I consider “faith and health” not as a specialized field of either religion or medicine, but as a broader category of human and environmental well-being. Faith and health pertains to a life lived in awareness of the One who created us – faith – and what we were created for: health, wholeness in relationship to God, neighbor, and the natural world. In this sense, most of my reading touches on matters of faith and health, though only a small portion of my reading is about “faith and health” as a field of special interest.
Wendell Berry – farmer, poet, philosopher, novelist, essayist, environmentalist, and Christian – has thought long and written wisely about faith and health, especially about the way the health of the human community is tied to the health (or lack thereof) of the natural world. He says, “In health the flesh is graced, the holy enters the world.” From Berry, I take my cue to approach faith and health broadly, looking for the signs of wholeness and holiness in many avenues of life. Hence this eclectic set of recommended readings, from more or less contemporary books, which I wouldn’t want to live without. Their writers help me become more fully human, more in touch with faith and health.
What Are People For?: Essays by Wendell Berry (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1990)
Collected from many years of writing and first published in 1990, this is an essential Wendell Berry reader. The quote above comes from his lovely and poetic reflections on “Healing” that begin the book. The brief title essay shows just how far out front Berry was of the current concern for care of creation, including the ways that the mechanization of the farm has severed our human and cultural links to the land. Berry is not a Luddite, though many have accused him of it, but he will cause those of us who dwell in cities, sit behind desks, and spend great hunks of time in cars or subways to ask ourselves: what are people for? I cannot think of a more faithful question to ask, especially when the answers lead to caring response.
Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy by Donald Kraybill, Steven Nolt, and David L. Weaver-Zercher (Jossey-Bass, 2007)
For a few brief days beginning Oct. 2, 2006, the nation was riveted on the small community of Nickel Mines, Penn. where a local dairy truck driver entered the one-room schoolhouse of an Amish community and gunned down five schoolchildren and injured five others before killing himself. The media frenzy that followed focused not only upon the violence but upon the Amish way of life and their peculiar – to many “outsiders” – practices of forgiveness. This book explores the biblical and social understanding of forgiveness that prompted the Amish to almost immediately announce their forgiveness of Charles Roberts, the perpetrator of this deadly act. The Amish community’s near matter-of-fact approach to forgiveness defies the logic of retribution that drives much of our culture. It presses us to ponder the daring and healing simplicity of “forgiving those who trespass against us” that we recite in the Lord’s Prayer. I know of no better exploration of forgiveness as a Christian virtue and practice than this one.
Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder (Random House, 2003)
Tracy Kidder’s highly-readable account of his own discovery of the man and the work of Paul Farmer seems timelier now in light of the Haitian earthquake that occurred in January of 2010. Farmer, a medical doctor, and his organization have been laboring for years in Haiti among the poorest people of the Western hemisphere. Farmer pioneered community medicine in this island nation, focusing, by the strength of his personality and his extraordinary communication skills, upon delivering basic health care in culturally-appropriate fashion. When the earthquake struck, Farmer’s organization was already in place and able to respond to the crisis. Many who are involved with the global health movement know of Paul Farmer and his work. If not, Kidder’s account serves as a fine introduction.
Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story by Timothy B. Tyson (Three Rivers Press, 2004)
The story is gripping as a troubling piece of American history, but it is even more important as a reminder of how racial reconciliation remains crucial for social well-being, and for our collective faith and health. Looking back upon his childhood in Oxford, North Carolina, Tim Tyson writes forcefully of the 1970 murder of a local African American, young Henry Marrow, at the hands of a white businessman. The businessman and his family were publicly accused but acquitted of the murder, even though several eyewitnesses were interviewed in the trial. The event drove the wedge of racial division even deeper into the Southern community of Tyson’s childhood and resulted in numerous race-related protests and riots. Year later, Tyson tries to come to grips with this experience of racial struggle, a struggle that has marked the history of the South and that still divides communities today. The appeal of the book is in Tyson’s probing honesty about the challenges of racial reconciliation – both then and now. As the son of a Methodist preacher who attempted to foster racial reconciliation during those turbulent days, Tyson’s vantage includes the mixed role of the Church as supporter and obstructionist of civil rights.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (Random House, 2007)
I read dozens of novels and short stories every year, many of which become “favorites.” Cormac McCarthy’s novel stands almost alone. The writing is sparse, poetic. The book reads like an extended parable. Be forewarned; this is one of the bleakest novels you will ever read – and one of the most hopeful. Therein lays its astounding appeal. It haunts me. Stirs me to wonder and awe – both at the depth of evil and the possibility of human redemption. The story is apocalyptic, dealing with the end of civilization following either a nuclear war or environmental disaster. On the road wander a father and son whose only will is to survive and, according to the father, to find out if there are any more “good people.” Oblique religious themes run throughout the story. For example, the father once comments that the son is a fitting “vessel for God.” On another occasion, the father says about the son, “If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” What distinguishes the novel as authentic apocalyptic is the one thing that distinguishes biblical apocalyptic – hope. Amid all the destruction, the madness and despair – despair so deep that the father curses God – resides hope. I’ll show you the worst, McCarthy says, of what humans can do to each other. I’ll show you the undoing of civilization, of creation. In the middle of it, I will plant a stem of hope, like “a shoot from the stump of Jesse” (see Isaiah 11), who glows in the waste of destruction “like a tabernacle.” Read this book and lament for our self-destructive civilization. Read it, and be thankful that God never gives up on us.
Lee Ramsey is an ordained United Methodist pastor and is currently an associate professor of pastoral care and pastoral theology at Memphis Theological Seminary. He holds advanced degrees from Candler School of Theology and Vanderbilt University and is the author ofCare-full Preaching: From Sermon to Caring Community.