In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Kate Bowler joins Pete and Jared to discuss how suffering can cause us to adjust what we think God is like and how harmful the prosperity gospel can be. Together they explore the following questions:
- What are the primary theological themes of the prosperity gospel?
- Where did the prosperity gospel get its origin?
- How did a predominately healing-centered prosperity gospel expand to include money?
- What are the biblical underpinnings of the prosperity gospel movement?
- How is Deuteronomic theology used to prop up the tenants of the prosperity gospel?
- How does healing theology embedded within the prosperity gospel manage to equate Jesus’ death on the cross with our own illnesses and suffering?
- In what way do self-help and cultural myths impact folks who are experiencing suffering in their own lives?
- How does suffering alter our perception of God and faith?
- What cultural formulas have become theological source beds for the prosperity gospel?
- Why is our culture so reluctant to deal with death and suffering?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Kate Bowler you can share.
- “It’s very difficult to know what the word faith means. It was hard to reimagine faith and trust and hope and what all those words mean if there is in fact no solution to pain.” @KatecBowler
- There is no cure to being human; finitude is going to be part of this deal. I no longer live in a world in which God’s reasons are immediately discernible to me. I just don’t.” @KatecBowler
- “There is such a deep desire, just naturally, to explain away the things that just scare the crap out of us. And of course, the unexplained suffering of others really gets at that place.” @KatecBowler
- “We have a multi-billion-dollar wellness industry that really does convince us that all our problems are solvable. So, your life is a problem to be solved. Finitude is a problem to be solved.” @KatecBowler
- “Part of what I’ve been so grateful is when people seem to have learned to put down some of that anxiety over not being able to solve other people’s pain, if not their own, and they learn to leave a little breathing room for ambiguity, for not knowing.” @KatecBowler
Mentioned in This Episode
- Website: thebiblefornormalpeople.com
- Book: No Cure for Being Human and Other Truths I Need to Hear
- Website: Kate Bowler
- Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Pete: Hello, everybody. Welcome to this episode of the podcast and our topic today is
“A Prosperity Gospel and a Theology of Suffering,” and our guest is Kate Bowler.
Jared: Yeah, Kate is the Associate Professor of the History of Christianity in North America, that’s a long title –
Jared: At Duke Divinity. But it means that she knows what she’s talking about. She’s also the author of the new book, No Cure for Being Human and Other Truths I Need to Hear.
Pete: Yeah, an academic who has also gone through some stuff and she melds those things together and makes a really compelling number of points about suffering and about the prosperity gospel. We learned some stuff today, didn’t we?
Jared: Yeah, absolutely. I think it was, it’s fun to have guests who are both educational, like learning things, but also are relatable and having just gone through life – and she definitely brought both of those in spades.
Pete: It was a fun episode if we can say that about suffering. Right?
Jared: Yeah, right. Which we can because we’re weird like that.
Pete: Because we can do what we want.
Jared: That’s right. Alright, let’s get into it.
Kate: There is no cure to being human. Finitude is going to be part of this deal, but man do I understand prosperity gospel that says they just want to be able to look back through the details of their life and be able to draw that straight line between “and then things worked out because I have a God who loves me.” I no longer live in a world in which God’s reasons are immediately discernable to me. I just don’t.
Jared: Well welcome to the podcast, Kate. It’s great to have you.
Kate: It is so good to be here.
Jared: So, we want to start with, just to kind of set the stage of what is the prosperity gospel. Maybe give us a little history too, a little meat, not just the dictionary definition.
Jared: Why did you – how did you get into this? So, kind of three-in-one here. Just go.
Kate: Sure. Well, I was –
Pete: And we want the history going all the way back to Jesus if possible–
He was a pensive man, Pete, as you know.
Jared: This is a special nine-hour episode of The Bible for Normal People.
