BRIAN LAMB: Kate Bowler, where did you get the title, Everything Happens for a Reason And Other Lies I've Loved?
KATE BOWLER: Oh, I think it just came to me because it was one of the many boomerang theologies that people give to you when you're sick, is surely everything is going to work out; God is making a way. And then I wrote the book to try to explore, like maybe this was a lie I loved all along.
So, the book is kind of a theological excavation project where I'm trying to dig into my own secret terrible beliefs.
LAMB: How sick are you?
BOWLER: Well, stage 4 cancer is not decorative, so it's hard, but I'm doing better than a lot of people. I moved from the kind of crisis management to the more chronic part of this in which I live scan to scan. But thankfully so far drugs and doctors and all kinds of things are making a way.
LAMB: When did you first find out you had cancer?
BOWLER: Two years ago, 35, and there's no cancer in my family, so I just didn't imagine that it was possible. And then one day out of the blue I got a phone call that explained my mysterious stomach pain and I realized that I was in really deep.
LAMB: What kind of cancer?
BOWLER: It's colon cancer. It's funny, I'm very specific about that partly because I think I didn't imagine everyone imagining me and my colon for the rest of my life. But as it turns out it's increasingly common that young people are getting what was traditionally thought to be an older person's illness.
LAMB: But you do say in your book that it's in the liver?
BOWLER: Yes. It spreads I guess often to the liver and it did with mine.
LAMB: What's magic cancer?
BOWLER: Oh, well, that was just a little phrase I gave to try to explain, they give you a series of horrible options when you have stage 4 cancer, like it could be this and this treatment might work. Or it could be this other much worse horrible thing, immediate death sentence. Or this tiny little I have they call a mismatch repair disorder where the cells replicated incorrectly, and which could be genetic or not, but if you have this three percent cancer then new immunotherapy possibilities were open to me.
So, when I found out that I had this tiny little three percent kind of cancer, then I declared it was the magic cancer because it was one of the only kinds that opened me up for new treatment.
LAMB: Where do you live?
BOWLER: I live in Durham, North Carolina, but I'm from Canada and Canadians bring this stuff up all the time.
LAMB: What do you do in Durham, North Carolina?
BOWLER: I'm a professor of American Christianity at Duke Divinity School. So, I teach do-gooders of all kinds -- pastors, non-profit workers, just people with hopeful thoughts when they stare at the horizon. It's a lovely place to work.
LAMB: What do you actually teach?
BOWLER: I teach the big survey courses, so the kind of Puritans to mega churches courses and then I do smaller seminars. So, I'm a specialist in modern American Christianity and then for the last 10 years I've been studying televangelists and mega churches and just people with beautiful hair.
LAMB: I want to show you a picture that you have on your blog site of your husband, Toban, and your son, Zach.
LAMB: How old is Zach in that picture?
BOWLER: That's his baby dedication. We all grew up Mennonite and so he has an I heart Anabaptism onesie, too, just to make clear that he is being dedicated and not baptized because otherwise all the Anabaptists would immediately reject us. I think he was nine months or something and that's in Toban's parents' backyard among all Mennonites.
LAMB: What's a Mennonite?
BOWLER: Oh, they are a people who love to talk about their suffering. They came out of - Menno Simons was their leader in the 1700s and they moved largely communally through Germany and then Russia, and then a whole bunch of them moved to Canada in the late 1800s.
And they populate a lot of like rural Manitoba and Ontario, and in the States, Indiana, Nebraska, Kansas and then Pennsylvania, different kinds of groups that all have a really thick account of their own suffering which is largely why they commit to doing things together, simplicity, pacifism, the desire to ruin salads with Jell-o and sometimes deli meat.
I've always gone to a Mennonite church and I found that they are my very favorite people to be wonderfully sad around because they almost expect it.
LAMB: What kind of things do Mennonites do that let's say, Baptists don't, or Catholics don't?
BOWLER: Sure. Well, I think they're most famous for their pacifism. So, my husband's grandpa for instance was a conscientious objector in World War II so whereas my grandpa was flying battle planes, his grandpa was in the mines.
So, it's an entirely alternate history. They're most famous for their pacifism, often for their anti-materialism. And that's partly why it was, I mean, you usually can't tell anymore the difference between them because they're often plainclothes like the rest of us. They look like every average capitalist. But deep down, they at least feel really guilty for the things they have.
LAMB: How many are there in the world?
BOWLER: In the world, I don't know. There's tremendous growth in like Rwanda, Uganda so there's a lot of international growth. There's a lot in the plains of Canada, but I'm not actually sure what the overall total is.
LAMB: So, when you teach at Duke, what kind of degrees are the people that you're teaching getting?
BOWLER: I teach in the graduate program, so some of them will get PhDs but most of them will get either a masters in religious studies or an M.Div. which means they will become a reverend and they will go off to inflict my views on other people.
LAMB: Why did you want to teach this?
BOWLER: I think I like the idea that ideas always have traction and that we're beholden to communities of care, and maybe that's become more and more important to me now that I've been living with my diagnosis, is you realize like you're giving people a world view and then they have to go out and live in the hospitals, in the boardrooms, in the living rooms holding people's hands during the most important moments of their life.
LAMB: During this process of fighting your cancer, how many doctors did you see?
BOWLER: Oh, wow, well, I had a number of undiagnosed entirely unrelated as it turns out illnesses, so I saw over 100 within the last few years. And then in that last stretch maybe 15.
LAMB: You had another illness before the cancer, what was that?
