In its most populist form, the prosperity gospel conjures up images of Houston megachurches, multi-million-dollar mansions, and pastors with perfect teeth making promises they can’t keep. Beyond the stereotypes, however, we find something far more human and universal: a desire to make sense of pain, suffering, and divine intervention. Kate Bowler, author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, sees the so-called “health and wealth gospel” as a response to those who want “an escape from poverty, failing health, and the feeling that their lives [are] leaky buckets. . . . It is an answer to the questions that take our lives apart: Why do some people get healed and some people don’t?”
In her new memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved, Bowler, an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School, encounters this nexus point of faith and affliction as she confronts terminal cancer at the age of 35. Her suffering happens in a social context, and as such, Bowler’s book is the memoir of a community. It’s the story of a seminary, of highly revered scholars who sit beside her hospital bed and beg God to prolong her life, of friends who make important phone calls to important people to get her into clinical trials, of colleagues who organize prayer vigils at the campus chapel.
It’s also the story of family. As a mother and a wife, Bowler reckons with the prospect of leaving her husband a widower and her son a motherless child. Silly quotidian habits—like yelling on pitch to the coffee grinder with her toddler every morning—now seem sacred and momentous, altered by the foreknowledge that one day her son and husband will wake up ...1