Kate Bowler On Evangelical Women Celebrities

Bowler_3DHere is a taste of Amy Frykholm’s Christian Century interview with Duke Divinity School professor Kate Bowler, the author of The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities:

Evangelicals tend to be skeptical of women in formal positions of authority. Is celebrity a way of circumventing that dynamic?

Exploring that issue was the really fun part of the book. These women were a puzzle hidden in plain sight. These are women who by any logical account should not be as popular as they are. They are not theologically educated, and they are not encouraged to be on stage, so why are they there?

These women had to build their platforms extra-ecclesially. They had to find pulpit-adjacent places. Sometimes that involves parachurch ministries, like one focusing on a specific issue or a women’s ministry—something that is not threatening to the power structures and that is an extension of women’s previous dominance in the missionary movement.

Beth Moore is the most famous face of the Southern Baptist publishing arm. As evangelist and Bible teacher, she is a colossal money maker for her publisher, and she uses Twitter as her pulpit with tremendous success. Social media is very powerful in her world—it’s a way to reach an audience daily and weekly. Many women in this role have managed to skip a lot of the infrastructure and go directly to the crowd.

It is a delicate position because it is outside an institution. These women are not afforded any of the protections of an institution. If an institutional leader makes a mistake, the institution has a vested interest in protecting or rehabilitating them. You see this when there is a sex scandal in evangelical churches; the pastor is pretty quickly put on a rehabilitation tour. A woman without an institution is on her own. If she falls, she falls hard.

Southern Baptists want to adhere to a traditional approach to women in ministry, but they cannot square that demand with the number of women in their own tradition who are leading.

This is a country dominated by mega­churches. The concentration of people into these churches is astonishing. That means leadership is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. People want the male leader on stage to be “grounded,” and having a woman by his side confers emotional well-roundedness. It provides a kind of spiritual covering. She is credentialing him. Women in this role can become very powerful in their congregations. They have to figure out how to minister spiritually to all the women in the congregation. That gives women a job and a platform. This aspect of modern congregations makes it very difficult for women to be kept out of the pulpit.

Read the entire piece here.

Kate Bowler on Evangelical Women Celebrities

Preachers WifeDuke Divinity School’s Kate Bowler keeps churning out books.  Her latest is The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities.

Over at Christianity Today, Liberty University’s Karen Swallow Prior interviews Bowler about her new book. Here is a taste:

Despite the title of your book, The Preacher’s Wife, your work is not solely about pastors’ wives. In a larger sense, it’s a metaphor that gestures toward the way in which the influence of evangelical women is almost entirely dependent upon men, whether those men are husbands, pastors, or the gatekeepers of the marketplace. Can you explain your thinking behind the title?

The title is a shorthand for my thesis: Modern megachurch ministry does not authorize women to be spiritual leaders based on their education, credentials, or experience. Instead, they are billed as wives and mothers, famous for spiritual gifts that do not directly interfere with pulpit preaching (like singing and leading other women or children). As such, the easiest path to fame is to be the wife, mother, or daughter of a famous godly man—someone, in other words, who offers complementary spiritual sustenance to audiences that he is not directly targeting. For instance, megachurches frequently need a woman to run their women’s ministry, and the pastor’s wife is one of the most obvious choices.

Just look at the small gestures, like her Twitter bio or the way she is announced as she goes on stage: Taffi is Creflo Dollar’s wife. Dodie is Joel Osteen’s mom. Priscilla is Tony Evans’s daughter. There are many scrappy women who built ministries from scratch, but it is a far smoother road to be married to the ministry.

Speaking of the marketplace, your analysis sheds light on what you describe as “the dark logic of the marketplace,” one based on a “limited spiritual economy” that encourages women to create platforms built on competition, resentment, and comparison. Can you talk about how the sexism and entrepreneurism present in both evangelicalism and the broader American culture have turned insecurity into a source of power for evangelical women?

When conservative women are barred from the pulpit—or any situation in which they appear to be teaching men—they must find other ways of reaching an audience, ways that center on stereotypically gendered tropes. For this reason, women in ministry might build their platform on their expertise in parenting, cooking, nutrition, weight loss, or beauty. Those who directly take on the work of preaching and teaching will call themselves “Bible teachers” instead. No matter how closely their work resembles that of a senior pastor, women in megaministry will be introduced as authors or speakers, television hosts or parachurch founders. It is a delicate balance of professed submission to authority and implied independence from it.

One might think that the power and influence of women within mainline denominations is less precarious simply because those traditions tend to embrace more egalitarian views. Yet you point out that the absence of “celebrity culture” within these denominations is also a factor. Can you elaborate on the difference that celebrity culture makes for women’s power and influence within evangelicalism?

