When trouble strikes someone, the urge to share it is irresistible. Friends, family – we need to talk about it, and many of us have been deeply blessed by having those who'll listen to us when we do.
In these days of easy publishing, that impulse to share frequently translates itself into text as people blog about their experiences. Sometimes they turn into a real book, and sometimes – much more rarely – such books are good ones. What makes the difference, apart from skill with words, is the ability to reflect on and make some sense of what's happening. When we can follow the author through turmoil to a place of peace, even if it's a journey through unfamiliar terrain, we'll find the pilgrimage is worth the walk.
One of these books is Everything Happens for a Reason (and other lies I've loved) by Kate Bowler (SPCK, £12.99).
In her mid-thirties, with a husband and very young son, she's diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. She's an assistant professor at Duke University who's researched the prosperity gospel and prosperity preachers – and she did it as an insider, who was to a large extent part of that world. As she puts it: 'The prosperity gospel looks at the world as it is and promises a solution. It guarantees that faith will always make a way.' And she admits: 'no matter how many times I rolled my eyes at the creed's outrageous certainties, I craved them just the same. I had my own prosperity gospel, a flowering weed grown in with all the rest.'
Part of the story she tells is about coming to understand that this creed isn't enough. She describes a world where there's a refusal to accept death: where a pastor stops a funeral to pray for a child's resurrection, where there are all-night prayer vigils for a dying teenager, where a father is blamed by his wider family because his child is dying and it must be because he hasn't got enough faith. There are prosperity preachers like Ken and Gloria Copeland, who stood on the porch of their house as a tornado approached, prayed God would alter its path and watched it swerve away. Allegedly.
She writes about how some prosperity preachers send out wallets in the post, promising that God will multiply your wealth. There are others like Oral Roberts, who in his TV broadcasts lifted his hand to camera and invited viewers to touch their TV screen, the nearest to skin-to-skin contact you can get.
She has more sympathy for this than you'd think. She describes it as the recourse not just for people who are frustrated and poor and want things to go right, but for people who are happy and content, and need a reason for that: God is blessing them. As Bowler describes her struggles to become pregnant, there's a powerful description of the 'First Lady' of a Pentecostal church praying for money and tapping into the hidden desires of the congregation as they launch out into ecstatic prayers for everything they don't have. And: '"A baby," I said quietly as the shouting faded and people slumped back into their seats, exhausted. A baby.'
In her book, the prosperity gospel is the background to her situation rather than a real dialogue partner. She is too thoughtful to ask why it's not working for her. But it's a genuine spiritual journey: she prays, she listens to God, people pray with her and for her. Not all of them do it very well, and she describes, with pitch-black humour, attempts to comfort her that really don't hit the mark. She's going to die early, leaving behind a beloved husband, son and parents. There's nothing good about that.
At the end she has lists of what to say to a terminal cancer patient, and what not to say. They sum up Kate Bowler very well: desperately sad to go, but facing it anyway, with courage, hope and humour. At the moment she is undergoing experimental immunotherapy treatment and is expected to live for at least another year.
Everything Happens for a Reason (and other lies I've loved) is published by SPCK on February 6.