By Marcia Bosscher

The Middle Is Not the End: An Interview with Kate Bowler


I was deeply moved by Duke Divinity School professor Kate Bowler’s February New York Times article, “Death, the Prosperity Gospel, and Me.” Oxford University Press published Bowler’s book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel in 2013, and in 2015 she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. Bowler acknowledges the irony. Though she writes with great respect for its followers, she rejects the theology of the movement she studied: “The prosperity gospel has taken a religion based on the contemplation of a dying man and stripped it of its call to surrender all. Perhaps worse, it has replaced Christian faith with the most painful forms of certainty.” Bowler goes on to acknowledge something else she is experiencing: “...cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive. Even when I am this distant from Canadian family and friends, everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors. In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered, and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.” I wanted to hear more and am so grateful to Kate for giving her time to interview at The Well.

You were very gentle and gracious in your book, Blessed, describing the history and presence of the prosperity gospel and its preachers and congregations. But I was saddened by some of the examples you gave, such as the story of you at the church you were attending for research, sitting between a widower on one side and a woman in a wheelchair on the other, neither able to speak of their grief or pain.

Yes. It can be incredibly lonely. Negative things could not be spoken out loud, neither death nor illness. This beautiful woman had not been able to speak out loud about the sickness that put her there, so as not to “negatively confess.” I talked to families that were turned away from more prayer because a prayer for healing is once and for all, a “positive confession,” a confession that healing had already happened. To admit that one was still sick and dying would be to “negatively confess,” denying healing had been accomplished.

Right now I have a casserole illness — one in which people will bring me food, in which I can acknowledge it publicly. I don't love that people assume my illness is the same thing as my personality and my identity, but I do appreciate the fact that I can be honest about what's happening. And there's something about vulnerability, either in public or in private, which is so freeing. I think it's a tremendous burden for those believers who have to struggle by themselves, sometimes not even able to tell their families, which of course prevents the families from being able to grieve.

My sense was you were really intimately involved with the churches and people you studied.

Yes, I spent a lot of time with them. And they do expect that every person will demonstrate invisible faith in his or her own life every Sunday. I've never seen people spiritually prepare like they did for a Sunday morning. They were ready. They prayed in the morning, they got ready at a Wednesday night service, there was so much anticipation.I couldn't believe how much time they spent at church.

It's been easier studying evangelicals now, because they keep the sermons less than forty-minutes. I love pentecostals, but they are marathon runners when it comes to the spiritual life. 

To work hard at the spiritual life — to name it and claim it — seems to be our own work for those who advocate the prosperity gospel. Is there an element of, "Lord, your will be done" in it as well?

There are two competing instincts there. The first is that all the talk of law sets up a world that's very deistic — it runs on its own. This is why they can debate that a wealthy businessman might have unconsciously tapped into the laws of faith. So in that sense, it is a fully self-governing system in which you just have to get into the groove and it'll carry you along. And in that, you only really need God to set it up. You don't need God to continue it. Whereas, traditionally, we believe in a petitionary God. We beg God for the things we want and need, for our daily bread. It comes every day anew. And so in that sense, they have both the language for this world that runs on its own, and they are very petitionary. They just believe that they've tapped into a guarantee. And in that, yes, you mostly need your own action. You don't need God to decide whether it will be granted. It's already been granted.

And you just have to tap in.

Yes. It would be lovely. I mean, certainty would be lovely, wouldn't it? And our brains are addicted to it. We create full-orbed stories about how our lives are going to go. And we are so convinced that this is the way it will be.

Yes. Are you teaching during your treatment?

No. I'm on medical leave, which is great. And they’ve pushed my sabbatical to next year. So I get this year and next year. I've been trying to treat the whole thing like my job is chemo, writing a book, and toddler wrangling. 

And you’re currently studying evangelical women?

Right now I'm doing "Women in Megaministry" — Christian lady celebrities. It’s been interesting studying this culture of endless perfection, saints in stilettos. It's been fascinating to watch the kind of push-pull between demonstrating the gorgeousness and easy-breezy of their lives, and at the same time the vulnerability and disclosure that's required of women in public spaces. 

Hopefully we’ll be seeing a book out of your work?

Yes, I just finished my first chapter, called The Preacher’s Wife: Women in Power in American Megaministry. And I love it. I get to interview wonderful, smart, intelligent women and just ask them about the kind of power and authority they have in this very blurry world, mostly of evangelicalism. So I’m studying the women leaders at the 500 largest churches in the country, plus all the televangelists, plus all the Christian speakers. They'll all be in there!

Do you see a crossover between these women’s ministries and the prosperity gospel?

There is some overlap. I went to a women's conference yesterday because I've been going every weekend for research. And all these evangelical women were talking about "Joseph-sized dreams," and that we all need to tap into them, to realize our greatest potential and think about the largest dream that God hopes for. It’s no wonder they look to the Old Testament because one of the only things God's going to guarantee you in the New Testament is early martyrdom. [Laughing]

It used to be, probably way too much, "Oh, it doesn't matter what's happening here, because we'll get this in the hereafter." But now it seems you can have it all here.

Yes. It's a "fully-realized eschatology." The sense that the Kingdom of God has fully broken in, and that we can see it in every way and we can protect ourselves from natural disasters and from every tragedy. I'm not saying that everyone has to suffer in order to see the Kingdom of God. But it is a lot harder to see it without suffering, don't you think? 

I was just reading — and wrote it down as it really struck me in relationship to the prosperity gospel and to what I experience in my own life — words from a sermon by Johannes Tauler, from the 1300s:
Many people would gladly be God's witnesses where everything goes according to their wishes….But as soon as they no longer experience the emotional comfort of God's closeness, and feel forsaken within and without, they turn back. All men desire peace. If they could only learn to look for it in tribulations. I have known people so drenched with sweet consolations, they felt it in every fiber of their being. And yet when darkness and affliction came upon them, they were left disconsolate without and within. When we're tossed about by terrible storms, which make havoc of our internal balance, when exterior temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil assail us, if then only we could break through and weather such storms, we would arrive at that peace which no one can take from us.

