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A Brief Review of
The Scalpel and the Cross: A Theology of Surgery
(Ordinary Theology Series)
Paperback: Zondervan, 2015
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Reviewed by David P. Clark, M.D.
Gene L. Green in his new monograph, The Scalpel and the Cross: A Theology of Surgery, attempts to understand the particular work of surgery using the lens of theology. This book is a contribution to the Zondervan’s Ordinary Theology Series. Dr. Green was spurred to write this short book by the occasion of his aortic valve replacement surgery.
Dr. Green, a teacher of New Testament at Wheaton College and graduate school, attempts to use the lens of orthodox protestant theology to interpret and explicate the modern practice of surgery— a commendable and daunting goal. As a writer and surgeon, I can attest to the need and necessity for more serious thinking and clear writing concerning modern medicine.
The author has chosen a memoir as the basis for this short (90 pages) monograph. Green gives a clear accounting of his illness, surgery, and recovery. Indeed, the first half of the book would serve as well-written patient information pamphlet for an individual contemplating cardiac value replacement.
When I read patient accounts of illness or surgery, I am reminded how isolated medical practitioners have become from the remainder of the population. Despite Grey’s Anatomy and numerous TV doctor dramas, patients remain rightfully baffled and frightened by the hospital world. The author clearly likes and respects his doctors and nurses. However, he gives ample evidence that entering a hospital can be like visiting another planet and medical practitioners too often speak “medical-ese.” This use of an unknown vocabulary to explain strange procedures often leaves even the most well educated patients baffled or worse, scared to death.
In the second portion of the book, the author puts on his theologian’s glasses and attempts to introduce non-theologians to some of the issues that might inform a Christian examining surgical practice. The author identifies justice, mortality, imperfection, and stewardship of resources as relevant and significant theological concerns. The problem here is not with Doctor Green’s intent, but with the scope of the project. These are large theological issues to cover in forty pages— a somewhat stunted and unsatisfying consideration even for the theologically naive.
In addition to the challenges of juxtaposing two complex subjects, surgery and theology, is the author’s choice of narrative form. Green has cast this manuscript in the form of a memoir. Most useful memoirs have two voices: the voice of the person undergoing the situation and the voice of the wiser, older narrator reflecting back onto the situation delivering wisdom to the reader. In the best of spiritual memoirs (Think here of Augustine’s The Confessions or Bonhoeffer’s Letters from Prison) the writer’s conclusions are arrived at reluctantly and with significant humility.
Memoir, as a form, is always tentative, always provisional—after all, the story isn’t completed. In The Scalpel and the Cross, we find two voices: the voice of the person undergoing the surgical procedure and the voice of a University professor giving an introductory practical theology lecture. I am not sure this volume did justice to either the memoir or the lecture material.
As a physician and surgeon, I would humbly suggest the limitations and pitfalls of taking one small aspect of surgery in the United States (Cardiac Valve replacement) and extrapolating any medical or theological conclusion to the whole of worldwide medical practice. As a writer, I would caution against the use of memoir to teach theology. The personal memoir can and is used by God to teach His people about who they are and whose they are. However, a memoir that resonates with deeper truths is a nuanced and tender form, a form that becomes a harsh polemic if an author inserts too much of the didactic or abstract.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com