There’s a book popping up on lots of “Best of 2018” lists called Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved) by Kate Bowler. I had the privilege of hearing Kate Bowler, professor at Duke Divinity School, tell her story at the Festival of Faith and Writing this spring. Basically, her story is this: after devoting her academic research to explaining the “prosperity gospel” phenomenon and unpacking with compassion the allure of the promises made in prosperity-centered churches, Bowler got diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer. Just after dismantling the false promises of the prosperity gospel, she found herself maybe wanting the prosperity gospel to be true. Shouldn’t there be a method that could make God cure you? She details this experience in her memoir with honesty and humor. It’s a charming book (albeit with some salty language) that explores the conflict that occurs when our idealistic principles are tested by the pain of real life.
Like Bowler, Sarah Williams is a professor and a Christian when she receives one of the most frightening diagnoses: her already beloved but unborn daughter will not survive out of the womb. She recognizes that her principles are on trial. But this is not a cold ethical dilemma. This is a warm child living in her womb. Immediately, Williams recognizes that her “principles… were simply not enough to gives us the capacity to go on. They stopped short, leaving a great chasm of pain.”
Perfectly Human: Nine Months with Cerian tells the story of principles played out in real life. It is one thing to know what ought to be done in such a situation. It is another thing entirely to live it.
Williams lives out her principles, yes, but she does so because she is compelled by love. And it is a lovely tragedy to witness. Her family surrounds her with love, loving the baby through the way they care for Sarah during the “summer of Cerian” as they anticipate the baby’s stillbirth. Her most intimate support network includes her husband, her mother, her daughters, and her friend Janet whose concurrent pregnancy means that “Janet chose to grieve with me. Later I would have to choose to celebrate with her. Both choices were costly.”
This is a story about weakness and willingness. Williams’ retelling of the events of these poignant months offers insight into the human cost of bioethical decisions. Throughout her retelling of this story, Williams makes some subtle but important distinctions about her choice. When one doctor asks if she is deciding not to terminate on “strong religious grounds,” Williams clarifies that she does have strong religious beliefs, but they aren’t the reason she made this decision. “Cerian is not a strong religious principle or a rule that compels me to make a hard and fast ethical decisions. She is a beautiful person who is teaching me to love the vulnerable, treasure the unlovely, and face fear with dignity and hope.”
Reading this is bearing witness to what it means to be pro-life. What we are willing to do for the least of these is the ultimate display of our faith, but it comes at a cost. Perfectly Human: Nine Months with Cerian is a beautiful exploration of love bearing all things (1 Corinthians 13:7). Williams’ thoughtful retelling makes this a powerful book.