The role of celebrity culture in the mainline is muted for a few reasons. First, mainline seminaries care very little about charisma and are far more focused on a procedural form of vetting for theology and prose. (I say this with ambivalence as a mainline seminary professor myself. Surely we want more engaging people in the pulpit?) Second, while there are numerous mainline megachurches, they are typically smaller and more denominationally focused, so they are not leaders in engaging the broader culture. And lastly, their cosmopolitanism makes them reluctant evangelists for their own “brand,” unwilling to engage in the marketing and promotion that the market requires.

If we take seriously Daniel Vaca’s argument in his forthcoming book, Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America—and we should!—much of evangelicalism’s self-understanding is internally shaped by its consumer practices. Evangelicals are what they buy. And conservative Christian women have created a coherent set of consumer products—books, music, conference tickets, podcast ad buys, and so on—that give the culture its worldview. The mainline utterly lacks this consumer identity that animates the conservative subculture. By contrast, conservative Christian women are stepping into a capitalist wonderland when they decide to set up shop there.

Read the entire interview here.

Kate Bowler’s *Everything Happens for A Reason* is Here

Bowler

I have read an advanced copy of Kate Bowler‘s new book and I am happy to report that today is its official release date.  I not only recommend it to you, but I am happy to announce that Kate will soon be a guest on The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Stay tuned.  I will obviously share more about the book during the podcast episode.  Here is a brief synopsis of Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved:

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved is about staring down hard times with people you love, and what to say when “it will all work out” won’t cut it. Read more about the book in Kate’s recent Times Magazine interview or her New York Times op-ed! Reviews have been incredibly positive, and we are so excited to share the message of hope in the darkness. 

By joining this Thunderclap, we hope not just to get Kate’s message out to more readers, but to connect everyone who has looked for the right thing to say in difficult times and come up short, to connect the moms and kids and lovers and faithful who have struggled to find reason and meaning, but know that life, itself, can be enough. Help us build a community that believes things aren’t perfect, we aren’t limitless, life is hard-but life, ultimately, is beautiful. 

Laura Turner: The Backlash Against Joel Osteen is Part of a Larger Anti-Evangelical Spirit in the Age of Trump

Lakewood

I think it is probably fair to say that Joel Osteen could have done a better job in responding to Hurricane Harvey.  Because of his prosperity preaching and wealthy lifestyle he gets hammered by just about everyone other than his Lakewood Church parishioners and his television audience.  When a disaster like Harvey hits Houston, and Osteen fumbles the ball, he is going to get nailed.  I am glad to see that he has finally mobilized Lakewood Church.

As Laura Turner writes at BuzzFeed News, a lot of the criticism of Osteen is part of a larger criticism of evangelicals in the Age of Trump.  I don’t count Osteen as one of the so-called court evangelicals.  As far as I know, he has stayed out of politics.  But his prosperity preaching certainly makes him an honorary court evangelical in the minds of most critics.  For many, Osteen represents the spirit behind the 81% of American evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump.  They care about the Supreme Court and the culture wars, but they won’t open their churches to flood victims.

Here is a taste of Turner’s piece:

The backlash against Lakewood Church, and the resentment fueling it, ties into a larger national narrative around the hypocrisy of politically involved evangelical leaders who helped put Donald Trump in office. American evangelicalism in the last four decades has been an increasingly politicized movement, rooted in many ways in the establishment of the Moral Majority, a political action group whose very name declared its concern with rectitude and character. Yet evangelicals are more often known for what they are against — abortion, same-sex marriage — than what they are for. More and more, prominent evangelicals seem to be folding conservative politics into their belief system.

Evangelical leaders like Dinesh D’Souza and Eric Metaxas have devolved into self-parody under the Trump administration. Metaxas, who wrote a best-selling biography of the theologian and World War II martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, now tweets about hosting Sebastian Gorka on his radio show and wrote an op-ed about why Christians must vote for Trump. Dinesh D’Souza was a policy adviser for Ronald Reagan and wrote a well-regarded book on Christian apologetics before he launched his career as a pundit railing against Barack Obama, and eventually spent time in jail for making illegal campaign contributions under other peoples’ names. D’Souza tried to return to relevance with a 2013 infomercial for his friend’s artificial Christmas tree, and just this week was retweeted by Donald Trump when he shared a Washington Post article claiming that left-wing demonstrators were the true source of violence at a Berkeley rally.

Criticism of white evangelicals has reached a fever pitch with the Trump administration, and not without reason. A recent PRRI/Brookings poll asked whether a politician can behave ethically in office even if he has committed immoral acts in his personal life; the results showed that “no group has shifted their position more dramatically than white evangelical Protestants,” who went from 30% affirmation in 2011 to 72% in 2016. This practice of changing the rules in service of political expediency drives others — Christians and non-Christians alike — to censurewhite evangelicals, especially those who espouse virtues like chastity out of one side of their mouths and use the other side to support the policies of a groping, thrice-married opportunist who once claimed he has never needed to ask God for forgiveness.

