The Perkins Perspective | Reviews | Spring 2013
Dust and Breath
By Sam Barnes, SPU Senior
"The authors advocate a radical revision of how we view human beings and health," writes Barnes.
Dust and Breath: Faith, Health —
and Why the Church Should Care About Both
By Kendra G. Hotz and Matthew T. Mathews
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012, 128 pp.
“God created us to be whole human beings. Our bodies and spirits are one, yet the healthcare system has tried to lead the church to care only about the spiritual world.” –Scott Morris, MDiv, MD
In the book Dust and Breath: Faith, Health — and Why the Church Should Care About Both, Kendra G. Hotz and Matthew T. Mathews offer a provocative analysis of the relationship between faith and health.
The text begins with a preface about Dr. Scott Morris, who inspired the book, and whose his holistic vision for ministry motivated him to pursue degrees in both medicine and divinity. After accepting an associate pastor position in Memphis, Tennessee, he went on to establish the Church Health Center, a ministry that today serves over 40,000 patients a year.
Like Morris, the authors are based in Memphis ― Hotz, an associate professor of religious studies at Rhodes College, and Mathews the Edward G. Humphreys Associate Professor of Theology at the Memphis Theological Seminary. Dust and Breath is their second collaboration, following their 2006 joint venture Shaping the Christian Life.
A View of Holistic Health Care
Made up of three chapters, Dust and Breath is sprinkled with excerpts from Dr. Morris’ journal, with the first chapter, "Dust and Breath," explaining the biblical story of creation from Genesis. From there, the authors delve into personal stories of patients from Morris’ journal and begin to paint a picture of what holistic faith looks like.
The second chapter, “Finitude and Sin: Returning to Dust and Coming Undone,” focuses on the state of humans as imperfect creatures and sinful beings. The authors discuss the concept of original sin, how sin affects people’s well-being, and the dangers of self-reliance and despair. The final chapter, “Redemption: Our Bodies and Our World Remade,” gives readers resolutions for their shortcomings and leaves them with the statement that “faith and health, salvation and healing belong together.”
The authors advocate a radical revision of how we view human beings and health. They explain that a biblical vision of human personhood requires that we see humans as whole entities. Hotz and Matthews describe us as “ensouled flesh and enfleshed souls whose spiritual and bodily life are integrally related to one another.” They say that when we speak of health we must honor this insight.
Traditionally, a health provider’s number one goal has been to maintain or improve the physical and mental health of her patient, but Hotz and Mathews do not stop at the basic definition. They broaden the term “health” and extend its meaning to other areas of our lives. “Health refers to the presence of a comprehensive set of conditions that promote human flourishing and are anchored in our environmental, social, and vocational lives.” This biblical interpretation has implications for both the church and medicine. As Christians, we are called to help others discover God, connect with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and serve the world to our best ability.
Gospel for Our Souls
This means stretching our faith outside the realm of the church. The implication for those in medicine is clear: “For healthcare it means discovering and exploring the way in which healing is gospel for our souls,” they write. In brief, Hotz and Mathews argue that it is impossible to disaggregate spiritual and bodily care. Health care is founded on the principle of healing, and when it’s coupled with faith, we can more fully understand the essence of both. “Faith needs the language of health in order to understand how it applies to life; health needs the language of faith in order to find its larger context; its meaning.” This social justice perspective provides a warrant for examining all the factors that constrain human flourishing. While traditional faith can tend to overemphasize individual autonomy and personal responsibility, Dust and Breath requires considering the bigger picture.
Humans are finite and imperfect creatures, and they are also part of larger systems. For instance, a child’s family and school are both instrumental in shaping his adulthood. A patient’s nutrition and level of activity greatly influence her risk of disease. It is paramount that practitioners are able to fully understand the circumstances of their dynamic clientele, not only their physiological symptoms, so they can nurture them in other areas of life. Our culture of medicine conditions physicians to focus on the patient’s physiological symptoms and to neglect his or her sociocultural context.
This book was written to stretch health care professionals and church leaders beyond the barriers that sin and human nature have built into a dominant culture that emphasizes radical individualism. According to the authors, “We live in a society that rewards hard work and self-reliance and that teaches us that the only security we can know in life is that which we provide for ourselves. As a result, many of us come to confuse our professional status with our true identity.”
The Key to Unlocking Our Full Potential
In making these comments, the authors’ warn us about excessive self-reliance and independence. They make the point that when we rely on ourselves, there is less room for “interdependence and mutual care.” For others, it was written to help connect a lifestyle that embodies physical, mental, social, and environmental to spiritual wellness. “Healthcare must be adaptive and responsive not only to the physiological changes that accompany aging, but also to the environmental, vocational, and social adaptations,” they point out. We are shaped by our unique backgrounds, and it is important that we have a healthful environment, a meaningful vocation, and a feeling of fellowship. For pastors and doctors the route to good health means “abandoning excessive self-reliance and rediscovering the vision of the church as an interdependent community of companions in which all are called to God’s work. Such a vision creates room for the healing power of Sabbath in our lives.”
Interdependence is the key to unlocking the full potential of our society. We must satisfy our innate appetites for companionship by connecting with others who are also committed to good health and wholeness. Because of our sinful nature, we have evolved into self-reliant beings that refuse to recognize our limitations. In spite of this, we still have the capacity to accomplish stupendous feats if we do life together. “The body of Christ flourishes when each community contributes what it can and draws from others what it needs.”
Dust and Breath was written with hopes of motivating churches and people to develop holistic ministries. Although it can be repetitive at times, this book is ideal for those looking for a healing theology, those considering community ministries, and those grappling with human finitude. Through reading and absorbing the text, readers will gain a better understanding of the idea of health as it pertains to faith. Furthermore, readers may learn how to be better stewards of Christ in their current or future callings.
Sam Barnes is a senior at Seattle Pacific University. With his degree in applied human biology, he plans on continuing his education at the University of Washington, where he plans to pursue a master’s degree in public health. He is passionate about God, people, health, and fitness, with an ultimate goal to become a health care provider.
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