Summary: Tragic, often hard to read, but important reminders that the problem of evil is not easily solved.
The phrase, ‘Everything Happens for a Reason’ along with a dozen or so other ‘phrases of comfort’ need to be permanently removed from every Christians vocabulary. If this was what everyone took away from the reading of this book, that would be a great result. But there is more here. (There is an appendix that lists additional phrases that need to be removed from Christian vocabulary.)
Kate Bowler is a Christian History Professor at Duke. She has specialized in the study of the Prosperity Gospel movement. I am looking forward to reading her book Blessed on the prosperity gospel. But what has brought her to wide readership is this book, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. First it was difficulty with her arms as she was writing her dissertation, then difficulty getting pregnant and carrying to term, then a serious diagnosis of liver cancer.
Because I knew this going in, I have been reluctant to pick up Everything Happens for a Reason. No one really wants to deal with pain. As Bowler says toward the end of the book, ‘I want a world where there is no need for pediatric oncology, UNICEF, military budgets, or suicide rails on the top floors of tall buildings.’ (Kindle Location 1501) Pain, when possible, is ignored.
Fairness is one of the most compelling claims of the American Dream, a vision of success propelled by hard work, determination, and maybe the occasional pair of bootstraps. Wherever I have lived in North America, I have been sold a story about an unlimited horizon and the personal characteristics that are required to waltz toward it. It is the language of entitlements. It is the careful math of deserving, meted out as painstakingly as my sister and I used to inventory and trade our Halloween candy. In this world, I deserve what I get. I earn my keep and keep my share. In a world of fair, nothing clung to can ever slip away. (Kindle Location 160)
Part of what makes Bowler’s story and theological reflections so important is her work in prosperity gospel. Many Christians may explicitly reject prosperity gospel theologically, but practically and implicitly accept it.
In a spiritual world in which healing is a divine right, illness is a symptom of unconfessed sin—a symptom of a lack of forgiveness, unfaithfulness, unexamined attitudes, or careless words. A suffering believer is a puzzle to be solved. What had caused this to happen? As I walked around with slings or braces on my arms, I heard whispers and caught looks, some sympathetic, some disapproving, some gravely concerned. In the small church where I did most of my research, I knew I was loved. I was prayed for. I was ministered to. But when, week after week, I returned with the same droop in my arms and weakness in my hands, I thought I saw their lips close and their arms cross, and I felt like faithlessness personified. (Kindle Location 291)
People that are in pain from physical or emotional or other pain often have to battle, not just that difficult pain, but the judgement of Christians around them that are more interested in propping up their view of God than they are in being with the person in pain.
One of the problems with Christian faith is that it is rooted in a relationship with the person of Jesus Christ. Personal relationships transition and change. But many of us approach Christian faith formulaically. I am not against structure and routine and habit. Structure and routine and habit can be an important part of human relationships as well. The problem comes when we use those routines or habits to control the other. ‘When I bring home pizza, you do x’. ‘I will do y after you complete the task z.’
Prayer or church attendance can lead to spiritual growth, but it is never a negotiation strategy with God. God is not obligated to do anything for us based on our spiritual practices.
After I finished Everything Happens for a Reason, I tweeted about the book and a friend told me about her podcast. I have only listened to one episode, the one with Alan Alda, but it was excellent. And you can get a real sense of her perspective in that single half hour interview.
Listening to people in pain is not one of the things that most of us look forward to. But it is one of the necessary aspects of being human. People will be in pain around us and we can either do the work to prepare so that we can listen and serve them well, or we will not. And if we do not, we will likely cause more pain in response. Everything Happens for a Reason will be on my best of 2018 books list.