Everything Happens for a Reason
And Other Lies I've Loved
By Kate Bowler
208 pp. $26
Reviewed by Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans
'Don't skip to the end," an older colleague advises writer Kate Bowler. "Don't skip to the end."
That's good advice for anyone who picks up this unsettling, heartening, and beautifully written memoir of a year living in the valley of encroaching death: Don't you skip to the end, either.
If you do, you'll miss the revelations in a book whose author surmounts the tragedy of being diagnosed with a devastating disease by embracing the mystery that terror and suffering do not cancel out or erase the durable reality of love.
The book begins with dreadful news as Bowler, a 35-year-old Duke Divinity School professor and author of a well-received book on the prosperity gospel, is diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer, sending her straight into surgery, courses of chemotherapy, and a prognosis measured in months, not years.
Although her interest in the prosperity gospel movement, represented by contemporary American figures like Joel Osteen and Paula White, is primarily scholarly, Bowler discovers that when the chips are down, she is more like them than she thought.
"I wanted God to make me good and make me faithful, with just a few shining accolades along the way," she writes. "Anything would do if hardships were only detours on my long life's journey. I believed God would make a way.
"I don't believe that anymore."
With a successful book, a husband she has adored since she was a teenager, and a toddler conceived after a struggle with infertility, Bowler felt, she writes, "breathless with the possibilities."
Part of the book's appeal lies in the fact that Bowler somehow manages to blend raw vulnerability with disarmingly funny moments - an unusual combination, to say the least.
With a few notable exceptions (no shock that doctors delivering bad news don't always fare well), Bowler writes with affectionate, wry candor about her motley menagerie, which includes family, medical professionals, close friends, and colleagues.
She is most critical of those she terms the Minimizers, Teachers, and Solutions People who flood her mailbox and inbox when they learn about her illness: "There is a trite cruelty in the logic of the perfectly certain."
To be human, she suggests, is to succumb to the illusion that we are in charge of our destiny. "Control is a drug," she writes, "and we are all hooked, whether or not we believe in the prosperity gospel's assurance that we can master the future with our words and attitudes." Even in the face of her grim diagnosis, Bowler clings to the "glorious delusion" that her tenacity and endurance will tip the scales.
Amid situations that would reduce the less articulate to silence (but this is clearly one of her gifts), she can be flat-out hilarious, as when she tells her personality-challenged doctor, right before surgery: "I had better not die looking into your eyes."
Bowler doesn't spend a lot of time on theological speculation, but this is also a memoir of faith, a gentle interrogation of God and of her fellow human beings. After all, the Canadian native is Mennonite by bent if not by blood, describing the group as "people with the land in their blood and a hopeless obsession with simplicity, frugality, pacifism and Jell-O salads."
One minor caveat: I'm frankly queasy about the marketing for the book (and a podcast that was timed to accompany its Feb 6. release), which encourages the blossoming of a larger conversation. "Share your own #liesiveloved or #everythinghappens moments on social media. Let's connect and raise our collective glasses to the lies we've all loved," Bowler writes on her blog.
Yet if anything, Everything Happens for a Reason is a rebuke to memes and tropes, a deeply personal account that leaves readers to draw their own inferences and find their own ways. To be candid, as Bowler herself acknowledges, she's in a relatively unusual position, with a variation that has made immunotherapy treatments possible. She is not terminal. She is not cured.
But that's a minor quibble. Truth be told, all of us, sooner or later, discover that the life we planned, and perhaps even thought we had earned, isn't the life we have. If you are hungry for bread crumbs, stumbling onto a trail blazed in unknown territory, or want to be helpful when you don't have a clue, Kate Bowler has been there and done that.
So please - don't skip to the end.
Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans is a freelance writer who specializes in religion reporting and lives in Glenmoore.