It is also true that there can be a kind of glee with which some people rush to assume the worst about evangelicals and prosperity gospel Christians. “Joel Osteen gets it from both sides,” says Kate Shellnutt, associate editor at the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today. “Plenty of Christians criticize him for offering what they see as shallow, self-help faith, for not preaching enough on sin. Then non-Christians or former Christians will see him as a prime example of their concerns about the church: that it’s too flashy, money-focused, selfish.”

Kate Bowler, an associate professor at Duke Divinity School and the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, has observed similar attacks on Osteen and argues that he is misunderstood: “Joel Osteen is not the flashy money-grubber that people imagine when they think of a prosperity preacher,” she says. He is an encouraging pastor, Bowler says, but people want to believe that his enthusiastic persona must be a cover for underlying greed and evil.

A storm as severe as Harvey, with all the pain and desperation it brings, puts any pre-existing criticisms of Osteen and his brand of religion into even sharper relief. Bowler says, “In the face of a natural disaster, the prosperity gospel lacks a language with which to account for problems that cannot be remedied by individual faith.”

Read the rest here.

Of course there is another, more accurate, way to understand evangelicals and Hurricane Harvey.  From what I have seen and heard, evangelical churches and ministries have mobilized to bring relief to the suffering and the displaced.  Many of these churches do not associate with Osteen’s brand of prosperity Christianity.  I am confident that stories will emerge showing evangelical Christians at their best, living out the Gospel in the midst of Harvey.  And some of these evangelicals may have even voted for Donald Trump.

Making Sense of Joel Osteen

61470-osteen

Joel Osteen, the prosperity preacher who is the leader of the 38,000 member Lakewood Church in Houston, has been taking a lot of heat for apparently not opening his church to flood victims.

I really don’t have enough information to judge what is happening with Lakewood Church.  Those who don’t like Osteen are taking some pretty hard shots at him on social media.

In the last forty-eight hours I have found two piece sto be helpful.

The first piece is Kate Bowler‘s “Here’s why people hate Joel Osteen.”  She writes:

With his yachts and jets and endlessly-smiling mouth offering promises of “Your Best Life Now” (that’s the name of his best-selling book), Osteen was already a subject of contempt among Americans, in general.

But in the past few days he has been lambasted as being, at best, sluggish in providing emergency aid to those suffering from the disaster and, at worst, a hypocrite who cares more about people’s wealth than welfare. In fairness, the city of Houston has more megachurches than any other metropolitan area in the country, with dozens of big-church celebrities to thrust into the spotlight at a time like this. So what is it about America’s grinning preacher that everyone hates so much?

I’ve been studying the American prosperity gospel for more than a decade, and I have come to the stunning conclusion that Joel Osteen seems to be a pretty nice guy. He is the cheery advertisement for the 606,000-square-foot Lakewood Church and, with the gorgeous Victoria by his side, tours the country in packed-out arenas to bring “A Night of Hope” — a religion-lite, inspirational speech set to music. And, for those who don’t mind waiting a few minutes after the service, he will shake your hand and tolerate your comment about how his hair looks even better in real life. It does.

But there are three main reasons long after this controversy passes, Joel Osteen will still be the preacher America loves to hate — and perhaps for Christians more than others.

Read the rest at the Washington Post.

The other piece is by Wheaton College professor Ed Stetzer and is titled “Some Christians Hate Joel Osteen More Than They Love The Truth. And That’s Wrong.”

Stetzer writes:

Apparently, Osteen had canceled church on Sunday and the church indicated (perhaps inarticulately) that the church was impassable. (They did not say it was flooded, though who needs to worry about facts when we hate someone, right?) The church directed their people, and presumably others, to take shelter with friends, family, or at the George Brown Convention Center.

As the waters rose in Houston, social media spread the word that Lakewood Church, housed in a 16,800 seat arena, was turning people away who were seeking shelter.

Nope. They said that is not what happened.

You can see more facts herehere, and here.

Christians Joining in Spreading a False Narrative

Fast forward twelve hours and the facts began to surface that the church itself was flooded in a few sections. And Lakewood responded that only three people came for shelter, and they had all been helped.

So, well, maybe we might see that facts are our friends.

And just because you hate (or just have theological concerns with him) Osteen does not entitle you to your own set of facts.

I’m not saying they did not bungle their first statement. I am saying that a lot of Christians spread false statements. Let’s let the world spread lies as we stand for truth.

Read the entire piece here.

Why Aren’t Mainline Protestant Religious Leaders More Famous?

Church for Sale

Duke Divinity School historian Kate Bowler asks this question at Faith and Leadership blog.

Here is a taste of her piece:

No one seems to call anyone famous in the mainline church.

As a historian of the largest churches and ministries, I have been grappling with this conundrum: why are there so few mainline celebrities? And when I find them, why don’t they want to be called celebrities?

I have spreadsheets of the largest mainline churches in every denomination — Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal and so on. Even with plenty of mainline megachurches, there are few familiar names among them. Today’s era of increased concentration of people in big churches is not necessarily creating the same model of self-promotional leadership that has made Joel Osteen or Steven Furtick into recognizable faces.

