Book Review

We are not invincible

Reflections on Kate Bowler’s "Everything Happens for a Reason"

August 16, 2019

“But I have a son,” Kate Bowler responded when she was told that she had Stage IV cancer. 

This devastating news came at a point in Bowler’s life when she had it all—a Ph.D. from Duke University, her dream job, her high school sweetheart as her husband, and her first son after a period of infertility. The irony of this timing is that she studies the branch of American Christianity often described as the “prosperity gospel,” which promises health, wealth, happiness, and abundance as long as you have enough faith. 

During this season, Bowler published an opinion piece in The New York Times that went viral because of her story. This piece would later be extended into Bowler’s memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved. Everything Happens for a Reason is the story of Bowler’s ongoing questions about what life looks like in the face of tragedy. Plunged into a world of impending deadlines, foreboding dread, and uncertainty about even the next moment, Bowler invites the reader to consider not only why we seek answers to the problem of pain and suffering in the world but also how we respond when those answers aren’t available.

The lie of wholeness

So often, our response to pain can be to ignore the truth of what’s wrong. However, Bowler has a strong desire to see people, and especially people of the gospel, recognize that our images of perfection and wholeness are not necessarily what they should mean: 

“What would it mean for Christians to give up that little piece of the American Dream that says, ‘You are limitless’? Everything is not possible. The mighty Kingdom of God is not here yet. What if rich did not have to mean wealthy and whole did not have to mean healed? What if being people of the Gospel meant being people of the good news. God is here. We are loved. It is enough” (21). 

Bowler is able to show, quite clearly, that the prosperity gospel is not just something she had studied, but rather had unconsciously accepted. There is something incredibly hopeful about the promises and abundance offered by this view of reality. And it is not limited to late-night televangelists from the 1980s or modern preachers who talk about the best that God has for you. This is a belief as American as apple pie and baseball—that we can be anything, and there are no limits. It is easy to forget that we live in a world distorted and broken, but sometimes we are reminded in the most painful ways. 

Bowler offers this response to these hard truths: face it clearly and in community. Throughout her memoir, there is the recognition that this is her new reality. After her initial refusal, she settles in to the new routine of surgery, immune-therapy, doctor’s appointments, grim jokes, and the daily reminder that she may not see her next Christmas or Thanksgiving. 

However, also present in this new liturgy of death is the powerful truth that community is essential if we are to face this kind of loss and tragedy. From her college friends, co-workers, church friends, family, and even those she met while writing her dissertation at a prosperity church, Bowler’s memoir is the story of how a community of people around her were instruments of delivering the grace necessary for her to keep going. This is a fact that while obvious, may be harder than ever in our disconnected world where life is mediated through screens and impersonal interactions. Yet, Bowler reminds the reader that true community is essential if tragedy is to be faced with any measure of hope.

The power of touch

What does that hope look like in the face of certain death? It looks like the power of touch (75). Though the prosperity gospel gets much wrong and can devastate lives with its unfulfilled promises, this is something that Bowler thinks it does understand. Unlike some forms of Christianity that may prize dogma and doctrine, the prosperity gospel understands the power of objects and touch in a way that no one else does, with the possible exception of Catholics. In the midst of Bowler’s grief, it’s not the words that she finds most comforting, it’s things: books she can touch, a framed photo of her and her husband, a favorite quote. These mementos and items serve as reminders of a life before her cancer, but also of what there is in her life still. 

As embodied people, we were made to touch and feel. Mementos are physical reminders of the goodness of life. There is a reason that the ancient Gnostics were condemned as heretics: we are meant to value the body and the senses. This is why so often the most comforting thing that a person can do for the grieving is not to speak (especially since we are unlikely to be able to grasp what they are experiencing) but to be present and respond with simple gestures: held hands, hugged necks, and the ability to sit in silence in the middle of the tragedy. Christ knew this to be true when he comforted lepers with a touch, something they likely had not experienced since being diagnosed. Our words will probably fail us, but our presence is a reminder that in some measure we are present with them in their moments of grief and pain.

Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason is a powerful reminder that we are not invincible, no matter what we have accomplished. It is also a beautiful reflection on the power that community plays in the midst of tragedy. May Christians truly be people of the good news as Bowler asks. In the midst of tragedy, no answer is ever truly sufficient to remove all the pain. But may it be said that as proclaimers of the gospel, we do not add the burden of perfection as a requirement for the love of God. Rather, God is here. In Christ, we are loved (already). It is enough. 

Alex Ward

Alex Ward serves as the research associate and project manager for the ERLC’s research initiatives. He manages long term research projects for the organization under the leadership of the director of research. Alex is currently pursuing a PhD in History at the University of Mississippi studying evangelical political activity in … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24