BOWLER: Well, I mean, it ended up being a thousand times more dramatic than it seemed, but I lost the use of my arms for over a year. As it turns out, it was just some kind of very easy to fix nerve disorder related to having overly lax joints, it's so boring.
But when I had it, it was very dramatic. I'd find I was like locked in bathrooms for too long because I couldn't turn the door handle all of a sudden. So, it made writing my first book, Blessed, mostly a nightmare because I would often have to have like double arm casts at a healing crusade or then have to try to replicate research notes on my book while using terrible voice dictation software into a computer. So, I look back on that as a very dark, lightly comical time of my life.
LAMB: Your first book, Blessed, what was it about and when was it published?
BOWLER: 2013. Blessed was a history of the prosperity gospel. It was the first historical account of this really widespread movement. It took me about 10 years of obsessive research/stalking people in order to map the kind of contours of it.
It was really hard to study at that time because no one calls himself a prosperity preacher, and so, you can't do like an easy survey like will all the prosperity preachers in the room, please put up your hands because it sounded so naturally insulting to assume that they weren't just preaching the gospel.
LAMB: I want to ask you whether these men we're about to show you, it's about a minute, is a prosperity minister and if he is, how do you know that, and have you talked to him.
LAMB: Mike Murdock.
MIKE MURDOCK: I got money. I got land. I got houses. I've got about 10 -- do you mind me bragging for just a moment, do you mind me bragging? I don't have anything God didn't give me. Everything I have came from God.
If you're my protégé, if I wanted a debt-free house, I would do what I did, I sowed a seed equal to one month's mortgage payment. A preacher said if I'd sow a seed equal to my monthly house note, my mortgage, that's the word, it was $3,400, he said I'd have a debt-free house in 12 months. I didn't see how that could be, but I got my debt-free house in 8 months.
BOWLER: Oh, Mike Murdock, he is one of the most unrepentant of prosperity preachers insofar as he really doesn't mind talking about money all the time. So, if anyone's up too late, they've usually watched Mike Murdock on 24-hour Christian TV.
He is a famous kind of old school prosperity preacher when it was uncommon for Pentecostals at that time to really talk that much about money, and Mike came along and talked about it all the time and sold like seven secrets to seven kingdoms. He does a lot with kind of spiritual numbers, like you can see him running the spiritual math for people, if you will give this much then God will reward you in this way.
LAMB: Based in Texas, talks a seed.
BOWLER: Yes. So, it was a new language. It was pioneered largely by Oral Roberts who was the handsome and charismatic founder of Oral Roberts University. And he really pioneered this eco-cultural language.
The idea is kind of genius insofar as it helped explain how money was supposed to work when you give it to someone else. And the idea was your donation is then a seed, and you have to plant it in the ground, the ground being the righteous pastor and then, of course, there's a time of waiting.
And Oral Roberts wrote his first book, I think, in '63 or something called The Miracle of Seed Faith, and it explained like every good believer is almost like a spiritual farmer and has to learn how to live according to these seasons of sowing and reaping.
But it also really helped explain what happens when you give money and then you don't see a return. The answer is it's still in the ground and then you have to pray for the rain and the seasons to change so that you can finally receive your harvest.
LAMB: How much of that do you believe?
BOWLER: Oh, none of that. Yes. But I think that was partly why I was trying to remain so open when I was doing this study, is someone like Mike Murdock is like the caricature of that late '80s televangelist who weeps in front of the camera and asks for donations. I mean, he is the caricature.
But so often, the people that I met in the pews wanted very average things. And if you even look at like the little letters people used to write to Pentecostal healers and like the early Mike Murdocks, they would write for things like a new washing machine or like the nerve to go to a new sewing circle and make friends, I mean, self esteem, tiny advances, all the little things that make life a little more bearable. And that gave me a lot of compassion for the people who stay up late watching Mike.
LAMB: The next clip is of a man that we knew years ago. He went to prison.
LAMB: Name is Jim Bakker. He was married to Tammy Faye Bakker. She's dead and he's remarried. His new wife is named Lori Graham. Let's watch this. It's got a couple of clips and I want you to explain how this always works.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Fox has declared.
President Donald Trump.
Donald Trump is President.
JIM BAKKER: This was a miracle not by man. God called him to do it and I'm going to be bringing the prophets in and are going to talk and those who prophesied) and those who watched this thing because it's the hour of the church in America again.
LAMB: Seventy-eight years old, still active, does television every day like this. What do you make of him?
BOWLER: I haven't seen that clip, but it doesn't entirely surprise me that so much of his ideas of more than enoughness was always rooted in patriotism. And there's a slice of the prosperity gospel in which Republicanism and a sense that the prosperity gospel of both the individual and the nation are connected that come together in someone like Jim Bakker.
But he and Tammy were the king and queen of 1980s televangelism. They had the most-watched Christian program. Their theme park which they called Heritage USA that was built right around the border of North Carolina and South Carolina was meant to be this expression of their jubilant more than enoughness, so you could come and like slide down the waterslide and then watch a live taping of Jim and Tammy in their living room, come on down.
And they called everyone family and they really reached into people's living rooms and asked people to celebrate a Pentecostalism that had kind of come of age. Of course, late '80s they are, Jim is toppled by both a sexual and financial scandal that sends him to prison. And weirdly enough, I ended up meeting a number of the people that he had met while in prison when I gave a talk at the, as it turns out, the prison where he had been, the federal prison where he had been held.
And so, I was giving this history of prosperity gospel talk and normally I usually have to talk people into caring and then a bunch of the guys at the back just put up their hand and were like oh, we knew Jim. They had all kinds of stories.
