The American Prosperity
Gospel And Its Relationship To The Cancer Community

By

Leonard Zwelling

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html?_r=0

         This is one of the most gripping and informative op-eds I
have ever read (Sunday, February 14, NY
Times
).

It
tells two stories. The first is about mortality and the fact that a 35-year old
assistant professor of history at the Duke Divinity School has been given a
stage 4 cancer diagnosis and how that has affected her life.

The
second story is about so-called “prosperity gospel,” a particularly American
branch of Christianity that adheres to the principle that blessedness equates
with success.

The
writer is the patient, Kate Bowler, and the subject is one in which she is an
expert having researched prosperity Christianity for 10 years.

We
in Houston have one of the major examples of a church of prosperity gospel in
the mission of Joel Osteen and his Lakewood Church. If you have never been to a
service at the old basketball Summit that is now his church, you ought to go.
As a close friend with affiliations with the church has said, the message is
simple. “No bad news.” Essentially, you are either rich or about to be rich.
You are well or about to be healed.

         This form of American Christianity evolved in the 1950s
starting as revival movements and growing to its present iteration of huge mega
churches. Their growth is based on the power of positive thinking and the
concept of “blessedness.” Blessedness has become big business and is surely
consistent with the American myth that hard work equals success rather than
that luck often does. The dark side of this is that if bad things befall you,
it must be your fault. When that bad thing is cancer, that form of thinking is
not only dangerous, it is hurtful and cruel. Everything may well happen for a
reason, but that does not mean we are all privy to that reason and I can think
of no better example than cancer that usually happens for reasons we have yet
to discern. If we can understand reasons for things or believe everything
happens for a reason, it then gives us the illusion that the world is an
orderly place and we feel safer (until the evil befalls us) or in control
(until we realize we aren’t).

         None of this prosperity gospel makes sense, of course, but
it does make lots of people feel better, so it is not without merit unless
clarity is your goal and delusion to be avoided.

         We in medicine are guilty of this as well. We prowl the
depths of the human genome convinced that just because we have the ability to
sequence the entire world’s DNA we both ought to and will be rewarded for our
blessed efforts. Maybe we will, but maybe we won’t and we should not be
over-promising the people that we can cure cancer through our current
technology until we have. Why? Because it is just as likely that we will need
to invent new methods to actually cure some cancers or apply what we already
know in previously unanticipated ways to make some headway. We continue to act
like the man looking for his car keys at night under a lamppost.

         “Did you lose them there, sir?”

         “No, but I can see best here.”

         Of course we will sequence the cancer genome. We can, so we
should. That in no way means the genome will bend to our will and relinquish
the secrets of cancer’s nature because this is our latest trick. As I have said
repeatedly, the only logical response to human cancer is humility. Humility is
the antithesis of the prosperity gospel. This is not to say that pastors like
Mr. Osteen do not have worthwhile things to say. Having attended one of his
services, I found his message that night terrific.

         “If you are right, but you are rude, you are wrong.”

         Imagine if Donald Trump believed that.

         But as Dr. Bowler, historian and patient points out, there
are real downsides to some of the beliefs advocated by the prosperity churches.
What are the poor in the pews to think of themselves? What about the sick and
infirm? If blessedness equals prosperity, what are we to make of the indigent?
And what are they to make of themselves?

         Were it only true that we were in that much control of the
world, our lives, our selves, our bodies and our fortunes, in every definition
of that word. We aren’t. It is far more likely that the world in which we live
is a place where our knowledge leaves us looking at seemingly random events
that we cannot understand or explain. It’s chaos out there. That’s true inside
our cells as well, especially the malignant ones.

Leonard Zwelling