35-year-old Kate Bowler, assistant professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School and the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, has penned an insightful and moving piece in the New York Times Sunday Review about her stage IV cancer.

The prosperity gospel tries to solve the riddle of human suffering. It is an explanation for the problem of evil. It provides an answer to the question: Why me? For years I sat with prosperity churchgoers and asked them about how they drew conclusions about the good and the bad in their lives. Does God want you to get that promotion? Tell me what it’s like to believe in healing from that hospital bed. What do you hear God saying when it all falls apart?

The prosperity gospel popularized a Christian explanation for why some people make it and some do not. They revolutionized prayer as an instrument for getting God always to say “yes.” It offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules, and God will reward you, heal you, restore you. It’s also distressingly similar to the popular cartoon emojis for the iPhone, the ones that show you images of yourself in various poses. One of the standard cartoons shows me holding a #blessed sign. My world is conspiring to make me believe that I am special, that I am the exception whose character will save me from the grisly predictions and the CT scans in my inbox. I am blessed.

The prosperity gospel holds to this illusion of control until the very end. If a believer gets sick and dies, shame compounds the grief. Those who are loved and lost are just that — those who have lost the test of faith. In my work, I have heard countless stories of refusing to acknowledge that the end had finally come. An emaciated man was pushed about a megachurch in a wheelchair as churchgoers declared that he was already healed. A woman danced around her sister’s deathbed shouting to horrified family members that the body can yet live. There is no graceful death, no ars moriendi, in the prosperity gospel. There are only jarring disappointments after fevered attempts to deny its inevitability.

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.

CANCER has kicked down the walls of my life. I cannot be certain I will walk my son to his elementary school someday or subject his love interests to cheerful scrutiny. I struggle to buy books for academic projects I fear I can’t finish for a perfect job I may be unable to keep. I have surrendered my favorite manifestoes about having it all, managing work-life balance and maximizing my potential. I cannot help but remind my best friend that if my husband remarries everyone will need to simmer down on talking about how special I was in front of her. (And then I go on and on about how this is an impossible task given my many delightful qualities. Let’s list them. …) Cancer requires that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and plans I didn’t realize I had made.

But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive. Even when I am this distant from Canadian family and friends, everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors. In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.

You can read the whole thing here.

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4 thoughts on “A Scholar on the Prosperity Gospel Talks about Her Stage IV Cancer”

  1. Hugh McCann says:

    As believers, we know Death is ultimately our prosperity, as it ushers into the presence of the One our souls long for, and strips away all lesser & faux prosperities, loves, joys, peaces, etc.

    All Christians suffer from the disease of desiring an overly-realized eschatology: Wanting our health and wealth NOW, and in the PHYSICAL realm.

    We cannot embrace suffering because the church wants the world. NOW.

  2. Thanks for posting the article Justin. I followed the link to the New York Times website and read the full thing. After I finished it I went over to Amazon and bought Kate’s book on kindle. While I disapprove of the message of the prosperity gospel I have been wanting to learn more about it. I come across a lot of people who are influenced by it. Hopefully by telling them where it comes from (not the Bible) I’ll be able to lead them to the message of the gospel.

  3. Dana Olson says:

    I completed chemo (we hope!) in late December and heard the word “remission” in January. The first five weeks of the year I preached on Job. I can’t even imagine how the prosperity world handles Job. They would surely shudder at the illustrations by Christopher Koelle in JP’s poetry and essay book, “Job.” Thanks for this, JT. May God give great grace and, perhaps, as he wills, his divine touch of healing, to Kate Bowler.

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      We are rejoicing with you, dear brother—in hope. Thanks for writing, Dana. It would be powerful to hear your sermons on Job.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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