As part of a new occasional book review series here on the blog, today we are reviewing Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age (Crossway), by Bob Cutillo, M.D.
We live in an age of unprecedented medical advancement, with broad access to interventions ranging from the preventative to the elective. We have much to be thankful for as prognoses improve and lifespans continue to increase. Certain preventions can bring peace of mind to those who otherwise face a genetic predisposition to disease. Pain can be managed and even, in some cases, eliminated.
However, a Biblical perspective on the topics of health, pain, disease, and death is in some ways set against that of our culture. Over time, secular, westernized ideas have changed the way Christians engage with health and healthcare. Following years of medical practice, both in the United States and overseas on the mission field, Dr. Bob Cutillo saw a need for the restoration of a Christian vision of these topics. As a response, he wrote Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age (Crossway).
Dr. Cutillo begins by posing the question on which the whole discussion hinges: is health a possession or a gift? If it is a possession, there is no limit to our need or what we should spend to achieve health or avoid death. If it is a gift, it is to be stewarded, nurtured, and cherished for what it is. Moving to and maintaining the perspective that sees health as a gift takes a conscious effort, especially in light of the worldview around us, which largely treats health as a possession. Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age addresses how we got to this place and then suggests how the gospel can help us recover a proper perspective about health.
How We Got Here
The first portion of Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age details prevailing attitudes toward illness, health, and death, and why they have come to dominate in western culture. With nearly unlimited access to medical intervention has come an illusion of control over and choice in our every circumstance, despite the fact that life is inherently unpredictable and death, unavoidable. Cutillo asserts that belief in this illusion goes against a Biblically-informed view because it leaves God out of the equation and gives way to fear. This fear drives many in our culture in their pursuit of certainty, which is yet another illusion. As Christians who understand that our lives depend on God and know that this life is not all there is, we can and should have a view of life that accommodates the less-than-ideal, including the unexpected and unknown.
When we are young, we are contingent, depending on others for provision. Over time, however, we learn from others that the "safest" way is to mitigate dependency and uncertainty. Conflict arises when we as believers come to understand that we are alive purely because God wills it. We also see in Scripture that our humanity has been called “very good” by that same God. In light of this tension, we must answer the same question Adam and Eve faced in the garden: will we choose trust and dependence on or suspicion and striving against God? Dr. Cutillo suggests Christians must start by returning to our roots and recognizing that God has called our bodies and our dependence on Him, good.
The western, secular understanding hasn’t affected only patients as they engage with their health. As healthcare providers seek to establish healthy distance between themselves and their patients, they must fight the tendency to identify them as statistics, groups of problems, or simply by their disease. Dr. Cutillo makes a strong case for the negative effects of dehumanizing patients in this way.
Recovering a Proper Perspective
Just as recognizing the “very good”-ness of creation can positively impact patients’ view of their own health, it can also return a healthy perspective to those in the field of healthcare. Cutillo refers to this as “The Gaze of the Gospel”; a worldview that sees the body not as a broken machine, but as inextricably necessary to personhood. As patients function out of this gospel-informed understanding of their bodies, they can invite their providers to behave in the same way.
One of the main experiences in which a gospel-shaped understanding is essential is in the facing of death itself. For most people, death is our deepest fear. This has changed healthcare to very often include the avoidance of death and pain at all costs. It has been said that the way we love and the way we die ought to be the hallmarks of our Christian community. We can face disease, pain, and death informed by the knowledge that death has no power over us, thereby displaying the heart of the gospel to others, including our healthcare providers. This releases them to partner with us in wise choices for the lives we've been given, rather than the lives we expect.
Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age finishes with a primer on a Biblical understanding of health and life in community. The Bible is clear in its call on believers to care for the poor and oppressed. Dr. Cutillo takes time to remind readers of our responsibility to others; to point out that the health of all is interconnected. As we are able, we are called to seek justice in whatever way we can, from wisely using healthcare resources to working for systemic solutions, all while we trust that God will one day make things right.
As people of faith who engage the healthcare system, Dr. Cutillo challenges readers to help foster cooperation between faith and medicine by bridging the gulf that has formed between the two. He states that the word “wonder” means “to know in part.” Admitting that we will never know in full is a great step in the right direction for both providers and patients. With a healthy dose of humility, we as patients can share what we know about health in light of the gospel, trusting God with those things we do not know and inviting medical providers to get comfortable with doing the same as they do their healing work.
Specifically for members of Christian healthcare sharing ministries, this book is both an encouragement of community-based engagement with healthcare and a challenge to steward our health in light of the gospel. At one point in the book, Dr. Cutillo states, “We receive in need, and in our insufficiency we give, knowing that our giving will not remove the need of our neighbor. In common vulnerability, we learn to share.” Perhaps no statement could more clearly articulate what animates the healthcare sharing mentality: in our mutual need, we give freely, recognizing our place in a larger community as we gracefully grapple with life, health, disease, and death.
Bob Cutillo, M.D. is a physician for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, an associate faculty member at Denver Seminary, and an assistant clinical professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. He has also served as a missionary to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bob currently lives in Denver, Colorado, with his wife, Heather, and they have two married children.