Kate Bowler's inconvenient fame

The Divinity School professor is everywhere because of a best-selling book about life before and after her cancer diagnosis.
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April 16, 2018

Kate Bowler is told that if she goes to Amazon. com, types in “ever,” and watches the autofill, of all the products in the entire world her best-selling new book, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, will come up second. The only thing more popular on Amazon is “everything bagel seasoning.”

In her office in Gray Building, Bowler Ph.D. ’10, assistant professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School, opens Amazon, types the word, and gazes at the screen above her desk with unabashed delight. “I feel honored,” she says. “It sounds delicious. That’s the bagel I want.”

And that’s the voice that people nationwide are hearing— in the pages of her book, in interviews all over public radio, and on her own podcast. Warm, self-deprecating, honest, a little overwhelmed. That’s the voice of someone trying to make sense of a world that entered permanent crisis two years ago when at age thirty- five she was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, the diagnosis a red line dividing her life into a clear before and after. Before: Happily married to her high-school sweetheart. Besotted mom of a healthy two-year-old. Professor at her graduate alma mater. Author of a successful first book, Blessed, which came out in 2013; reviewers used phrases like “riveting,” “marvelous,” and “deeply human.” The first-ever deeply reported history of the American Prosperity Gospel, Blessed documents the uniquely American Christian belief system that Jesus wants to make you rich, healthy, and successful, and that if you’re not, it means you’re doing something to displease him. Or at the very least, as Bowler wryly says, it means that Jesus is “very disappointed in you.”

As for the after, it’s complicated. Not just because she has what she calls “the seventy-year-old man’s disease”—colon cancer, and again, Stage IV, which means it has spread, and it means business. And not just because her health plan initially refused to pay for her participation in the clinical trials that are currently keeping her alive. Complicated in a way she expressed when she faced the fact that if the cancer didn’t kill her its treatment would likely bankrupt her and her whole family, and she shouted: “I am not a normal person!”

In Everything Happens for a Reason she admits she’s not quite sure what she meant. Looking back now from her cheerful, book-lined office, she says she felt like explaining directly to the cancer that its timing wasn’t good: “Look around!” she wanted to say. “These people need me!”

“Also,” she says, as though cancer were an inconvenient phone call, “I’m in the middle of something.” She meant she was special—not because she had cancer but because she wasn’t supposed to.

We associate the “Do you know who I am?” moment with B-list celebrities and insufficiently cowed maître d’s; Bowler had hers with cancer. “I thought, ‘I’m not just anybody.’ I think it was the randomness of cancer that I took personally,” she says. “Cancer didn’t think I was special. Cancer didn’t care what I loved. Cancer didn’t think about what I was working on or how old my son was. I took that personally. I think everybody feels like that.”

That quality draws people to Bowler. Books about evangelical history line her bookshelves, but so does a light-up sign saying “#BLESSED” and a bobblehead pope. She will share her barbecued potato chips if you are in her office while she eats lunch at her desk. A petite woman with brown hair and a treble voice that seems freighted with irony, whether she wants it or not, Bowler might remind you of performer Julia Sweeney, radiating a sarcastic, brash good humor. If cancer is going to be importunate, if it’s going to call at an inconvenient time, Bowler will hang up on it.

Regrettably, cancer calls back until you pick up, so cancer is currently one of the defining elements of Bowler’s life. She’s quick to reassure you that she doesn’t plan to die anytime soon. She’s part of an extremely small cohort of patients receiving an experimental immunotherapy treatment, which seems to be working. She has a CT scan every ninety days, and if nothing has spread, nothing looks worse, she gets another three-month reprieve. She describes her life now as “vine to vine.” She chooses the best vine available, hopes there’ll be another one after that one, and gives her best swing, over and over and over.

Right now, Bowler is more famous than anyone on the Duke campus outside of Cameron Indoor—because of cancer. “There is a profound irony,” she says, “in being famous at anything not shiny.” She calls herself “a celebrity of terrible,” famous for facing some of the worst things imaginable—cancer, possibly dying, leaving her husband and her little boy. Her fierce, funny approach to that reality has made her, for a moment at least, one of the country’s most listened-to voices. She’s been in The New York Times as an opinion writer and as the subject of an enormous outpouring of letters in response to that writing. She’s been a subject of stories in Time and on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” She has been interviewed by no less than Terry Gross.

