In early 2015, Dr. Kate Bowler—a scholar specializing in the history of the prosperity-gospel movement—had her ideal job, a doughy-cheeked toddler, and the sense that life was unfolding as she’d always dreamed. Then her world came undone. At the young age of 35, Bowler learned she had stage IV colorectal cancer, with a life expectancy of only two years. As her diagnosis threatened everything she held dear, the tenets of the prosperity gospel that she’d studied so carefully—the promise of her best life now, if only she prayed enough—felt like mockery.
From the ashes of this tragedy, Bowler graced us with her first memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved [read TGC’s review]—a poignant, heartbreaking, and at times hilarious account of how the prosperity gospel and well-intended platitudes failed her in her time of crisis. Six years after her diagnosis, Bowler now offers us another window into her journey in her second memoir, No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear).
As affecting as her first book, but more raw, No Cure draws readers alongside Bowler as she grapples with how to cope when her certainty of the future has irrevocably withered. With her gifts as a writer again in evidence, Bowler’s vulnerability, honesty, and willingness to ask hard questions offer valuable insights into the struggles of the suffering, and guide us to better love our terminally ill neighbors.
In No Cure, Bowler recounts how the illusion of control over her life buckled under the strain of her disease. Those who have read Everything will find many of the stories familiar. Although she repeats moments from her story, she reflects on them uniquely, as if each experience is a prism she holds up to the light at different angles. There is a tenderness here, the sense that she’s tentatively probing unhealed wounds and quietly inviting us to come alongside her, witness her grief, and learn.
The tenets of the prosperity gospel that she’d studied so carefully . . . felt like mockery.
One of the most striking scenes in the book finds Bowler clad in a hospital gown, catheters taped to her arms, tearing Joel Osteen books from the shelves of the hospital gift shop while a bewildered manager watches. Having studied the tenets of the prosperity gospel as a historian, she could easily dismantle its empty promises. Yet the American dream had nonetheless lured her into false notions of invincibility; and in the wake of her illness, these lies felt like betrayal:
Everyone is now a televangelist of the gospel of good, better, best. Harness your mind to change your circumstances. The salvation of health and wealth and happiness is only a decision away. Will you finally let it save you? But I cannot outwork or outpace or outpray my cancer. I can’t dispel it with a can-do attitude. (17)
Bowler’s reflection is astute, and one we’d all do well to ponder. The message that we command our destiny, and can even escape death, seeps into our minds through the glare of digital screens and the shouts of politicians. Promises of invincibility echo in the claims of self-help gurus and the accolades of professors rallying graduation crowds to Carpe diem!
And yet the delusion that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps to achieve our every desire is an ancient falsehood, woven into our very bones. It’s a fallacy we’ve embraced since the beginning, when our predecessors in the garden did what was right in their own eyes. And it’s a message that leaves us stranded and grieving as we buckle under the weight of life-threatening illness.
No Tidy Conclusions
Those seeking theological answers will not find them in this book. Bowler is honest that in the depth of her grief, the truths for which many Christians reach sound hollow. “What Jesus has done in the past—loved us, saved us, given us a future—stands behind us and in front of us,” she writes. “We were saved and we will be saved. But today we are not young believers or resurrected bodies. We are in the lumpy middle or the floppy end” (193).
[Bowler confronts] a message that leaves us stranded and grieving as we buckle under the weight of life-threatening illness.
Her struggle is how to live in the “now, but not yet,” muddling on in a broken world as we await Christ’s return. She offers no tidy conclusions, because her current moments aren’t neat and packaged, but rather painful and evolving. In the arc of lamentation, Bowler is the psalmist on her knees, bones out of joint, crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1).
Yet the psalmist turns from despair to praise (v. 22). While we struggle in darkness, the gospel points us not only to the promise of renewal, but also to assurance of God’s steadfast love, coursing through our lives even as we labor in the lumpy middle. The God who loved us so much that he sent his Son still remains with us, even when the seams of our lives unravel and fray (Ps. 34:18; Ps. 139:8; Matt. 28:20). Bowler doesn’t articulate this hope, but she grasps for it. She writes of her ordeal:
I remember clearly in the hospital how I felt this strange closeness with God, how I did not feel like dry grass. I was becoming less and less, but I was not reduced to nothing. God’s love was everywhere, sticking to everything. Love was in my husband’s hand on my back, steadying me, a lightness under my feet, and all over [my son] Zach’s velvety ears. (174)
As Bowler searches to find her footing and carry on, she draws solace from the ordinary moments, and in the metaphor of our broken, ridiculous lives as unfinished cathedrals. We are ornate and wonderfully made, but incomplete, and the gaps in the rafters expose us to the driving rain. Taken further, we are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16). We remain unfinished, our cracks not yet sealed. We cannot repair ourselves. Yet Christ has done what we cannot accomplish. He has healed the wounds we cannot knit together. He has cured what we—as finite, fallen humans—could never overcome.