The good, the bad, and the prosperous

I was struck by a powerful essay that appeared in Sunday’s New York Times’ Magazine:

The author, Kate Bowler, has been diagnosed with stage 4 terminal cancer. She’s also a professor of divinity whose particular scholarly expertise is the Prosperity Gospels, those proclamations that the good and faithful will be rewarded with riches. On the flip side, the bad, or those lacking faith, are destined to live less abundant lives. According to Bowler, a message of prosperity in the context of Christianity has been interpreted through a capitalistic lens in America. It’s convenient to explain the acquisition of material wealth as a sign of God’s blessings–i.e., as evidence that an individual has lived a good and faithful existence.

Bowler asks, then, how her diagnosis and the possibility that her life will be cut short, leaving behind her young son and husband and the life they have built, can be explained given the depth of her faith. It doesn’t make sense.

As I read this essay, my thoughts turned to Edwina. During the past six years of our friendship, Edwina has shown herself to be a woman of faith, as flawed as any other Christian woman I know. She never misses a Sunday at Church of the Reconciler and volunteers in the central office and clothes closet during the week. She routinely voices her desire to be a better person, to do the right thing and to move away from the mistakes she’s made in the past. When Edwina’s past catches up with her, for example, when she gets news that she owes money or will have to serve jail time for something that happened a decade ago, she reminds me that she is no longer that person.

“I live good now, Miss Rayan,” she’ll say. And I assure her that I know she’s changed.

Yet Edwina’s life is certainly not blessed with prosperity, at least not of the material kind.

I have to wonder how notions of prosperity as Bowler discusses make their way into the examination rooms that Edwina frequents as well. I’ve heard more than one doctor blame Edwina’s past behaviors for the physical challenges she now faces. While it’s fair to equate a lifetime of smoking and a poor diet to ill health, I sometimes wonder if they aren’t implying something more–that a life of “bad” behavior leads to a life less blessed.


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