Kate Bowler on Her Memoir “Everything Happens for a Reason”

Michel Martin sits down with Kate Bowler, whose relationship with God faced one of its biggest tests when she was diagnosed with cancer. That struggle is all detailed in her new memoir, “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.”

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: People often like to believe that everything happens to them for a reason. In suffering, for instance, you are given what you can handle. For those of faith, God is supposed to have a plan. Four years ago, Kate Bowler became a mother for the very first time, she was also a Divinity School historian and she had just finished writing a book. Then came the phone call from her doctor, who told her she had incurable stage 4 cancer. This, of course, turned her life upside down, including her relationship with God. Her memoir, “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved,” examines how to handle everyday life where nothing makes sense anymore and how to cope when you lose faith. And she sat down with our I’m Michel Martin to talk all about it and to tell her story.

MICHEL MARTIN: Kate Bowler, thank you so much for joining us.


MARTIN: So, let’s back up for people who aren’t familiar with your story. You are married to your childhood sweetheart, you’ve bought your first home after a long struggle with infertility, you have your beautiful son.


MARTIN: You are publishing your first book, which is a groundbreaking study of prosperity gospel. And then, when you’re having these pains and you’re going to doctor after doctor and you’re like, “What are these pains all about.”


MARTIN: And then you get that phone call that you know is going to change everything. Do you mind talking about that?

BOWLER: Yes. I mean, I really thought I finally had it all together. I had finally gotten to that place after so much deferment, like school and, you know, there’s just a lot of in your 20s paying into this life you think you’ll have and then I finally had it for about six months and then I just — yes, these random pains. There’s no history of cancer in my family. So, it just never occurred to me. And I’m a pretty articulate, I think, narrator of my own experience. And so, when I was begging people to take me seriously in the hospital, I just couldn’t believe that it was as bad as it was. So, when they called and said that I had stage 4 colon cancer, it was like a bomb went off. I couldn’t even put thoughts together and I certainly couldn’t imagine what life would mean after that.

MARTIN: So, there’s so much to talk about here because you’re a professor of Divinity School, Duke Divinity School, and you’ve spent your career thinking about the divine, right?


MARTIN: Thinking about the Gospel and what it means and what does it mean in the present moment/


MARTIN: So, how did that strike you given that the eternal is your daily work?

BOWLER: Yes. I mean, it did feel pretty ironic to have spent about 10 years studying religious explanations for suffering and then to be struck with such a terrible situation that people started explaining me. It was – – honestly, I never had that experience of being a problem to be solved that when people met me all they wanted to do was explain why it was me not them. And that was hard because I kind of thought — I mean, in a Divinity School or any other more compassionate, I hope, to our contacts, that people would have more resources to say — to just say, “I’m so sorry this happened.” But instead, I mean, people reached into their theological back pocket for all kinds of things. And some of it was the more like, “Let’s dig into your spiritual past and see what you might have done.”

MARTIN: It’s a punishment for what, sin?

BOWLER: Yes. I mean —


BOWLER: — it’s an indictment. And that’s a lot of what I — because — I mean, my first reflex was just to try to process it through my theological background and say, “Honestly, right now, I am really struggling to know how to explain what feels unexplainable.” And honestly, I can’t believe that people keep trying to explain me as I’m suffering. And so, I wrote this in a piece for “The New York Times” mostly forgetting that like a lot of people read it and then like not taking my e-mail off the response thing and then getting thousands of people’s immediate response, which I thought I’d said, “Hey, can everybody simmer down for a second on explaining other people’s pain?” And then everyone’s response was, “Clearly you haven’t considered, but you might have had sin in your past life. God is obviously using this to test you. God is closing a door but there’s definitely a window somewhere that’s opening for you.” And then just the — I think — and this falls on women mostly, the endless performance of cheerfulness and gratitude. So, all I was really supposed to say was, “I’m so blessed. I’m sure the doctors and God, et cetera, will work it out.” Just the scripts around being sick are so thick that people didn’t leave me a lot of room for ambiguity.

MARTIN: So, is that why you wrote this book, it’s called, “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved,” that’s the part that struck me? I want to try to unpack that. So, “Everything Happens for a Reason,” that’s like the main —


MARTIN: That’s the main plot.

BOWLER: Everyone wants to give that to me.

MARTIN: Yes. And tell me, and why is that? For people who are not —


MARTIN: — as familiar with this. Because there are people who will think —


MARTIN: — “Well, that’s ridiculous. The universe is random and cruel.”


MARTIN: And who doesn’t know that. And what — and for a lot of people, that’s just absurd, you’re saying that that is an unacceptable answer for a lot of people.



BOWLER: I mean, and there’s a range of people who will give you the answer. Among the Christian, there’s a very large group that I had studied in that first book I wrote who are called the Prosperity Gospel. The Prosperity Gospel has a very rare five-view of what faith is. If I — well, you’re a seminary grad. So, if I said like, what is faith, like what would — you would probably say like, “Hope or trust or something,” and their answer is that faith is the spiritual power that every believer is given and if they think positively and speak positively, you unleash those forces that bring things into being. And so, they look for that in wealth and in their bodies. So, in health and wealth to figure out if their faith is working. And so, because of that any, you know, set back is a set up.

