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Is Surgery Part of God's Story? — An Excerpt from "The Scalpel and the Cross"

Categories Theology Book Excerpts

9780310516057In the past several years we have been considering health care from a number of angles, some old, some new:

  • economically, the costs of surgery specifically and health care generally have exploded;
  • politically the issues have been a powder keg since the Affordable Health Care Act was signed into law;
  • technologically we have leapfrogged several stages of care thanks to advances in robotics, genetics, and other sciences.

What about theologically?

That’s the aim of Gene Green’s new book The Scalpel and the Cross (releasing 5/5/15). He hopes that “through this short book many will begin to think in new ways about surgery and Christian theology.” (17)

In the excerpt below Green wonders: Is surgery part of God’s story, “as expressed in the Bible and brought to bear on the great questions of every age through Christian theology?” (14)

Read the excerpt and engage his book yourself to find out.

You’re not going to China,” Dr. Carroll announced after reading the results of my hurriedly scheduled echocardiogram. “You’re going in for surgery.”

For a moment the explosive words left me speechless, yet I clearly understood. During the preceding weeks, while preparing to teach a course on 1 Peter at Peking University, I had felt increasingly exhausted and out of breath when cycling, running on the treadmill, or even trimming hedges. My wife, a medical professional, wisely insisted that I visit my doctor before embarking on the long, strenuous journey to China. Jim Carroll, my cardiologist, explained that
my aortic valve was calcified to the point that the blood flow through it had become restricted, accounting for my symptoms. I needed to have the valve replaced and undergo a single coronary bypass graft as well. Surgery was imminent.

The days preceding the surgery were filled with a myriad of housekeeping activities, including paying bills, drawing up a new will “just in case,” calling the insurance company to check on coverage, and talking with my wife and daughters about the surgery and our future. We all believed I would come through well, but prudence dictated that we at least look at what life would be like for them should the operation not have a happy outcome. Just as my wife likes leaving the house in order when we head out on vacation, so too I wanted to be able to focus on the surgery and recovery without worrying about my family’s well-being. Best leave things tidy.

In the middle of the preparations, however, I realized that surgery was more than a technical medical procedure. A whole history, stretching back to the Greco-Roman era, undergirds the surgical procedure I was about to undergo. The modern operating theater is radically cleaner than it was in the nineteenth-century hospital when Joseph Lister began using antiseptics to reduce infections. He had become aware of the germ theory developed by Louis Pasteur. The contemporary surgeon stands on the shoulders of centuries of medical personnel and practice.

Not only is surgery connected with history, but it also has a social dimension. Surgeons undertake their work in concert with other medical professionals who labor together within the confines of the modern hospital run by administrators and staffed with scores of support personnel.

Surgery intersects economics as well. The cost was going to be exorbitant, I knew, and so I made sure that everything was done within the parameters outlined by my insurance company. Surgery is about more than scalpels and skills.

As a Christian, I also began to ask questions about the relationship between my faith in Christ and what I would soon experience. How does my understanding of the Bible and Christian Theology frame what was going to occur in the operating room? To be sure, I wanted people to pray for me — before, during, and after the operation. I trusted God to help the surgeon and help me.

But was surgery part of another story, God’s story, as expressed in the Bible and brought to bear on the great questions of every age through Christian theology? We know the bedrock themes that uphold the Christian faith: God created the world; humanity fell into sin in rebellion against him; God not only brought judgment upon humanity but offered a promise of redemption as well; that promise began to reach its fulfillment in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ; we anticipate the full realization of God’s promise when Christ returns. His kingdom comes and his will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Indeed, his coming kingdom has broken into the present as both John the Baptist and Jesus taught us (Matt. 3:1 – 2; 4:17; Luke 17:21, “the kingdom of God is in your midst”). As Christians, we live within these great moments of God’s plan for humanity and all of his creation. In other words, our life is part of Christian theology. How we think about what happens in our life, and our reflections about how we should live, are intertwined with God’s great deeds and his truth recorded for us in the Bible. Our life and what we do is tied together with God and what he does. For the Christian, life and theology cannot be separated. They are joined at the hip.

We understand this well when we debate some of the critical moral issues of our age. Our affirmation that human life is a gift from God gives us great pause and moves us to action as we consider questions about abortion or euthanasia. Our theological convictions commonly enter into our discussions and actions surrounding these issues. Similarly, during the Civil War, theological questions permeated the debates about abolishing slavery, with different interpretations of the Bible going head-to-head in the midst of the move to secede from the Union and to engage in war. So too, many leaders in the Civil Rights movement found guidance and clarity from Scripture. Likewise, our political discussion at the beginning of the twenty-first century intersects questions that arise from our faith, making some civic discourse extremely theological in nature whether the topic is healthcare or the nature of marriage.

So, if we bring the Bible and theology into our understanding of the nature of humanity and the beginning of life, into questions of human and civil rights, and into our debates about healthcare and marriage, why should we isolate medical care and surgery from our theology? Is it possible to construct a theology of surgery that helps us examine this medical event under the intense light of the Christian faith? Can theology lead us to informed Christian thinking about how surgery should be carried out? To put it another way, does a Christian perspective on surgery only mean that we should pray for the patient and the surgeon? Does it have a place in God’s plan, and can we think about it more holistically, more theologically?

The Scalpel and the Cross

By Gene L. Green

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