KATE BOWLER, a professor at Duke Divinity School, in Durham, North Carolina, found herself in Houston, Texas, a few Good Fridays ago. Most churches, she discovered, were not holding services (at one, a woman manning the phone did now know what Good Friday was). An exception was Lakewood, the megachurch run by Joel and Victoria Osteen.
“Happy Good Friday!” the parking attendant yelled.
Ms Osteen said: “Isn’t it great we serve a risen Lord!” — and then showed on screen an advertisement for her book Love Your Life: Living happy, healthy, and whole.
It is an encounter that Bowler recalls in her own book, Everything Happens for a Reason: And other lies I’ve loved, which she wrote after being diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer at the age of 35, in 2015. “Everyone is trying to Easter the crap out of my Lent,” she says.
“I think churches in general are horrible at being sad,” she tells me (on Skype). “That’s partly why I’m so excited the book is coming out right before Lent, where the whole world is supposed to practise being someone like me: someone who stands on my side, and for 40 days faces down the darkness and the terrible.”
IN PERSON, as in her book, she offers theological reflections that invite you to look squarely at some of the most frightening aspects of our existence, with painful precision. She is also funny, occasionally with black humour, as illustrated by her recent New York Times article “What to say when you meet the Angel of Death at a party”.
The first piece she wrote for the paper, while undergoing treatment in 2016, ended up on the front page of its Sunday Review, and was read by millions. Her inbox was flooded with emails from “strangers giving reasons”, and she was left feeling “as though the world has been cracked open, and it bleeds and bleeds”.
Among her correspondents were those who began “You think you have it bad?” An elderly pastor wrote of feeling “younger by the day”, and a man from Idaho explained: “God is a just God to let you die. That is the consequence for your sin.” Other Christians sought to reassure her that her cancer was “all part of a plan”.
“It is at moments like this — when I feel everyone’s eyes on me, watching my progress, and my attitude for signs of the gospel — that I am gripped with fear,” she writes.
THERE is no doubt that the theological gloss put on her suffering has been hurtful. “My point [in the New York Times] was ‘Please don’t force certainty on my pain,’ and then, one minute later, people poured certainty on my pain. I was so surprised. We are supposed to be people who share hope, some kind of good news, and how is it that I am no longer considered good news? I am a failure, or a problem that needs to be explained. I am a conundrum. That was exhausting.”
In some of the communications that she has diagnosed “a categorical confusion between Jesus and us. I think, when we are framing the language of penalty for sin, what it does is confuse Jesus’s suffering with our own.” One of the reasons for writing her book was to offer “grace, and a certain gentleness to people like me who are really struggling to keep it together”.
Another reason was her desire to conduct a “merciless excavation of my own beliefs. We are all heretics, and I am one of them. It’s hard to do that in public, when everyone is so loud about their theological certainty; so writing this was a very private and intimate experience, just trying to understand ‘How can I feel your love for me?’”
When you are ill, she explains, “you feel so disposable. It’s the most intense feeling: like you are just paper all of a sudden. You are grey, and everyone is in colour.”
WHILE she admits to struggling to find books to read after her diagnosis, she singles out the writing of C. S. Lewis as “beautiful”. Those who have found solace in his A Grief Observed may well find resonances in her book, in its documenting of a busy thought-life and the physical sensations of grief.
“I am supposed to imagine the end of my whirling mind, the slowing of my breath, a sunken vessel where my heart now beats,” she reflects. And, later, “The promise of heaven to me is this: some day I will get a new set of lungs and I will swim away. But first I will drown.” Grief is “eyes squinting through tears into an unbearable future”. There is also a meditation on her experience of what St Augustine referred to as “the sweetness”.
“When I was sure I was going to die, I didn’t feel angry. I felt loved,” she says. “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. . . They came in like priests, and mirrored back to me the face of Jesus.”
Intertwined with the battle for a cure is her struggle with the concept of surrender, fought in a culture that demands struggle, and informed by her own expertise as the first historian to document the prosperity-gospel movement. In her New York Times essay, she confessed that one of her first thoughts after diagnosis was “Oh, God, this is ironic.” The title of her book on the movement was Blessed.
