Interview: A beautiful lie
The historian Kate Bowler talks to Stephen Tomkins and Charissa King
Though she grew up amid Canadian Mennonites, Kate Bowler became an academic authority on a very different branch of Christianity, the prosperity gospel, which tells followers that God wants to give them health and wealth. Her 2013 book Blessed: A history of the American prosperity gospel was the first comprehensive history of the movement.
Professor Bowler gained a new level of understanding after she was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer in 2015, aged 35. The disease is incurable but has been contained by experimental immunotherapy. Her second book, Everything Happens for a Reason: And other lies I’ve loved, which made the New York Times top ten bestseller list in March, tells of her struggles to come to terms with her illness and the effect it has had on her faith. She has received more than her fair share of well-meaning comments, especially after millions of people read her New York Times essay on living with incurable cancer. Her new book includes a list of things never to say to people experiencing terrible times.
You talk very warmly about growing up in the Mennonite community in Manitoba.
Yes, they’re a team. They move in herds – which is the best and worst part about them. If you’re looking for variety you will not find it there – they have only 20 last names to go round. But I loved the sense that everything was going to be done together. All my memories of baking, family gatherings, attaching inner tubes to snowmobiles, they’re Mennonite memories.
I’m so grateful that they understand the inevitability of suffering, and assume that it all has to be done together. Their behaviour and theology are communal. I learned so much from that.
There’s a striking contrast between that almost aggressively unmaterialistic Mennonite life – where people paint bumpers black to hide the chrome – and the prosperity gospel that became your area of expertise.
Yes! And the hyper-individualism I came to know in the prosperity gospel too. It’s all about the righteous individual overcoming all odds. And that’s what moments of praise and prayer requests are usually for, highlighting the miraculous and the faithful (assuming they’re the same thing). This makes it hard to imagine faith as a team sport – faith in which, when you fall, you borrow the courage and prayers of others. I interviewed so many people who, when they found that their bodies and their circumstances couldn’t bear the weight of scrutiny, it was really hard for them to go to church. I hope church will always be the place I want to go when I feel vulnerable, because I know I can’t do it alone. I mean, the church fed me for an entire year. I only recently said: ‘No more casseroles.’
Do you know what the original appeal was for you of investigating the prosperity gospel?
Mostly snark, I imagine. And the fact that I’m a child of academics, so I love being a historical detective and hunting down clues. Initially I think it was the scepticism that fuels most people’s view of the movement. And that view was certainly confirmed when I met certain televangelists! But it was the people in the pews that I found so endearing. I found their hope incredibly audacious, in the best way. They really expected God to intervene in the small details of their life. There’s a real dignity in that, the particularity of prayer and expectation that God is going to do something that day. It was lovely to behold.
One thing I’ve spent time researching was less the Bentleys and private jets and more the soft prosperity preachers such as Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer. It’s difficult to tell whether they’re simply being positive or whether there’s an alternative theology there. It’s tricky in the United States, because positivity is in the water there.
I’ve tended to think of prosperity teaching as an outrageous scam that you can laugh or cry at. But you talk with much more sympathy than that.
I do love them. I think they’ve figured out something about God. They’ve come to understand that the Church has to be part of setting horizons for people’s lives, for tipping their chin up and saying that there may be more in store and that God loves them so profoundly that they can expect the day to feel new again. I disagree with them about their language of certainty and their equation of faith with power, as a spiritual formula for demanding that God make a way. But I do love their boldness and their wonder. …
This is an extract from an article that was published in the April 2018 edition of Reform