Review of Bowler, Kate. Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I Have Loved. Random House Publishing Group.
By Gary Furr
Kate Bowler begins her book in the doctor’s office. “I had lost almost thirty pounds by the time I was referred to a gastrointestinal surgeon at Duke University Hospital.” And then, the thud of reality.”
ONE MOMENT I WAS a regular person with regular problems. And the next, I was someone with cancer. Before my mind could apprehend it, it was there—swelling to take up every space my imagination could touch. A new and unwanted reality. There was a before, and now there was an after. Time slowed to a pulse. Am I breathing? I wondered. Do I want to? Every day I prayed the same prayer: God, save me. Save me. Save me.
There are plenty of books about the problem of suffering, but every now and then one comes along that makes us feel it. All humans eventually suffer in life somewhere along the way—but it is undeserved, unfair and untimely suffering that is the most crushing variety. Enter Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School and church history. Bowler’s first book came from her dissertation, a study of the Prosperity Gospel, entitled Blessed: A History Of The American Prosperity Gospel. She befriended and studied the world of name it and claim it Christianity, embodied in the megachurch worlds of Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen.
This book, though, is a personal one, a wilderness wandering through the most difficult and intractable questions all religious people face: why suffering, why now, why me? She gets my vote for the most interesting title of the year and she does not disappoint. Kate is a wickedly funny writer but also gut-wrenchingly honest about her journey through stage IV cancer.
She describes a life that was a typical success story” good roots, good family, a marriage to someone she loved, and, after a long journey of trying and a miscarriage, motherhood. With a finished Ph. D. and a teaching position at Duke, she had everything necessary to expectations of success and accomplishment and a good long life to celebrate one day.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere she has to grapple with the prospect that she will may not see her child grow up. She descends into the routines of prayers, delivered food, chemo and loss of certainty. The entire divinity school organizes a prayer vigil for her in the chapel.
They gathered in the warm wood sanctuary and sang hymns and read Scripture and prayed thick, layered prayers in a way that only desperate people can. When the main service ended, they came to the hospital and traded off like relay runners, each praying for me until relieved. Some are close friends and some are acquaintances, and most are much, much smarter than I am. So it pleases me to no end to find out later that the most serious scholars I have ever known—authors of weighty books and owners of many velvet smoking jackets—have cried snotty tears as they pleaded with God to extend my life. They are teaching me the first lesson of my new cancer life—the first thing to go is pride.
Her subtitle will attract many readers and anger others. People with system of thought that need for things to be neatly wrapped up will be frustrated, as Job and his friends, even after seven days and nights of empathy, finally could not resist the temptation to organize and render meaning to Job’s sufferings. She describes the terror of living by appointments instead of years. There s no cure, she is told, but if you survive, we might come upon something that works.
I am marching toward the edge of a precipice, trusting that, by the time I get there, a bridge will have been built. Chemotherapy. Immunotherapy. Divine healing. Something needs to happen before I get there. Lord, build me a bridge.
She goes to an oncologist friend, Ray, who tells her the truth. They talk about dying, and he asks her how she is. “Okay, except for about ten minutes a day,” she confesses. He wisely responds, “So tell me about the ten minutes.”
After a year in which she is given a 30% chance of survival, she is still alive. The book ends, after a conversation with a doctor who is a Christian. High on painkillers, she asks, “What is dying like? What is heaven like?” On and on. But finally the doctor says, out of the blue, “Don’t skip to the end,” he said, gently. “Don’t skip to the end.”
She says, simply, “I will die. But not today.” If that is insufficient for some, it was comforting to me. The great thing about this book is not her analysis of the failures of the Prosperity gospel and its ilk—God has a plan, this will bring God’s glory, and on and on. In fact, she admits that she longs for its magical thinking. “I had my own prosperity gospel, a flowering weed grown in with all the rest.”
She is at her funniest when telling all the stupid and anxious and unhelpful things people say to her. Yet even in this dark tale, there were a few moments, one time in particular, when she experienced being buoyed up, “At a time when I should have felt abandoned by God, I was not reduced to ashes. I felt like I was floating, floating on the love and prayers of all those who hummed around me like worker bees, bringing notes and flowers and warm socks and quilts embroidered with words of encouragement.”
This is a book for those who are going through it, but it’s good for the rest of us who eventually will. It is so faithful in its depictions of the journey, so true to the determination not to sugarcoat and turn back, that it needs to be read.
She adds two appendices of unhelpful and helpful things people say and do. You will laugh and possibly cry, but above all you will think about how genuine her account is. And, as my late friend John Claypool often said in my hearing, remember that life, all of it, is gift.