Kate: Well, let’s see, I was a very easily disappointed Canadian on the prairies of Manitoba –
Pete: [Light laughter]
Kate: And I saw that a church that looked like a factory had gone up near my house. And honestly, they had just put up a red light and it was our only fast road that goes around Winnipeg, so I was very disappointed. So, I was just sitting there stewing about this red light and I just saw hundreds of people pouring out of this, I thought, industrial wasteland, which turns out was a megachurch and I’d never seen a megachurch before. And then I discovered that it was not just a megachurch, but it was a prosperity megachurch, or at least people were telling me that there was a pastor who talked a lot about money and that he had recently been given a motorcycle for a liturgical holiday called Pastor’s Appreciation Day –
Kate: And that he had driven that motorcycle around on stage and I was so whipped up, as you could not imagine, already knowing me for these thirty seconds that I get very easily incensed. I was like – absolutely not, this is for Americans. And I told everyone that and I wasn’t entirely sure what I meant. I think I was mostly frustrated that –
Pete: But, you were right.
Kate: I was, thank you. Thank you, Pete. I was absolutely, I think, mostly right, except at the time it was mostly my Mennonite friends that were going there. This –
Pete: So, you were raised Mennonite?
Kate: I went to a Mennonite Church and Mennonite Bible Camp. I’m not ethnically Mennonite, but I married a Penner, so I have been welcomed into the –
Pete: Mennonite Mafia.
Kate: Yes. The cheese-eaters of the prairies. And, yeah, I thought, well, Mennonites won’t do that. They’re, you know, pacifists. You know? Always just a Marie Kondo experience away from a mid-century modern aesthetic and I thought no way. And so, when I went to school in the states, I thought, what an interesting question is like how are these – how is this language of health and wealth popping up? And so I thought I would do, I thought I might read a history book about it and then when I couldn’t find one, I just got this very creepy look in my eye and I was like – this is it. This is my plan.
So, I ruined my whole twenties visiting megachurches and religious theme parks and attending healing services and I was, of course, immediately struck by the fact the prosperity gospel was, like I had done, too easily caricatured. I thought this is not respectable. This is not, it was too easily dismissed. And so, I began a more thoughtful, more considered, I hope, study about what are the kind of primary theological themes of the movement and where did they get their origin?
Pete: Yeah. Can we talk about that?
Kate: Um, no. This is actually the end of our conversation.
Pete: No. We’re done. Thank you. We’re done.
Kate: It was super nice to meet you. It was so great.
Pete: Could you talk about some of the mischaracterizations and maybe the theological underpinnings of the prosperity gospel?
Kate: Sure, I mean, I think the first, most distinctive part about it is it has a very unusual language for faith, is that maybe in regular, like in Sunday School, I’d always been taught that faith was a synonym for hope or for trust, and I realized quickly that they meant by faith they meant that it was a kind of spiritual power. It was a kind of latent force that could be unleashed by a certain spiritual mechanism. So, they were teaching people how to speak positively in a certain way. Curb negative speech. This was always kind of nightmare for me at the beginning of a megachurch service where you’re sitting beside a stranger and they’re like, “How are you doing?”
Pete: Eww. That’s like passing the peace or something.
Pete: That’s hard.
Kate: And then you start just gently complaining about something and you realize that when someone says, “How are you?” that it’s a trick question because the answer is “blessed.”
Pete: Yes, okay.
Kate: So, I thought – oh wow, there’s such an enormous spiritual formation around certain kinds of speech and also certain kinds of thought and practice. That there was a lot of emphasis on visualization on say, if you’re sick, like, putting Scripture around your house. So, that by seeing it that you’re constantly stoking the work of faith. And yeah, it was that definition of faith, which in fact, had a much longer history than I expected, that it came really out of the confluence of maybe four different streams beginning in the late 19th Century. That one was a very deeply American confidence in righteous individuals and bootstrapping that came out of a particular kind of gilded age of capitalism and the other was a combination with the early Pentecostal movement. They were really kind of playing around with what makes the difference between someone who is healed and someone who is not healed. It was primarily, faith was used, mostly just to test healing and not yet money. That came later. And the development of a very rich metaphysical tradition in the United States that language of frequency and vibrations and that aligning your faith with these universal laws as sure as gravity, that that was what we now kind of think of as either maybe from The Secret or Oprah or just your local Peloton instructor –
Pete: [Light laughter]
Kate: Had in fact a very long and rich and quite sectarian history that poured into the movement. And I guess maybe the fourth thing is what just unifies them all which is just a wildly high anthropology, just a theology of human potentiality.
