The premise of this narrative is as follows: Kate Bowler is a Christian, and religious belief is a big part of her life. She is a 30-something theology professor in an American college (Duke Divinity School). She also has bowel cancer, and she is trying to come to terms with her (possibly imminent) death, even as she undergoes chemotherapy and carries on married life with a young son.
The irony is that her area of academic interest is the prosperity gospel characteristic of mid-western USA. This proclaims that you are rewarded for good deeds in this life, and that if you only believe in God and the scriptures material success can be yours. The leaders of successful churches flaunt a jet-setting life style as evidence of the gospel’s truth. Preachers ask for financial contributions from their congregations in the guise of ‘seed’ that will reap great rewards, although many of the followers of these churches are painfully in need of escape from poverty, illness and failure. In this form of Christianity illness therefore stems from a lack of faith, or is a punishment for undisclosed sin. But positivity and faith will make you whole again!
There is an on-going struggle in Kate’s story between the need to fight, to be in control, and the urge to let go and let what will be, be. Kate mobilises her academic colleagues to help her onto an experimental immunotherapy program at Emory Medical School when she realises that the program will financially cripple her family: in this, she takes control. But she is more and more aware that whether she recovers her health is not up to her, but is just the luck of the draw, the nature of her cancer and her immune system.
Kate writes an article in the New York Times and receives many replies from readers afraid about their own death or that of loved ones. Many express their sympathy. Others compare their lot with hers, and pronounce her lucky. Some are Christians who ascribe their wonderful health and lives to their faith. Many are keen to reassure Kate that everything happens for a reason, that there is a pattern and some logic to our experience of illness. Unprovable arguments abound – Kate is given cancer to show others how to cope with cancer. Some people even write to tell her that she will die because of her sin. Most have a desperate need to rationalise, to explain her illness – there must be a reason for it.
The very structure of the book is the structure of the Christian year, Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and between the festivals, ordinary time, the time of waiting. And the difficulty for Kate is to live in the present, to smell the roses, to enjoy her son, when she is travelling through a calendar marked by the next round of chemo, and the next scan to assess the progression of her tumours. How do you carry on and not spend energy trying to work out the reasons why or why not? The lesson for Kate is that, as her clinician friend tells her, “we are all terminal”, and, more pertinently, to live in the present. As he says, “don’t skip to the end”. The final pages are a description of her latest today, with her son Zach, and husband Toban.
Bowler, Kate (2018) Everything Happens For A Reason – And Other Lies I’ve Loved, London, SPCK
Audiobook narrated by Kate Bowler is available here: https://www.audible.co.uk/pd/Everything-Happens-for-a-Reason-Audiobook/B078PKWQ3S
Bowler, Kate (14 Feb 2016) ‘Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me’, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html