Kate Bowler’s new book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I Loved has received much praise in its first few weeks out, including a “Best Seller” tag. After her op-ed piece in the New York Times shortly following her diagnosis of Stage IV colon cancer in 2015, the young academic became an important voice about facing a terminal illness. Her academic work—Bowler teaches church history at Duke Divinity School—has focused on the prosperity gospel in the United States. Blessed: A History of the Prosperity Gospel is a remarkable and wonderfully human rendering of a theological orientation to success and failure. Her professional and personal life collided. Bowler’s personal account of her struggle to make sense of the diagnosis is painfully beautiful.
Regardless of who we are, the moment when finality’s presence confronts us we try to make sense of the world we inhabit. What did we do wrong? What did we do right? Why is this happening, whether good or ill? Bowler’s approach in Everything is take the reader on a chronological order of the events from pain to diagnosis, clinical trials, and her current status as she tries to understand her role as wife and mother. Throughout the reflection, the research on prosperity gospel theology helps her think through the way that particular brand has so much power, and so little subsidence to explain tragedy. But then, as she points out, many of our explanations about tragedy and death have the same problem (the other lies she and many of us have loved). If we plan according, everything will turn out correctly. Lie. Death is God’s sign that God loves us (found in the sad phrase, “God loves ____ more” to explain why someone died early in life). I tell students that when someone dies, please be quiet and sit with the living because if someone said that to me if my wife or children die before me I’ll be happy to send that person to that god. The worse lie is that everything happens for a reason. Sometimes things just happen, without perfect explanation but we try to make it make sense. Job’s friends do well when they sit with him in his loss. They fail when they start talking.
I cannot say enough about this deeply personal and enlightening book. Bowler’s gift is her ability to craft her writing to make the reader laugh and cry, sometimes at the same moment. Her story is still unfolding with all the grace, pain, suffering, and love that she has lived with throughout her life. It is my hope that her book will make it easier for families to learn to talk about life and death, making decisions that engage the reality of the presence of death in our lives but fully living in the embrace of that life.