I recently spoke to a young pastor of a Presbyterian megachurch about the advantages of becoming a star.

“I am not interested in becoming a celebrity,” he said. “Even that word makes my skin crawl.”

Mainliners did not always feel that way, especially about one of the most important vehicles for fame: television. Mainline preachers had been staples of religious television in the postwar period until the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) changed the rules that subsidized their airtime in the 1960s and 1970s.

It was religious conservatives who outbid them in the years that followed, willing to pay higher and higher prices for the exposure that television would bring. Gradually, televangelism became equated with a certain kind of theology — a form of Pentecostalism known as the “prosperity gospel” for its assurances that health and wealth would come to any righteous believer.

All the largest Christian television networks were owned by prosperity preachers (except, of course, the Catholic network owned by an unforgettable entrepreneurial nun in Alabama named Mother Angelica). Televangelism was thought to be slick, credulous and fun, while mainline culture still sought to be unvarnished, respectable and serious. Not to mention that no mainline pastor would dare to imitate Jim Bakker’s powder-blue suits — not even to jazz up the Easter morning breakfast.

Anyone who has ever seen a Catholic priest break out his guitar to sing “On Eagle’s Wings” knows that every American religious tradition has cultural episodes of trying to appear more relevant. But the chilly relationship between mainline Protestantism and the popular marketplace has become a stable feature of the mainline’s self-understanding. The more that evangelicals and Pentecostals dominate megachurches, television, publishing and almost any other means of gaining fame, the more that mainline pastors seem disinclined to enter the fray.

Read the entire piece here.

Perhaps this is yet another reason why mainline churches are in decline and evangelical churches are growing.

Tweeting Kate Bowler on Female Evangelical Celebrity Speakers

walsh

Kate Bowler mentioned Christian speaker Sheila Walsh (above) in her plenary address at the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History

This weekend at the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History in Virginia Beach, Duke Divinity School historian Kate Bowler gave a plenary lecture titled “The Imperfect Saint: Disclosure and Power in American Megaministry.”  The talk focused on evangelical women celebrity preachers (think Paula White, Joyce Meyer, Sheila Walsh, etc…).

I tweeted (@johnfea1) the session at the hashtag #cfh2016. Over at Christian Century Carol Howard Merritt has posted some of those tweets and others and offered some commentary.

Here is a taste:

I have complicated feelings about this, and maybe Bowler does too. Her amazing NYT article connected with me on a different level than her book on prosperity gospel (although I loved them both), because I saw her scholarly work on health and wealth gospel within a personal context—a 35-year-old woman, (I hesitate to write it… but I will to make my case…) a spouse, and a mother, with stage four cancer.

We know that one of the most enduring works of spiritual memoir was written by a man—St. Augustine. But I have read books where I felt like I was leering into the bedroom window of a neighbor. I felt guilty, dirty, and fascinated. I wondered how the words would affect her children (as the child of a Christian author mom, my mind always wanders there).

I am on the final stages of a book that’s not a memoir, but it does delve into my past. As Meredith Gould described it, “You’re writing from a different place.” I’m not trying to explain large religious movements or even the inner workings of a congregation. I’m trying to describe what happens internally, and the only way I could recount it in detail was to talk about myself.

I made the shift for a couple of other reasons. I know what it’s like to read a scholarly work. I’m interested in the topic, but I’m also skimming a bit, because I’m not concerned about it on a dissertation level. Then, all of a sudden, I notice how my attention gets fully engaged in the words. I become fascinated, and I realize that the author has drifted into a personal narrative, and he or she is suddenly explaining the why. Why the topic matters—not because they want to present a paper at AAR, not because they want to gain tenure, not because they want to make a contribution to their field—but the real-life reason why the person cares. Then I’m fully participating.

Is that because I’m responding to some societal gender construct? And if I write on a personal level, then will my words only be read by women? Will they be disregarded? Maybe. But women read more books than men anyways.

Read the entire post here.

The Courage of Kate Bowler: Part 2

BlessedLast week many of you read Kate Bowler‘s powerful New York Times op-ed on what it is like for a historian of the prosperity gospel movement to have cancer.

Over at Christianity Today, Morgan Lee (a former student of mine at Messiah College!) interviewed Bowler about the themes she first addressed in her op-ed.  Here is a taste:

In what ways have your feelings changed towards the prosperity gospel movement since your diagnosis?

I’m one of the many people who wants an answer when there is no answer, who wants to demand things of God when God does not always connect the dots for us. Even more, I relate to their desire for certainty.

Prosperity gospel makes everyone feel special. It makes everyone feel uniquely chosen. Every detail of your life is God’s ultimate concern. I’ve seen that do wonders for people.

Getting over not being special has been hard. I have to get used to being as beloved by God as everybody else. You want to feel like your personality, your efforts, and your theological insight counts for something. It doesn’t. I just have to be as beloved as everybody else.

Read the entire interview here.  Nice job Morgan!

The Courage of Kate Bowler

BlessedKate Bowler, an American religious history professor at Duke Divinity School, has cancer.

