Not long ago, Harvard cultural anthropologist Marla Frederick sat on a wooden bench in a slum of Kingston, Jamaica. She was interviewing local churchgoers about the Christian “prosperity gospel” often promoted by American televangelists. It offers up a simple (and controversial) idea: The more you give, the more you receive.
Frederick was sheltered from the sun in a “tent church” set up by a man named William. It was in the middle of a place so renowned for its violent drive-by shootings it was called the “dying field.” Through it ran a road of cracked asphalt lined with trash.
Frederick, an associate professor in Harvard’s Department of African and African American Studies and a Radcliffe Fellow this year, is a student of the prosperity gospel and televangelism, and how both affect the poor.
In a lecture last week (Nov. 12) at the Radcliffe Gymnasium, she outlined some of her recent work before an audience of 60 in a presentation titled “Color Television: Religion, Media, and Racial Uplift in the Black Atlantic World.” (Frederick is busy co-authoring a new book, “Televised Redemption,” a look at race in religious broadcasting.)
Early in the lecture, she played a clip from one of the televangelists promoting the prosperity gospel — also known as the “seed-faith” gospel for its promise of abundant, crop-like returns to the giver. Do the right thing, said the well-dressed preacher, gliding across a stage, and “blessings will overtake you.”
Then Frederick flashed a picture of the “dying field” and its ramshackle roadway, where at first glance violence and disorder seem to have overtaken any blessings. Then came a picture of the Praise City Deliverance Center, with a scrawled gospel billboard in front.
In places like this — in the “cracks and crevices” of a chaotic urban world, said Frederick — an amalgam of Pentecostal and Baptist faiths is at work nurturing the practice of a kind of “lived religion” that favors hope and joy over despair — a countercurrent to the materialistic prosperity gospel.
In the last three decades, said Frederick, a steadily rising tide of U.S. religious broadcasting has spread the message of the prosperity gospel both nationwide and abroad. (She’s done fieldwork on issues of black identity, activism, and religious experience in the Caribbean, Ecuador, and rural North Carolina.)
Through television, “the narrative of blessings and fortune” is being transmitted “to the world’s poorest citizens,” said Frederick, raising questions for social scientists. For one, how are the messages in what she called “charismatic broadcasts” being adopted?
Does the rise of the prosperity gospel come with a rise in “occult economies” among the poor, in which spiritual charlatans take advantage of the gullible? (These systems of measuring value claim “to yield wealth without production” in cash-poor societies, said Frederick, who cited studies of “alternative economies” based on magic and spirit mediums in Nigeria, Ghana, Brazil, and elsewhere. In the language of some critics of the prosperity gospel, she said, occult economies see “God as a lottery machine.”)
And she asked: What about “the notion of prosperity itself?”
For many of the believers under that white tent in Jamaica, said Frederick, prosperity is “a condition beyond health and wealth” — a state of peace, serenity, and joy.
Prosperity, she learned in her Jamaica interviews, can simply mean being able to make ends meet.
These nonmaterial rewards have a biblical authority in the Pentecostal tradition, noted Frederick — and may even modify the traditional message of the prosperity gospel.
The message from American televangelists — that God wants all believers to be at least to some degree materially rich — may be taking on a more fluid definition of prosperity, she said: the idea that it may be “more than health and wealth.”
In the shade of William’s tent church, a single mother named Monica told Frederick that prosperity can be very basic, and comes in little steps. Prosperity is when she can buy food instead of going hungry; when she can change clothes, instead of having just one dress; and when she can work, instead of trafficking in drugs.
To Hannah, a woman just as poor, prosperity is her state of mind. She told Frederick that, bolstered by faith, she felt “highly favored, mentally and physically.”
Under the same tent, a young man named Daniel offered, “Am I prosperous? I am not. But I am prosperous spiritually.”
A sentiment like this “keeps prosperity doctrine from being completely self-centered,” said Frederick, and offers “a theory of prosperity beyond money.”
During one city-wide gospel night in Jamaica, she watched as people came forward to put bills and coins on the altar to support the local poor.
Soon an old lady shuffled to the front, putting a comforter set and pillow next to the cash — an echo of African prosperity gospel meetings, where donated shoes, coats, and bags are the currency of faith.
“You give whatever you have,” said Frederick of the old lady — an emblem of the changing face of the prosperity gospel. “It’s a blessing for someone in need.”