She’s been on podcasts, and her own podcast, “Everything Happens with Kate Bowler,” on which she interviews people who have themselves faced dark times and can share what they’ve learned, is in the iTunes top 100. Her book is on The New York Times best-seller list. “You want to play this game?” she asks, almost conspiratorially, again spinning in her chair to her computer and going to Amazon to check her position on its own best-seller list. “It’s number four still,” she says, both astonished at its success and a little embarrassed about the joy of constantly checking on it.

“This is what my friends do,” she says. “Then they text me. Because they’re wonderful.”

Everything Happens is labeled a memoir, and it tells the story not just of Bowler’s cancer diagnosis and her struggle to get and afford treatment but also of her life beforehand. She talks about her Canadian childhood, her love for her husband, her struggles to get pregnant and with a joint problem that, at one point, caused her significant trouble using her arms. “The arc of my life has been toward drama,” she admits. Everything Happens resulted from her attempts to make sense of that drama. And, especially, of the irony of writing Blessed, a book about people who believe that your health, your financial status, everything about your life is an outward expression of your relationship with God—and then getting cancer.

She chose the title Blessed for her book on the prosperity gospel, she said in the piece she wrote for the Times in 2016, because it is the “perfect word for an American society that says it believes the American dream is based on hard work, not luck.” She admits the prosperity gospel is easy to caricature: “The preacher with the beautiful hair and the jawline you could cut carrots with,” adherent beliefs just as easy to target: “Do they really believe their children will be smarter? That this year their New Year’s resolutions will come true?” Yet her deeply reported history of the movement never stoops to sarcasm or scorn. “I held hands with people in wheelchairs being prayed for by celebrities known for their miracle touch,” she wrote in the Times. “I sat in people’s living rooms and heard about how they never would have dreamed of owning this home without the encouragement they heard on Sundays.” She calls the prosperity gospel “the great American civil religion”—a way of reassuring ourselves that if we’re doing well it’s because we’ve pleased God, and if others aren’t, well, they obviously have work to do. This brings with it that intrinsic criticism: Your own failures cause your problems; every scratch-off lottery ticket that doesn’t win is an indictment. Any philosophy requires a theodicy: an explanation of the existence of evil. The prosperity gospel basically says the cause of evil is you. “In a spiritual world in which healing is a divine right,” she writes in Everything Happens, “illness is a symptom of unconfessed sin.”

And yet “the cruelty of it is its saving grace,” Bowler says. “It will give you the indictment, but it also gives you the solution.” Just pray a little harder, get a little closer to God, and it will all work out. And if that’s not an easy worldview to love, she says, “they are teaching us something, teaching about very reasonable responses to a lack of social services. Wouldn’t you go to God to be a doctor if health-care premiums are too much? They’re teaching us about the resiliency of hope. It is hard work to hope that big. And there is a courage to it that I admire.”

Bowler is not an adherent of the prosperity gospel (though she admits that she likes to believe her successes demonstrate her value and virtue). But the prosperity gospel-style explanations others offered for her complicity in her cancer drove Bowler to write the 2016 Times piece. That piece and its enormous reaction then led to Everything Happens for a Reason. “Because I spend most of my time processing other people’s reactions to my pain,” she says, “and then trying not to feel so resentful and sad about it.” Like that guy who wrote her to say that God was just to let her die because the wages of sin is death. “He’s seventy-something. Good for you, Joe in Albuquerque. I’m so happy you came to that conclusion—at seventy. Thanks for writing a thirty-five-year- old, weeping over her kid, to let her know that somehow she can take great comfort in the mercy of a just and impassive God.”

She has received so many thousands of e-mails and suggestions and ideas of how to make sense of her life that she ends her book with an appendix of things never to say to people suffering. For example, don’t say, “Well, at least...” As Bowler points out, “At least it’s not…what? Stage V cancer? Don’t minimize.” Don’t tell them your life lessons. Don’t promise things will get better. Don’t tell them “God needed an angel.” In the first place, Bowler is a religious scholar and knows better than you do how angels are supposedly made; in the second place, she writes, “You see how confusing it is when we just pretend that the deceased return to help you find your car keys or make pottery?”

She understands why people are driven to explain her cancer to her—they’re reassuring themselves that somehow this all is as it should be, that they can make sense of their unpredictable world. They explain it to her so they can convince themselves. But “I’m genuinely sick of it,” she says. “You don’t have to use someone else’s pain to solve your problems. There’s a real cruelty to that. The suffering people? I get it—great. They can say, ‘Well, [Bowler’s cancer] didn’t happen to me,’ and all I want to say is, ‘Yes, and like I am sending you so much love right now.”