LAMB: Did you interview him? He's now near Branson, Missouri.
BOWLER: No. No, I've never met him, but I'd love to, and he wrote a book called I was Wrong saying that he repented of much of his prosperity theology. But then as you can see, he's a natural salesman and went on largely to sell dehydrated foodstuffs for the elderly on his new program.
LAMB: Hold it right there.
BOWLER: Oh no, it's happening.
LAMB: Yes. So, people know when they watch it there's the big buckets.
LAMB: And if you keep your eye on the screen on the left-hand corner you can see that more buckets you buy, the more money you pay. But it's a bargain the more you buy but, anyway, this is Jim Bakker selling the buckets of food.
BAKKER: All of this food we're going to extend another couple of days because I just feel like we should.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: It's four month's worth of food so we really only need three of them to make a year of food.
BAKKER: Yes, sir.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: So, we actually give you four buckets, so hey.
BAKKER: This food lasts up to 30 years on your shelf and that's what's America...
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: These are great because they're even waterproof so even if you are in a flood and it gets wet and all shipped free today.
BAKKER: That's right.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: And you're getting 10,472 servings, so you're getting a lot of food.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: A lot of food for those grandkids.
BAKKER: Yes. It is.
LAMB: Grandkids and $3,700 for that. What do you think of that and why did they do this?
BOWLER: Well, I mean, it is -- I know a very pragmatic reason is that he was from day one an amazing salesman and he used to say, I could have been anything, but I just ended up selling the gospel. And if you watch -- so, I actually have hundreds and hundreds of hours of old PTL footage that I watched for the research of the book, it was also fun because whenever Tammy Faye sings, my son dances -- it was this kind of round robin of different entertainers and speakers. And it really showed you how little they actually preached and how much it was this carnival family atmosphere and very often pitched toward the elderly.
And so, for him to go from a prosperity theology of there's more than enough, just donate to me, to a more scarcity model in which there's not enough, also give money to me. It shows how incredibly pragmatic and adaptable its preachers can be.
LAMB: In your current condition stage 4 cancer, what would you not believe if a minister says to you, this is the future. What would turn you off?
BOWLER: Well, I mean, one of the things I did learn from Pentecostals is their sense of wonderment and openness to the idea that God can do surprising things. So, I try to take that in the spirit of generosity but so often it's incredibly prescriptive, like and if you give this donation then here's this miracle oil. A lot of transactionalism, I get a lot of that stuff in the mail still.
LAMB: Do you believe them?
BOWLER: I mean, no. No.
LAMB: Do they believe themselves?
BOWLER: I mean, I think many of them do. But there are consummate salesmen among them, I mean, and they were always really pragmatic and entrepreneurial. So, for instance, even when they just had tents, they would travel around, these tent revivalists, the earliest ones were tent revivalists, when they were done with the tent either because their crowds were too big or too small, they sued to cut up the tent into tiny little squares and then sell the pieces as if all the spiritual power had been absorbed into the fabric.
And like it goes to show you that at every stage they're both promising something like a tactile reminder that people, I mean, people want, like someone like me when I got very sick, right away I wanted things I could touch and feel, little reminders that I was still myself. And I can see why these very material faiths really catch on.
LAMB: Here's the President of the United States talking in 2015.
DONALD TRUMP: And Norman Vincent Peale, the great Norman Vincent Peale was my pastor, the power of positive thinking. Everybody has heard of Norman Vincent Peale? He was so great. He would give a sermon, you never wanted to leave. Sometimes we have sermons and every once in a while, we think about leaving a little early, right, even though we're Christian.
Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, Frank, would give a sermon I'm telling you I still remember his sermons. It was unbelievable. And what he would do is he'd bring real life situations, modern day situations into the sermon and you could listen to him all day long.
LAMB: In your book, did you write about Norman Vincent Peale, and what did you write?
BOWLER: Yes. Well, the prosperity gospel evolved in these different strains. One of them was the Pentecostal version that we saw in people like Mike Murdock.
LAMB: Define Pentecostal.
BOWLER: Oh, sure. So, it's a movement predicated on the idea that we're in a new era of science and wonders and it started in the early 1900s and it most often looked to healing and the gift of tongues, so an unknown language. So, like in some of the clips you'll see people switch to what doesn't sound like intelligible words and it's supposed to be a spiritual...
LAMB: Have you heard Mike Murdock talk that way?
BOWLER: Yes. I mean, it's called glossolalia, and in some versions it's supposed to be a translatable language, but in most iterations it just sounds like syllables that seem random, but they believe it's a spiritual heavenly tongue that's given to them to communicate with God.
LAMB: So, Norman Vincent Peale.
BOWLER: So, Norman Vincent Peale doesn't come from that Pentecostal strain. He comes from what looks like mainline Protestantism. He had a Methodist background plus this theology of self esteem. They're all borrowing from this kind of seed bed of theology called New Thought which was a movement that said that the mind was a really powerful spiritual incubator, so like whatever you can think and then articulate will come true, like you're unleashing a spiritual force.
So, someone like Donald Trump who latches on to a figure like Norman Vincent Peale, what we see there is a very respectable version of what you say and confess you will possess.
LAMB: Let's watch him, this is back in 1987 and it was they call the Hour of Power which is at the Crystal Cathedral.
NORMAN VINCENT PEALE: What do you want to be? Then dedicate it to Jesus Christ along with your whole life. And don't doubt it, believe. And then form a picture in your mind of that goal, hold it tenaciously in the conscious mind until by process of intellectual osmosis it sinks into the unconscious and when it gets into the unconscious, you have it because it will have all of you.
