A Pietist's Bookshelf

by John E. Phelan Jr.

Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved Kate Bowler
Random House, 2018

Rethinking Incarceration Dominique DeBois Gilliard
InterVarsity Press, 2018

This may seem an odd pairing of books. Bowler’s work is an account of her struggle to come to terms spiritually and theologically with a dreadful cancer diagnosis. Gilliard’s book is an account of the growth of mass incarceration in the United States and the church’s response to the phenomenon. And yet, both books consider how theology, especially poor theology poorly used, impacts human life in very practical and sometimes very painful ways. Both books insist that an unexamined theology can do a great deal of harm to both individuals and communities. Our theology matters.

Kate Bowler is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School. She teaches American church history and researches and writes about the “prosperity gospel.” In 2015 she seemed poised for a fulfilling life and wonderful career. In addition to being hired by her alma mater, her book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel had recently been published to acclaim. After many years of disappointment she and her husband had recently welcomed the birth of a son. It seemed her life was indeed blessed. And then the unthinkable happened. She received a devastating diagnosis of stage four colon cancer. There was no hope for a cure. The only reasonable hope was to give her some more time with her family before she died. One nurse bluntly told her she needed to get used to the idea of dying. Everything Happens for a Reason is an account of her physical, emotional, and spiritual struggles in the face of this dreadful diagnosis and the theological questions it raised for her and others.

Bowler did not miss the irony of an expert in the “prosperity gospel” being afflicted with an incurable disease. This is in the prosperity gospel’s wheelhouse! God is willing to heal anything, prosperity preachers insist. If we are not healthy, wealthy, and happy it is not God’s fault; he wants that for all of us, they argue. Our illnesses and failures are not the result of fate or God’s will but our own weaknesses and faithlessness. Bowler the scholar recognized the cruelty of this view in her research. But as a cancer patient with a terminal diagnosis it became profoundly personal. Bowler’s readers may find themselves troubled by the prosperity gospel’s confident cruelty. But the book suggests that however dissimilar our view of God to that of prosperity preachers we may consciously or unconsciously wonder, as Jesus’ disciples did, “who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind.” In the face of loss and suffering even the kindest and most well-meaning person can be unintentionally cruel. Wanting life to be predictable and stable we can, out of our fear and a need to control, look for ways to blame the sick and failing for their own condition as a way to avoid confronting our own mortality. No, Bowler insists, everything does not happen for a reason.

Bowler skillfully tells her story with brutal honesty and surprising humor. I found myself frequently laughing out loud. At the end of the book she includes a helpful list of what-not-to-say-to-a-cancer-patient and an equally helpful list of what to do and say. Bowler was able to get into an experimental program at Emory University that has not cured but kept her cancer at bay. She is hoping to see her now four-year-old son grow to adulthood, but lives with a disease she knows will eventually take her life. This is a very human, very honest, very raw, and very funny book by a thoughtful scholar and a person with, as she recently told an interviewer, a “big Jesusy heart.” Bowler offers no easy answers but allows the reader to live, sometimes painfully, with the questions.

Dominique Gilliard is a graduate of North Park Theological Seminary and an ordained Covenant pastor. He is currently serving the denomination as director of “racial righteousness and reconciliation” for the “Love Mercy, Do Justice” initiative of the Evangelical Covenant Church. The first half of his book covers the rise of mass incarceration in the United States. He shows how Southern prisons were used after the Civil War and well into the 20th Century to control the African-American population — especially African-American males. An unemployed African-American male in the south could find himself imprisoned for something as minor as vagrancy and assigned to some of the cruelest prisons in the country. The prison population became a source of cheap labor and was in a real sense an extension of slavery by other means. This was one of many “pipelines” into the prison system described by Gilliard that disproportionately impacted the African-American and Hispanic communities. Gilliard draws on the work of Michelle Alexander and others to tell this story and tells it well.

The second half of the book addresses the church’s response to crime and punishment. Gilliard argues that theology has, perhaps ironically, made a significant contribution to both mass incarceration and harsher prison sentences. He contends that in the United States in particular the doctrine of “penal substitutionary atonement,” much preferred by the Calvinist majority in the early days of the republic, led to harsh punishments and little sympathy for prisoners. Whereas Anselm had argued that Christ’s death “satisfied” God with regard to human sin, Calvin would insist that Jesus was punished on our behalf so as to divert the wrath of God. Since a crime was a sin it stood to reason that every crime had to be “paid for” just as Jesus had paid the price for our sin. This was especially seen in capital punishment where criminals in both Europe and the United States paid with their lives for a long list of crimes–and not just for taking human life. Many religious leaders argued it was no less than they deserved. Gilliard makes the case that this notion of imprisonment as punishment and rather than restoration or reconciliation is deeply rooted in our society because it is deeply rooted in our theology. Rather than mere punishment for crimes he makes a case for restorative justice that reconciles the offender to the victims as well as the wider community.

These fine books make it clear that theology matters, and not just for theologians! Our thoughtless theologies can wound — even kill. Both books are well written and engaging. Both deserve a place on the Pietist’s Bookshelf.