MARTIN: There’s a lot of those?

BOWLER: There’s only lessons. This is — life is a kind of obstacle course and if you do it with cheerfulness and joy, that God will always work it out for you. And then, there’s even sort of less overtly religious versions, like all my adorable hippie friends who were immediately concerned that I had not eaten enough kale or had not sufficiently taken my essential oils.

MARTIN: You ate too much sugar.

BOWLER: There’s a lot of —

MARTIN: Those rice crispy treat.

BOWLER: That’s right. It is the blame game. And I think part of it is — and not trying to be trite, but when someone experiences when they’re close to someone who’s suffering, it’s really tempting to start doing that inventory like, “Well, wasn’t in your family or, you know, I wonder what kind of environmental reasons we can think of.” So, that they’re always wondering, “Why you, not me.” But the result is quite cruel because it expects that that I’m supposed to learn from this lesson and somehow accept that this was supposed to be my pain, my suffering, my faith. And all I wanted was to just want to reach back through that Plexiglas that went up the second I got sick and say like, “One second ago I was just like you and this blew my life apart and I wish I could go back to that kind of naive optimism.”

MARTIN: Why do you call it “Other Lies I’ve Loved”?

BOWLER: I guess — honestly, I wrote the book because I was trying to be honest with myself. Because as much as I’m saying that it was other people, it was me too. I mean I wanted to figure out if I — maybe I can just work harder, maybe kind of done something differently. I just — I was trying to do kind of archaeology like what is it in there that makes me believe that life was supposed to work out for me. And so I tried to use it as a kind of reckoning for the, I think, individualism that I was always obsessed with. I mean I think I might not have said I believe in the meritocracy. I like to think I’m sophisticated enough not to have said it but I certainly performed it. I thought I was special.

MARTIN: How do you understand it religiously

BOWLER: It’s hard. I mean in part because cancer makes you feel like nothing. And just being in the hospital —

MARTIN: Why is that?

BOWLER: I mean I don’t know if it’s just that you have to wear a lot of rough cotton but like you go to the hospital and you see a lot of death. And you have this feeling like you’re at the edge of the cliff and you’re being dangled over. And it makes you feel like paper. And so everything in my Christian background says like you are loved, God loves you so much, like you are made with joy and with purpose, you know. But then the experience of being so near death and other people who are dying is you just kind of wonder what was so special about you in the first place. And so I think it’s just hard to like reassert that sense of belonging and purpose. Especially to being that sick you got into the world and everybody is like has a job and has a Starbucks order. And you just don’t remember what you were doing any more or why you were doing it.

MARTIN: Is there any part of you that feels angry?

BOWLER: Yes. Yes. I mean I was less angry for myself. I was really angry when I looked at my son and my husband and I thought this is a very poor substitute for the life that I promised you, to my husband when I married him, to my son when I expected that I was always going to be his mom. And so that was the part that made me the most angry. And then some of the other anger just came from wanting so much to feel close to people again and then just feeling so lonely.

MARTIN: What is it that makes people want to say everything happens for a reason? I just have to name it and claim it.


MARTIN: Well, you know, God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.

BOWLER: Yes, totally.

MARTIN: That’s a classic. But what is it that makes people want to say that? Is that about —


MARTIN: — beyond more — what do you think?

BOWLER: I think partly it’s that people don’t want to surrender that part of our lives. I think we all have it, just wants to make meaning even out of the worst moments. And I think that’s a beautiful hope. The problem is it’s really oppressive when you just dump that on somebody who maybe for reasons of illness or random tragedy or institutional evil puts them on the losing side of life. And so — and I think also people are trying to help people who are suffering to get back to that place of agency where you want to stand up again and fight. And that’s so important for anybody who’s trying to manage their tragedy. But it also totally lets them off the hook because surely the universe has given you all the resources you need to handle this.

MARTIN: Did you grow up in a family that had a faith commitment?

BOWLER: Yes. Superman at night.

MARTIN: So did your illness shake them? Did it shake their faith?

BOWLER: In one way, it didn’t because they’re so communal in their mindset. It was wonderful to know that they never made me feel like I was going to be alone in this. Their wonderful communal suffering, like as a faith tradition, they get it, life doesn’t always come together. But I think like everybody else, they were always just looking for that way that we could climb out of the pit and there just wasn’t one.

MARTIN: There’s always been suffering. I mean there’s always been suffering and it’s —


MARTIN: You know many of our sacred texts speak to that fundamental fact.


MARTIN: So that leads me to wonder, do you still [13:35:00] believe that there is a loving God?

BOWLER: Yes. Yes, I do. I mean honestly, in the hospital, I don’t — for this to sound terribly pious like just because I’m from a divinity school I say these kinds of things but I have a history — we’re very uncomfortable talking about our spiritual feelings. But I was blown away by the fact that the closer I felt to death, the more I felt intensely loved. And not just by other people but just a supreme and beautiful piece. I’m kind of just hoping that that sort of what God does when we’re preparing for death is we get this sense of calm. But the more I went on living, the louder life became and then the more it was easy to forget. And then you go back into the world and everybody’s on Instagram and people want their bikini bodies, just really excited to be living.

