Book Review: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, Kate Bowler
Nonfiction: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, Kate Bowler
You’ve heard someone say this to you, usually in a dark and difficult time. “Everything happens for a reason.” You may have said it to people. As someone who has lost parents, who has fought depression, who has a loved one with cancer, who has wrestled with questions of life and death for decades, let me say very plainly: that is a horrible thing to say to someone. Perhaps it brought you some measure of peace when someone said it to you. Good. For others, though, being told that a higher power wanted their child to die or their husband to get cancer or their rape to take place for a reason is disgusting.
Kate Bowler’s very personal book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved tells the story of her first year living with cancer. Bowler was a newly minted Ph.D. with a position at Duke Divinity School, and after years of trying she and her husband had just welcomed their first baby, Zac. A few months after giving birth, she received the news that she had stage 4 colon cancer. The prognosis was grim–few people live even a full year after that diagnosis.
Bowler discusses frankly her reactions of anger, sadness, and fear. It is a story full of love. She and her husband come from very supportive families. They were childhood sweethearts in Canada, and immediately parents and siblings rallied together to take care of her and her family. Her husband was there for her, and her “family” at Duke Divinity School also came through for her. Friends from high school and beyond came to be with her. Even with all that support, though, the emotions were overwhelming. Confronting death, especially one as painful and cruel as cancer, shatters a person. Facing that diagnosis with a newborn, thinking you will never see him walk or talk or go to school or any other milestone parents treasure…well, hopefully few of us will ever confront anything like that.
Woven through the book is her faith. Bowler is a Christian, teaches in a divinity school, and has a Ph.D. in church history. Her expertise is on the prosperity gospel in America. She spends a lot of time in prosperity gospel churches, churches where a tenet of faith is that God only blesses. Need money? Ask and He will give. Wealth and health and all good things are a natural result of faith. The opposite is true as well: if you are lacking in health or wealth or any good thing, that is a clear sign that your faith is lacking. Somehow, you are to blame. Get rid of your sin, increase your faith, turn to God, and presto! Although this is not Bowler’s own faith tradition, she realized while going through this that she had been at least somewhat affected by this doctrine. Suddenly, though, the easy answers and the trite responses were no longer adequate. “Everything happens for a reason” sounds reassuring, until you are the one facing death, you are the one facing cancer, you are the one facing a future without you in it. What “reason” makes sense in those circumstances? What “reason” gives hope or restores your spirit or nourishes your soul? Most of the reasons people offer in those circumstances make God sound capricious and cruel. They make no sense when you consider evil people who get to live full lives and play with their grandchildren and die in their sleep.
Bowler teaches at a divinity school, but she does not consider herself a theologian or a pastor. Rather, she is a person of faith, a student of faith traditions, but most of all she is a person with cancer, a mother and wife trying to prepare her family for a future without her in it, a Christian clinging as tightly as possible to the Christ who suffered on the cross and who promised to be with those who are suffering. She is open with her struggles, her anger, her disappointment, her resentment. She prays. She swears. (She gives up “not swearing” for Lent one year.) Her honesty is raw and courageous and painful. And at the end of the year…well, she’s alive. She beat the odds. There are no guarantees, but she has gotten more time than she was told to expect. And we have gotten a book that affirms life in the face of death as powerfully as anything I have read in years.
Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved does not try to explain why Kate Bowler or anyone else suffers. But it does remind us that we are not alone. Whether we look to a higher power or whether we rely on a more earthly community, suffering is not unique to any person. That is not a reason “why,” but it may be the reason why we keep going despite our suffering.