September 17, 2015 / Perspective
Marilynne Robinson’s novels have become almost synonymous with loneliness, but solitude here remains entangled with a less acknowledged trope—an enveloping and dazzling darkness.
April 19, 2018
Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I Have Loved) (New York, NY: Random House, 2018)
The same week that John Piper belched out the opinion that women should not be teaching in seminaries, Kate Bowler’s radiant book exploded into my life. It’s a book that will change the way the church talks about suffering. I bet even some of Piper’s minions find a way to read Everything Happens for a Reason despite his pontifications.
Bowler is one of the professors at Duke Divinity School whom students line up to listen to. She is witty, brilliant, and compassionate, and she has a gift for inviting intimacy with an audience without resorting to exhibitionism. In her first book, Blessed, she wrote the first full-scale history of the American prosperity gospel movement. That book sold quite a lot of copies, and then her life turned. Stage 4 cancer. A prognosis of only a few months to live. Everything Happens was thus meant to be a sort of last will and testament for her young son, husband, and all the rest of us who have grown to love her.
The book is achingly beautiful. It tells painful stories in the way that only an expert memoirist can, putting us in the scenes, like when she makes her husband, Toban, promise to take care of Zach: “‘I will! I will!’ he cries, and I know it is true. But the truth is not going to help us anymore” (9). Deep pain reconnects us with previous pain, and Bowler shares this web of interconnected pain with us: A previous pregnancy that ended in miscarriage. Arm injuries that left both her wings in slings. And now this, a death sentence, for a woman in her mid-thirties who has described herself on her personal website as an “incurable optimist.”1 When the nurse from the doctor’s office tells her she has cancer, that it’s everywhere, that she has to come in immediately, she responds, “I have a son. It’s just that I have a son” (6).
People get cancer all the time. Some of them even write about the experience with wicked humor and chastened wisdom. But Bowler brings something special besides a memoirist’s sense of observation and wit: she is an expert in the prosperity gospel, a form of religious faith that says there should be no suffering. In Blessed, she narrates the prosperity gospel as a theodicy, that specific branch of Christian theology that attends to questions of unjust suffering. Bowler indicates that the church has wrestled with why a good God would allow such misery for centuries, and it usually has had to admit we have no satisfactory answers, but prosperity preachers make no such admission. Suffering is due to lack of faith, they say. Pray with faith and be delivered.
I have spent absolutely no energy in my life attempting to refute this view—it strikes me as patently silly and deserving of mockery, if it deserves any attention at all. And yet this is where Bowler shows her brilliance. Millions of people believe this stuff, so she immersed herself in the prosperity gospel. She figured out scholarly tricks for identifying prosperity preachers—this is harder than it sounds, as they don’t just carry ID cards and post web bios proclaiming this—and she got to know prosperity gospel leaders. And this all works because she has profound empathy for the folks I’m prone to mock.
This sympathy provides much of the tension in Everything Happens. How does a young writer with cancer go on humbly engaging a faith that says believers will be cured? How does a woman with stage 4 cancer develop relationships with individuals who imply through their doctrine that her sickness is her fault? Indeed, early on in the book she describes the way her arm injuries made her go from being an object lesson at such churches—folks eager to pray for her—to being an object of pity: “I felt like faithlessness personified” (16).
I would like nothing more than to quote this entire book to you, to share with you her jokes about growing up in Mennonite country Canada, her self-identification as a “spaghetti bowl of cancer,” or her powerful evocation of love (56). I insist that you go buy this book and read it right away, and when you do, I suspect that you’ll find that you too live with a version of the prosperity gospel. As she explains, she certainly felt God’s hand in her own prosperity: a professor at her alma mater, a child born after difficulty, a hit book, a beautiful husband. And then bam. And her book reflects back to us the many ways we have swallowed this gospel, perhaps unknowingly. We may not share the particular beliefs of some of the characters Bowler encounters, some of which are outlandishly hilarious (“maybe heaven is just a fog machine in Orlando”) or hideous (one would-be miracle worker to whom the USPS has refused to deliver any more coffins), but find me a person who doesn’t pray as though it’s God’s duty to delivery to us precisely what we ask for (149 and 71). Through this work, Bowler returns our attention to the suffering at the heart of our cross-shaped faith. She shows that Manitoba Mennonites know how to suffer together, citing one aged friend with her own death sentence who says she has known Christ in many good times and will now know him in her sufferings.
The book’s primary theological contribution may be its itemization of the unhelpful things that can be said to a person who is suffering. We in the church helped birth these clichés, so we have some responsibility now to slay them, and Bowler does so with aplomb. Everything happens for a reason? “I’d like to know what it is” (110). At least things aren’t as bad as they could be? “Whoah. Hold up there. Were you about to make a comparison? At least it’s not . . . what? Stage V cancer?” (167). For this reason alone, I hope the book is distributed like Gideons Bibles to strangers on the street. Bowler has been in the New York Times several times, Time at least once, and I keep expecting an Oprah appearance to drop—it’s all because this book is funny and wise enough to actually help folks know what to say and not to say to someone who is suffering.
There is, of course, a flaw with the book, one I’m so glad for. The flaw is that Bowler did not die. She had a 3 percent chance of having a form of cancer that can be treated, and she somehow developed that rare form—“I have the magic cancer!” she screams upon learning this (88). And she had a 30 percent chance of surviving her first year after diagnosis—done! Her health insurance even tried to shut down expensive treatments until her powerful friends at Duke got on the phones. Bowler got cancer drugs down the hall from a blue-jeaned Jimmy Carter, and she’s still here with us. May that be so for many decades hence. Indeed, as she gently mocks her older colleagues who complain of aging-related ailments, “I think aging is a fucking privilege” (she’d taken up cussing for Lent, she explains) (125).
In other words, Bowler could still work as a model for the prosperity gospel, and she knows this quite well. She has not died; she has lived. “Favor, favor!” they shout in such churches at such evidence (95). But as she shows, faith doesn’t work this way. She believes in the proximity of the suffering Christ and in the hands and feet of the church in the midst of that suffering, not in its automatic removal if we pray the right way. Zach still has a mom; Toban, a wife; Duke, a star; and me, a friend. But it didn’t have to be this way. Bowler details unspeakable pain from letters and emails after her first Times piece, giving glimpses into her own family’s agony. So much pain, so much glory, no tidy explanations—just an absolute miracle of a book.
Jason Byassee teaches preaching at the Vancouver School of Theology. He is coauthor of Faithful and Fractured, forthcoming in April 2018 from Baker.