Reclaiming the Body: Christians and the Faithful Use of Medicine

Bill Harper

This reviewer writes as a practicing Christian physician and not as a theologian, philosopher, or formal educator. This perspective allows me extremely practical insight into the views and positions proposed by the two authors as they seek to apply the truth to Christian physicians who practice in today's medical arena.

The book is relevant. Now that is extremely important especially when we live in a society where the national media is more interested in Paris Hilton's incarceration in a county jail than the war in Iraq or the murder of millions of unborn children (both of which are no longer "public interest" issues).

The authors, Joel Shuman and Brian Volck, MD do a fine job of repeatedly placing their finger right "where it hurts."

They quickly clarify their position as not being "an exercise in medicine-bashing" but instead an opportunity to see medicine from a new posture: that of a people who are called to be different.

They identify the "current illness" to be the fact that most North American Christians approach medicine without much consideration of its relation to their theological convictions.

Their 'physical examination' of medicine within North America addresses the fact that God has become the "guy in the sky" who is called upon whenever we're concerned that medicine alone will be insufficient. When the physicians "bag of magic" is exhausted then (and unfortunately only then) do we see or hear the name of God entering into the dialogue. To make sense of what is happening, or to find some reassurance that God will make it all turn out fine in the end is the topic of conversation heard amidst physicians and families when illness threatens or death approaches. When death is imminent the authors see us grasp for meaning through distinctively Christian means. Problems arise, however, when we modern Christians allow religious belief only as much significance as we choose to give it.

The authors offer insight as to how to change the encounter between physician and patient. The label Christian initiates a new identity and a new allegiance. New responsibility and different perspectives surface for the Christian physician and patient. We begin to see the beauty of so many created goods and one of those goods is our life itself and the health we hope to enjoy. Yes, health is a good, but not the Good. "Health can never be anything other than a secondary good. God is our absolute good; health is an instrumental, subordinate good, important only insofar as it enables us to be joyful, whole persons God has created us to be and to perform the service to our neighbors that God calls us to perform." (Margaret Mohrmann, Medicine as Ministry).

The importance of Christian community is stressed by the authors as a vital resource pointing out, ". . .we never really go to the doctor alone." We all need the support of social interaction afforded by the body of Christ, the church. The ill person and his or her community strengthen each other. Such community is quite appropriately pointed out by the authors as not being easy or even 'nice.' "Pastoral care is ongoing, enduring, consistent, delicate, hard, and often repulsive." (Megan McKenna, Rites of Justice.)

The authors correctly point out that by grace--never by our own effort or will--we are better as a gathered community than as the sum of our separate selves.

The authors are not naive and realize the consumer model to which medicine seems to be uncritically adopting presumes that providing what the patient wants--that is, customer satisfaction in matters of health--is the measure of success. We see this truth creeping into the very halls of our clinics and hospitals across America. Sometimes our prayer meetings have been described as an "organ recital" as request after request for God's intervention and restoration of health and well-being are uttered around the room. To seek, to pray down God's healing mercy is certainly not wrong for we are instructed in scripture to do so, but the authors encourage us to grow beyond that measure of maturity. They call us to be rightly concerned about health only insofar as our health permits us to. .. "know, love, and serve the Lord." Part of the difficult and lifelong process of sanctification is learning again and again that what we want is often neither what we need or what God wants for us.

Shuman and Volck explore the "Power of Medicine" realizing that we cede a tremendous amount of power to physicians and health care providers within the medical industry. The public realizes that it is vulnerable to illness and seeing the physician and industry as self-assured experts it is obvious that fear drives the patient's trust toward the physician. The authors see a need to "name medicine among the Powers and Principalities" of this world and to therein "identify medicine properly as belonging in a certain way to the realm of created things. This is not to demonize medicine, but to harness it as an instrument helpful in the pursuit of the ultimate good of friendship with God, a good achieved through our learning properly to love and especially to worship."

Medicine as we find and experience it remains an artifact of a fallen world, a world at least partially in rebellion against God. They remind us and challenge our thinking to see that while considerable, medicine's benefits are not absolute. Christians are encouraged to, therefore, use them judiciously.

The authors deal with the topic of children and do so in a most interesting fashion. The explore frightful cultural trends that embrace abortion to the degree that we have now reportedly aborted enough unborn, innocent children that they would equal 1/6 of the world's population. They explore the transformation of children into something like a consumer item. The authors discuss current thought processes that seem to view children as a way to accessorize and fulfill one's own life. Technological medicine is recognized and questioned as it is increasingly able to deliver not just any children, but made-to-order ones. We are encouraged as Christians to push into frightening territories for as Christians life must first and always be seen as God's gift, incomprehensible outside of relationship with God.

The authors state that they have simply asked Christians to use medicine in ways consistent with their basic convictions about God and God's intention for creation as revealed in Scripture. In the real world, in the clinic, on the hospital corridors it gets 'sticky' in a hurry. They acknowledge that there are insufficient guidelines at the intersection of faith and medicine. The authors call us to use medicine as if God mattered. . .well said!

Privacy Acts, Patient's Rights, Separation of Church and State, and on and on go the governmental and regulatory restrictions imposed on the physician. Where in this whirlpool of being politically correct can we find the 'right' and the privilege to even pray with our patients? I think that Joel Shuman and Brian Volck MD do a nice job of rattling our cage, encouraging us to be bolder, reminding us of our heritage in Christ and the importance of the community of believers as a resource. It is well thought out, nicely footnoted, and most importantly "applicable."

It, too, is my privilege to address the freshman medical students at our local university medical center as they enter their clinical medicine rotations. I have and will continue to share with them two great pearls. (A 'pearl' so said Dr. Proctor Harvey of Georgetown Univeristy is a clinical truth that has stood the test of time for at least 25 years.)

#1. Your patients don't care how much you know until they know how much you care!

#2 I am comfortable asking my patients if they would like to have a prayer as we consider their options. . .they might not be Christians, they might not even believe in a god. . .but I have found that they ALL want a physician who IS in close contact with God!

Reclaiming the Body by Joel Shuman and Brian Volck, MD is worthy of reading.

Joel Shuman and Brian Volck, MD / Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006 
Review by Bill Harper, MD FACC; Hinds Cardiology Clinic; Board of Directors Central MS Medical Center Staff Cardiologist MS Baptist Medical Center, St. Dominic Memorial Hospital, Central MS Medical Center