Jared: Meaning that we can tap into the divine in these greater and greater ways through these mechanisms.
Kate: Yeah. Yeah. You know it sounds so – it’s got so many cousins that I’m sure we can all immediately think of, right? That it has resonance with certain theologies of sanctification, that we are like a perfectibility project, though I’m sure Methodists, upon hearing that, would be sort of throwing themselves off a cliff right now. But, the feeling, yeah, that the divine is – you know, I remember a sermon by Creflo Dollar, who is a famous prosperity preacher, and he said, you know, “When Jesus comes back, he’s going to look at us and it’s going to be like looking in a mirror. It’s going to be so hard to tell us apart.” That is such a sky-high anthropology that to imagine that we could really become something so close to the divine is, it’s anthropology on steroids.
Jared: So, you mentioned that the money part came in later, but I know that’s kind of the caricature. So, how did that become part of this scene in this process?
Kate: Sure. It had some sort of early play. So, one of the first developments in new thought was the move from faith for health to faith for finances. So, we’ve got some early 20th century kind of money manuals and those cheap dime novels that were, that – very much like the Horatio Alger stories that were also very popular.
Kate: It was kind of like a city religion, something that helps explain the difference between the rich and the poor when people are all crowded up next to each other. But Pentecostals didn’t really get, I they’re kind of the primary bearers of the prosperity movement, is they didn’t really get so into the story about money until the forties and fifties when a group of tent revivalists became very popular in the United States and Canada and northern Mexico and they would pop up these sort of canvas cathedrals and host huge gatherings.
And these demonstrations of faith like lengthening legs and laying on of hands to cure all kinds of diseases, soon was buoyed by this post-World War II economic confidence in which people were bulldozing fields to make suburbs and suddenly had these cars that looked like land yachts and this economic confidence that especially white, suburban America was experiencing sort of begged more and more theological language. And so, people began to promise things like – you know how they always like do giveaways or “you mail in a certain amount of money you’re going to get.” It used to be just anointed handkerchiefs, but soon it was wallets that might multiply money inside of it or –
Pete: Hmm. We should take notes, Jared. We need to do this kind of stuff for our –
Jared: Yeah, thank you.
Pete: Yeah, these are great ideas.
Kate: Yeah, I feel like podcasting is always a medium that needs a financial model and that’s a really good one. You just need to –
Jared: That’s our next campaign
Well, and they needed more language for it. So, even the language of seed faith, which is a very distinctive prosperity phrase like the idea that your faith is like seeds that get planted in the ground. They’re dormant for a season and then they spring up and the harvest is always more than what was planted. That was a term that was coined by televangelist faith-healer Oral Roberts in order to try and make sense of the idea of money multiplication. So, they’re really kind of inventing words, playing around with it as they are, in fact, going from mostly men who grew up as quite poor Pentecostal kids with a faith from the wrong side of the tracks to like a very, I mean gosh, they were some of the very first television pioneers. So, they very quickly established themselves as sort of suit and tie kind of guys.
Pete: Right. You mentioned Oral Roberts and Creflo Dollar – for people who are new to this, what other famous prosperity gospel preachers have been out there that they might be aware of?
Kate: Well, there’s – every demographic kind of has their own famous prosperity preacher and this is true internationally. I was in Guatemala that has, their prosperity preacher is a guy named Cash Luna. And I was like, ugh, this is wonderful. Wonderful. Everywhere I go, there’s always a local.
Pete: Cash. That’s like a made-up novel name.
Kate: I know. Isn’t that wonderful?
Pete: That can’t possibly be right.
