It makes sense that Kate Bowler, whose career began with a motorcycle-driving pastor of a Mennonite megachurch, would also be the person you’d want to hear from about life with incurable Stage 4 cancer. When life hands you the incomprehensible, sometimes all you can do is pay attention.
Bowler, professor at Duke Divinity School and author of Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved, was formerly best known for her groundbreaking book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, considered the seminal text on the movement. But in Everything Happens, Bowler writes with a simplicity born of urgency. It’s a personal book, and a very present one — thoughts seem to happen in real-time, as well as events, and people in her life come and go throughout the shock of her cancer diagnosis, rounds of treatments, and the longer-term considerations of life, death, and logistics. But it’s her close, loving attention — to others, to God, and to her own mortality in a time of awful, uncertain certainty — that transcends the page.
Self-aware, blunt, at times hilarious, Bowler’s curiosity about her stage of life embraces and illustrates dual aspects of humanity in times of crises: resolute, and hopeless. Clear, and fuzzy. Searching for placation, and adverse to the faintest whiff of platitude. To find value in her writing, you must admit to both parts of her title at once.
“The scripts for sick people are so thick, and so prohibitive,” she tells me, speaking to me over the phone from a park bench, where she’s settled for her daily meditation. “If I in any way could contribute to anyone's language around the nearest, tenderest person, I would consider that my greatest accomplishment.”
With Everything Happens, she has. With ...Other Lies I’ve Loved, she has, too.
This interview has been lightly edited for length.
Catherine Woodiwiss, Sojourners: Let’s start with your title: Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. What are some of these lies, and where did they come from?
Kate Bowler, author, Everything Happens for a Reason: Where did they come from? My own delicious penchant for heresy, as it turns out! Which was something of a surprise to me, I will tell you. I started writing because, on the surface, it was very hard to express how complicated it felt to be sick. I'm naturally cheerful by nature, and I just realized how much effort I was putting into pretending. So I sort of starting turning inward and trying to write things down, but then the more I wrote, the more I realized, “Oh I am deeply invested in ideas that I didn't realize I believe in.” Like, “I can conquer any obstacle you put in my path.” That somehow, “My shiny personality will be able to navigate any obstacle.” Like, “Sometimes sheer optimism does most of the work that prevents you from dying.” As it turns out, none of those things are true.
I think honestly, the hardest one is that I thought I was special. I thought there was something special about me that would prevent the worst possible thing from happening. I don't know where that came from, if it's just the hubris of living and that we can't imagine ourselves dying at all. But I think I really thought I was special. And giving that up was just really painful. I mean, I know I'm special to God, blah blah. [Laughs] I always get letters that are like, “You are special!” and like, no, I am, God loves me, my parents think I'm amazing, my family is a fan. But there's nothing unique about me that should exempt me from the things that come to everybody's doorstep. I guess that’s what I mean by it.
Woodiwiss: You've done an extensive amount of research and writing on the prosperity gospel. I think it’s easy — from people who are not in that tradition — to kind of poke fingers and say, you know, “Look at them.” One thing I found really, really poignant and challenging is your coming to terms with how that notion [receiving blessings for praying or believing or trying hard enough] has seeped into your own thinking, and seeped into a lot of our thinking, without it being conscious. Have you found this as a broad sentiment in Christianity, beyond the prosperity gospel? How do we explain that?
Bowler: It took me while — the first time I saw a lower-class prosperity megachurch, which I didn't realize I hadn't seen before, it was mostly working class and people struggling to get jobs. And then I realized that what the pastor was preaching was a horizon. It was a sense of optimism. It was habits of the middle class. It was this indomitable sense that things will work out. And then I realized, “Oh crap, I'm not special — I’m just middle class!” So that was a bit horrifying. So much of our gospel just sounds a lot like a deeply suburban mythology — that somehow, if we’re Christian, our kids will be smarter.
I see that in the left and the right, to be honest. I mean, I'm closer to the left, I suspect, and I see it in our propensity for having the correct opinions, and just imagining that if we are the kings and queens of perspective, that somehow we have a special angle on the world. I've seen people use it to distance themselves from people like me who are, functionally speaking, losers. It's hard when you assume that your intellect or your hard work or your anything is going to get you out of the pit you're in, and then it just doesn't.
And then you realize that almost everything that makes your life work is contingent on factors that you have almost no control over, and usually no control over at all.
