Working in Christian publishing, it is rare that a book I’ve been working on (Yes, sorry, this is one of those reviews) gets profiled in the print edition of the New York Times, or the author gets interviewed by TIME, and the book is one I’ve been pondering and hoping for for a while. This book, though, Kate Bowler’s popular-level debut Everything Happens for a Reason: and other lies I’ve loved (published Feb. 6 in the UK and the US) is not an ordinary book. Bowler is a professor of Theology, specialising in the Prosperity Gospel movement. Whilst studying this movement she was diagnosed at a young age with Stage IV Colon Cancer.
The kind of Christians she was studying would argue, in various ways, that she could be healed.
So would I, but I also wouldn’t promise that she will be now.
Bowler is a young wife and mother – with a promising academic career. Having read this book, I’m going to have to go back and read her academic book.
This book is not a work of academic theology (though the author has written one, which I hope to read one day), yet neither is it pure experience and emotional venting. This is a book that made me, in reading it, cry. This is a book that, when I gave or recommended it to friends, has transformed the way they think about the kingdom of God. This is a book that, hand in hand with Nanez’s excellent Full Gospel, Fractured Minds is well worth reading if you see yourself as a thinking Charismatic or Pentecostal Christian. Everything Happens for a Reason is a book that invites readers to watch the author’s life unravel, to peep into the hospital room and the mind of someone grappling with cancer.
In Everything Happens for a Reason, Bowler tells us her story – intertwined with powerful and poignant observations about theology and the prosperity Gospel. As someone who believes God heals today – yet also believes, with Bowler, that the Prosperity Gospel is a distortion of Christianity… As Bowler said in her interview with TIME, “The double edge to the American Dream is that those who can’t make it have lost the test or have failed. The prosperity gospel is just a Christian version of that.” In the year after the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, it is important to remember that ‘gospel-plus’ (that is, messages that add to the Gospel of Grace) can come from any angle – the so-called ‘Prosperity Gospel’ is a dangerous thing.
This book reads beautifully. Even if, like me, you aren’t naturally drawn into personal memoir, you may find yourself (as I did) unable to put the book down. In some ways, it is quite hard to describe or review this book – it simply has to be read. One particularly moving chapter, ‘Certainity’, includes reflections on the letters she recieved from all over: “The letters that really speak to me don’t talk about why we die, they talk about who was there. When you were afraid that the end had come, were you alone?“. This jars with, in light of the prosperity ‘gospel’, the expectation, as these letters, and love and prayers involved, had an interesting effect:
“At a time when I should have felt abandoned by God, 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, bringing notes and flowers and warm socks and quilts embroidered with words of encouragement. They came in like priests and mirrored back to me the face of Jesus. When they sat beside me, my hand in their hands, my own suffering began to feel like it had revealed to me the suffering of others, a world of those who, like me, are stumbling in the debris sof dreams they thought they were entitled to and plans they didn’t realize they had made“.
There is a powerful reflection on the way that the Church year is arranged – echoing the continued language of plans and hopes and dreams. This is deeply theological, or at least I found it so, and I loved this little vignette, which encapsulates so much of this book:
“In moments like this, my prosperity friends from all my years of research know me best. If poked and prodded, they would probably agree with me that, while heaven is great, it is even better when it is enjoyed here on earth. Technically, this is all heresy. It’s called an “overrealized eschatology”, an exaggerated sense of what earth can reveal about the Kingdom of God. The famous Reverend Ike, pioneer of black televangelism, used to say it with a cheeky smile: “Don’t wait for your pie in the sky by and by; have it now with ice cream and a cherry on top!” But I don’t want ice cream, I want a world where there is no need for pediatric oncology, UNICEF, military budgets, or suicide rails on the top floors of tall buildings. The world would drip with mercy. Thy kingdom come, I pray, and my heart aches. And my tongue trips over the rest. Thy will be done”
Key to the story overall are Kate’s husband and young son. Their love and relationships frame Kate’s suffering in a truly powerful way. The almost closing words of the book are beautiful:
“I buy him a huge sign that reads YOU ARE MY BUCKET LIST and hang it in our living room. My little plans are crumbs scattered on the ground. This is all I have learned about living here, plodding along, and finding God. My well-laid plans are no longer my foundation. I can only hope that my dreams, my actions, my hopes are leaving a trail for Zach and Toban, so, whichever way the path turns, all they will find is Love”
This is not an easy book to read – but it is one I would recommend reading. Everything Happens for a Reason is immensely real, and will challenge faith in those who hold it, and inspire those who don’t. This is not a book for the faint hearted – but it is a book that touches on the Kingdom of God, the possibility of hope, and one that I hope is widely read.