LAMB: Yes, I mean, they really make visualization and mental processes the kind of theological infrastructure for how it works. So, how is it then like what's different than having just good self esteem and doing this. And their answer is that you absorb it in such a way that you can actually unleash it into the world.
And so, Norman Vincent Peale, he kind of brands his version of the prosperity gospel into positive thinking. And it develops into this long lineage with other famous preachers like Robert Schuller and someone like Donald Trump who becomes the first presidential candidate whose only religious biography stems from the prosperity gospel.
He, Norman Vincent Peale, said don't doubt it. Why not?
BOWLER: Well, otherwise -- so, there's positive confession and then there's negative confession. So, the idea that if you doubt it, if you've created a kind of mental obstacle then it won't come true which means, of course, that whenever bad things happen, you really just have to look at yourself to figure out why it didn't come to be.
LAMB: This will hit home with you. By the way, have you ever met Benny Hinn?
BOWLER: Yes. I did. I went on a trip to Israel with Benny Hinn and his 900 followers for that trip to walk where Jesus walked.
And he is originally from Israel.
Yes. He is also a little bit from Canada, a little bit from Israel and lives in the states. He has a complicated biography.
LAMB: When you say 900 of his followers, that's the only 900 he's got or...
BOWLER: No. They take these really big tours. So, you go with a thousand other people in 30 giant tour buses and then you travel in Israel. I mean, you pay a lot of money and that's partly why I was interested is like what kind of person is financially investing in a faith healer and what are their hopes for an experience like that.
LAMB: Why do you call him a faith healer?
BOWLER: So, his specialty is the idea that if you believe enough that your body will reflect the glory of God and be restored. And so, he also has a strong financial message but he's most known for his faith-healing.
LAMB: Do you believe him?
BOWLER: Benny Hinn is not someone I have a lot of intellectual and theological affinity toward. I've seen a lot of Benny Hinn. He's one of the pastors that I watch the most and he's often the most dramatic. So, he's the one on YouTube where he will raise his hand and then you'll see 100 people fall over at the same time.
And his very dramatic approach to faith-healing is one that I often found to be somewhat manipulative.
LAMB: Here you're going to see one person in this one. This was December 18, 2017, Benny Hinn.
BENNY HINN: I rebuke that cancer in the mighty name of Jesus. I come against you in the name of the One I serve. Leave this young lady, leaver her now in the name of the Lord my God. Complete healing. It's really gone, right? There's no pain in your stomach, right? OK. Well, then that's real.
BOWLER: When I see something like that, I can only see it from her perspective. I have had a lot of people pray for me similarly and as a Christian, I believe that Christianity has a very long tradition of divine healing, so I certainly don't think that it's not possible for God to heal people.
But you can see how quickly he moved from praying for her, he as the anointed vessel of God and then his confidence in himself as that vehicle. And then the idea that because she didn't have pain in that moment that she's definitely healed, it...
LAMB: Have you ever seen one of these where somebody stood up and said no, Dr. Hinn, I got pain where I had it before.
BOWLER: Yes. Yes. I saw one. While it was for financial healing and it was in the recession and they were asking for -- it was at this big convention center and it was one of Hinn's protégés, it was Paula White and when they said we'd love -- we need donations for this and this and this, one person in the back just started yelling, "We don't have it." And there was this horrible silence and then laughter because the truth was it was in a financially-exhausting time.
And then what the response was a 10-minute sermon berating people for lack of faith.
LAMB: Our next clip happens to be Paula White which I know you didn't know.
LAMB: Who is she?
BOWLER: Paula White was a spiritual, protégé of Benny Hinn and also T.D. Jakes, a famous African-American preacher in Dallas. And she's now most famous as Donald Trump's personal pastor. But she has a large mega church in Florida called Without Walls and she is a chipper preacher of more than enough.
LAMB: Have you met her?
BOWLER: No, I haven't but I've been to her church and I've seen her live a few times.
LAMB: Was that when you were doing your research?
BOWLER: Yes, that's right.
LAMB: Here is Paula White based in Florida.
PAULA WHITE: So, at the beginning of this year I want you to make a commitment. The first hours of your day give to God. I want you to spend time in prayer. I want you to spend time on His word but it's crucial because He says do not come before Me empty handed. For your first fruits offering and first fruits the full of, it's not the tithe; tithe is one-tenth of your gross income, it's the first tenth not just any tenth that's why it redeems the course but the first fruit is the whole of.
Many of us bring one day. Some of us bring one week. Some of us bring an entire months' salary because we understand the principle of all firsts belong to God.
LAMB: Who made up the 10 percent tithe?
BOWLER: Well, there's all kinds of scriptural precedent for money that goes first back to the faith community and there's a lot of argument about spiritual math how much whether it's 10 percent. What you can see there with first fruits is a kind of thickening of categories that the prosperity gospel develops in order to ask for different kinds of donations.
So, the 10 percent doesn't just then become a suggestion; it becomes mandatory. So, some large churches will even ask for believers' financial records in order to make sure that they're actually giving 10 percent. Otherwise, the threat is, and you could hear it there, in order to redeem the curse, the idea that you are spiritually in danger if you're not fully giving.
So, then there's seed faith offerings which can be spontaneous and related to the person, so you might have a guest preacher, so you give a seed faith.
LAMB: Wait, seed faith.
BOWLER: Seed faith like we talked about before with Oral Roberts. And that's just the idea that that language means that you should give in hopes that that person would be the reason that it's returned back to you. First fruits. There's even pastor's appreciation day in which you're supposed to give a certain amount to celebrate the pastor's anniversary at that church. I mean, there's just more and more and more categories and reasons to give.