Woodiwiss: Do you see traditions in Western, American culture that teach us to suffer well? To give up well?
Bowler: Oh, man. I think people like having different tools. So for instance, from higher church tradition, I have loved that they have liturgies for hospital rooms. And they have more anointing oil than my forehead can absorb. I love that. They are great at having rhythms of suffering that have been handed down. Pentecostals are fantastic, because they're just going to get right in there and take their time. “Oh, are you suffering? Great. I have four hours — I will spend it all on you!” [Laughs.] “I hope you’re comfortable.” It's like, oh man, I love that — they have this whole notion of tarrying in the spirit that is rich, and deep, and doesn't expect to get anywhere on time.
I got great letters from Buddhists that I really appreciated, because it — you know, it begins with suffering, with the story of Siddhartha seeing the suffering person, and realizing that the world is upside down. I think Buddhism begins with an acceptance that I sometimes see American Christians resisting. But I mean, they have their own ways of dealing with it. Really everyone’s trying to bargain, as it turns out. I think we're all just trying to figure out the math on suffering, and finding that always, there is this gap, that says that there are some things that are unfilled, and that makes us question God.
Woodiwiss: I love that throughout this book, you’re pushing back against these lies, and almost a sense of closure — rejecting that math, rejecting the bargaining.
Bowler: I mean, I'm always in it — like every two months I’ll return to a bargaining phase. [Laughter]
Woodiwiss: Yeah, like “In rare moments of non-clarity, I’m sensing something’s not right!”
Bowler: Yeah! “Normally I’m totally above it!”
Woodiwiss: But is there a kind of closure you do hope people who read your book come to? Or is the very concept of closure the lie?
Bowler: I think the great surprise for me was that God is there no matter what. I don't have to — it’s not one that requires effort, even, or correct belief, always, or the right kind of prayer. When I was in the hospital, God was somehow there. And in the worst moments of my life, for some reason there is more than enough. And that's just the Holy Spirit. That’s the only prosperity gospel I'm super into — it’s the one in which, for some reason, God chooses to fill in the cracks. And sometimes we get that experience, and sometimes we don’t, but we know it when it is happening.
Woodiwiss: And what a profound rebuttal to a capitalist ideas of scarcity.
Bowler: Right, right, like you should stockpile, because otherwise you will not have enough. And you know, it’s weird, because at first I was trying to give all my stuff away because I was grieving, and I was so worried about having stuff and it being a burden to my family. And now I find I’m kind of settling into a purgatory, where I find I feel less moved to have things, only because there was this deep satisfaction I experienced, and it had nothing to do with me. And I find that to be a tremendous relief! Because if it is dependent on me, I am in big trouble.
Woodiwiss: So even saying all that — my favorite part of the book was the appendices, where you list eight things not to say, and six things to do or say. On a personal level, I really resonated with that. I wrote a piece once, after I was in a bad accident, that was basically, “Here is a list of things to do to engage with trauma.” For me, it came out a place of grace, like, “I wish someone had said these things before I went through this, and I wonder if other people need to hear this.” So I'm curious about your own motivations for writing this beautiful book, that’s, like [Laughs], “Everything you know is probably wrong, and there’s no certainty, but by the way, here are eight things to not say, and here are six things to definitely do.”
Bowler: Yeah! I think at the heart of it, I was hoping for more language for people like me. Part of why I wrote everything down was I was struggling to be able to say true things out loud. Because the scripts for sick people are so thick, and so prohibitive. So the big hope would be that there's a little more space for ambiguity around suffering and a little less need to proclaim and to try to solve the person who is suffering. If I in any way could contribute to anyone's language around the nearest, tenderest person, I would consider that my greatest accomplishment. Other than my 4-year-old.
Woodiwiss: In the time since you put this book out in the world, and you’ve been engaging with even more people — do you have any more things that you would add to either of those lists?
Bowler: You know, one of the things I've been thinking a lot more about is the role of the caregiver. Because a lot of the energy and the love and the presence comes toward the person who is really sick. But I would just really want people to want to surround the person who's doing a lot of the emotional heavy lifting. Any kind of trauma is just a really lonely little bubble. And people can try to get close, and you’re so grateful that they try. But in there, in that tight little circle, it's incredibly lonely. And I'm always hoping for people to reach in, not just to me, but to my spouse and my parents and the other people who know, at this visceral level, that sometimes things just don't work out. Like, I can see the ripple effect of people who know me. Everybody is a little more cautious. Everybody. Everybody’s like, checking their kids’ moles, twice, you know? It’s like the illusion is gone, for a lot of people, that everything always works out. And so I would want the world to be gentler, not just for me, but for everybody else whose foundation has been cracked.
