Kate C. Bowler ’05 M.A.R.

2022Distinction in Theological Education

One of the finest traditions of YDS is its commitment to excellence in all dimensions of theological education. This award recognizes alumni whose scholarship, teaching or leadership and contributions to vocational formation for ministry reflect the best of YDS and its distinguished faculty. This year the award proudly goes to Professor Kate Bowler.

Kate Bowler is Associate Professor of the History of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School, with a focus on the property gospel and celebrity evangelical culture. In addition, she has achieved another kind of fame she didn’t expect or ask for. Seven years ago, at age 35, she was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. She had to share this crushing news with her husband and 3-year-old son. She discovered also that many others were moved to hear of her life’s unexpected turns, and be changed by them.

Despite the struggles to come—the many surgeries she endured, the many questions she raised about the widespread conviction that everything happens for a reason—she found ways to write about the experience, and she touched the whole world. With honesty and heartbreak and humor, her New York Times columns exposed cliches of false uplift and questioned the notion that all tragedy is a test of character and part of a divine plan. Her 2018 memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved) (Random House), became a bestseller. In addition to her teaching, research, speaking, blogging and podcasting, she runs the Everything Happens Book Club that explores these themes, generating community, catharsis, and hope. Her new book is No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear) (Random House, 2022).

Indeed, she has wrestled with an unforeseen irony: As a religious historian with a PhD from Duke, and having written the groundbreaking book Blessed: A History of American Prosperity Gospel (Oxford University Press, 2013), she was an expert on spiritual health and happiness who then suffered grave illness herself.

Through it all, she has forged some uncommon wisdom that has helped others articulate the poignant paradoxes of this fragile mortal life. She has faced the difficulty of speaking honestly about suffering, uncertainty, and the deepest meanings of life. Her readers are learning about the history of American Christianity, the pursuit of a full life despite pain, the endearing futility of bucket lists, and the indestructability of love. In one Times column last year she wrote:

“Our lives are unfinished and unfinishable. We do too much, never enough and are done before we’ve even started. We can only pause for a minute, clutching our to-do lists, at the precipice of another bounded day. The ache for more—the desire for life itself—is the hardest truth of all.”