CANCER IS FUNNY: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo (Theology for the People). By Jason Micheli. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016. Xxi + 226 pages.
Cancer (the C-Word) isn’t really funny. Not if you have cancer or a loved one has cancer. Cancer is often rather insidious. Sometimes it is curable, but not always. My brother-in-law recently died of pancreatic cancer (the kind of cancer that usually doesn’t get discovered until it’s fatal). As a pastor, I know the reality of cancer as well. No, cancer isn’t funny, except that sometimes humor is the only medicine available to one going through cancer. That is the conclusion of Jason Micheli, who went through a significant ordeal with cancer (and is currently in remission). When he says that cancer is funny, what he means is that “your every pretense falls away, right along with your pubic hair. It makes you absolutely vulnerable to others, both to their fragile, pitying stares, and to their sincere gestures of support you would’ve proudly shrugged off before cancer” (p. xii). He notes that Steve Allen suggested that “comedy = tragedy + time.”
Jason Micheli is a United Methodist Church pastor in his late 30s who went through a harrowing experience with a rare form of lymphoma that required intense chemotherapy so that he might live. In this book, he looks back at his experience, seeking to share what he learned from the experience so that others might find strength for the journey through cancer (their own or that of a loved one). His battle with cancer proved to be a challenge to his spirit and to his faith, but he held on and eventually moved into remission. That allowed him to return to his ministry with the congregation he served. In the course of telling the story, he tries to make use of personal story and humor to communicate a word of hope.
As I noted my brother-in-law recently died of pancreatic cancer, so as a family we know the facts of cancer. As a pastor, I've seen how cancer can ravage body and spirit. I've seen people "survive" or at least move into remission from cancer. I know that the path to survival can take a lot of money, and often there are no guarantees of cure. So, while science seeks the cure, we wrestle with the effects.
In telling this story of his ordeal with cancer, from a personal perspective, Micheli pulls no punches. He doesn’t hide his anger or anguish. He raises questions with God. All the while, he tries to bring humor into the conversation. Here's where it gets sticky. What one person find humorous might not be humorous to another. As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Often humor is generational, which means one generation may not get the joke told by another. From the blurbs on the back cover, I gather that at least some readers found the book funny. While I didn’t find it that humorous, that may say more about me than about the author. As Morgan Guyton suggests in his blurb, "Jason has perfected the art of pastoral irreverence."
Pastoral irreverence probably has its place, because sometimes we need to let go over our need for propriety. I assure you that Micheli does this. He invites the reader to join him in his journey, to experience the pain and the anguish that accompanies the journey through cancer. He finds healing, though not a cure, in the process. He struggles with his faith, but perseveres. He is absolutely (sometimes graphically) transparent about the process. That requires a bit of irreverence (pastorally, of course).
As a pastor, I look for resources to share with congregants, especially as they deal with life’s difficulties and tragedies. Not every resource works for every individual (we’re all different, after all). I can imagine sharing this book with younger members of my congregation, but I might not share it with an older member. As for those in my Baby Boomer age bracket, it would depend on the person. The language and the humor might not be fitting for some. Personally, I would feel more comfortable recommending Deanna Thompson's book Hoping for More: having cancer, talking faith, and accepting grace, also from Fortress Press. She also shares a story of dealing with significant cancer. She shares her story, which is deeply rooted in faith, and does so in a gentler fashion. I think both books have their place on my shelf, but it will require discernment to know with whom to share what.
In reading the book, I felt as if it could have been much briefer. I realize that Micheli pours out his life on these pages, but the story might move better with a bit more editing. That might make the book more effective. But, as I said, that may have more to do with me. It's a useful book, because it's a very honest book. Sometimes, that's what we need—honesty.
I'm not sure cancer is funny, but I do know that we do often need to laugh in the midst of our life struggles. That is what Micheli attempts to do here—invite us to wrestle with our tragedies and our faith so we might find healing (if not a cure).