As Christians, books play a vital role in our lives. While reading the Bible as a teenager, I came to see that healing is at the core of being a disciple of Jesus. One third of the New Testament in one way or the other involves health or healing and the call to discipleship is always “to preach, to teach, and to heal.” It led me to become a Christian minister and a medical doctor. I would like to recommend five more contemporary books that have shaped my thinking over the years.
1) The Social Transformation of American Medicine by Paul Starr
In 1984, Paul Starr won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction for this book. This book is about the politics and power of medicine, but it gave me a keener understanding of how society shapes the ever-changing phenomena of medicine. Although modern medicine tries to insist that it is influenced solely by science, Starr demonstrates how society’s view of status has shaped medicine – particularly how our approach to health care for the poor has changed. His book helped me to understand why the Church is less influential in health care than it has been historically and what it would take for people of faith to again be taken seriously in medicine.
2) Primitive Physic by John Wesley
While in seminary, I was delighted to learn that Wesley thought of himself as sort of a physician. For most of his life, he spent every Friday treating patients in one way or the other. He created three dispensaries in western England that treated the poor. He believed that every Methodist Society should be involved in hands-on health care for the poor. Since Wesley taught himself to be a physician, he recoiled against common practices of the 18th century. He opposed leaching, bleeding and the use of quicksilver. Instead, he advocated clean water, fresh air and more exercise. Primitive Physic is a collection of Wesley’s treatments for many common ailments. I have tried onions and honey on my head to cure my impending baldness to no avail. Some of these prescriptions are quite humorous because of their quaint nature, but this book is a serious attempt to link Wesley’s theology with practical ways Methodists can engage a suffering world. There may be a day when the medicine I practice is also seen as foolish, but I hope our attempt at a practical theology of health and healing is as clear as what Wesley attempted in the mid-18th century.
3) Credo by William Sloane Coffin
My third recommendation is by my mentor, William Sloane Coffin, who came to love the work of the Church Health Center. He continually forced me to question our role in ministry: were we providing charity or were we seeking justice? Near the end of his life he collected the pithy sayings known as “Coffinisms” in a book titled Credo. This book summarizes the wisdom he shared with me over the years. Coffin states his own view of life, challenging both Socrates and Descartes, with the Latin phrase Amo Ergo Sum: I love therefore I am. Although this book has little to do with health care, it has everything to do with the way I see the world and the way I lead at the Church Health Center.
4) Not All of Us Are Saints: A Doctor’s Journey with the Poor by David Hilfiker
When I was in medical school, I read a book about a young doctor who became frustrated with practicing medicine in the rural Midwest and at the end of the book gave up his practice and moved to Washington DC to practice among the poor. Several years later, that same doctor, David Hilfiker, wrote about his experiences in a second book titled Not All of Us are Saints: A Doctor’s Journey with the Poor. While his stories are not all inspiring – many are rather depressing – his experiences let me know that I was not alone in wanting to live out my faith through health care for the poor. He also reaffirmed in me that you do not need to be a saint to do this type of work. Despite your doubts about faith and uncertainty in your calling, you can find a powerful sense of purpose by coming to work everyday and looking for God’s presence in the people you serve.
5) Leading Causes of Life by Gary Gunderson
For the past twenty years I have been friends with Gary Gunderson. He began the Interfaith Health Program at the Carter Center in Atlanta, and four years ago, he moved to Memphis to become the Senior Vice President for Health and Welfare Ministries at Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare. Gary thinks more in terms of health systems than individuals which has made us a good team. Several years ago he was about to give a talk at a conference on Leading Causes of Death and he realized that he should instead be focusing on the causes of life. This led to his most recent book, Leading Causes of Life. I am convinced that this is how I, as a physician, should look at every person who comes to me for help. Yes, I should make sure he or she is free of disease, but I should be equally concerned about how they experience joy, love and a connection to God in their life. These are the things that make life worth living and what the practice of healthcare should be about.
Each of these books has shaped the work I do and the way I see my practice of faith and health.