Glimpsing Resurrection (Deanna Thompson) -- A Review

GLIMPSING RESURRECTION: Cancer, Trauma, and Ministry. By Deanna A. Thompson. Foreword by Willie James Jennings. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018.  Xviii + 189 pages.

At the center of the Christian faith is the promise of resurrection. After proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus, Paul declared that “if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:13-14). You can’t put it any clearer. Paul connects the resurrections of Christians with that of Jesus, and it is a promise that gives hope, but it doesn't resolve the challenges posed by this life. This is especially when that challenge is illness or injury. Even if the resurrection will change our realities when it comes to an illness like cancer, that doesn’t remove the trauma that comes with the illness. That trauma could be experienced by the person with cancer, as well as one’s family, especially a spouse and children. Nonetheless, the promise of resurrection does provide a lens through which the trauma of cancer can be viewed.

One who has experienced cancer and has lived long enough to write about it in powerful ways is Deanna Thompson, who is a friend and a consummate theologian. She is a feminist theologian of the cross and student of Luther. While she has written and spoken of Luther and the theology of the cross, much of her recent work is rooted in her experience with an uncurable form of cancer. This book, under review, is a further exploration of this area of concern that is both personal and public. In Glimpsing Resurrection, Deanna dives deeper into this reality, focusing on the implications of trauma studies, and how this field relates to the way the church engages in ministry. 

Following the work of Shelly Rambo and Serene Jones, among others, Deanna explores the way in which cancer, especially a form that is considered incurable, creates trauma. That is, how does life-threatening illness lead to a form of PTSD. As Deanna notes in the book the linkage of PTSD to illness has only recently been made and has not been fully accepted among scholars of this field. Nonetheless, personal experience leads her to this conclusion. An illness like cancer creates an experience of trauma because one can feel as if one’s life is out of control. Life becomes disordered. Life is filled with uncertainty. Here’s the kicker, one’s cancer can go into remission, which is a good thing, but that doesn’t take away the uncertainty. One can wonder how long remission will last. With that, how does one make plans for the future? She writes in her introduction: "As a theologian living with incurable cancer, I've become more aware of how our versions of the Christian story bend toward resolution while the plots of our own lives stubbornly resist it" (p. 8). When I invited her to come and speak at my church a few years back, she agreed, noting that she couldn’t predict what her situation might be when the time came. The good news is that she was able to fulfill the commitment, but the uncertainty creates a sense of disorder or anomie in one’s life.

Although she writes this book out of her own story, she includes several other stories of people who also have experienced cancer. These persons include theologians and clergy, among others. Each of these people have had their lives left undone by illness. They have struggled to make sense of their lives, even as they have attempted to live their lives fully. Their stories raise the question of how one deals with such realities? With these stories as the foundation, she takes us into the field of trauma studies, so we might better understand the traumatic nature of illness. Again, she reminds us that the person with cancer is not the only one affected. The family is affected as well, especially since those who are middle income or affluent tend to be future oriented, but cancer throws the entire family into an uncertain reality. So, how does one make sense of life? Where does faith fit in. She notes it can have positive and negative impact. One thing that faith can provide is a way of lament, something Christians struggle with, but which Scripture enables with the Psalms and Job, to name but two resources. Finding a balance between letting loose one’s anger with God and dwelling in anger is important.

With these foundations, she moves to the Christian story, and how it provides space or can make space for persons experiencing the trauma of severe illness to express their anger, protest, and anguish. She explores the Psalms of lament, noting that they make up a significant part of the Psalter, and yet we struggle with giving room for lament. We stick to the praise instead. I especially found the exploration of Job to be helpful, including questions about where his wife fits, because at the end of the story she is nowhere to be found, suggesting an opportunity to explore the effects of illness on relationships. There is also an important conversation about the cross and Holy Saturday—life in the tomb—that can enrich our conversation about trauma and illness from a faith perspective.

This leads to the question of how the church deals with suffering. Here is where the question of ministry comes in. How does the church be present to those left undone, especially when those suffering find it difficult to be present with the community? She invites us to consider rituals of lament and healing that might bring hope and perhaps a bit of order to disordered lives, knowing that this disorder likely will not go away any time soon. Churches, as she notes, struggle with illness and disorder. Like's Job's friends it knocks at our sense of orderliness.

The title includes the word resurrection. It is an eschatological hope, which has led some to believe that Christians need not or should not grieve. She challenges us to recognize that we live in a pre-resurrection environment. It is appropriate to grieve. Resurrection might be in our future, but it is not yet with us. But some form of healing, even if not physical can be experienced, if we are open to it. The message here is one of hope. As she writes in the final paragraphs of the book "Even when our lives are limited by illness and the trauma and isolation that can accompany it, the promise of the Parousia assures us now that we are created not only for relationship with God and others in the here and now but for the relationship with God and others in life beyond this one. We are promised that the love that binds us to God and to one another is a love that persists, even in the face. of death." (p. 160). This doesn't take away the reality of the trauma, but it does give hope, if we're willing to walk through the shadow times, when life is disordered. That is, when peoples’ lives are undone. As a pastor, this is a good reminder that understanding the reality of trauma can make better sense of ministry.

I have found Deanna’s books to be profound. There is a depth to her theological work that is rooted both in scholarship and experience. This isn’t an easy book to read. While it includes aspects of her autobiography, this is not a memoir. This is a serious book of theology, which will require much of us. It’s not long, but there is a density to it that requires our constant attention. For some of us the inclusion of trauma studies will be new and will require some getting used to, but the end is worth the journey. Regarding her testimony, I would recommend her earlier book Hoping for More. In fact, reading it first might provide insight into what she is trying to do here. Since she deals with the role of the virtual body of Christ in this context, I recommend her book titled The Virtual Body of Christ as the next stop. Then, we come to this book. You might want to read this as three parts of one important work, with Glimpsing Resurrection taking us a step further. Ultimately, this is, an excellent book, but then I've come to expect that from Deanna Thompson.


Deanna Thompson said…
Bob--your review is a gift. That you take the time to read and put thoughtful words to the page about my books and so many others--it's a gift. As you suggest at the end of the review, Glimpsing Resurrection is in some ways the culmination of the other two books you recommend. They build on one another, with this most recent one being the most in depth theologically. I was remembering this weekend that it was exactly a year ago that I was with you all in Troy--thanks for your support of me and my work over these past number of years. Our friendship has been a most enriching one to me. Blessings to you and yours, Deanna
Unknown said…
Bob, Thanks for the review of this book. I plan to get a copy and read it. Hearing Deanna Thompson speak is a gift, and her commentary on Deuteronomy is also wonderful.
Robert Cornwall said…

Yes, I was thinking that you were with us a year ago -- what a blessing. I appreciate so much your theological depth -- and of course the friendship even more.

Henry, you are correct as well!!

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