Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel by Kate Bowler, 296 pages
"Prosperity Gospel" is a term which is notoriously hard to define, encompassing as it does a range of theological positions, all having in common the belief that true Christian faith is rewarded by material well-being, usually including both health and wealth. From humble beginnings far outside the mainstream, it has metastasized into one of the dominant movements of modern American Christianity.
Although "Prosperity Gospel" is often used as a pejorative, Bowler has produced a balanced, objective history of the movement, from its beginnings in late nineteenth century spiritualism, through the secular positive thinking movement, and into pentecostal circles before exploding with the intersection of the charismatic movement and mass media televangelism. She distinguishes between the old-school "hard prosperity" of preachers like Kenneth Hagin and the Copelands, which posits believers empowered by God to use their will to reshape reality, and the "soft prosperity" of more recent figures like Joel Osteen, TD Jakes, and Joyce Meyer, which tends more towards moralistic therapeutic deism. Bowler is clear about the potential dangers of the movement, but also aware of the reasons for its appeal.
This is a surprisingly good book, far better one would expect given than the subject. The book is at its worst when Bowler falls into the fashionable pseudo-journalistic mode - at moments it risks turning into "The Year I Went on Pilgrimage with Benny Hinn" - but even in those passages she writes with insight and, refreshingly, without scorn.