There is a cherished belief among much of the religious portion of this country that God has a purpose for all things, that there’s logic to circumstances that would otherwise just seem to sort of happen to us. “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me” by Kate Bowler, which appeared in The New York Times Sunday Review earlier this month, is a particularly beautiful distillation of contradictions within this idea. Bowler is the author of a book on the prosperity gospel—the belief that God rewards with “health and wealth” those of sufficient faith—titled “Blessed.” She was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer at the age of 35.
This is America, where there are no setbacks, just setups. Tragedies are simply tests of character.
It is the reason a neighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that everything happens for a reason.
“I’d love to hear it,” my husband said.
“Pardon?” she said, startled.
“I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has.
My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee. But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos. Because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.
Bowler isn’t herself an adherent to the American prosperity gospel, but she is fascinated for a decade by its evolution into an enterprise of megachurches and gaudiness and unflappable faith in the power of positive thinking in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Part of the magic of this essay can be attributed to the fact that Bowler doesn’t pull us through too many explicated contrasts between her current circumstance and the beliefs of these people she has studied and loved. She mostly lets those contrasts speak for themselves. She acknowledges the inherent absurdity of the prosperity gospel without being at all unkind, and, in doing so, gives the essay and its content permission to be funny. It’s a mark here of good writing that Bowler presents heavy material not as being funny in spite of being tragic, but as something wherein the root of the humor and the tragedy is often the same.
The most I can say about why I have cancer, medically speaking, is that bodies are delicate and prone to error. As a Christian, I can say that the Kingdom of God is not yet fully here, and so we get sick and die. And as a scholar, I can say that our society is steeped in a culture of facile reasoning. What goes around comes around. Karma is a bitch. And God is always, for some reason, going around closing doors and opening windows. God is super into that.
Bowler writes that cancer has opened her to new ways of seeing the world, new forms of beauty. This is a common human response to misfortune among those who take the time to write about it, and because of that I think we tend to underestimate just how extraordinary it is. Faced with similar circumstances, how many among us would actually be able to respond this way? It’s hard for me to imagine that I could. And it’s certainly not something that prosperity churchgoers, painted into the corner of their faith, are ever offered much of a chance to believe.
The prosperity gospel holds to this illusion of control until the very end. If a believer gets sick and dies, shame compounds the grief. Those who are loved and lost are just that—those who have lost the test of faith. In my work, I have heard countless stories of refusing to acknowledge that the end had finally come. An emaciated man was pushed about a megachurch in a wheelchair as churchgoers declared that he was already healed. A woman danced around her sister’s deathbed shouting to horrified family members that the body can yet live. There is no graceful death, no ars moriendi, in the prosperity gospel. There are only jarring disappointments after fevered attempts to deny its inevitability.
Bowler’s acknowledgment of how many in the prosperity gospel community will likely respond to her illness—that they will believe she is weak of faith and deserves to be sick—is both touching and sad. She gently criticizes the doctrine’s reductive, binary approach to good fortune and calls out the irony of a religion that replaces faith with bald certainty. She tells us she’s not immune to a few jokes at the prosperity gospel’s expense, but she also makes it clear she’s not immune to its charms. The prosperity gospel boasts a certainty that is self-sustaining, and requires not a drop of validation to survive. Bowler refrains from saying outright whether that kind of faith has become any more or less appealing to her since her diagnosis, and the reader is better off for it. She allows us to simply observe the world with her.
But mostly I find the daily lives of its believers remarkable and, often, inspirational. They face the impossible and demand that God make a way. They refuse to accept crippling debt as insurmountable. They stubbornly get out of their hospital beds and declare themselves healed, and every now and then, it works.
Read a good essay this month? Tweet me @kastaliamedrano