Behind the gray sofa in Kate Bowler’s office hangs a sign that reads, “You Are My Bucket List.” At first blush, it appears to be your average cheeky Target-esque sign boasting millennial promises about the power of positive thinking. But the framed truism, like much of Kate Bowler’s writing, is a subtle inversion of the do-more messaging that dominates Instagram ads, megachurch pamphlets, and what Bowler jokingly calls the “gospel of Peloton.”
It’s the week after her new book, No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear), was released by Penguin Random House, and Bowler is on a tight interview circuit, with features on the Today show and in The Washington Post on her schedule alongside numerous church appearances. Just last week, her book leapt to number four on the Times nonfiction bestseller list.
In her Durham office between Zoom appearances, Bowler wipes makeup dust off her desk and makes a self-deprecating joke about the mess, before sitting down to talk about her book.
“My crisis for this book was, ‘Are we still allowed to want things, can we still hunger for things? If I’m a good person, if I find the right formula for how to live, will I stop wanting more?’” Bowler says. “Right now, all I want is to raise my kid and to live my life and to not have quite so much pain. But, aren’t I told from a spiritual perspective that I’m supposed to be super excited about heaven?”
Bowler’s hunger for more follows a long journey with cancer that, coupled with her decade-plus research on the prosperity gospel, sparked existential questions about what it means to want—and believe you are promised—the so-called good life.
Born in Manitoba, Canada, she grew up largely surrounded by a Mennonite community; her interest in the prosperity gospel was sparked when a new congregation appeared in her hometown, helmed by an ostentatious minister who rode a motorcycle across the stage.
What was it, she began to wonder, about this “idea that you have to be able to demonstrate in your body and finances and happiness that God loves you and that you have figured out how to solve your life?”
In 2005, a Master of Fine Arts in Religion at Yale—and countless Sundays listening to megachurch sermons—later, she moved to Durham and began a PhD in history at Duke. By this point, she’d gotten married (to her high school sweetheart, a Mennonite), had a baby, and written Blessed, a history of the prosperity gospel. Then, at the age of 35, came the crushing stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis.
Her first memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved), picks up where that deep suffering starts, as Bowler navigates potentially numbered days and an experimental immunotherapy treatment. Less than 3 percent of patients successfully respond to that treatment but in the end, Bowler did respond to it; No Cure for Being Human follows her recovery as she wades back into the raw questions her first memoir raised about being alive.
“Everybody pretends that you only die once,” she writes in the book. “But that’s not true. You can die to a thousand possible futures in the course of a single, stupid life.”
The writer Glennon Doyle calls her a “Christian Joan Didion,” which doesn’t feel quite right—Didion is an awfully high, and awfully frosty, style bar—but Didion would probably share Bowler’s obsessive insight into countercultures. Her unvarnished approach to writing manages to be raw and vulnerable, as well as dry and self-effacing (“It turns out,” she riffs to me, “that cheerfulness, resourcefulness, and the ability to navigate complex institutions are actually just qualities of the middle class and I was like, ‘oh crap, I thought I had a personality, but I’m just middle class.’”).
She’s also aware of the pitfalls and clichés (and lists them off: “fake vulnerability, the hot mess”) associated with writing a nonfiction book that might be mistaken for self-help.
But Bowler is at heart an academic, not a life coach, and many of the connections she draws about contemporary life feel resonant, even revelatory.
While most people’s idea of the prosperity gospel is served up by slick televangelism preachers like Joel Osteen, Bowler draws fascinating parallels to the fitness empires, self-help industries, and idioms of the gig economy that promise consumers that if we just try harder, wake up earlier, and believe in ourselves just a little bit more, self-actualization is within reach.
Cancer, of course, throws a wrench in the belief that anything is in our control, and, for many people, so did the COVID-19 pandemic—which was setting in just as Bowler (immunocompromised from cancer) was writing the book. In one of its best sections, she follows the thread.
“At first,” she writes, “the American middle class seemed to experience a surge of collective resolve…sourdough starters and suburban chicken coops and vegetable gardens popped up all over social media to showcase the shocking benefits of modern homesteading. Carpe diem! You got a Peloton!”
But then: “No matter how carefully we schedule our days, master our emotions, and try to wring our best life now from our better selves, we cannot master the problem of finitude. We will always want more. We need more.”
Hunger, she concludes wisely, is chronic. And whether or not you believe in the afterlife, the life in front of us now is messy and short. Perhaps, Bowler reasons, some freedom can be found in not chasing after perfect solutions to its messiness, or pedaling away every existential ache.
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