Among the stories that she uncovered was that of the preacher asked by the United States postal service to stop claiming the power to resurrect the dead; coffins sent by desperate families were blocking deliveries.
COMPASSION for prosperity-gospel believers was not a postscript to her diagnosis. While she is not blind to the potential for farce (“I once saw a megachurch pastor almost choke to death on his own fog machine. Someone had cranked it up to the Holy Spirit maximum”), her research led her to conclude that, while some people wanted Bentleys, “more wanted relief from the wounds of their past and the pain of their present.” It was, she concluded, a theodicy — one that reached far beyond blingy megachurches, even into her own heart.
“Control is a drug, and we are all hooked, whether or not we believe in the prosperity gospel’s assurance that we can master the future,” she writes in Everything Happens.
Neither does she regard the movement as wholly without merit. In an interview with Christianity Today, she spoke warmly of believers’ “spiritual tenacity” and “language of specificity. . . We do want to know that God counts the hairs on our heads, loved us since we were born, and cares about our family more than we could even imagine. Those kinds of comforts prosperity gospel rightly foregrounds.”
“What becomes heretical or over-emphasised about it is that it starts to look for proof in your wallet and body and in your happiness that you are living faithfully,” she tells me. “I found that if I looked at my own life as evidence of faithfulness, I would always make a mistake. . . If we look at God’s character, we make fewer mistakes. God is good. God is for us, our wholeness.”
IN THE wake of the 2016 presidential election, the movement is under increased scrutiny. One of the lessons of Donald Trump’s victory, Bowler suggests, is that “the American prosperity gospel is the great civil religion.”
“We cannot understand the other until we fully grapple with their humanity,” she explains. “If we focus on scandals and televangelists, that does tell us something important, but the part that has not yet been understood is that this is, in some ways, an exaggeration of all of our hopes.”
And, if the prosperity movement is “guilty of an over-realised eschatology”, then Reformed Christianity is “absolutely prone to an under-realised eschatology. Can God never break in and surprise you?” She continues to pray to be cured.
BOWLER was born in Canada, surrounded by Mennonite communities, and admires their insistence “that suffering never be done alone”. She has also started to love the Catholic mystics, she says, and has acquired icons of the Archangel Michael, and St Peregrine, patron saint of cancer patients. What she has loved most of all, though, are “people who were very specific” in their prayers.
“Lots of people’s prayers sound like ‘I wish you the best,’” she laughs. She would like us to “recover a language of blessing, in which we have beautiful scriptural hope for each other. . . Even though it takes balls, I really do like it when people say, in a very pious way, ‘God has beautiful things in store for you.’ It is hope for me; it’s not trying to suss out who I am, and what I have done wrong.”
Today, she writes, she is “keeping vigil in the place of almost death”. She continues to work at Duke, and has completed interviews with 125 women for a new book due to be published this year: The Preacher’s Wife: Women and power in American megaministry. Every 90 days, she undergoes a CT scan, to check whether the cancer is growing.
IN HER second New York Times piece, she described the “tremendous power” of “small efforts” — the friends who knitted socks for her, wrote funny emails, took her to concerts — “anchors that hold me to the present, that keep me from floating away on thoughts of an unknown future”. Books on heaven have been “incredibly depressing”, she says. “When you are in survival mode, thinking too much about heaven feels too much like giving up.”
Throughout the book, it is clear that the thought of leaving behind her young family is the hardest aspect of surrender. Arguing that it would be better for her son, Zach, not to have a mother “because, surely, God is working in all things for the good of those who love him” would sound “like a lie”, she told Christianity Today. It is this honesty that many will find refreshing and liberating.
Her book begins with a dedication to Zach (“I can now see how my beautiful life was always for you”) and ends with her making him French toast for breakfast. “Don’t skip to the end,” is the secret, a Lutheran friend, Frank, says.
“I will die, yes, but not today,” she writes, before getting up to start the coffee grinder.
Everything Happens for a Reason: And other lies I’ve loved is published by SPCK at £14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.49).