by Kendra G. Hotz and Matthew T. Mathews
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, Mich. 108 pages
Reviewed by Ruth Kent
It’s easier to review a book one agrees with, and this one might have been written in my own head. It propounds a holistic biblical understanding of health and healing: becoming what God intended, based on conditions necessary for flourishing. The core notion is that we are embodied souls, formed from the dust of the earth and the breath of God. Those dimensions are inextricably intertwined in our human creatureliness, so that the body is a good creation, not set in opposition to the soul. Salvation encompasses both, a clear connection in Jesus’ ministry. As signs of God’s presence among us, Jesus healed minds, spirits and bodies. He proclaimed salvation for this life and not just the next; good news for the soul was also good news for the body.
The church in its calling to follow Jesus, to promote health and work toward the world God intended, must care about the whole person and about conditions for flourishing. Those conditions derive from Genesis 1 and 2: safe physical environments that sustain us; interdependent and mutually enriching relationships; work (vocation, in the broadest sense); Sabbath rest.
Every congregation can have some form of healing ministry because nearly every aspect of the human experience is implicated. The authors draw out some of these aspects in detail: the idolatries of consumerism, excessive self-reliance, and despair or resignation; unconscious biases of health care providers; institutional and structural barriers.
Too often churches and medicine bifurcate care: Churches care for souls, medicine cares for bodies, and neither integrates the person. As a mentor in a medical school program, I’ve observed how difficult it is to persuade students that patient wholeness is critical to excellent care — how jobs, families, finances and social systems influence individual health and responses to health care. Students are very uncomfortable taking “spiritual histories” — even more uncomfortable than with sexual histories, which can be medicalized. But people’s religious commitments may have substantial effects on their beliefs about and responses to medical advice and treatment choices.
Another key point is that while our finitude is a gift from God, it is also sometimes tragic. “Healing ministries have work to do even when ill, injured, and aging persons cannot be fully restored.” In the Advent season just ended, we remembered that it is people who have walked in darkness who see the light — but first comes the darkness. Unfortunately, religion sometimes offers denial or blame instead of a safe place to name, confront and cope with suffering. Churches help people heal by permitting lament and by accompanying people — unhurried — through darkness.
“Dust & Breath” sets out a healing theology with clarity and simplicity. It would make a fine study for committees considering church and community ministries, and provides a thoughtful reflection for anyone grappling with human finitude.
RUTH KENT is chaplain at Ingleside at Rock Creek in Washington, adjunct instructor at George Washington University Medical School and a member of the Clinical Ethics Committee at the Children’s National Medical Center.