Kate: Yes, he needs his own television series. So Black, white, Hispanic, each kind of had its own celebrities. So, in African American prosperity theology, the earlier celebrities were Sweet Daddy Grace in the Great Depression. In the 50’s and 60’s it became Reverend Ike and he had, so charming, he used to have these, you know, “don’t wait for your faith by and by, but have it all now with a cherry on top.” He always was great with these sorts of wonderful schticky kinds of sentences that always caught people’s attention. I mean, one of the earliest sort of theological pioneers of prosperity theology was Kenneth Hagan. And much of this, in terms of the infrastructure and theology really grows up in the urban Sun Belt. I’m using my hands because it’s a visual medium, obviously, gentlemen, so you can just see that I’m doing Urban Sun Belt gestures right now with my hands. But from Tulsa, Dallas, all the way to – California was anchored in the eighties by Jan and Paul Crouch and Frederick Price – and then all the way over to Atlanta with folks like Creflo Dollar and everyone had their own flavor. So, the reformed had Robert Schuler and his Crystal Cathedral. And the, you know, the more sort of rough and tumble had people who were a little more like, well, Jim Baker got very smooth, but you could kind of pick your own flavor of prosperity theology and it was going to be everywhere.
Jared: So, what was undergirding this biblically? Because I kind of grew up in this, you know, we had Creflo Dollar, Jesse Duplantis, Paul and Jan Crouch, like, definitely in our wheelhouse growing up.
Jared: And the Bible was very much a part of that. So, what were the verses that they turned to to sort of prop up and give evidence for why they’re in the right and kind of in the Christian tradition that needed to be followed?
Kate: Jared, can I ask you that question? Because, I feel like I’m with two biblical scholars, so it feels like now is the right time to say, what verses did you get? Because I will throw a bunch your way too, but I am very curious.
Jared: Well, it’s interesting because when you ask that, I’d have to go back and really reflect on what the whole verses are because I think the bigger point was there were lots of pieces of verses. There was like this stitching together of, you know, the analogies and metaphors of store house and treasures and basically any time riches and treasure and finances –
Pete: The Proverbs were used for that.
Jared: You would just get pieces of that and sort of throw it all together and then it just became the sheer amount of it, you just start getting convinced. I mean, there’s like twelve of these passages that mention this kind of thing, like, it just feels really compelling, but I don’t remember a lot of like here’s a whole parable of Jesus that’s about this thing, it just was a lot of snippets.
Pete: Yeah, I think of like the Abraham story too. He had a lot of stuff. He was a rich guy.
Kate: He was. Yeah.
Pete: He had so much stuff he couldn’t live with his nephew.
Jared: And King David too.
Pete: You can find it is the point.
Jared: Examples of affluence.
Pete: You can find passages. Anyway, nobody is getting this from the Bible, right? At least, that’s my impression, Kate. No one is – the Bible is not the source of it. It’s more something that can come into conversation with things like the sociological things you’ve referred to. You know, the American competence, early Pentecostal movement, high anthropology, there are cultural things.
Jared: Well, I’m going to disagree with Pete –
Pete: How dare you.
Jared: And then you can decide, Kate.
Kate: I will. I will. I feel ready.
Jared: You’re on the stand here.
Kate: Thank you.
Jared: The only thing I would say is, and I want to get to the nuance of this. This is also my way of segueing us, but there is something in what we might call, to kind of be nerdy, the Deuteronomic theology here of – “if you do good things, good things will happen to you. If you do bad things, bad things will happen to you.” I feel like that was, it wasn’t moralistic, but in my tradition of this kind of prosperity gospel we took it out of a moral realm, and not just if you do good things, good things will happen to you, but if you follow these right paths, these great things will follow.
Pete: Well, you’ll prosper in the land.
Jared: You will prosper.
