Kate Bowler on the Prosperity Gospel, Fighting Incurable Cancer, and Finding God in the Darkness

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At age 35, Kate Bowler’s life certainly seemed blessed. She had a loving husband and newborn son, she’d written a successful book exploring the prosperity gospel, and she worked as a professor at Duke Divinity School. Then, she was diagnosed with incurable stage four colon cancer.

It became a challenge to process this information in light of her views on God, views that suggested God would heal anything if you just had enough faith.

Kate eventually came to a new understanding and experience of God’s love in the midst of pain and brokenness. She shares her thoughts in the Christopher Award-winning memoir “Everything Happens for a Reason: and Other Lies I’ve Loved” – and she joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” to discuss the book.

Parts of Kate’s story hinge on her study of the prosperity gospel. She describes it as an American religious movement, which “expects that believers have faith…as a kind of spiritual power that they can use their minds and their words to activate…They believe that regular people have the ability to speak things into existence. So if you’re sick, you should say, ‘I’ve been healed’ and ‘By His stripes we are healed.'”

The depth of your faith, in other words, can be reflected in the state of your physical health, in addition to your bank account.

Kate had always seen herself as an objective historian and “participant observer” at prosperity gospel mega-churches, which she attended to write “a careful and compassionate history” of the movement. Having been raised around Mennonites and having attended a Catholic school as a child, she never explicitly believed the prosperity gospel herself. Or so she thought until she received her diagnosis with incurable cancer and was told she would likely die that same year.

Kate was understandably “horrified” at the news, but upon self-reflection, she realized she was also “outraged” that such a bad thing could happen to a good person, that maybe she wasn’t so favored by God after all. “I had such a deep prosperity gospel in me that I believed I could use my own faith to make sure that my life would always work out.”

Many of the people around her believed the same thing, though she understands they did so out of love. But their expectations made her situation even more challenging.

“I would be in these situations,” Kate recalled, “like at a healing rally or at a worship service, and anyone who knew that I was sick wanted me to take control – that would be their language – of my illness by speaking and believing the right positive words and assuming then, that I could through God’s power, heal myself. The problem is, though, if you’re one of the many people who just take medicine and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, it makes believers into failures, people who have lost the test of faith…As much as people loved me, I could tell they were frustrated that I would be suffering this long without being healed.”

Kate noted that she loves Catholics because they are “wonderful at being sad.” That appreciation has only grown in the past few years. She said, “I’ve learned from the Catholic tradition, especially in Lent, that there are times of deep and important lament, when the church, and especially Catholics, are so good at saying and performing what it feels like to come undone…A Catholic cross has a suffering Jesus up there to remind us that we’re in our bodies, Jesus was in his body, and that our suffering is not an affront to God. And that, I think, is really important and beautiful, especially when you’re off in Protestant land with very bare crosses, very few reminders that the world isn’t as it should be.”

Not only does Kate now appreciate Lent more, she’s also come to a new understanding of Easter. She used to view life as something “where I just get a lot done. You love all the right people, do the right things, and, in a way, you don’t really need the Kingdom Come…I think that’s why Good Friday [and] the Easter story [are] so important. That’s why we have to remind ourselves and live through it every year. First, the world has come apart and only God can put it together. And then in Easter, we’re supposed to be hungry for the fact that God’s going to come back and that there will be a new kingdom and a new earth. Before, I didn’t really need a new kingdom. Now, I definitely do.”

Having grown up in a Mennonite community, Kate learned some important lessons about the power of community and suffering together, lessons that were brought home following her diagnosis.

Because the hospital she was in is right next to the Methodist Seminary where she worked at Duke Divinity, she received so many clerics coming in anointing her with oil that she developed an acne-shaped cross on her forehead. But the memory makes her laugh warmly because this ministry of presence meant so much in her time of need.

She explained, “It’s so easy to have that kind of hyper-individualism that is sort of the American gospel: like, ‘You can do it,’ ‘Bootstraps,’ ‘On your own!’ Because I’ve always wanted to be a high achiever, I fell in love with that individualism. Then the second I got sick, my [parents and siblings] couldn’t be there [right away] because they’re in Canada…Instead, I’m reliant on Roger, the guy who runs the printer down the hallway and all the people who were around in my beautiful Divinity School because they love me and they showed me that we have to belong to one another. So the more helpless and reliant I became, the more I realized how important it is to have that web of obligation in which we don’t feel embarrassed by our neediness. We just know, ‘Oh, my gosh. I can’t do this on my own. Also, could you bring some food tomorrow?’ My lovely, sweet local Methodist church fed me for a year. I mean, they just took turns bringing food over when we couldn’t take care of ourselves. So I’ve been absolutely held up by the people who’ve chosen to love me.”

Though doctors initially predicted Kate would die rather quickly, she remains alive several years later because of an experimental treatment. “We’re in this brave new place of new immunotherapy drugs,” she said, “in which a certain percentage of people with the colon cancer that I have had the strongest response rates. So I was very fortunate early on to be able to try immunotherapy as opposed to just chemotherapy. I traveled for a year to attend a clinical trial in which I could have this life-saving drug and then I continued to have a really positive response, so it sort of created this weird liminal space where I’m not cured, but I’m not sick, exactly. It’s a lot of wait and see, but it’s a wonderful wait and see when I compare myself with where I was a couple years ago.”

The extra time has deepened Kate’s gratitude for the small, simple moments of life, such as holding her son’s hand while walking him to his first day of kindergarten because she never thought she’d get to see that day. Her experiences have also broadened her feelings of connection to others.

She said, “One of the more surprising parts of being in pain is when you feel cracked open, you suddenly feel more connected to everybody and everyone’s experience, because you realize how hard it is and how much effort it takes for all of us to put up the walls of our lives and keep the lights on.”

In the end, her perception of God has also evolved. Kate concluded, “I think I wanted to be an earner: someone who earned God’s love and approval, someone who felt like prayer and stuff was something that I should be doing and I was a pretty decent Christian, if I do say so myself, which is just ridiculous to say. So people always said things after I got sick, like, ‘You just have to trust God.’ And I always felt like, ‘Trust God to do what?’…So I found that I shifted some of the way that I think of God from maybe a contractual one, into one in which I mostly think of God as overwhelming love, as one where even in the midst of the worst moments, I felt the sweetness of God’s love.”

(To listen to my full interview with Kate Bowler, click on the podcast link):

Kate Bowler interview on “Christopher Closeup”