LAMB: I have a friend who talks about her pastor and he gets -- when he goes on vacation, they pass the hat.
LAMB: When it's his birthday, they pass the hat.
LAMB: And what's your reaction to that? If you were in a church like that, what would your reaction be?
BOWLER: Well, because weirdly enough most of the people I interviewed really liked seeing their pastor do well as an expression of who they are like, look how well he lives that's how much he demonstrates the spiritual principles at work because the argument is well, if it works for him, it can work for me.
So, some of it ends up really being celebrated. So, pastors with jets or pastors with his and her Mercedes Benzes out front. I mean sometimes the megachurch will put the parking space of the pastor with the luxury car right in front with a vanity plate, so that everybody files past it. They're certainly not hiding it.
LAMB: But what would your reaction be if you said, "I need another $1,000 for you" and you see him with a gold Mercedes and all of that.
LAMB: I mean Oral Roberts, I remember when I was down there one time years ago doing a story and he had two large Mercedes outside of his home.
BOWLER: Yes. I mean, I have a really uncomfortable feeling about those kinds of displays, in part because so often those churches have -- are run like family businesses in which children or brothers and sisters are also board members.
And so, I mean, there's been a real push in recent years, especially since the 2008 Senator Grassley investigation for financial transparency. But it certainly makes it hard, because their argument is one that parishioners believe, which is these -- we live in a more than enough spiritual universe and if God gives to them, God can give to me.
LAMB: What do you mean by redeem the curse?
BOWLER: Well, I think they live in a very…
LAMB: She said that.
BOWLER: Yes. Paula White was talking about just the imagination is that it's this densely peopled spiritual universe and that everything you're doing is not just for something, it's against something. I mean someone like Norman Vincent Peale really never spoke like that.
He talked more about self-esteem and used a lot of psychological language and categories. Someone more like Paula White who's very much in the Pentecostal stream of prosperity is going to think a lot about supernatural forces always at work against you. And you're using God's principles to counter them.
LAMB: The next man is well-known, reportedly online his worth is between $40 million and $60 million. He has a 17,000 square foot home. Home is worth about 10.5 million, again just watching, I mean looking at the web. And he sees, I think that I wrote down somewhere I think like 52,000 people a week that he stands in front of.
Anyway, here is Joel Osteen.
JOEL OSTEEN: We installed large floodgates all around the building. And last Sunday morning, during all the rain, the waters came within a foot or maybe two of breaching the walls and flooding the building once again. Without those floodgates, we wouldn't be in here today. And the water started receding.
OSTEEN: The water started to recede late Sunday, maybe into Monday. We felt it was safe to start taking people in on Tuesday. If we had opened the building earlier and someone was injured or perhaps it flooded, and people lost their lives that would be a whole different story. And I'm at peace with taking the heat for being precautious, but I don't want to take the heat for being foolish.
LAMB: What do you think of his story? I mean he got beat up over Harvey when he didn't let people into that former basketball arena.
BOWLER: You know, I don't know enough about the details to say whether he was appropriately cautious, but it does really raise the question of what a large prosperity church is for. I think part of what the critique he got was, was is his job to be the frontlines of charity.
And I mean, that's the -- I think that's a real question for prosperity preachers when their entire theology says, "Well if I do it, you can do it." It's heavily individualistic. And in moments like that where as the pastor of the largest church in the country he is meant to set a kind of national example, it does call into question what churches are for. Historically, they have been fundamentally social services.
LAMB: In your opinion why does someone want to sit in a room with maybe 30,000 people for a service like that?
BOWLER: All right, he's a really easy preacher to listen to. He tells adorable corny jokes. There's always an atmosphere of real positivity and celebration. He is by all accounts, very kind. It's easy to like him and it's easy to want to be around likeminded people.
The folks that go there are often aspirational in some way. A message like that works for all classes, for the poor, it's for an imagined hoped-for life. For the middleclass, it often explains what people already have and for the upper class gives them reasons to keep caring and also a justification for what they have.
LAMB: He's based in Houston. This next fellow also well-known is based in Dallas. I'll run the clip and then you can explain how he fits into in all of this.
T.D. JAKES: If Nelson Mandela had not been incarcerated, had not been mistreated, had not been ostracized, he would not have the passion to do what he does. If Oprah Winfrey had not gone through the things that she had gone through, she would not be so committed to making sure that everybody finds their purpose and finds their dream, and everybody gets healed, and everybody is OK. I'm telling you what you think is working against you is actually working for you.
BOWLER: Yes. I mean, T.D. Jakes has -- he's probably the most famous African/American prosperity preacher. Though he would hate the term prosperity preacher because so much of what he does is along the similar lines of talking about self-esteem and a God of more than enough.
That his brand, especially Woman, Thou Art Loosed, which was a franchise that he developed initiative he mid '90s around healing sexual abuse of women in the church really does bring that message out where your pain then becomes your purpose. The worst thing can be the best thing. It's these constant spiritual inversions that promise that within the course of a human life you really can have everything you hope for.
LAMB: Is Oprah religious or not?
BOWLER: I think so. Yes.
LAMB: I don't mean personally.
BOWLER: Yes, yes, yes.
LAMB: I mean does she fit into the religious world that you're talking about?
BOWLER: Sure. Yes. Well, a lot of the guests she's had like the author of a book called The Secret was very popular, which was very another expression of that New Thought idea I was telling you about where your mind is a spiritual incubator and you can have what you can conceive of.
It also is the idea that there is no such thing as luck, that any obstacle can be overcome for those who work hard and make the most of every opportunity.