Jared: So, it’s taking a Deuteronomic theology and then overlaying it with kind of our cultural context of well, we didn’t need to not be invaded by enemies, we want to get rich or we want these other – we want health. So, to say it’s not found in the Bible, I would maybe challenge that and say the entire framework sometimes of the Old Testament kind of does follow this, if you do good stuff, good things happen to you. It just happens to be that our flavor of it was a little different. So, Kate, weigh in on our conversation.
Pete: Yeah. Who’s right?
Jared: Who’s right?
Kate: I’m kind of weighing in too, I really would’ve said Deuteronomic imperative too, really. Like, the arc of it, like the relationship between reward and righteousness feels really intuitive to people scripturally. I also think, you know, Proverbs is hella-bossy on these sorts of “never have I seen the righteous go hungry” sorts of things. I mean, it struggles, of course, with the martyrdom of the early church and the general failure of Jesus to prosper, but in one account, in one sort of account of –
Jared: I like how you just throw, that’s like a throwaway. We’ll just keep moving on past that.
Kate: But their atonement theory is quite particular on what precisely Jesus dies for. Like what do we nail the cross? And for a very well-developed healing theology in which not only our sins but our burdens and pains and then therefore our very specific diseases, and not to be silly, but some of it does… There’s been moments where I’m like – “Did you just pray about elephantiasis being nailed to the cross?” I did have moments like that.
Kate: But the particularity of assigning our illnesses with a spiritual solution and then watching Jesus’s wounds, there’s all kinds of “by his stripes we are healed” visual analogies between Jesus’s suffering wanting to take on our own and then from there it’s the half-step, quarter-step to – “and then he also takes on our debt,” not just spiritually but literally. And they’ve really framed the cross with –
Pete: A lot.
Kate: To put simplistically, Jesus was doing all the hard work that we might have, and then it goes straight Easter Sunday in which we get to live in this victorious aftermath which is always a struggle with Paul and the Romans.
Jared: I think the reason I bring that up earlier is because I think that it is biblical in a sense. I think it is, I guess now, that I’m older, I’m not particularly a part of that tradition anymore, I just feel like it’s so easy to dismiss it as like – how could you believe this? It kind of starts to become a caricature. Instead, I just think, like you said, I really appreciate what you have said in the past and are saying here. It’s really just like a half-step, like if you just take a few half-steps, then you can get here pretty easily, actually.
I just think that’s an important thing to state because I think it’s easy to dismiss maybe the more extravagant examples of this, but it gets harder to weed out the places where we have similar foundational assumptions in our everyday life.
Kate: Oh, totally. Yeah, and I think it really, it can work forwards from an understanding of righteousness and obedience and its rewards, but it also works directly backwards from the character of God. To say, you know, is not God good? Does God not want – you know, who would, when their child asks for bread to give them a stone? I mean in a world in which we have pediatric oncology and hotels that collapse and I’m just, the wild individual structural moral natural evil of all kinds, it does feel more theologically intuitive sometimes to just say like, man, can we just start from the idea that God is good and therefore good things should possibly be within our reach?
Pete: That’s a way of making sense of things, right?
Jared: Which for you, kind of your story, I want to maybe make that turn because, for those who don’t know, and I don’t, you can say more about your story, but you had a diagnosis that sort of led to a different perspective of God and these things of evil and how do we handle some of this, so maybe you could share some of that story and tie it to how it shifted your perspectives on all of this.
Kate: Sure, yeah. Well, I mean I was thirty-five when I was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer and it was absolutely, a truly, it was unbelievable to me because I, you know no cancer in my family, no indication that I was going to be like unbearably unlucky in my life in that and that there was really going to be no, certainly no easy way out, but maybe no way out at all. And I think people probably, maybe everybody would feel surprised or something. And just in the shock and sadness etc. of it being you and not someone else, you always know it’s that other person that was struck by tragedy. But when it’s actually you, there is just like the weirdest, most surreal feeling like, that to me felt really close to outrage. Not just outrage for my kid and my husband and everybody else who gets a terrible deal from my death but like, yes, but haven’t I been pretty good this whole time?
Pete: Mm hmm.
