Most days, I feel like I am widely read and poorly trained. I think this state of being reflects the convergent movement of faith and health today which engages and includes so many fields: medical care, health care administration, public health, social work, epidemiology, theology, church leadership, bio-ethics, clinic psychology, pastoral care, and chaplaincy. The list continues, encompassing an array of health-relevant fields such as youth ministry that most don’t consider health-related at all. Nobody can be competent in all this, certainly not me. But we cannot leave any of it out. We don’t want to dictate what God is up to at the intersection of faith and health. I keep reading, though, struggling daily to push my understandings further. In this context, five books have lit my way so far.
1. Unraveling the Mystery of Health by Aaron Antonovsky (Jossey Bass, 1987).
This slender volume marked a turning point for health researchers, shifting their focus toward health and not just pathology. That made all the difference in 1992 when the Interfaith Health Program began with a consistent focus on reverse epidemiology—where is the unexpected vitality and how do we get more of it? It was the foundation of the Leading Causes of Life (one of Scott Morris’ Recommended Reading), which remains my best, if borrowed, idea.
2. Survival of the Wisest by Jonas Salk (Harper and Row, 1973).
This small book gave me eyes to appreciate – indeed celebrate – the fact that humans are not hardwired for much at all, certainly not survival. Salk makes the point that we need to choose wisely how to shape our culture in sustainable ways. Often when something changes, our old ideas about “what works” become unrealistic. But instead of finding out how to make things work in the new circumstances, we tend to focus on doing things that worked well before (and feeling frustrated that all our efforts don’t get results!). Salk gives a framework for surviving, maybe even thriving, in wise ways. Once six or seven billion of us are crowding our planet, we’ll need Salk’s Survival of the Wisest by our side.
3. Infections and Inequalities by Paul Farmer (University of California Press, 1999).
Almost anything Farmer writes or says is useful because of his laser-like simplicity in demanding that poor people (in Haiti or Boston or Moscow) have a right to the best medical science can offer. This (not slender) volume documents how the modern “plagues” are rooted in morally and scientifically indefensible patterns at public scale. Ouch.
4. Walter Rauschenbusch: selected writings, edited by Withrop Hudson (Paulist Press, 1984).
This book was given me by Dr. Wayne Merritt, one of my professors, after listening to a sermon of mine. He suggested the book would save me about a decade of theological wandering toward my natural home, the social gospel. He was right. Since then I have reread Rauschenbusch’s 1908 book of prayers (prayers for the social awakening) and his scintillating academic books every year. I pray that someday before I die I might write a few paragraphs as good.
5. Letter from the Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I read King’s letter and other essays when I was in college in 1973. King’s writing saved me for the church and maybe for doing anything useful for the world. King convinced me that I did not have to jettison Jesus just because I was done with the suburban, conservative linkage between the church and the rich I had always known. Everything in my life since is a footnote.
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Gary R. Gunderson is the Sr. Vice President forHealth and Welfare Ministries at Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare, Memphis, Tenn.