Random House, 208 pages
Reviewed by Rebecca Messman
“I have loved you forever. I have loved you forever. Please take care of our son.” Kate Bowler, a scholar only in her mid-30s, poured out this exquisite and excruciating phrase as she dove into her husband’s arms the first time they saw each other after she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.
I want to tell you how this book offers the clearest Christian theodicy that I have ever encountered. I want to urge you to read it and share it with your friends before they toss “reasons” to people drowning in pain. I want to share beautiful and brutal quotes from her narrative, one after the other, that highlight the fragility of this life and the stunning urgency of love. And I want to shine her bright light on the temptation of 21st-century Christians to peddle the trinkets of the prosperity gospel that might not always look like toothy megachurch pastors driving Bentleys, but might look like right Protestant living, done “decently and in order.”
But, my hunch is that someone has already commended this book to you, because it reads as cozy, approachable and funny as a conversation over coffee with a dear friend until it grabs you by the heart and turns your theology on its head. My hunch is that seminaries will use this book to teach pastoral theology for decades as millions of people in the pews experience lives of before and after that “cancer phone call.” My hunch is that Kate Bowler will rocket her way into your sermons and book groups. Her triumphal entry into Oprah’s SuperSoul sisterhood might have already dubbed her what she jokingly calls a “celebrity of terrible.” But, I’d call her something else: the real deal.
She offers readers her narrative: the life of a historian who had one terrific book under her belt — a deep dive into the American prosperity gospel titled “Blessed.” She loves her husband, Toban, and young son, Zach. She introduces us to her parents and colleagues, those who contacted her after her New York Times article made a splash, and those prosperity gospel friends, whom she never treats with condescension even as she highlights the all-too-human flaws in their Hallmark responses.
This book is simply inescapable in its theological and narrative power and in its authenticity. Anyone with a beating heart will be forced to ask: “Woah, did I say that when my friend’s marriage went off the rails? Did I offer a pat answer in the face of tragedy? What was that about?” And Bowler’s celebrity is different from those who seem larger than life. She seems larger in the face of death. Which means, readers also experience deep reckoning while reading her words, asking ourselves: “And what about my own child? My own relationships? My own body? My own faith? What would I do or think or feel if that call came my way? How do I see God in my own moments of before and after?”
Barbara Brown Taylor gave the church fresh language for faith alive in the world. Brené Brown gave us scholarship so that the world could hear the gospel truth of strength in vulnerability anew. And now, Kate Bowler models how to do it. It was the book she never wanted to write. But thanks be to God for her whimsy, courage, wisdom and, most especially, love.
Rebecca Messman is co-pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Virginia.