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Review: Kate Bowler's latest memoir 'No Cure for Being Human' is incurably wise

No Cure for Being Human

NO CURE FOR BEING HUMAN. By Kate Bowler. Random House. 202 pages. $27.

I was first introduced to Kate Bowler at a Duke Women’s Weekend event in February 2019 — at one of those programs typically geared for successful CEOs and alums of influence the university is courting for fundraising. Giving a religion professor the keynote slot seemed an odd choice. Their particular intellectual and theological brilliance wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and rarely roused standing ovations.

But the particular brilliance of Kate Bowler, who indeed garnered a long and loud ovation, is what you’d hope for from any professor, any speaker — and, as she proves in her new book “No Cure for Being Human,” any writer. Bowler is utterly relatable, wise, hilarious, and real.

At Duke, Bowler is an associate professor of the history of Christianity in North America, whose area of expertise is the prosperity gospel — the movement that equates faithfulness with abundance in a typically American consumption-based theology. Her 2013 book “Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel” (Oxford University Press) garnered accolades for elucidating the mega-church messages that promised believers a divine benevolence of health, wealth and happiness.

The problem with this sunny-side-up gospel is that life doesn’t work this way. It’s not all rainbows and unicorns and new SUVs and happy endings, Praise God. It’s often also job loss and marital misery and kids who flunk geometry and horrible diagnoses — as Bowler learned shortly after “Blessed” came out, when at age 35 she was diagnosed with Stage-IV colon cancer.

Her first memoir, “Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved),” written when her son Zach was 4, expressed the pain not only of umpteen cancer surgeries and a brutal treatment regimen, but of the hurt caused by of our culture’s ubiquitous self-help mantras suggesting that tragedies are a test of character.

She basically called BS on the oft-heard consolation that God never gives you more than you can handle. No, everything does not always happen for a reason, she debunked, writing not in footnoted professorial mode, but in first person, heart-wide-open mode.

And now, in this follow-up, the reader gets an even wiser, even funnier, even more divine Kate Bowler — the somewhat goofy, irreverent Mennonite from Canada who loves quirky “World’s Largest” roadside attractions, the feel of her son’s eyelashes kissing her check, and telling it like it is.

Facing finitude, she struggles with the “Best Life Now” maxim to live in the moment. “Our therapeutic culture swears this is freedom: freedom from our dizzying thoughts and our conflicting emotions as we exorcise the demons of negativity and desire,” she writes. “In this new strain of heroic individualism, people master the world by conquering their own inner worlds.”

But her inner world is like most of our inner sock drawers — a big mismatched, slightly smelly mess, with an occasional hole where our big toe should go. She longs to “believe in the beauty of eternity, the endless future spooled out before us,” as the Christian story teaches. “But all that feels useless. All I have is now,” she writes.

“I want to be alive until I am not. There will never be enough of these moments for me,” continues Bowler, whose cancer is currently in remission thanks to a clinical trial. “Enough anniversaries with the man who still thinks that late adolescence was an acceptable time to get married. Enough pages of history books that I scribble and then immediately send to my father, who will put on his glasses and squint at the screen impassively until he loudly declares it to be ‘Quite acceptable!’ Enough early mornings feeding spoonfuls of glop into my son’s mouth between our fits of giggling. And if those are the measures of time, I am bankrupt.”

Bowler’s glops are glorious. She bowls you over with rawness and awe over our incurably beautiful humanness. Funny, poignant and powerful, her pages prompt heartache and bellyaching laughter, reverence and joy, tears that careen down your smiling face — as sure a sign as any that in this fragile, fraying-at-the-edges world, you are alive, you are feeling what it means to love this world and its precious people — even the ones who disappoint you.

A life well lived isn’t about the check marks on your bucket list, Bowler discovers: “It is much easier to count items than to know what counts.”

My copy of “No Cure” is page after page of penciled exclamation marks and underlined passages like that last one: little koans for the Christian cynic — those of us less concerned with the hereafter than with the “crappy regular stuff.”

Mired in that stuff, Bowler suggests, “There is nothing particularly glamorous about us, except that we have moments when we are shockingly magnanimous before forgetting about it the next day.”

Bowler calls “No Cure” her “medium-sad book.” I call it shatteringly magnanimous. Who knows, you might even consider a religion professor as your next keynote speaker.

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Reviewer Stephanie Hunt is a writer based in the Lowcountry.

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