In “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me,” Kate Bowler, a religious historian, shares her experience of getting diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer at the age of 35. For anyone, this is devastating news, but for Bowler, there is added irony. She has dedicated her adult life to studying the prosperity gospel, which she describes as “the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith.” Bowler knows that believers in the prosperity gospel will point to some reason that she became ill.

It is thanks to the prosperity gospel that #blessed is a popular term, explains Bowler. She discerns a troubling presumption in this kind of thinking: people believe they are blessed because they have done the right things to become so. This is unfair to those whose fates take a turn in the opposite direction, but as humans, we are prone to needing to make sense out of life’s tragedies.

By the time my father discovered his pancreatic cancer, it was too late to operate, too late to fight with chemo, too late for anything–the cancer had already spread. In other words, he was not #blessed, but #screwed.

Blessed is a loaded term because it blurs the distinction between two very different categories: gift and reward. It can be a term of pure gratitude….But it can also imply that it was deserved. ….It is a perfect word for an American society that says it believes the American dream is based on hard work, not luck.[1]

Did my father think he had done something to deserve this? The one time we talked about his cancer, he dismissed it with an ironic chuckle and said, “Karma.”

He was referring to the fact that my maternal grandfather had also died an excruciating death of pancreatic cancer, and, while he was sick, my father had been unavailable on multiple levels.

“No!” I replied, horrified, instantly wanting to list all of his good actions, as if to make up for this fact.

“Why can’t this only happen to the rat bastards?” my stepbrother had joked with my father’s doctor, but it was something we all wondered.

I tried to imagine anyone rat-bastard-worthy enough to receive my father’s prognosis. Could my father, unbeknownst to me, have been a ‘rat bastard’ to someone else who thought he deserved this? What could someone possibly do to ever deserve to find out they were to die an impossibly hopeless and painful death? If he had to die, why couldn’t he go peacefully in his sleep, like his father?

One of the hardest parts of a terminal cancer diagnosis is trying to make sense of it. Why, we all wanted to know, is this man sick, the man who exercised daily and ate healthy food for his entire life? How is it that he is getting this horrible cancer when some other guy, way past his age, who has smoked and drank his entire life, is still hanging around?

I kept a running list: maybe it was the Honeybaked Ham, or the Arizona Iced Tea (too much sugar). He never understood that olive oil went rancid. He put plastic in the microwave. He sprayed too much Raid in his house.

I could have gone on, but none of that mattered. The biblical story of Job illustrates the dilemma of mortality, of trying to rationalize fate. James Hollis explains that Job “realizes he hubristically presumed his actions could somehow contain, finesse, possibly even control the autonomy of the transcendent powers.”[2] Or, in secular, psychological terms, Hollis explains:

At an archaic level of our psychological functioning, we often transfer to the universe, the company, the welfare state, the marriage an expectation that it will be the good parent and will therefore not let us down. Thus, when grief falls upon us or disappointment overthrows our plans, we feel betrayed, picked on, singled out, rather than summoned to a more sophisticated appreciation of the radical autonomy of the universe and the radical contingency of all things mortal.[3]

My father’s cancer was rampant and his death inevitable. He dealt with this news like the way I have heard that cats die: disappearing from world to die alone. He didn’t return my calls, texts or emails and used his second wife as a safety buffer from his friends and family.

“Things will get better, I just know it,” my stepmother said. “He will be in touch when he feels better.”

When I read Bowler’s words, they helped me to try to understand what happened in the last months of his life. While he was facing death, the culture around him supported other possibilities: palliative chemo, prayer, positive thinking and the gumption to fight. These quixotic attempts stand between us and our mortality, ridiculous, like a bad dream, a constant deferral of reality.

The prosperity gospel has taken a religion based on the contemplation of a dying man and stripped it of its call to surrender all. Perhaps worse, it has replaced Christian faith with the most painful forms of certainty. The movement has perfected a rarefied form of America’s addiction to self-rule, which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare down our deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder. At some point, we must say to ourselves, I’m going to need to let go.[4]

“To be filled with dread and wonder”: this is the way we felt in his last days, and yet, because of the way he died, we weren’t able to have the conversations I longed for, about his fears, his faith, his thoughts about his life. Maybe it was too much, and I respect that. But I can’t help wonder, if we were able to admit death, what might have changed. Maybe I would have felt more at peace sending him off into eternity.

[1] Kate Bowler, “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me,” New York Times, 2-13-16.

[2] James Hollis, Hauntings (Asheville, North Carolina: Chiron Publications, 2013), 98.

[3] Hollis, 100.

[4] Bowler, 2-13-16.


4 thoughts on “#screwed

  1. “Blessed” is a loaded and archaic term–it’s antonym being “cursed”. The term is, to this writer, an attempt by the ancients to make sense of why.
    Your essays are so layered and deftly written. I look forward to and absorb every single word:
    “. . .a constant deferral of reality.” bam!

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