BOWLER: That certainly is just an American belief as well. It's just in the water.
LAMB: T.D. Jakes is 60 and he's, again, these figures are loose because you're never quite sure, but they say he is worth about $18 million. Why is somebody that does what he does worth that kind of money?
BOWLER: Well, T.D. Jakes in particular has been incredibly entrepreneurial, so he has, I think, a film production company. He's been involved in music. He has a fully-org'ed series of for-profit, non-profit enterprises. And part of that springs out of this prosperity theology is entrepreneurialism, is I can have it and so can you.
LAMB: What do you think of the fact that these churches and ministers live in a tax-exempt environment?
BOWLER: Well, I think there's a lot of controversy over the tax-exempt status, especially for parsonages. I mean with homes that ministers live in. It's hard. I think it's becoming more and more of an ethical question, because churches are increasingly split between the very large and the very small.
So, the average church has about only 70 people in it, including kids. And then -- but most people in the country go to these top-heavy churches, which is to say very well-resourced churches. And so, what's tax exempt for some pastors is also what makes most churches able to stay financially afloat.
LAMB: You live in Duke, North Carolina and almost all of these people are from the south.
BOWLER: They are. Yes. They're from the Sun Belt.
BOWLER: That's such a great question. Part of it I think has to do with these are largely suburban exurban churches. Big churches just need land and so that we find that they're slightly on the outskirts of cities and really sprawling.
I'm just doing the hand gesture of the Sun Belt right now because they're mostly in that Atlanta to L.A. kind of wide half circle. And partly it has to do with urban sprawl. Partly, it has to do with migration patterns.
LAMB: Are they more religious in the south than they are in the north?
BOWLER: I don't mean -- because sometimes it surprises you, like there are a lot of prosperity mega-churches around Seattle. And so that creates a kind of evangelical subculture in a largely more secular state.
But I started this project in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which has the largest prosperity mega-church in Canada. And we're Canadian, like we're not supposed to have prosperity mega-churches. If you ask most people, it seems so very American.
And even if you listen to preachers all over North America they will still say, like in the name of Jesus. And even just the way they say it, Jesus, you could tell they had a southern preacher as a teacher.
LAMB: Here's a man that's worth $25 million, allegedly from Saddleback, Arizona, Rick Warren.
RICK WARREN: Now, I don't know if you figured this out or not, but God often uses pain to get our attention. C.S. Lewis said, "God whispers to us in our pleasure, but he shouts to us in our pains." He's going, 'Hello. Do you think I just made you to live for yourself, huh? Do you think that the whole purpose of your life is for you to just live for you. No, no, no, no. You're made for so much more.'
And God often uses this pain to get our attention. And God often uses pain to prepare us for a breakthrough. So, if you're in pain right now, congratulations.
LAMB: Do you believe that?
BOWLER: Well, and first of all, I won't say that, like Rick Warren I don't think is a prosperity preacher. He's largely Southern Baptist. And his church Saddleback in California is…
LAMB: He's in California, not in Arizona?
BOWLER: He's in California, yes.
LAMB: All right. I apologize.
BOWLER: No, it's fine. It's Saddleback Church.
BOWLER: And it's largely an evangelical church. But I think what he's getting at to is a theology that most Americans want to share, which is that is that somehow pain is always progress. I don't believe that anymore. I mean, I think I really thought that life was just sort of a series of ladders and if I just kept trying and climbing, that it was always going to lead to something.
LAMB: Because you've had a lot of pain.
BOWLER: I mean, I know pain they just leveled me. And part of it was coming to grips with me not being able to cure my own cancer and assume that I will always have the time I want with my family and be able to imagine the future for myself that I had expected.
And so, while I think all kinds of beautiful things can happen in our dark seasons, I think it's a beautiful lie to say that pain will always be a reward.
LAMB: Here is a name some people my age will remember. He's still alive. He's 82 years old, but this goes back to 1988 when he got himself in a little trouble. Let's watch.
JIMMY SWAGGART: I have sinned against you my Lord. And I would ask that your precious blood would wash and cleanse every stain until it is in the seas of God's forgetfulness, never to be remembered against me anymore.
BOWLER: Yes. That apology, like it defined in people's minds the caricature of the televangelist.
LAMB: Jimmy Swaggart.
BOWLER: Jimmy Swaggart and he was an incredible orator. Assemblies of God pastor.
LAMB: Still going.
BOWLER: Yes and with his son Donnie. And what's so fascinating is he started off as a prosperity preacher. He decided he thought it wasn't true anymore, which shows you the internal wrangling inside Pentecostalism around whether or not it was the same thing as the prosperity gospel and, which it isn't but there was internal division.
And he was, by the time of his own fall, involved in a very heated series of rivalries with other preachers, and so…
LAMB: Didn't he out another preacher for being with a prostitute?
BOWLER: You know, there is an amazing book by -- about PTL that just came out by Professor John Wigger and it shows you this, the underbelly of that story in which so many of them were trying to sabotage the other and they…
LAMB: And he eventually…
BOWLER: … and then they all went down.
LAMB: Yes. And he went down because people that he was against outed him.
BOWLER: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: And he went on over several years to be with prostitutes.
BOWLER: Yes. I mean it ended up being mutual damnation…
LAMB: Why do people go back to people like this?
BOWLER: Well, I know, I think you can see in the apology is -- Christianity, of course, has inside its own theology like the -- if you repent, you can be saved. And so people, when they fall they can immediately just apologize and make an about-face.
