The beauty of reading widely is that you give your mind the raw materials to make unexpected connections.
This is what happened for me a few months ago when I suddenly realised the connection between several things I’d read across several books over several months.
The final piece of the puzzle arrived as I was reading Kate Bowler’s excellent academic monograph, ‘Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel’.
Bowler talks about the strong rise of the Prosperity Gospel in the USA following World War II.
An Economy of New Equality
I knew from reading Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ that the post-WWII era in America was an era of unprecedented economic equality. Never before had the gap between classes been so minimised, and never before had it been so comparatively easy to get ahead economically.
Similarly, after digging around, I discovered that indeed at this time there was the dawn of a new era of consumerism – so many products were available to purchase, and for the first time there was a healthy middle class able to buy them, with strong employment rates and rising wages, and households eager to re-establish themselves materially after the shortages of wartime.
So you had this environment where it was actually possible to become more materially prosperous and get ahead financially in ways that just hadn’t been possible before.
The Extrovert Ideal
But I also knew from reading Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking’, that this post-WWII period was also the golden age of the ‘Extrovert Ideal’. With its roots in the first few decades of the 20th Century, by the 1940’s the idea of the extroverted person with the good personality who was great at public speaking had become a national ideal. Even Universities were articulating such persons as their ideal candidates for admission.
Both Harvard and Yale, as well as others, were declaring that they were looking for students who were the ‘healthy extrovert kind’. One dean said ‘They [corporations] like a pretty gregarious, active type, so we find that the best man is the who who’s had an an 80 or 85 average in school and plenty of extracurricular activity. We see little use for the ‘brilliant’ introvert’.
The White House even committed it to policy, with the slogan of the Mid-Century White House Conference on Children and Youth being, ‘A healthy personality for every child’. As a contrast to the stoic ideal of previous centuries, the charismatic, up-front, extroverted ideal was a huge cultural shift.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this shift in focus to personality came hand-in-hand with the popularisation of the relatively new discipline of psychology, and its mass-market companions, the self-help genre and positive thinking – something that both Cain and Bowler mention.
Again we have a movement with its roots in the previous half-century or so coming to the fore immediately following WWII. Americans embraced the idea that by the power of their thoughts, beliefs and attitudes they could reshape not only their own selves and personalities but also their life circumstances and potential for success.
The Pieces Come Together
It was in this confluence of cultural factors, then, that the Prosperity Gospel really took hold in America, and from there spread to other parts of the world.
It was, in unprecedented ways, actually possible for a lot of people to advance economically and to buy a lot of material goods they previously couldn’t access.
Extroverted, charismatic public speakers were the ideal that everyone wanted to learn from and be like.
The power of your thinking and beliefs, it was believed, could drastically change who you were and your likelihood for success.
It’s perhaps not surprising then, that when faith was fused with these cultural trends, you saw the extremes of teaching that arose within the Prosperity Gospel movement.
It helps us, I think, to reflect back and try to extract the biblical from the cultural in situations like these. It reminds us, too, to examine our own environments and consider how our cultures may be shaping our doctrines in unconscious ways.