Woodiwiss: This book is mostly about your cancer, and your cancer diagnosis. But it’s not the first or only trauma you’ve suffered. You also describe a mysterious and persistent weakness in your arm; an emergency appendectomy; a miscarriage. Why is cancer what you're writing about?
Bowler: Well, cancer’s what is going to kill me. Actually, murder me. So in that sense, it’s obvious.
I think also — none of those other things really made me stop. I just kind of limped forward. The cancer brought my entire life to a grinding halt. And it was only then, actually reading back on the first draft, that I realized that things had been a lot harder than I had admitted. So I think some things make you stop. And also some things invite a response. People tried to explain cancer in a way that they didn't try to explain other things quite so loudly.
Woodiwiss: Everything Happens is very descriptive — it is very not prescriptive. I came away feeling like I knew you a little bit. And in that sense, I think that really does feel like giving community to others, in the same way that — your book is so populated, with so many characters, and it's so clear that community has been a central part for you. Was that feeling of creating community an international posture in your writing?
Bowler: Yeah, I think that was maybe — the recognition of the importance of communities was part of my coming to the end of my own gospel of individualism. I really thought I would go do life mostly out of sheer will. And then, when I needed everybody, that was a huge revelation to me. And how hilariously low — this sounds terrible, but you really lower your standards. [Laughs] Like, do you care about the political opinions of the person driving you to the airport? No. You do not. You are really grateful for the ride to the airport. And I realized how in a bubble I was before, just trying to super-achieve my way through life, and how the second I needed everyone, how overwhelmingly grateful I was to find myself flooded with people. More people than I knew what to do. So yeah — the sort of randomness of all the people in the book is a direct result of me being like, “Oh, humans! Right. Right, right, right. Yes, I need you.”
Woodiwiss: You also have a rich history with the Mennonite community, a tradition that approaches community in all its positives and negatives.
Bowler: Their unflinching view of both the weather and human suffering has been a huge gift to me. [Laughter] Less about the weather.
Woodiwiss: Your research on the prosperity gospel began in a Mennonite church, right, that was obsessed with money?
Bowler: Oh man. Yeah. Yeah, we’re all in it.
My new slogan for life is, “Don’t be above it.” And I just find that when you go where you know human impulse is, you find an incredible love of heresy, and also Target. I am trying to rid myself of heresy, but — I’m sure you understand. It is really freakin’ hard. Because it confirms all of our deepest hopes, typically.
Woodiwiss: Yeah. I am very comfortable in my belief that I am perfect and deserve prosperity.
Bowler: Yeah, yeah. “Don’t touch that, leave that alone.” I respect that!
Woodiwiss: People should be so lucky to know us.
Bowler: Oh yeah — I am special, nothing will happen to me. [Laughter] I agree!
Woodiwiss: Well, I have one more question about something you brought up. You mention a sweetness — a sort of sweet lightness of the presence of God, almost feeling like you were floating on love. I think I know what you're talking about, in a deep way that is just really cool to hear confirmed. And something that struck me was your mentioning that you know that at some point it goes away. After that time of real presence — what have you been left with? How do you feel God, or see God?
Bowler: Well, it did go away. And that was a bummer. It did. It was like — it just felt like not scraping the bottom anymore. And then I came crashing back into life.
I just realized that the presence of God is actually something I have to cultivate. Not build, like an architect — more like a gardener.
You know, I've got very evangelical impulses, and I had this kind of whole spiritual setup, where I was really muscling my way through devotionals and private time and — all the spiritual practices I had were predicated on effort. And it's just been hard to figure out a way, how to back into cultivating a sense of connection with God, without returning to that “my spiritual life is another thing that I am achieving” [mentality.] So, yeah. The only thing I have lately is I take these little Scriptures, and I go into some place incredibly beautiful, and then I try to think of it as, I am being confronted with reality again. And just allowing that to permeate, rather than for me to assume that I need to return to my spiritual life as if it's like a new set of homework. So I don’t know. I’m working on it. It's very hard to cultivate spiritual passivity. So, I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m doing.