Kate Bowler’s second memoir struggling with faith, a cancer diagnosis, and a culture obsessed with the power of positive thinking

No cure for being human (and other truths I need to hear) by Kate Bowler | Random penguin house; September 28

Behind the gray sofa in Kate Bowler’s office is a sign that reads: “You are my bucket list.” At first glance, it seems like your average cheeky Target-esque sign touting millennial promises about the power of positive thinking. But the boxed truism, like much of Kate Bowler’s writing, is a subtle reversal of the do-more messaging that dominates Instagram ads, mega-church brochures, and what Bowler jokingly calls “the gospel of Platoon ”.

It’s the week after his new book, No cure for being human (and other truths I need to hear), was published by Penguin Random House, and Bowler is on a tight interview circuit, with reporting on the Today show and in The Washington Post on her schedule alongside numerous church appearances. As recently as last week, his book jumped to number four on the Times non-fiction bestseller list.

In his Durham office between Zoom appearances, Bowler wipes the makeup dust off his desk and makes a self-deprecating joke about the mess, before sitting down to talk about his book.

“My crisis for this book was, ‘Are we still allowed to want things, can we still be hungry for things? If I’m a good person, if I find the right formula for living, will I stop wanting more? ‘ Says Bowler. “Right now, all I want to do is raise my child and live my life and not have so much pain. But, aren’t I being told from a spiritual standpoint that I’m supposed to be super excited about Heaven? “

Bowler’s thirst for more follows a long journey against cancer which, coupled with his more than a decade of research on the prosperity gospel, has prompted existential questions about what it means to want – and to believe that one promises you – the so-called good life.

Born in Manitoba, Canada, she grew up largely surrounded by a Mennonite community; his interest in the prosperity gospel was sparked when a new congregation appeared in his hometown, led by an ostentatious pastor who drove across the stage on a motorcycle.

What was it, she began to wonder, about that “idea that you have to be able to demonstrate in your body, your finances and your happiness that God loves you and that you have figured out how to solve? your life?”

In 2005, an MA in Religion at Yale – and countless Sundays listening to mega-church sermons – she later moved to Durham and began a PhD in History at Duke. By this point, she had married (to her high school sweetheart, a Mennonite), had a baby, and had written Blessed, a prosperity gospel story. Then, at the age of 35, came the overwhelming diagnosis of stage 4 colon cancer.

His first thesis, Everything happens for a reason (and other lies that I loved), picks up where this deep suffering begins, as Bowler goes through potentially numbered days and experimental immunotherapy treatment. Less than 3% of patients responded successfully to this treatment, but in the end Bowler responded; No cure for human being follows her recovery as she delves into the stark questions her early memoirs raised about being alive.

“Everyone claims you only die once,” she writes in the book. ” But this is not true. You can die of a thousand possible futures in one stupid life.

Writer Glennon Doyle calls her a ‘Christian Joan Didion’, which doesn’t seem quite right – Didion is a terribly tall, terribly frigid style bar – but Didion would likely share Bowler’s obsessive take on cons. cultures. Her unvarnished approach to writing manages to be raw and vulnerable, as well as dry and erased (“It turns out,” she tells me, “that cheerfulness, ingenuity, and the ability to navigate complex institutions are actually just middle class qualities and I was like, ‘Oh shit, I thought I had a personality, but I’m just middle class.’ ”).

She is also aware of the pitfalls and clichés (and lists them: “false vulnerability, hot mess”) associated with writing a non-fiction book that could be mistaken for self-help.

But Bowler is at heart an academic, not a life coach, and many of the connections she makes to contemporary life seem resonant, even revealing.

While most people’s idea of ​​the prosperity gospel is served by astute televangelist preachers like Joel Osteen, Bowler draws fascinating parallels to fitness empires, self-help industries and gig economy idioms that promise consumers that if we just try harder, wake up earlier, and believe in ourselves a little more, self-actualization is within reach.

Cancer, of course, throws a wrench into the belief that everything is under our control, and, for many people, so does the COVID-19 pandemic – which was setting in just as Bowler (immunosuppressed by cancer) was writing. the book. In one of her best sections, she follows the thread.

“At first,” she writes, “America’s middle class seemed to be experiencing a surge of collective determination… suburban sourdoughs, henhouses and vegetable gardens popped up on social media to show the shocking benefits of modern family ownership. . Carpe Diem! You have a platoon!

But then, “No matter how well we plan our days, master our emotions, and try to make our best life now out of our best selves, we can’t get our hands on the finiteness problem.” We will always want more. We need more. “

Hunger, she wisely concludes, is chronic. And whether or not you believe in the hereafter, life before us now is messy and short. Perhaps, Bowler argues, some freedom can be found by not pursuing perfect solutions to one’s disorder, or by pedaling to eliminate all existential pains.

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