Against the backdrop of the American prosperity gospel, about which she wrote a history (Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, Oxford, 2013), in Everything Happen For A Reason Bowler details how, at 35, thriving in her seminary teaching, married to her high school sweetheart, and with the birth of her son, she struggles with a stage IV colon cancer diagnosis.
Televangelists, with whom she had talked, “claimed spiritual guarantees for how to receive divine money. I held hands with people in wheelchairs praying at the altar to be cured.” She tried “to understand, how millions of North Americans had started asking God for more” (xii). But she also saw something else. “Believers wanted escape from poverty, failing health, and the feeling that their lives were leaky buckets” (xiii). People with “bleak medical diagnoses…broken teen agers or misfiring marriages” sought salvation, rescue, and “a modicum of power over things that ripped their lives apart at the seams” (xiii).
What is a Theodicy?
That movement, she says, is “a theodicy, an explanation for the problem of evil. It is an answer to the questions that take our lives apart: Why do some people get healed and some people don’t? Why do some people leap and land on their feet, while others tumble all the way down? Why do some babies die in their cribs and some bitter souls live to see their great-grandchildren. The prosperity gospel looks at the world as it is and promises a solution. It guarantees that faith will always make a way” (xiii).
Her research led her to look beyond the false promises of the movements’ leaders into her own heart. Bowler found alluring “the promise that I could curate my life, minimize my losses, and stand on my successes…I had my own prosperity gospel, a flowering weed grown in with all the rest” (xiii-xiv).
Reporting her cancer diagnosis, Bowler describes her plea to God for life with three simple questions: “Why? God, are you here? What does this suffering mean?” At first, she reports, “I could hear Him. I could almost make out an answer. But then it was drowned out by what I’ve now heard a thousand times. “Everything happens for a reason” or “God is writing a better story.”
Bowler’s well-written Preface leads the reader through her equally well-written journey, from the anxiety of her cancer diagnosis through the news that she might have a rare form of cancer with excellent prognosis. But what most galls Bowler is how people treat her. Instead of living with her in the moment of her anguish, she finds “three life lessons people try to teach me that, frankly, sometimes feels worse than the cancer itself.”
What three lessons do you believe people want to share with Bowler? What lesson(s) would you want to share with her? In my next blog I will reveal Bowler’s three Life Lessons well-wishers seek to teach her.