That's beautiful. And don't you think it's a perfect indictment of our therapeutic Christianity. We assume that Christianity is also a life-enhancement product. And, "Surely things will only get better as I grow in faith." Of course, that is by no means true.

In your book, you tie the prosperity gospel to American prosperity, our own culture. But how could so many people through the ages who had no such prosperity have endured and kept their faith?

Yes. We can see it in all the paintings of the martyrs, right? They have this blissed-out expression. And I often wonder...I’ve thought, "Yeah, right." And then now, I mean, I've never experienced the peace of God like I did in the hospital and in the worst moments of my life. So I can see why. Of course, the problem is that it's really hard to live after the feelings, with just the knowledge of the peace of God.  I do think sometimes peace and all kinds of confirmation in the midst of terrible things is just a gift. It's this uncultivated present. And then...and then there's the after.

Christian Wiman has a beautiful line in his book, The Bright Abyss, about how maybe we're only gifted with those moments a few times in a life. Maybe only once. And yet, we need to live our lives in light of those, as devotees to them. Not worshipping the moment…

But knowing it was real.

You knew God was there at that point.

That's right. I do miss it, though. [Laughs] I do really miss it. I just miss it. I kind of have this sense that we are called to surrender our most beautiful gifts. But it’s an impossible thought. In my case, it's my family. I actually think it is impossible for me to conjure up the kind of will to surrender it myself every day. So I do have to trust that there is some kind of gift by which God makes that possible, and then replaces it with peace. But it sure seems impossible.

I think partly because it's a real good.

It's so easy to give up the bad stuff. It really is. Vices? No problem! I'll make some to give up! But the good stuff...I mean, the perfect, beautiful stuff, that's the impossible gift. 

You sound like you have had a lot of clarity. You said that your life is your family — your son, particularly — your work, and your treatments.

Yes. That's it.

There is this clarity that comes.That could be true without the cancer, but...

No, you're right, though. A friend of mine always says, "The middle is not the end." And I love that. We want to fill in the end of the story all the time, and it's really kind of gotten me to realize how much fuzziness we normally have in our lives when we make narrative arcs. We remember the beginnings of things. We remember the ends. But the middle is usually a blur. And there really is a lot of wastefulness in that beautiful middle. For people my age, I learned this from young women's conferences. The only grief they have is child loss, which is significant. But that's typically the only grief they know. We will, of course, all age into that other knowledge. But this gorgeous part in which peoples' parents are still alive, and they have this fullness of life in all the laundry and taking care of kids. They just have no idea how beautiful their lives are. And so I'm determined not to miss the middle. I mean, I hope I get a very long end. But this part is so gorgeous. And I think God is radically present in the gift of my son. I waited so long for him. Every day he makes me a mom. I love it! He is so fun. So this is the life I plan on living. I just want to redeem the time.

It does put life in perspective.

Yes. Oh, how we would long for less perspective, though. Wouldn't you and I like less perspective?

[Laughing] That's true.

I'd...I'd like significantly less perspective [laughs] if I were just going to choose. "No, take me back, Lord, take me back to before." Yeah.

How has it been to be working during this time?

I really enjoy it. I just get to feel like myself again as opposed to this professionally cancerous person. Every day at least fifteen people want me to report on my cancer. People aren’t trying to be vampiric, but there is an endless extractive kind of relationship that happens. So then not just my close friends, who deserve to know what's going on, but it follows these concentric circles to the most casual person, who thinks that they are being inconsiderate if they don't ask. The sheer amount of reporting is exhausting. And I think some people would really enjoy the research [into the cancer]. That is not me. Some people love knowing about the problem. No, thank you.

You’re going down to Atlanta for treatments each week?

Yes. And I'm lucky that I have good friends that will drive up or sit with me. And I have a lovely group, actually a Methodist church, the congregation of the mom of a friend of mine. Their Sunday school group volunteered to drive me and to sit with me. The body of Christ is a beautiful thing. 

You learn what is helpful and what is not, don’t you?

Yes. I can't tell you how many times in a day someone accidentally or on purpose “prosperity gospels” my life. They’ll say, "Oh, everything's going to be okay." People make promises that they can't keep.

And sometimes when I hear the same terrible platitudes, "God is closing doors and opening windows,” things like that…partly I'm angry and the rest of my brain is just aggressively bored, [laughs] because none of it is new. It's just terrible rehearsals of the same awful, awful heresy. I said something to my little sister, and she said: "People say that because they are frantic and they love you and they lack imagination." And I thought that was a perfect little summary for that kind of lowest hanging fruit, when someone doesn’t know what else to say.

My good friend is such an example to me of how to live with beauty and dignity. He had bone cancer and so they cut off both of his legs. And he is a pure delight in the way that he handles the absurdity of his situation. So when he could tell that I was being inundated with these ridiculous things, he immediately texted me, "What kind of God is this, opening all these windows? How am I supposed to get through all these windows?" [Laughing] It was the perfect thing to say.

To be able to look clearly at our lives, with all that’s good and all that’s hard — to live with the fullness of our human condition.

Yeah. Yes, that's right, without bitterness, with a little bit of irony, because it's necessary. Yes.

About the Interviewer

Marcia Bosscher is the former editor of The Well and now an associate with InterVarsity's Faculty Ministry. Having been married to a professor and sharing life with grad students and faculty in a campus church, she has a deep interest and care for those in the academy. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with a golden-retriever mix and a diverse array of lodgers and travelers.