“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.