My niece, Laura, recently sent me a link to a podcast called TTFA: Terrible: Thanks for Asking. I thought it was witty and funny, a little irreverent and provocative. The particular interview was with Kate Bowler, the author of the book, Everything Happens For a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. The segment is entitled: Life after Certainty. (ttfa.org)
Kate Bowler grew up in a Mennonite background which she named a collective faith; “God shows up with people and casseroles.” You don’t suffer by yourself and the community had very low expectations of material goods; theirs was a God who prided Himself on closeness.”
So when a new mega church came to town, she began to be curious about this faith where the congregation gave an offering to the pastor to buy a motorcycle that he then drove around on stage. She called this new theology the Prosperity Gospel; basically God wants you to prosper; and faith was a spiritual power that brought you wanted; cars, kids, wife, wealth, health and a good life. God will give you what you want. It was so different from her modest faith and so fascinating to Kate that she focused on it for her senior thesis in college and for her master’s degree.
She started attending a lot of mega churches to learn more and understand the attraction. Some of the common wisdom in the prosperity gospel seems pretty mainstream these days; “Everything Happens for a Reason.” “God has a plan.” “God closes a door but opens a window.” “The best is yet to come.” “God is building a choir of angels.” (at death). She became a professional academic digging into prosperity gospel in society.
What’s the prosperity gospel? “It’s a language of faith,” she says. “You release the power with words and thoughts.” Everything must be positive. Words are like magic that make it come to pass. Health, wealth and things going well for family will come to you. There were frequent healing rallies for mental illness, physical illness, and acquiring wealth–a belief that all things could be made right in their lifetime; anything is possible; it demands enthusiasm; it expects miracles; “if you think the right things, your life will be better.”
The Prosperity gospel seems encouraging, but it has a sharp edge; what happens if it doesn’t come true? Then of course, it’s your fault and you need to fix it. That’s extremely hard when there’s a serious illness, loss of a child, or a suicide, for instance. “It feels like an indictment,” she said. “If I’m sick, my body had to fit into their belief.” You feel like a failure. If good things happen, thanks to God. If bad things happen, it’s on you.
When I was in a theological seminary, 1999-2003, the professors called this prosperity gospel the Theology of Glory. Same idea. They contrasted this theology with what they felt was more the reality of life; the Theology of the Cross. Good things happen; bad things happen, but God is in it all. As part of that training I was a hospice chaplain for three months, visiting people who were deemed to have less than six months to live. One in particular had lived her life purely by the Prosperity Gospel. She was so positive, bright, charming. She had a beautiful home on a lake and 3 cars in the driveway. She was absolutely devoted to praying and reading her Bible. I remember that Bible so clearly; she had used yellow marker to underline all the passages about healing. And the ones that Jesus spoke of , she also underlined in pink. Most of her New Testament was underlined with some kind of ink and side notes she had made. The pages were worn and bent with her constant reading. The trouble was that this huge tumor in her bowel kept growing. For a few months, her friends from church came to pray and read at her bedside, staying positive and pronouncing that Jesus would heal her. But when she didn’t get better, she told me, they stopped coming. I sat with her weekly for those months, as she struggled with reconciling what she had been told and what was the reality of her life. It was one of the greatest lessons in my life to just listen and be present. This had been her truth that had held her for so long. It pained me to see how she struggled when it no longer supported her. One day as we lay in the bed together propped up, and she was reading me more verses, she stopped and looked at me and said simply, “Maybe Jesus thought of it another way.” I nodded, “Maybe so.” She came to her theology of the Cross in her own way.
Living with these existential questions is complicated and messy at best. With Kate it became messy. Just at the peak of her life, when she had the job she dreamed of, the husband who loved her, the child she waited for, she received news that she had stage 4 cancer. And she realizes that even though she had studied the prosperity gospel for years and knew its limitations, she dropped into that way of thinking herself. “Didn’t I think I was earning myself out of this by having a hard working life?” Even as an objective observer, she was looking for certainty like everyone else. We want to figure out the mechanism for it to work out. When it doesn’t, how does hope feel? “I was going to out-cheer cancer; I was going to be the best cancer patient to deserve to be saved,” she said. “I never stopped auditioning for the role of deserving love.” Finally she began to write out all her questions and frustrations. “Why did I think I wouldn’t be here? What secret prosperity gospel do we all have?” she asks.
I encourage you to hear the rest of the podcast as she explores friendship during crisis and friendship in the chronic long haul of illness. (“I need a chronic, incurable friend.” )Not to ruin the story, but she is still alive 5 years later, laughing often, living on the edge. Hear her wisdom from this place also on her Ted Talk or visits her website, katebowler.com.
“Everything happens,” she summarizes, “and we don’t know the reason.”