She is also the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.

Over at The New York Times, Kate reflects on having cancer and writing about the history of the so-called “health and wealth” gospel.

It’s a courageous piece.

Here is a taste:

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.

I am well aware that news of my cancer will be seen by many in the prosperity community as proof of something. I have heard enough sermons about those who “speak against God’s anointed” to know that it is inevitable, despite the fact that the book I wrote about them is very gentle. I understand. Most everyone likes to poke fun at the prosperity gospel, and I’m not always immune. No word of a lie: I once saw a megachurch pastor almost choke to death on his own fog machine. Someone had cranked it up to the Holy Spirit maximum.

But mostly I find the daily lives of its believers remarkable and, often, inspirational. They face the impossible and demand that God make a way. They refuse to accept crippling debt as insurmountable. They stubbornly get out of their hospital beds and declare themselves healed, and every now and then, it works.

This is surely an American God, and as I am so far from home, I cannot escape him.

Read the entire piece here.

Pray for Kate Bowler

Kate Bowler, a young and gifted American religious historian at Duke Divinity School, needs out prayers today.  Here is what her husband posted on her website:


“Well my loves, this is not how I wanted to tell you. I need your prayers for tomorrow’s surgery. I’ve got stage four colon cancer and it’s going to be a long haul. Love you.” Kate Bowler
This how most of you found out.   I found out today on the phone.  Kate, my wife, calling me from work.  It’s a moment that you never wish on anyone.  And I won’t say anything more than that.
Here’s what the doctors are saying.  They’re calling it is stage 4 colon cancer and liver cancer.  However, they don’t know anything 100% for certain until they get in there tomorrow.   There is a slim chance it’s benign, but they weren’t hopeful.   I’ll update here tomorrow.
Your prayers are needed and appreciated.
-Toban

From what I am able to decipher, her surgery is scheduled for today at noon.

Donald Trump’s Kryptonite

Donald Trump needs help on the religion front.  Many of you have seen this:



Unlike some of his opponents, including Scott Walker, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee and especially Ted Cruz, Trump sounds very awkward whenever he talks about religion.  

I think we have finally found his kryptonite.

If he wants to continue to be taken seriously he is going to need to learn to speak “evangelicalese.” But this language is not easy to learn for non-natives such as Trump. And it is hard to fake.

Take this interview with CBN’s David Brody,  for example:




In this interview Trump says that he always goes to church on Christmas and Easter.  I think Trump thinks that this answer is going to help him win votes among the viewers of Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network.  He couldn’t be more wrong.  Evangelicals, you see, are very good at distinguishing themselves from other Christians (mostly mainline Protestants) by pointing out that they are not the kind of people who only go to church on Christmas and Easter.  

Anyone who has listened to an evangelical testimony is familiar with this part of the conversion narrative.  It goes something like this: “As a young man or woman I went to church on Christmas and Easter, took communion, and tried to live good moral lives. I always thought I was a Christian. But then I found Jesus and realized that I was just ‘playing church.’  Being a follower of Jesus Christ is not about religion, it is about relationship.”  

Evangelicals have always identified the quality of this born-again experience–this new “relationship” with Jesus–by how often one attends Sunday church, mid-week Bible studies. “small groups,” and other congregational events.

Trump is a smart politician.  He is hoping to find an antidote to the negative effects that this form of kryptonite will have on his campaign.  As a result, he is turning to televangelist Paula White.

According to this article in The Wall Street Journal, Trump has made a previous appearance on the Paula White television show.  Warning: There is some heavy theology in this video. (That is sarcasm):

So who is Paula White?  She is the pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in the Orlando area. She was formerly the pastor of the Without Walls International Church in Tampa, a congregation she founded  with her ex-husband “Bishop” Randy White.  She has been married three times and just recently married the guy who wrote the the song “Don’t Stop Believing.” (Yes, you read that correctly).

Charity Carney has a nice piece on her theology at Religion in American History.  Here is a taste:

White’s prosperity gospel is saturated with gendered anecdotes and analogies, which she uses to make the message relevant to diverse or largely African American audiences. Men and women alike are attracted to the energetic blond, who at once plays into the stereotypes of southern femininity but breaks through traditional barriers of female leadership. She openly references her father’s suicide (often labeling this event as the source of her “daddy issues”), being sexually abused as a child, and former struggles with anorexia and bulimia, using past troubles to contrast current blessings. At the same time that White preachesabout spiritual empowerment and confronting the past to achieve present success, she impresses upon her followers the need to obey male authority within appropriate boundaries. “When I give honor I fill the terms of my commitment,” White teaches, “All of us have a father. So all of us have an obligation according to biblical standards and principals to honor our father. Now maybe you lost your father and he’s not living but you have a spiritual father (for me it’s Bishop Jakes). You have someone in your life that’s a figure of authority. If not, you have anarchy.” White presents an interesting blend of traditional evangelical motifs (the spiritual father is a figure revered since the revivals of the early 19th century) and modern consumer religion that promotes self-help and fulfillment.