Kate: I mean, not just Bible camp good, but like – become a Divinity School professor and not commit any of the exciting sins kind of good. And, what an, what a strange kind of thing to have to imagine that there is genuinely no reward for being good.
Pete: Do we get nothing out of this?
Kate: I’m sorry. Is this not in any way going to contribute, not just to my comfort or my, you know, wouldn’t I love to enjoy a four-door sedan, but like, you mean I don’t even get to be a mom? I get to give the gift of perpetual sadness to my family who must live in the wake of what’s happened to me? It just, it really felt impossible to imagine that that was something that God could sort of be blasé about and I felt a lot of – it took me a bit to try to even imagine compassion toward all the Christian answers I then got. Wow, because wow, as a culture, we sure do love to explain God and so, I got a lot of immediate, not just kind of “God wants an angel” sorts of things but “heaven is the solution to the problem of pain” or God – what is the verb there for God turns everything to the good, that verse?
Pete: Goodifies it.
Jared: Well, yeah, In Romans 8:28, God turns all things…
Pete: Work out for the good.
Jared: Works together.
Kate: Comes together. Like it was all just some sort of conspiracy to teach, there’s a lot of people wanting me to learn spiritual lessons and –
Pete: It’s almost like you needed to learn them or something, you know, like there is something wrong with you even.
Jared: It’s an opportunity for you to learn; it’s an object lesson.
Pete: Yeah. And they’re going to teach you even though they’ve never experienced this.
Kate: Or met me. Or –
Pete: Know you.
Kate: I mean, there is such a deep desire just naturally to explain away the things that just scare the crap out of us and of course the unexplained suffering of others really gets at that place, but I could really see how it’s very difficult personally to know what, even like what the word faith means. People say, “have faith in God,” and it always felt like, what’s the end of that sentence? Have faith in God to do what?
Kate: Because I don’t have relationships with people in which I might say that I have faith in them without actually having a series of specific things in mind. Like that they’re trustworthy and they do what they say they’re going to do. That they show up, that they – you know – etc. And so, it was hard then to reimagine faith and trust and hope and what all those words mean if there is in fact no solution to pain. And that’s why I started to get really, it’s taken me a bit to kind of shape the words in my mind. Like, the thing that I say to myself is that there is no cure to being human. There is – finitude is going to be part of this deal, but man, do I understand prosperity gospel that they just want to be able to look back through the details of their life and be able to draw that straight line between – and then things worked out because I have a God who loves me.
Pete: Okay, so did you then struggle with the theology that you were a part of, or did you really struggle with God’s injustice? I think there’s a difference between those two things. Like, “God is fine, but boy these people fed me a bill of goods” or is it more like “I have no idea who God is”? I have to start over.
Kate: I have like a nice bonus, which is that –
Pete: You’re an atheist?
Kate: I am now here to tell you that I am no – No, I really did experience the unbelievable comfort of the Holy Spirit, like the more I was in the hospital, the more I suffered, the worse things got, really the Holy Spirit was such a very weird shocking bonus and then I – so there was a sense always that even though I was horrified by what was happening that I did not experience God’s absence in any way. But I was very angry at what it’s like to live under the weight of so many cultural solutions for how to live or how to die and that has been the thing that I devote so much of my intellectual and spiritual energy to which is sort of pulling apart these kind of self-help and cultural myths we have because I just think that it endlessly compounds the suffering of people already going through too much.
Pete: So, you’re really giving a theology of suffering, in a sense, right? Like how to think about it Christianly, right? Is that a fair way of putting it?
Pete: So, one thing. I mean, I came across something that you said someplace or wrote someplace, I don’t remember, but, “there are no reasons or formulas,” which I think is a very profound and catchy thing. Can you just flesh that out a little bit more?
Kate: Well, I think what I was struggling with was the fear of living in a hyper-causal universe in which everybody’s reasons, even the lovely ones, even the ones I’m not entirely sure that there’s a great argument for or against like when like, “God has a plan,” or like, “all things are good…”
I just, I think that – bless the reformed, bless them.
