Kate Bowler is a Canadian professor at Duke Divinity School who researches the prosperity gospel movement. She’s also 35, a wife and mother, and critically ill with cancer. In a widely shared New York Times piece “Death, the Prosperity Gospel, and Me,” the author of Blessed reflected on her research and how it informed her convictions on suffering and faith. (Read CT’s book review.) “I’m never very theologically declarative,” said Bowler. “I’ve really tried to hold off on doing that in order to make enough space for people to make up their own minds. But in this case, it was just a lot more personal. I don’t have a lot of pretension anymore.”
Bowler recently spoke with Christianity Today’s assistant editor Morgan Lee about how Americans define suffering, what she would embrace from prosperity gospel theology, and how she copes with the loss of control that suffering brings. “It’s very bizarre to be eclipsed by a disease you barely knew existed a couple months ago,” she said. “It’s been a really intense year.”
In what ways have your feelings changed towards the prosperity gospel movement since your diagnosis?
I’m one of the many people who wants an answer when there is no answer, who wants to demand things of God when God does not always connect the dots for us. Even more, I relate to their desire for certainty.
Prosperity gospel makes everyone feel special. It makes everyone feel uniquely chosen. Every detail of your life is God’s ultimate concern. I’ve seen that do wonders for people.
Getting over not being special has been hard. I have to get used to being as beloved by God as everybody else. You want to feel like your personality, your efforts, and your theological insight counts for something. It doesn’t. I just have to be as beloved as everybody else.
Is there anything in the prosperity gospel movement that you find tempting to embrace and hold onto at this point in life?
I love their spiritual tenacity. They work harder than most people that I know, spiritually speaking. They really believe that God is making a difference in their everyday life, and they’re willing to put in time praying, serving others, acting as if their life is a ladder to somewhere.
I love their language of specificity. They really do believe that God is in the details of their life. Now what that means, of course, is that they work backwards from their biography to God’s intent looking through their lives for evidence of God’s favor. And that can be its own prison.
What is lovely about that is we do want to know that God counts the hairs on our heads, loved us since we were born, and cares about our family more than we could even imagine. Those kinds of comforts, prosperity gospel rightly foregrounds.
Given some of these strengths that you can see in the behaviors of the people that are involved in the movement or even the theology themselves, what keeps you from fully embracing it?
Prosperity gospel makes God into a kind of monster. It creates the problem that it tries to solve. It says we can always know the will of God because God has given us a special kind of faith which we can use to act. What that means is every single thing in your life becomes your fault or your reward. That’s a terrifying place to be.