Blessings are a constant thread that runs throughout White’s sermons, which rely on consumer culture as reference points. In one 2010 sermon, for instance, White compared God’s blessings to a shipping company, confiding in her audience that she “orders a lot through the mail.” When she wanted “cute shoes for a conference,” she was not there when the company tried to deliver them, much like God tries to send messages to his followers but they do not always receive them. As a result, her shoes, and God’s plans, can be delayed. “The enemy has been trying to discourage you,” she exclaims, “make you disbelieve by DELAY. BUT DELAY doesn’t mean denial.” By comparing God’s blessings to modern consumerism, White makes the prosperity gospel relevant to many women in her congregation but at the expense of playing into and promoting dominant gender stereotypes. At the same time that she admits to her shopping habits, she also presents her destination as that of a conference, indicating her professional status. 

It should be interesting to see the kind of evangelicals White assembles for this meeting with Trump. The Wall Street Journal article does not mention anyone who will be attending, but I am guessing that White will choose leaders from her own prosperity gospel circles who will baptize Trump’s business success and love of free-market capitalism.  Don’t be surprised if Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyers, Creflo Dollar, or Kenneth Copeland show up for this shindig. 

Where is Kate Bowler when we need her?



Celebrating the Career of Grant Wacker at the 2015 Meeting of the American Society of Church History

Those of you who have been following our coverage of the annual meetings of the American Historical Association and the American Society of Church History (ASCH) are familiar with Mandy McMichael.  You can read here previous posts here.

Mandy is a former student of Grant Wacker, the esteemed historian of American religion at Duke Divinity School who is apparently retiring soon.  As I joked on twitter a few days ago, it seemed like every session on American religious history at the ASCH last weekend was somehow devoted to Grant’s career.  And Mandy was at them all!  Enjoy her post.  –JF


“Salvation comes in many forms. Today is one of them,” concluded Grant Wacker at the end of Saturday’s lunch in his honor.

The meal was one of several events organized during ASCH to commemorate Wacker’s upcoming retirement. Featured speakers included three of Wacker’s students (Philip Goff, Lydia Hoyle, and David Weaver-Zercher), his daughter, Laura Wacker Stern (Associate Pastor, Millbrook United Methodist Church, Raleigh), and Mark Noll. All of the speakers were phenomenal. Noll had the audience rolling within moments. “What has Wacker Whacked?” he asked. Answers included everything from academic pretense to excessive adjectives. Goff, Hoyle, and Weaver-Zercher told stories of Grant’s fashion choices (shorts, black socks, and sandals) and his grading practices (once typing comments on post-it notes). Stern recounted her years as the daughter of an academic, regaling us with stories of her father pulling off the side of the road on family vacations to read historical markers and the uselessness of her budding theological vocabulary on the playground. Speakers allemphasized the generosity, thoughtfulness, and compassion of Wacker as a scholar, mentor, and friend. After Wacker’s final remarks, he received a standing ovation from the crowd.


Back row (L to R): Philip Goff, David Weaver-Zercher, Front Row: Lydia Hoyle, Laura Wacker Stern, Grant Wacker







After the lunch, most of the room proceeded en masse to the panel, “BelievingHistory: In Celebration of Grant Wacker’s Contributions to American ReligiousHistory.” I snagged a seat in the back, but another standing room only crowd eventually filled the room. (Unfortunately, this happened a lot at this meeting.)

Nathan Hatch presided over the panel, which included Mark Noll, Joel Carpenter, Kate Bowler, and Laurie Maffly-Kipp. Noll’s paper tracked Wacker’s approach to historical knowledge throughout his career from acknowledging the dilemma to setting aside philosophical questions to a kind of “aw, shucks” methodology. He praised Wacker’s later “belief inflected history” as “just as responsible” as other approaches. Noll posed a few questions to Wacker including one about what caused this shift. Joel Carpenter’s paper, “Getting Real with Grant Wacker,” noted Wacker’s penchant for conveying the thoughts of everyday people and “probing the questions that really matter.”

Kate Bowler, herself a “Wackerite,” delivered “The Wackerites: An Ethnographic Account of a North Carolina Sect.” She joked that many Wackerites shared the feeling of being “plucked from obscurity” by their beloved mentor. Their “testimonies” followed a predictable narrative arc and their sect abided by three Latin phrases that formed their “creed.” In English these are translated, “In charity, truth,” “In friendship, meaning,” and “Without clarity, death.” Wacker expected his students to employ a hermeneutic of charity in their work, to work well with others, and to write clearly. “Family comes first, but grammar comes second.” Wacker modeled each of these things in his own life as a scholar and mentor, gaining respect not just from his students, but from his colleagues. Indeed, he is thanked in the acknowledgments of more than 100 books in the field.


Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s paper, “The Stealth Sarsaparilla: Mentorship as Scholarship,” suggested there is a method to be gleaned from Wacker’s interactions with others. Wacker, she noted, trained and shaped a community of scholars that have benefited the field. She explored some of his processes to discern how his results might be replicated. His “generosity of spirit and acts of kindness” from reading and commenting on works in progress to always paying for the coffee provided one clue. Wacker also possessed the unique ability to “gather people together.” He managed to forge relationships and make connections. He practiced, she argued, an “embodied model of scholarship” that anyone would do well to emulate. Maffly-Kipp even suggested that Wacker offers us a “subversive method of constituting an academic career” though she was quick to note that he probably never thought anyone would describe him as subversive. He is a successful scholar not afraid to help other scholars achieve success. Indeed, he seems to enjoy it. “No one cheers…quite like Grant does.”


As his student, I agree. I never imagined that my advisor would care about me outside my academic performance. And yet, Grant saw all of us as whole people. He knew our spouses, met our parents, and welcomed our children. He touted our successes in good times and helped us “reimagine” new life through the bad. In short, he allowed us space to be more than just his students. I count it an honor to call Grant my mentor and friend. What a privilege to celebrate with him and my fellow “Wackerites” this weekend!

Mandy McMichael Checks In With Some American Religious History from ASCH 2015

Glad to have Mandy’s second post.  Stay tuned.  I think there is more to come from her before the conference ends. (I hope so)—JF

Saturday was my longest day of conference events.
It began bright and early with the Women in Theology and Church History Breakfast. I consider it quite a feat that I attended this 7:00 a.m. function as I am not a morning person. That said, I always enjoy connecting (or reconnecting) with other women scholars at this event. This morning’s breakfast was no different. I met several graduate students who are working on evangelicals in America and introduced myself to Ann Braude (Harvard Divinity School). Braude’s work has influenced mine in a multitude of ways and I was glad for the opportunity to thank her.
I dropped into my first AHA session of the weekend at 10:30. “AHA 95: Digital Pedagogy for History: Lightning Round” reminded me how much I love lightning rounds. I vote for more of them at conferences. It’s fantastic to pack as many ideas as possible into a session. Patrick Jones talked about The History Harvest, Steve Anderson discussed the advantages of using Google hangouts to interact with students, and Erin Bartram proposed a collaborative project to crowd source lesson plans for using primary sources. I employ primary sources in most of my classes and I’m in need of fresh ideas, so this concept was a personal favorite. I also appreciated the focus on getting students involved in local history projects by Jason Heppler and Anne Mitchell Whisnant. This is the kind of short term research and presentation that seems perfect for most undergraduates. In short, I gleaned several possibilities for future use in the classroom. As someone with a 4/4 teaching load, I am always looking for new ways to engage my students. This panel (at least the part for which I was able to stay) accomplished that.
I rushed from the lightning round to the luncheon for Grant Wacker and from there to the panel in his honor. I’m writing a reflection of both, but I’m folding them into a larger post that I hope to finish Monday.

This morning I dropped by the roundtable discussion of Kate Bowler’s book, Blessed, hosted by the Conference on Faith and History. I did not make it for the first two papers, but heard most of the third (John Turner’s paper read by Brantley Gasaway), Kate Bowler’s response, and the discussion. It included a bit of friendly banter about what it means to take one’s subjects seriously and how much a historian must disclose about her beliefs and practices. For example, how does one’s own experience of Christianity (or lack thereof) affect her interpretation of the group she is studying? When pressed about her lack of criticism of the prosperity movement, Bowler appealed both to her training by Wacker that subjects should recognize themselves in her writing and her own goals for her work as a historian. Bowler’s second project on the wives of megachurch pastors will continue this trend. My favorite comment of the session was Bowler’s: “I found a new group that no one else takes seriously.” It was a very lively, civil discussion that suggested Bowler’s work opened the door for much further inquiry.

It has been a great weekend, but I admit that I’m exhausted from the early mornings and late nights. I hope to make it to ASCH 29: “Journeying into Evangelicalism:Twenty-Five Years of Traveling with Randall Balmer’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” on Monday morning, but it may require lots of coffee to make it there on time.

Michael Limberg on Day 3 at the AHA

Thanks to Michael Limberg for his posts this weekend.  Here is his latest.  It’s a good one–JF

