To read Kate Bowler in her latest book, No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear), is like hearing from the dead. As she did in her last book, Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Told), Bowler takes a blow torch to received pieties when intense suffering comes to call. She’s done with making pretty to assuage our American dreams of a happy ending or to uphold our religious clichés. But she’s going about her demolition with a wicked sense of humor and a beautiful writing style.
Cancer came to Bowler when she was in full flourish. The associate professor of the history of North American Christianity at Duke Divinity School, Bowler was a successful writer, teacher, and communicator with a young child. The diagnosis turned everything upside down and her theology was not exempted.
All of us struggle against the constraints placed on our bodies, our commitments, our ambitions, and our resources, even as we’re saddled with inflated expectations of invincibility,” Bowler realizes. “This is the strange cruelty of suffering in America, its insistence that everything is still possible. God, let me see things clearly. I must accept the world as it is, or break against the truth of it: my life is made of paper walls. And so is everyone else’s. (186)
She pushes back against the expectations and the notion that this is all somehow part of a divine plan. What she wants is raw honesty and clear eyes. She prepares for her death by talking with her husband, her family, her colleagues, her childhood friends, many of whom are theologically trained. She revisits her writing on the American prosperity gospel with its glossy conviction that you can name and claim victory over the slings and arrows of earthly life.
But mainly she comes to terms with living in an alternate reality. Though she resists the ‘cancer made my life better’ bromide, she does find greater depth to the world as she talks with a fellow sufferer:
We fully agree that we stumbled into the heart of a mystery—that there were moments of suffering that felt unmistakably like gifts. “There was something incredibly meaningful about the world of cancer, about embracing the full spectrum of reality,” I tell [my friend Steve] over the phone one night. “Even though I was dying, I have never felt more alive.” (148-9)
In the end she does give those of us rubbernecking her story a bracing sense of being part of a holy mystery. Her own faith emerges as a affirmation that having a bounded life is a good thing for creatures.
Someday we won’t need hope. Someday we don’t need courage. Time itself will be wrapped up with a bow, and God will draw us all into the eternal moment where there will be no suffering, no disease, no email. In the meantime, we are stuck with our beautiful, terrible finitude.” (191)
I read this book at the same time I was reading Anya Krugovoy Silver’s poem collection from her own struggle with cancer, which made the Best Reads list as well. Silver is no longer with us while Bowler remains a vibrant voice, now with her own podcast. Both took me straight to the heart of things in 2021 and revealed an unsettling, transcendent, beautiful, holy light.