And two, these are really personal figures to people. If you watch the same person, that face for such a long time you feel like you know them. And so, and even when Jim Bakker was being hauled away to prison, you had people at the court house like weeping and pleading for him because he was like family to them.
LAMB: The next man died in 2009. He was 74 years old at the time. He may have been, you can tell me, the original prosperity minister.
FREDERICK EIKERENKOETTER: Too many religious people are taught to believe that they don't deserve anything. And some religious people even pray that prayer, "Oh, Lord, I know I'm not worthy." Anything that you don't feel that you are worthy of you can't have. Anything that you feel you do not deserve, that you're not worthy of, you'll automatically cut yourself off from that good."
BOWLER: Reverend Ike. I mean, he was a very popular preacher in the '60s and '70s and then through the '80s. And it goes to show you how the language of prosperity can be incredibly empowering.
So, he was talking to people who had been raised in a Jim Crow era in which black Americans were told they could never have enough, let alone more. And so, this thick strand of African-American prosperity preaching ended up being part of this very often emancipatory vocabulary of saying God never asked you to be there with someone with their -- their heel on your throat, that God can promise you more and it has -- and you can see prosperity flourishing among many communities are often disenfranchised.
LAMB: Let me ask you again how long you've had the cancer?
BOWLER: A little over two years.
LAMB: What kind of treatment are you getting now?
BOWLER: I've had a whole series of -- I just finished one course of treatment and now I'm just getting…
LAMB: What is it?
BOWLER: Immunotherapy and chemotherapy.
LAMB: Where is it being done?
BOWLER: Now, it's at Duke. It's actually like three minutes from my office. So, I leave my office and when I go and all of a sudden, I'm in a place where everyone has face masks. It's a real like about-face in my day.
LAMB: But for a while, you were going to Atlanta?
BOWLER: Yes. I went to Atlanta for almost a year every Wednesday.
LAMB: That was a trial?
BOWLER: Yes, a clinical trial. Immunotherapy is really at the beginning stages of development and so those of us who qualify for trials are pretty desperate to get it.
LAMB: When you had an operation, what was it?
BOWLER: Man, I've had a few operations. Well…
LAMB: The main one will do.
BOWLER: Well this -- yes, I mean the first one was to remove a huge tumor from my colon.
LAMB: And has there been any shrinkage on the current tumors you have in the liver?
BOWLER: Yes, yes. But that and with everything it's -- I mean, I think that's where we are with immunotherapy and the idea of a new category of incurable, which is that with so many things changing in science, the hope is just always to get from one good outcome to the other.
And so that's why I always try to explain like I'm not terminal. It means I'm not necessarily going to die right away, I mean we all die, like that might be news to some people. But the hope is always to just try to like find the next vine that's going to swing me over the deep and hope for the best.
LAMB: Christopher Hitchens who died in 2011 had cancer, had esophageal cancer and after that period people kept saying, will you believe in God now because he was an atheist. We interviewed him, but the year before he died and here is what he was saying.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: A very large number of people have asked me, doesn't it change your attitude to the infinite, the eternal, the supernatural and so forth. And I've said that I really don't see why it should. I've never thought of it as a particularly searching question. I mean if I -- I spent a lot of my life deciding that there isn't any redemption, that there is no salvation that there is no after life, that there is no supervising boss.
If I was to tell you, well, now I've got a malignancy in my esophagus that changes everything, you would think I hope that the main effect had been on my IQ.
BOWLER: He's always so clever.
LAMB: What about your attitude since you've gotten cancer at a very young age, what has -- have you changed your thinking on anything related to religion?
BOWLER: Yes. Yes. I mean I think I have. I mean I've always considered myself like a pretty Jesus-y type. But I think so much of it was wrapped in me assuming that God was a part of this life enhancement project I was on called life. And the second I got very sick and you kind of come to the end of yourself, I will admit it was a really spiritually, is a really spiritually powerful time for me, which is funny. I feel so uncomfortable.
You can hear me stuttering like I'm good at talking about other people's faith. I'm a historian. I'm the calculated, careful observer, but when it comes to my stuff it was almost so like intimate, I didn't want to tell people.
I really felt -- I felt the presence of God. I felt the love of other people. I mean just people pouring in. The intense, all the intense prayers, I mean, the second I got sick my whole little community got together in a chapel and just prayed like marathon runners for me, like handing off throughout my whole surgery.
Part of it was them reflecting back to me love, and also was just a sense that like my hope is that as you're preparing to die, like I was having to make preparations that someone or something meets you there and I certainly felt that way.
LAMB: Here's one of the few times you see one of these ministers challenged. This is back in the '80s but it's about a man that lives in Ohio by the name Ernest Angley.
LAMB: He is today 96 years old. Tell us what you think of this.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Why is it that one preacher can deal with so many people?
ERNEST ANGLEY: If you don't believe in miracles…
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Heal so many people when other preachers can't. How do you have that special knack that you can do that?
ANGLEY: I don't have a knack, sir. If you're going to talk like that I won't give you an interview. This is no knack. Aren't you ashamed to throw around the word of God like that and call this a knack. Don't you fear God? The Bible says that God is the healer and Jesus came and healed the sick.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Why can't all preachers -- why can't all…
ANGLEY: They could. The Bible said in the 16…
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: What do they lack, do they have? Why is it they can't do it?
ANGLEY: I fast -- I fast, I pray and God answers prayer, man. God answers prayer.
BOWLER: Yes. You could see him like pressing into like the "what's the formula?". And like is it a prayer? Are you anointed? Is it a special place you go to? I mean, I've been encouraged to do all of those things so regularly.
LAMB: Does God answer prayer?