MARTIN: Or the guy in the short lane at the checkout actually has 16 items, right?

BOWLER: That’s right.

MARTIN: I do remember my first feelings of pettiness after the hospital and I just sort of hope that they would go away but no, I was as petty as before.

MARTIN: Well, let me just read something from the book. You say that control is a drug and we’re all hooked, whether or not we believe in the prosperity gospel’s assurance that we can master the future with our words and attitudes. And you write, I can barely admit to myself that I have almost no choice but to surrender but neither can those around me. I can hear it in my sister in law’s voice as she tells me to keep fighting. I can see it in my academic friends who do what researchers do and Google the hell out of my problems. When did the symptoms start, they ask. Is this hereditary? Buried in all their concern is the unspoken question, do I have any control?

BOWLER: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: And what answer have you come up with?

BOWLER: It’s so hard because I used to use faith as a language of certainty and giving that up has been tough work. I guess — I mean I just pictured my life as one and that I could control. I would have a long career with a neo-gothic tower and many Ph.D. students. I mean just have these dreams of what 80 years is supposed to do and I never imagined that I would have a horizon in which I can’t be certain. It’s hard to just with parenting because everything about a kid is the language of their future, right. It’s the growth chart against the doorsill. It’s what’s next year and should he be in soccer. And you just want to speak that language with such certainty because it’s all the stuff that is under our control. And giving that up has been really painful. Like it’s mostly sucked because sometimes I feel like the future is just a language I can’t speak like other people.

MARTIN: Well, can I ask though, and apologies if it’s too personal, how are you preparing? I mean we — the reality of it is, and it sounds so terrible, but it is true that we’re all going to leave here at some point.


MARTIN: But you’re right, that’s not something that most of us spend time thinking about.


MARTIN: How are you —

BOWLER: Well, it’s —

MARTIN: — preparing or do you try not to? Do you try to live as you put it in ordinary time? What are you doing?

BOWLER: Yes. Because it’s a both — I mean the problem is I think maybe just in the course of the day and the week and the year, we’re all learning the math on what we’re supposed to do. Like every decision requires a lot of just decisions about an investment. Do I really — like how do we spend our time? And I struggled a lot with that in part because I am in a career where while I was in the hospital, I had to decide if I was going to write a book to keep a job that I didn’t know I’d live to keep. And so I had to decide almost immediately, do I act like I’m going to live or do I act like I’m going to die? And I want to be able to live solely in the present but I also sort of have a job to do so I struggled a lot with that. And then I decided that I have to choose the parts of myself that fully express whatever gifts I have to give. And in this case, I happen to be a historian as boring as it is. So I decided part of managing cancer would be that I would work really hard and write a new book and that I would section off a huge part of my day just to be with my kid and the people I love. And that I would have to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. But I mean I struggled a lot with whether or not — I mean I think we all do. It’s like is this worth my time? Is this worth my life?

MARTIN: You expressed quite a lot of doubt in this book. I mean your book is hilarious, don’t get me wrong. It’s hilarious.

BOWLER: Thanks.

MARTIN: But it’s filled with doubt that the certainties that so many people cling to [13:40:00] are not that.


MARTIN: And some people will not appreciate that. And I wonder what that’s like for you in a world that teaches the divine, right?

BOWLER: Yes. Yes. Well, I’m hopeful.

MARTIN: Can you still do your job?

BOWLER: Sure. I guess — I mean it’s such a fun question because like if — are we supposed to be experts in certainties if we’re people of faith? And I really hope not. I mean I like to imagine that my students at the Divinity School who are mostly going to be pastors or nonprofit workers or casserole burners of all kinds, my hope is that since they’re the front lines other than doctors of the places where people go when they’re in pain, that they will be the thing that holds space for people to struggle. And we need other people. I mean that was a massive lesson to me the second I was in the hospital. I don’t have family here in the States. I only have my university really and I have just been so needy. My church and my community fed my family for over a year. I mean we just need everyone to fill in all the gaps. And so part of letting go of certainty has led me to a real humility. I hope that says that I’m actually not the right person to say that everything’s going to turn out. But I hope that my experience points to the fact that kindness and love is always the way forward because pain creates this horrible gap that everyone wants to explain but all that does to me is say that everybody else needs to step in with the kind of kindness that puts people’s lives back together. And myself is mostly referable but I really could use a casserole.

MARTIN: What kind do you like?

BOWLER: I’ll tolerate. I’ll do whatever —

MARTIN: OK. Thanks so much for talking to us.

BOWLER: I’m so glad.

MARTIN: I have every good wish for you and your family.

BOWLER: Thank you. Thank you.

MARTIN: And that you get a really good casserole.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Peter Neumann & Aimen Dean about the aftermath of ISIS’s defeat; and Roger Cohen about European/U.S. relations. Michel Martin speaks with Kate Bowler about her new memoir “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.”