Aspen Winter Words: Religious scholar Kate Bowler on living with, and writing about, cancer
IF YOU GO …
Who: Kate Bowler and Elaine Pagels
Where: Winter Words, Paepcke Auditorium
When: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 6 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; aspenshowtix.com
Americans are afraid of few things more than talking about religion, God and death.
Kate Bowler writes almost exclusively about these topics, and does so with fluency, fearlessness, honesty, humor and a compassion for reader’s anxiety about them.
A professor in the divinity school at Duke University, Bowler was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer at age 35 and told she wouldn’t live for more than two years. Four years later, she is writing about mortality, faith and hope from her perspective, drawing a national audience to her bestselling books and attempting to reframe the ways we talk about the sick and suffering.
“I guess I am an expert in language about religious certainties and I think I understood that from a historical perspective until now,” Bowler said in a recent phone interview from her office at Duke. “Until I got sick I didn’t understand what it was like to be a problem to be explained, to be something that people had to account for when they tried to explain why bad things happen to people.”
Bowler, author of the 2018 memoir “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved” and host of the “Everything Happens” podcast, will speak at the Winter Words author series Tuesday night. She’ll be in conversation with Elaine Pagels, the renowned religious scholar and MacArthur fellow whose husband — physicist Heinz Pagels — was killed in an accident on Pyramid Peak in 1988.
Bowler’s academic training, her faith and her recent personal experience has given readers a rare and clear-eyed view of the absurdity of being a sick person in the U.S. She’s called out the ways we think about illness and suffering as a test of character.
“It’s been quite an education for me to think about what the cultural scripts are that we all live with for what it means to be sick or on the losing side of the American dream,” she explained. “I walk around bumping into other people’s accidentally unkind approaches to suffering, especially in someone who is young.”
In a New York Times op-ed before the New Year, Bowler wrote about the concept of hope and New Year’s resolutions through the lens of her illness. Instead of resolutions, she wrote, she is keeping a list of small but transcendent experiences as they pass. The practice is an attempt to live in the moment — to value the present as if it were a fond memory.
Raising a young son — he’s now five — has kept her grounded in gratitude and has kept her adding to that list. The day before her interview with The Aspen Times, Bowler added to it the experience of attempting to extract — through uncontrollable laughter — her son’s first loose tooth.
“Normally I’d have another list — a to-do list that had to do with appointments and my inbox and the facade of efficiency,” she explained. “Now I try to realize that every day there is one 30-seconds that absolutely sparkles and everything else will be nothing in comparison to that.”
Though she admits to being “performatively cheerful” in conversation, Bowler is not interested in doling out sage advice about the meaning of life, not interested in being fetishized for her suffering. She is driven to write these days because it allows her to speak plain truths that are rarely aired.
“Writing is the only way I know how to be honest,” she said. “Writing is my way of doing emotional archaeology and figuring out what’s underneath all of that and what we can learn about death and suffering and what we expect from our lives.”
Meanwhile, her work as a religious scholar continues. Bowler recently finished writing “The Preacher’s Wife: Women and Power in American Megaministry,” an academic history of celebrity women in evangelical churches.
“It’s the result of a five-year study of women in power and what we can learn about gendered expectations, what women’s spiritual work is,” she said.
The book is due out this summer from Princeton University Press.
As for her health, Bowler is continuing cancer treatment and looking forward to teaching her son to ski in Aspen with her snowboarder husband.
“I’m in the new frontier of immunotherapy, so when it works, everyone looks pleased but slightly confused,” she said. “And I get scanned every few months to see how things are going, and so far so good.”
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Aspen Words’ literary conference and festival is back in-person after a pandemic hiatus and a move from June to autumn.