Kate: I just don’t have, I no longer live in a world in which God’s reasons are immediately discernible to me. I just don’t. And also, I found it very difficult to escape all of the even the cultural formulas for how we live. I’m just never far from a juicing cleanse that someone is recommending me or the “everything happens for a reason” crowd. It’s just, I feel like they’re just trolling me wherever I go or can’t go into a Target without being forced into just a “Good Vibes Only” section of the women’s department and so much of that is these very same sort of theological source beds that we’re talking about for the prosperity gospel – the American theology of triumphalist individualism, these implicit theologies of health and wealth, and this metaphysical idea that somehow our positivity draws back to ourselves like a boomerang, every good thing.
So, I’ve really been thinking about just how each formula, whether it be everything happens for a reason or that I should try the four-hour work week, or you know infinity is at the bottom of my inbox, but each one imagines a solution to the problem of pain. And I’m really only going to be able to find my way through this by understanding, like our deep finitude, but then, dear God, that’s going to take more courage than I realized.
Pete: That’s a serious journey. It is.
Kate: It is. It is!
Kate: I would say it does feel –
Pete: It’s painful.
Kate: That feels like the uphill climb in our culture is in being okay with that place.
Jared: And in some ways it feels like Christianity has been coopted, complicit in, I don’t know the right word for that…
Jared: This sense of, I just, I feel like as a culture we have conspired to brush under the rug all forms of suffering and death and there’s this spiritual bypassing, that’s kind of the term, I think we had Alison Cook on to talk about that, the spiritual bypassing where Christianity isn’t about working through the suffering, being present in and within the suffering, it is another thing that we can put over top of our “negative” feelings so we don’t have to address them, we don’t have to talk about them and it just leaves people feeling extremely alone. And I’ve been listening to and reading about the life of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and how it was in the sixties, when even in the hospital you would have dying patients at the end of the halls. Like, you couldn’t even find dying patients because even the doctors didn’t want to address death. And I just think we have to deal, we’re now reaping the “rewards” of a culture that spent decades ignoring the reality of suffering and death, and I think what I’m getting at is I find it frustrating and what I’m hearing from you is the frustration that this thing that is supposed to be so life-giving has become this cheap imitation of itself because we’re not willing to dig into the reality of suffering and death. Which, when I read the New Testament, when I read the whole Bible because it’s an ancient book, death is everywhere because we all just were, you didn’t go five, ten years without seeing death because it just wasn’t there. So, I mean is that part of what you’re saying? Is that behind these phrases and these schticks and catchphrases is an inability to deal with pain and suffering and death?
Kate: Yeah, yeah, yeah. What a consequence to live now in a death-denying culture in a plague. I mean, it is wild what we think that our mindset… It just, can you free me from the mindset people? Can I go just somewhere where I do not, I will not be found by someone telling me that my mindset will determine my reality?
Pete: You can’t escape humanity. No way. You have to deal with humanity too, Kate. There’s no safe place to go from our humanity.
I think it’s really interesting that the, it’s like the Gospel’s legs are cut out from underneath it when we don’t deal with the stuff, you know?
Pete: Just the raw honesty and authenticity to say, “This sucks and I can’t explain it.”
Pete: Somehow, one reason why the book of Ecclesiastes is probably my favorite book of the Old Testament because he goes on and on saying, “This really sucks. I don’t know what God is doing, but it’s not fair, I don’t like it.” And yeah, things look good for five minutes and then they tank again and then he ends the book saying basically, “Yeah, what I just said, you need to listen to that, but here’s what you do – you keep walking.” You know, that’s not naivete. That’s actually facing, I think, the crap and saying the answer to that is to, as he puts it, “fear God and keep the commands,” and we might say keep trying to trust Jesus along the way anyhow. That’s very hard, I mean you know better than most people, that can be hard to do and people don’t always hear that. They want that formula because they’re conditioned to getting it, because like Jared said, it’s in the Bible, you know, you have the formula. That’s part of the problem too, it is in Deuteronomistic theology.