“But for all the joyous, happy, lucky people in the world to solve their theological problems through me? I’m resentful of that impulse.”

Her colleague and friend Ray Barfield understands Bowler’s point. The pediatric oncologist at Duke Hospital and professor of pediatrics and Christian philosophy says he accepts the denial Bowler contends with as a natural human reaction to reality that is too big to swallow: “We modulate the dose of reality just to make it bite-size,” he says.

Bowler, too, sometimes needs a moment before she can absorb a worrying test result or scary scan image. Yet “Kate finds a way to reality pretty quickly,” Barfield says, “because she lives fiercely. Her natural response is not retreat. It’s more like, ‘Who are you to show up, cancer? Bring it on.’ ” He sees her book and her podcast (on one episode of which he is a guest) as practice for “those of us who can’t make a run for the truth as Kate does.” Showing us her own honest reactions, her terror, her sadness, her pain, and her capacity to regroup “allows us a chance to practice, and to prepare ourselves, and maybe to grow into the kinds of people who can more embrace the truth.”

Bowler’s own theological problems remain unresolved. She possesses a solid belief in God, though she doesn’t call that faith. “I don’t know what faith is,” she says. “I really don’t. I just don’t know what it means right now. Like I think I’ve just spent too long with the people who think faith is a spiritual power, and I know it’s not that.” Her father, she says, has a certainty that she will be okay, and she finds that comforting. “He has almost the gift of faith,” she says—if, that is, you think of faith as “a kind of spiritual stubbornness.” But her own post-diagnosis world has brought her a different relationship to God. “I gave up certainties and timelines as quickly as I had to,” she says, and she now talks about experiencing God in the very brokenness of life.

As her life has felt shattered, she has fewer answers than ever. Work, family, health, finance—every category of her life is less certain. Yet in the midst of that heartbreak she has been surprised to feel only more powerfully the presence of God. “The only category I understand more is the love of God,” she says. “Both the experience of wanting to be close to God and the surprise of the feeling that God is close to me.” Her eyes grow moist as she describes it. “The sense that all the gaps are being filled in. That was intense.”

Now, she’s working on surrender. Surrender to uncertainty; surrender to a reality that is mostly unknown. Of course, surrender, she notes, is quite the opposite of what prosperity gospel preaches, though for most Christians it’s a central virtue. “All of American culture and pop psychology scream against that,” she writes in Everything Happens. So, trained by the harsh reality of cancer, she screams back.

What she’s trying to express returns ultimately, she says over and over, to that randomness. “I’m just pointing out an obvious thing,” she says. “Which is that we all hope for more and yet find ourselves picking up pieces of so much less. Every day is full of possibilities and inevitabilities.” And we all face that terrible, constant conundrum: “How are we supposed to know which one is which?” The love of an embracing God; learning to find if not meaning then at least acceptance of tragedy and sadness; willingness to accept and even embrace an uncertain future. If it sounds like Bowler’s story begins to stray from memoir toward ministry, she shakes that off; she works in a building full of ministers, she says, who all can do that job better. “We historians like to stay in our lane. My lane is the past. Unfortunately,” she goes on, “my suffering is the present.”

Barfield characterizes Bowler’s book as “a teaching tool,” a characterization that squares with her hopes for it. “The number- one hope was that if this gives people who are suffering either a little more language or a slightly more-gentle mental and spiritual world to live in,” she says, “then that is everything I could hope for.” Amidst the sadness and pain, there is beauty and love and wonder. “When you get to the beautiful stuff, the gifts, the gorgeous things,” she asks, “does it really need to devolve into an argument about whether I deserve the present?... We go to war against ourselves about what we deserve. But some of the only things we can recognize are usually the gorgeous love of the people who surround us. That to me is always the bottom line.”

She’s taking things as they come now, learning what she must and sharing what she can. She doesn’t see herself as an expert in the wisdom of suffering; she’s just suffering and willing to admit it. She likens herself to a friend who is a widow. When an acquaintance of that friend lost a spouse, the widow had to Google how to write a condolence card. “Just because I know how it feels doesn’t mean I know what to do,” Bowler says. “So, part of it is, like, transforming experience into wisdom. That’s tough work. But I like to learn.”

  • Scott Huler is the senior writer at Duke Magazine.