I’m often presented with the task of limiting myself to five important books that will introduce people – in my case, college students – to some of the more pressing issues of integrated health. In fact, after having taught my Spirituality and Health class this past fall, I’m more convinced than ever of what works and what does not. While abstract philosophical reflection on concrete matters of body and spirit is a fast way to reduce your class roster in the first week of the semester, it does little to advance an interest in the connection between human wholeness and matters of faith. So at the outset I would like to acknowledge that all of the books below have accessibility as their unifying characteristic. Second, they all touch on the importance of honoring the body as the fundamental locus of our spiritual experience.
1. Hunger and Happiness: Feeding the Hungry, Nourishing Our Souls by Shannon Jung (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2009).
This is the third book that Shannon Jung has written on the role that food plays in the Christian life and it is the most important for the way it connects our first-world eating habits with issues of global justice. Jung surveys questions of food production, distribution and consumption that have been developed elsewhere by authors like Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), but he further reflects on their theological and moral implications for Christians. Given what we know about the enormous amount of energy it now takes to produce a single calorie of food, and the social disruption that this often entails both locally and globally, Christians must acknowledge their complicity in perpetuating these problems as they are the ones who benefit most from the system and its deceptively cheap food. The ecological and social costs of our American diet should give us all pause for great concern. Jung encourages us to acknowledge our complicity in this, seek forgiveness, and embark on a new path of awareness with knife and fork in hand. This text is easily adaptable for a six-week adult religious education class in the parish, especially if it is used in conjunction with clips from recent documentaries like Food, Inc. or King Corn.
2. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv (Algonquin Books, 2008).
Richard Louv’s text is, in my estimation, the most important book written on the impact that nature has on early childhood development. Louv recounts his own experiences as a young boy whose parents allowed him to roam the fields and woods in his Kansas City neighborhood and he compares this to what he sees happening among children today. In short, they are not spending much time at all in unstructured play environments. When they are not battling aliens on some video screen they are being hustled off to soccer practices and piano lessons. Parents have come to fear nature as a kind of bogey man, Louv says, and consequently our children are not enjoying the psychological health benefits that can come from being in relationship with their biotic communities. Louv also makes a compelling correlation between the decline in nature activities among the young and the rise of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, offering anecdotal evidence that boys and girls affected with this condition can enjoy positive outcomes from spending some unstructured time playing in the woods. If you are a parent of young children, and if you are interested in nourishing your child’s spiritual and emotional health, this book needs to be on your reading list.
3. Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality by Barbara Bradley Hagerty.
Anytime a student says, “This is the best book I’ve ever read,” I take notice. When more than one student says it, I consider it nothing short of a miracle. Such was the case this fall when I assigned this text in my Spirituality and Health class. Hagerty, a journalist who has written for the Christian Science Monitor and is often featured on National Public Radio, weaves together personal reminiscences of her upbringing as a Christian Scientist with investigations into current research on such phenomena as radical conversions, spiritual virtuosity, and out-of-body experiences. The result is a book featuring both the rigors of scientific inquiry and the intimacy of personal memoir. Bradley’s willingness to be vulnerable in exploring deep questions of faith and doubt makes her an attractive guide for readers wanting to acquaint themselves with cutting-edge research into the phenomenon of human spirituality. Though she offers her own concluding reflections on the idea of God in a scientific culture, she never comes across as preachy or evangelistic. For those interested in the connections between body and spirit, as well as the current dialogue between science and faith, this book will not disappoint.
4. Honoring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice by Stephanie Paulsell.
Whether intended or not, I cannot help but detect a hint of irony in Paulsell’s choice of a subtitle. Since when has honoring the body been regarded as a Christian practice? Isn’t the flesh weak, the source of all that tempts us away from our true calling as otherworldly beings? Despite the centrality of the incarnation and our creedal affirmations of the goodness of creation, such impressions have been the rule and not the exception throughout the history of the church. This is why Paulsell’s text is so important: it reminds us – sometimes in embarrassingly simple ways – that we are creatures of God called to delight in our physical existence, vulnerable though it may be. Paulsell’s chapters on bathing, eating, clothing, and even suffering in the body affirm in a straightforward way that the sacred lies always within hands reach, even closer, if we allow ourselves the heresy of enjoying our sensuality, of experiencing the grace of God in our very own flesh and bones.
5. Sacred Dying: Creating Rituals and Embracing the End of Life by Megory Anderson.
Too often our inquiries into questions of health and wholeness become an elaborate ruse for denying the inevitable. For many of us – in the health professions as well as among the clergy – death is seen as the enemy, something that happens to us. Megory Anderson wants to challenge this notion: death is a process, she argues, something that all humans must do. The unfortunate reality, however, is that the meaning which is a natural part of this final passage is rarely acknowledged in a communal way. When death comes in some impersonal hospital room amidst the beeps and drones of so much life support equipment, we are prevented from doing it well. Anderson’s work is significant in that it recognizes death not as the final foe to be resisted at all costs but as the friend who can come with an assuring word of grace. It also helps us to see that there is an art to dying, and it is not something that can be accomplished apart from community. Anderson’s personal reflections on the rituals she has facilitated over the years leaves readers with a great respect for both her intuitive insight and her fortitude in exploring what are essentially uncharted spiritual waters. Pastors especially will find this to be an insightful book to have on hand as their parishioners ask difficult questions about their own process of dying. It is unfortunate that Anderson’s writing and the work of her Sacred Dying Foundation have not been given the critical recognition they deserve.
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Daniel Deffenbaugh is Professor of Religion at Hastings College, Nebraska and author of Learning the Language of the Fields.