Today (Sunday) has been an 8-plus hour blur of back-to-back panels and conversations.  I’m exhausted and my mind is spinning.  I have a lot of notes to review- I was writing down ideas and books and people to contact in the margins of my notebook all day long.  My forays into the warren of the book exhibit have also resulted in a staggering list of books I should read (just in case it wasn’t long enough already).
I started the day by finding myself sitting next to Mark Noll and John Wigger at breakfast.  I had to desperately hope the coffee kicked in quickly enough to have a good conversation with them and the other Conference on Faith andHistory breakfast attendees!  Typically I have at least two cups of coffee in the morning before trying to interact with adults (which is good for everyone involved). Lesson learned: go to Starbucks first even if there will be coffee at the breakfast.  I enjoyed meeting a few new scholars and reconnecting with a couple of others despite my caffeine-deprived state. 
From there I went down the hall to the roundtable on Kate Bowler’s recent book Blessed:A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.  We had to liberate a few extra chairs from an empty room down the hall to fit all the attendees, and it was a lively crowd.  Jay Green and Randall Stephens contributed their comments.  Brantley Gasaway read the comments from John Turner, who had to leave for a family emergency.  Many of their comments centered on Bowler’s decision to focus beyond the typical story of televangelists and scandals to examine the Prosperity Gospel’s historical roots and its lived experiences for many believers.  Bowler’s evenhanded presentation prompted John Turner to claim that “This is surely the least-snarky history of the prosperity gospel ever written by an outsider.”  Bowler’s approach prompted a discussion among all the attendees of “methodological agnosticism” and the ways historians can and should critique or push their subjects.  Bowler conducted parts of her research through observation of Prosperity Gospel revivals and church services; she advises other observers to avoid sitting in a back corner for this, as she was hit in the head several times by enthusiastically-swung flags. She described how her work had been influenced by ethnography as well as by the admonition to “take religion seriously”.  Blessed is now on my (long) list of books to read.
I also attended a panel titled “Contesting the Meaning of ‘International’Governance: Minorities and the League of Nations” because of the connections of a couple of the papers with my dissertation.  There are a number of young scholars in both the United States and Europe producing new work on the League of Nations, humanitarian aid, and international movements during World War I and the 1920s and 1930s, so I enjoyed meeting a couple of people who attended and presented.  I now have some ideas that might lead to some new intellectual crises and major changes to my dissertation, but that’s the risk and the benefit of attending a conference. 
Finally, I went to a panel co-sponsored by the AHA and the American Society for Church History on American Evangelicals Looking Abroad.  I arrived a couple of minutes late and ended up having to sit on the floor along one of the walls due to the crowd.  This was another of the panels organized to honor Grant Wacker, so all of the presenters were his former students from Duke and the University of North Carolina. 
Matthew Sutton’s paper, “The Global Apocalypses of Billy Graham,” showed how Graham’s premillennial vision of an immanent apocalypse remained part of his ministry from the 1950s to the present.  Apocalyptic rhetoric added a sense of urgency to Graham’s ministry and evangelical revivalism more broadly.  Connecting to foreign policy, Sutton noted that many evangelicals have tended to be very interested and cognizant of world crises and current politics because of their drive to understand these events in light of the end times.
David King’s paper, “Seeking to Save the World: American Evangelicals and Population Control” pointed out that, before the 1980s, American evangelicals largely supported the use and distribution of birth control in the developing world.  At one point, evangelical leaders even endorsed Planned Parenthood for its ability to promote family values in planned, happy families.  Global evangelical ministries such as World Vision began actively working with USAID to run family planning programs.  By the 1970s and 1980s, however, pushback from Christians in the global South at the 1973 Lausanne Conference and other forums (as well as the burgeoning culture wars) had begun to make American evangelicals back off from their support for population control.
Brantley Gasaway argued that progressive evangelicals have sought to influence foreign policy by showing that American Christians could support Palestinians and reject Christian Zionism.  Progressive evangelicals such as Jim Wallace and Ron Sider applied their calls for social justice and an end to inequality to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.  They crafted theological arguments to counter dispensationalism and waged a public relations campaign to reach the religious public and policymakers alike. 
Finally, Sarah Ruble used Christianity Today’s coverage of Iraqi Christians to explore how American evangelicals identified with a global Christianity and construct critiques of U.S. foreign policy.  She noted that the magazine’s correspondents and editors tended to evaluate the efficacy of U.S. foreign policy by how it affected the rights and freedoms of global Christians.  During the Iraq War, articles celebrated the new freedoms Iraqi Christians (particularly Iraqi evangelical Protestants) enjoyed.  The same articles also tempered their support for the US war effort by pointing out the new risks and fears Iraqi Christians faced as a result of the invasion.
This panel showed me that just as foreign relations scholars are increasingly following Andrew Preston and William Inboden in thinking about religion in foreign policy, religious scholars are increasingly thinking of how foreign policy fits in the study of religion.  This panel would fit well at a conference of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, and I hope these scholars would consider doing that and furthering this dialogue.  I and many who offered comments today were struck by how all the papers in this session, as well as Kate Bowler’s book, grappled with how American expressions of Christianity might be truly “exceptional” and how it is global.  That’s a question I’m struggling with as well as I write my dissertation, so I hope to hear and take part in more of those discussions in the future. 
Now I’m safely back home, still with a full stomach after indulging my not-so-secret addiction to falafel at the Middle Eastern food truck across the street from the hotel.  I also discovered an intersection with Starbucks locations on two of its four corners, which might just prove Billy Graham’s point that that apocalypse is nigh. But at least I had no trouble caffeinating up for the train ride.  My time at the AHA has been short but full.  Thanks to John Fea for giving the chance to share some of it!