you can’t escape as you read Blessed is the growing influence of the prosperity movement on our culture and particularly among believers. Many evangelicals simply dismiss the “health and wealth” or “name it and claim it” gospel as a minor blip on the screen of evangelicalism, a theological step-child of the much larger evangelical community. Bowler makes us see the deeper reality – 17 percent of American Christians openly identify with the prosperity movement; every Sunday over a million people attend prosperity-oriented mega-churches; two-thirds of all Christian believers in American are convinced that God ultimately wants them to prosper.
Kate Bowler’s book is well-worth reading if you want to know more about the roots and growth of the prosperity movement and its primary advocates. If, however, you are looking for inspiration for following the prosperity movement or looking for a solid theological evaluation of the teachings of the movement, you will not find it here.
Douglas Connelly is the senior pastor of Parkside Community Church in Sterling Heights, MI.