There are other voices in the Bible, but you find it there and so part of this, at least in my opinion, it really does affect, it’s affected by what you think the Bible is there to do and whether you’re allowed to even interrogate the Bible and debate it based on other stuff it says. You mentioned Jesus didn’t really have a prosperity life, well that’s a good point, that’s a counterpoint to Deuteronomistic theology. But if you don’t have a faith structure that allows you to do that, you know, I think it just becomes harder maybe to sort of climb out of this and the façade of biblical support for this kind of thinking.
Jared: So, I’m going to tack a question onto that because I think it’s helpful. What has, in your journey here as you come across other people, what helps people to start to go down a road that’s maybe more helpful, to kind of start to rid themselves of a theology that’s not able to hold up in light of the suffering that a lot of people face?
Kate: It’s so hard. We have a multi-billion-dollar wellness industry that really does convince us that all our problems are solvable. So, the problem, your life is a problem to be solved. Finitude is a problem to be solved and it’s hard to get to that generous place with yourself, with your body, with your not bikini-body by summer kind of, we accumulate all the parts of our story in our bones. It is a weird kind of thing to make peace with that, because it’s grief, right?
Jared: Mm hmm.
Kate: Every time we lose something, it’s a form of grief.
Pete: Of mourning, yeah.
Kate: I guess part of what I’ve been so grateful is when people seem to have a real awareness of is the gift of presence. It’s when they’ve learned to put down some of that anxiety over not being able to solve other people’s pain, if not their own, and they learn to leave a little breathing room for ambiguity, for not knowing, for not always knowing the right words or that fix, and then also remembering that in that space, it’s not just that they’re the gift of community, which is so precious, and also the gift of presents because I love presents when I’m suffering, please give me presents. It’s so great.
Pete: [Light laughter]
Kate: But in that space also comes the comforter. Like, this truly, the part of it that is the worst, and it is the worst because in pain you are trapped in your own stupid body and your own stupid life and no one can take that away from you. And yet, also, God’s very weird A-game is suffering. When I always thought, maybe because I had gone to one of those endlessly hippy drum circle schools where I thought, “Oh inversion, I just need to be near the – insert upside-down words – the poor, the sick, the unfortunate because that is going to help me be a very good person.” Well, I mean, it turns out it’s just where God is, because God’s beautiful surprise is always seen in the weird inversion. So, the worse my life got the more obvious God’s love became because I was genuinely unable to put my own life back together. So, I think that the Holy Spirit is not a solution, it’s just a weird reminder that in the midst of it, God – that’s the only promise I feel really, that is my only true prosperity gospel is that like, somehow, when you have less, you will in the very weirdest way have more only because God is there.
Pete: You’ll have that presence.
Kate: Yep, yep.
Pete: Well, listen Kate, thank you so much for spending time with us here. We had a great time talking about a topic that, you know, I think a lot of people struggle with and with your experience and also your academic filter putting all those things together.
Pete: You know, you’ve obviously got a lot to say to people about a topic that, I think you’re right, as you said, that is central to just the nature of humanity, but also the nature of the Christian faith and maybe even central to what God is like.
Kate: Yes, yeah. Aww. Well, thanks so much for having me, truly. This was a joy.
Pete: Abolutely, Kate.
Jared: I mean, it was kind of a bummer. So, I think we’re going to put some music behind it. Some EDM or something.
Kate: Could you play me out with something really upbeat?
Jared: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. We got to leave people on a high I’m sorry to say. And just undermine the entire point of this episode.
Kate: Fix it. Fix the problem of my pain, Jared.
Pete: Jared has to get past his prosperity thinking of avoiding pain and everything has to work out good.
Kate: Yes. Is that why he asked me for money? Is that why, Pete?
Jared: Well, thanks so much. We really appreciate it and, yeah, best wishes on keeping going down this track and meeting people where they are on this.
Kate: Thanks. Thanks friends.
Pete: See you.
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Dave: For Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team – thanks for listening.
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