By Stan Friedman
CHICAGO, IL (November 19, 2012) – The country continues to be embroiled in debates on how to provide access to health care, but in his new book, Healthy Human Life, James Bruckner, a professor of Old Testament at North Park Theological Seminary, writes that we need to have a better biblical understanding of health and healing.
Bruckner has focused on the topic for the last 10 years as he delved into the texts and conversed with medical professionals. Having a biblical understanding of health and healing would change the way we approach both, he says. Included in that understanding is humanity’s connection with the rest of the environment and the community as a locus for healing.
Bruckner’s book is divided into three sections: The first section traces the narrative of relationships as told in the first chapters of Genesis. The second section focuses on key words and concepts such as “heart,” “soul,” and “strength” as aspects of a healthy life. In the third section, Bruckner discusses three aspects of contemporary healing practices.
One of the foundational texts for Bruckner is the Shema, one of the key community forming commands delivered by Moses: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
In an interview with Covenant News Service, Bruckner shared more about the book and his thoughts on health and healing.
Do you remember when you first made the connection between the Shema and this subject?
I do remember. It was the summer of 1999. It is the only text that tries to describe “all of our everything” and is rooted in love. Mary Chase-Ziolek asked me to develop and teach a class on the Bible and health for the seminary’s health certificate that she was commissioned to form. I looked for textbooks and came up empty, so I started thinking about the Old Testament.
The wisdom and prophetic books assume some kind of human wholeness, but do not describe it anywhere. Since they rely on the Pentateuch generally, I narrowed it down. Deuteronomy is the most direct and narrative of the books – in some ways the most simple of the five.
The Shema is the introduction to and explanation of the whole law and its purpose, “that you may live long in the land.” It is also the most important text in Judaism, as well as the source of Jesus’ summation of the law. Not only that, it starts with love, which is the biblical sine qua non of human health, as we find in 1 Corinthians 13. It also makes an attempt to describe “all of everything” we are – whole heart, whole soul, and whole strength.
The Shema is community forming for the Hebrews, so I found it interesting that you conclude with Revelation 21-22, which offers a vision of an ultimate community. How are those connected?
I think you are asking about the promise of the new creation, the resurrection of the body and the new heavens and the new earth. The Revelations 21-22 vision of our ultimate healing has its source in Genesis 1 and in the preaching of Isaiah in the Hebrew, and now in the conservative Jewish community. What God declared “good” or “beautiful” in Genesis 1 was and is marred by human sin in Genesis 3, but cannot fail. Israel’s witness is that God has worked throughout history, as we see in scripture, to establish a relationship with a people who will live and work with God toward this restoration of goodness.
Isaiah’s prophecy is that one day God will renew this creation – a flourishing world in which death and fear are no more. Revelation carries these themes and expands them in light of the resurrection of the human body revealed in Jesus Christ.
What are some of the major misconceptions about health you hope to dispel?
There are so many. Among them, though, would be that health is individual and not community/relationally based; that it is basically biological and immediate rather than related to a narrative of one’s life and relationships with others and with God; that it is based in curing illness rather than healing people; that it is for the biologically and psychologically perfect, rather than for all of God’s people; and that death is the enemy of health, but health includes dying in Christ among Christ’s family of faith.
What might be some of the practical implications for pastors and laity?
The last three chapters address practical implications most directly. In chapter 7, “Face to Face,” we see that whenever two people are face to face, an environment is created that has the potential to be a healing environment.
In Chapter 8, I talk about “Telling the Truth in Suffering.” Most importantly, especially that healing can begin when we accept the freedom to tell the truth about our own need and someone listens. Scripture does this through the laments in a formal way, but the principle is practiced by anyone successful in the healing arts.
Chapter 9 focuses on “Remembering God.” We invite the power of God’s healing presence especially in the Christian practices that include worship, reading scripture, participating in the Lord’s Supper, and giving public testimony.
How might our discussions of health care policy be different if people were to consider the issues you raise in the book?
Health care policies are increasingly determined through business models and profit concerns. Nurses are pressured to move quickly and are reprimanded by outside business consultants if they spend too much time with patients. If healing is deeply rooted to relationship and narratives, health care policies are actually working against healing. Christians working in the various levels of health care have noticed this. It is my hope that the book will provide a biblical context and data for all of us to rethink what is essential to healing practice, and what is not. The book is also relevant to end of life conversations, the relationship of faith, prayer and health, and access to health care.
Your book was foundational for a recent forum at the seminary that focused on wholeness. What happened at the forum?
The forum became what every good forum ought to be – a conversation between people of varied backgrounds and expertise around a common concern and interest. Olsson Lounge was full, with people standing at the edges to hear a public health official, a dean of the nursing school with 35 years nursing experience, and a pastor personally and professionally engaging passages from the book. It reflected that wholeness is a hot topic among Christian medical and health officials.
Anything else you would add?
This book is not a quick fix. It will, however, provide a valuable resource for people who are ready to engage the wonderful riches of scripture and Christian life that God provides for healthy human life. It is dedicated to “all who have struggled for health in the midst of illness.”
Editor’s note: click here to order Healthy Human Life from Covenant Bookstore.