Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler
Kate Bowler is an Assistant Professor at Duke Divinity School with a particular expertise in the prosperity gospel. This take on Christian doctrine, she says, teaches spiritual laws which ‘offer an elegant solution to the problem of unfairness’ – in other words, everything happens for a reason. The irony of her diagnosis with terminal cancer, aged 35 and the new mother of a much longed for child, is not lost on her. This book is her honest, sometimes stark, often witty reflection on the cherished idea that everything is part of God’s plan.
Cancer memoirs have proliferated in recent years and it might be tempting to consign this book to the same shelf. That would be a mistake. This is a serious and challenging book, though not a solemn one. Bowler moves between present and past events as she ponders the experiences which have shaped her beliefs. In the process she holds up a mirror in which the reader might perhaps see reflected their own responses to someone experiencing extreme suffering. Often that response is about ourselves. Reactions to an article which Bowler published in the New York Times fell broadly into two categories; those seeking to reassure her that her cancer is part of God’s plan and those needing her to reassure them of the same thing. Top of Bowler’s hit list of the unhelpful are the she ‘minimizers’, those who look for the positive and say ‘Well, at least…’. Indeed, she includes as appendices a list of what never to say and another of what it might be ok to say (no guarantee). Both are offered with the fierce humour that peppers her thinking.
Though Bowler is offered many explanations for what is happening to her, there is no resolution in the book; she does not come to any understanding of the apparent randomness and harshness of her illness. (Though her life has been prolonged through experimental immunological treatment her prognosis remains terminal). But though there is no resolution, neither is there bitterness. What Bowler does offer are three discoveries. The first is that love abounds: the love she receives from family friends and colleagues; the sense of God’s love she experiences on diagnosis and an increasing joy in expressing love. Her second discovery is that one cannot plan. ‘My little plans are crumbs scattered on the ground . . . ‘ she writes. And the third, which goes hand in hand with having no plans, is not to ‘skip to the end’ as one wise friend puts it. It is, though an over-used phrase, to learn how to live in the present.
Bowler’s experience of ‘living in the valley of the shadow of death’ might provide the preacher with some illustrations. But the book’s real value, I would suggest, is its challenge to weigh the effect of one’s words and to avoid the too easy explanation.
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