Thirteen insights about what visitors to Unity are thinking and feeling

Introduction

Hi Friends —

Meet Kate Bowler. As a professor of American Christianity at Duke Divinity School, he is best known as an astute scholar of “televangelists and mega churches and just people with beautiful hair.” The following interview on C-SPAN aired last month (February 5, 2018). She’s funny, insightful, engaging and charming. But that’s not why you should watch the video...

You should watch this video because Kate Bowler is typical of someone who will visit a Unity church this Sunday.

She is typical of Unity visitors for two reasons.

First, she’s Christian. She’s “Jesus-y”. While she is comfortable in her church community, she is also aware of its limitations. She is curious about other spiritual pathways and, while she is open to prosperity and spiritual healing, she regards them with a studied, suspicious perspective.

None of the ministers who are featured in this video are in Unity. Only four of them — Norman Vincent Peale, Rev. Ike, Joel Osteen and Oprah Winfrey — might have any following among Unity congregants. But all of them draw from New Thought and so what we hear from them sometimes sounds like what we hear in Unity churches and in Unity teachings.

It is not relevant that most of them are extreme caricatures of New Thought. What is relevant is the subconscious impression they have made upon Kate Bowler and those like her who may visit a Unity church this Sunday. Kate Bowler is astute and educated enough to articulate those subtle impressions.

The second reason Kate Bowler may be typical of a visitor to Unity is that two years ago, at the age of 35, she was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. It challenged her understanding of Christianity. If Kate Bowler’s life and career had been more typical — had she been an elementary school teacher instead of a university scholar, and had she studied primary education instead of the Prosperity Gospel and Faith Healing — then she very well might have looked to the Unity teachings and chosen to visit a Unity church.

After she received her diagnosis, she wrote an editorial for the New York Times about what it is like to be a scholar of Prosperity and Spiritual Healing while being personally challenged with cancer. The editorial was widely read and she got many replies, most offering helpful “prescriptions” for healing. Kate says at the end of the video,

At first when I first got sick ... 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 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... So, I wrote this other piece about ... 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.

I believe that if you listen to Kate Bowler’s comments and reflect on the clippings from the transcript below, you will gain insight about what our visitors to Unity are really thinking and feeling. And I hope this helps Unity better serve those who are in need and those who are looking for a better way.

By the way, there is another resource on TruthUnityAfrican Americans in Unity — that draws from Kate Bowler's scholarship. I hope you will visit it as well as watch this video.

Many Blessings,
Mark Hicks

Video

Thirteen insights about what visitors to Unity are thinking and feeling

1. Mike Murdock segment: 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.

2. Jim Bakker segment: 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.

3. Norman Vincent Peale segment: 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.

4. Benny Hinn segment: 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, [to] 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.

5. Paula White segment: Who made up the 10 percent tithe? 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.

6. Joel Osteen segment: 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.

7. T.D. Jakes segment: 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.

Is Oprah religious or not? 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.

8. Rick Warren segment: 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... But I think what he’s getting at 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... 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.

9. Rev. Ike segment: 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.

10. Christopher Hitchens segment: 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? 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.

11. Ernest Angley segment: 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. Does God answer prayer? 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.

12. Pat Robertson segment: “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.” Oh, it is a wonderful arrogance. I mean just the sheer hubris of it... 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... 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.

13. Nick Foles segment: 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.

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