BOWLER: Yes. I mean, I think often and then sometimes not. I think the question is that the prosperity gospel raises is, is there a secret formula and can I find it somewhere? And I think the answer is no, but does that bar us then from wonder and hope? I don't think so.
LAMB: Recently Pat Robertson had a major stroke, although they say he will recover completely from it. He's 88 years old, but years ago back in 1985 you probably studied this incident. Let's see what you think of this.
PAT ROBERTSON At 10: PAT ROBERTSON: At 10:30 morning in the old Monticello Hotel, which has now been demolished, I stood up in prayer and led that group of 200 plus people in prayer, we rebuked the hurricane, this monster in the Atlantic Ocean and commanded it in the name of Jesus to turn around and go where it came from.
Now, at 10:30, the forward progress of that hurricane stopped, like a great hand went out and stopped it. This is a true story. You can look at the record if you don't believe me.
BOWLER: Oh, it is a wonderful arrogance. I mean just the sheer hubris of it. I sort of love it, like you can see my face whenever I watch something like that or I've been in a million healing rallies.
I'm like part of what I admire about them is they have gumption like nobody else. They really believe that they can turn away a hurricane. And I'm glad they try. The problem is…
LAMB: Why have there been several hurricanes in Virginia Beach since?
BOWLER: Well, yes, I mean it immediately opens itself up to like, well, then why can't it work all the time, uniformity. And the other is like what then -- what condemnation then lies on those who fail.
And this is always the problem at prosperity preachers' funerals. Unless they die at 96 or something, then there's always a bit of the bulletin that has to explain why a man of faith will pass away as people are scraping and clawing for the meaning of it. And I think that is an awful burden for the sufferer to bear that they can't simply be a person to be loved, but they have to be a problem to be explained.
LAMB: This happened after the Super Bowl when the Philadelphia Eagles won the game. Here is their quarterback, Nick Foles, and you'll see what he had to say.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Just another game, right, Nick?
NICK FOLES: Yes, just another game. Unbelievable, all glory to God. Obviously, she really me likes this mic and to be here with my daughter, my wife, my family, my teammates, this city, we are very blessed.
LAMB: Reportedly, he's going to be a preacher after he gets out of the football business.
LAMB: All glory to God, but what happened -- how do you explain that before the games start, both sides pray?
BOWLER: Sure. Yes. I mean, I think the Super Bowl is always the annual reminder to Americans that somehow there's an intermediary step between their prayers and God's answers. This is a country that doesn't believe in luck. This is a country that thinks that all things are earned. And so, when you see, especially with athletes is like them sweat and bleed for a goal and then only one side wins, it always highlights the capriciousness of moments like this, is there will always be winners and losers and you don't get to pick which.
LAMB: We don't have much time, but I want you to please tell this story before we close down, the story of the preacher's wife.
BOWLER: Oh sure.
LAMB: Waiting is the language of Ecclesiastes and then you go into the story. Would you please tell everyone? Do you remember it?
BOWLER: No. Tell me.
LAMB: It's the wife and the pastor and…
BOWLER: Oh yes, no, of course. So, I learned a lot about the kind of ritualized expectation when I went to these churches and the preacher's wife stands up in the middle of the service and says that we need to pray down the rain, and that if we pray that the spiritual heavens will open and everything that's been asked for will come down.
And so, people start stamping and shouting and praising God in hopes that everything they are saying will come true, so a house, a car, and then for me at that time it was a baby, is like what it does is it carves out in you, a hope for every good thing that maybe we are living under an open heaven.
LAMB: And she stood up in the church.
BOWLER: She did. She stomped her feet, then she kicked off her heels and asked us all to hope for more.
LAMB: Are Mennonites, which you are a member of the church, are they evangelicals?
BOWLER: Some of them are. Yes. They're kind of -- they're a little like the Jewish faith in which it is both a culture and a religion, so it's kind of got a wide spread inside Mennonite culture because it can be both like a -- or a Mennonite ethnic and a religious designation but a lot of them are evangelicals.
LAMB: The New York Times twice, big articles by you, how did that happen, about your situation?
BOWLER: Sure. Well, the first, I mean I tend to write very privately. So, at first when I first got sick, I noticed the great irony of being the scholar and the author of a book called Blessed when nothing in my life appeared to match that theology, so of course, I wanted to be the first person to point out that I wasn't super hashtag blessed.
So, I wrote a piece about what it feels like when you are a problem to be solved and people start, trying to pour certainty on your pain like, well, you should try this. And maybe if you just prayed in this way or go see so and so, he'll fix this.
And just the desire I had to want for more when I wasn't sure it was possible. Anyway, so I sent that article in. I found a wonderful editor, (Aaron Retica) who I adore. And he gave it a front page of the Sunday review. And then I got thousands of letters about it, saying, "No, no, no. I'd actually like you to be certain and here is the solution."
So, the only point had been, please don't pour certainty on my pain, and then of course a zillion people did. So, I wrote this…
LAMB: And then you wrote again.
BOWLER: Yes. So, I wrote this other piece about like, "OK, guys, I love so you much." Here are kinds of categories of responses to those in pain. There are minimizers, at least you don't -- problem solvers, maybe you should try, or teachers, have you seen this documentary. And then all are born of great love, but I would like to say like I am not on trial.
LAMB: Two books that you need to know about by Kate Bowler, one of them is Blessed -- A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, that's back in 2013 and her newest book, Everything Happens for a Reason And Other Lies I've Loved, Kate Bowler has been our guest and we thank you.
BOWLER: Thanks so much for having me. What a treat.