A Formula For Dying?

If I Die at Thirty, by Meg Woodson (Zondervan, 1975, 166 pp., $4.95), Free Fall, by Jo Ann Kelley Smith (Judson, 1975, 138 pp., $5.95), When a Loved One Dies, by Philip W. Williams (Augsburg, 1976, 95 pp., $2.50 pb), Straight Talk About Death With Young People, by Richard G. Watts (Westminster, 1975, 92 pp., $2.95 pb), Ye Shall Be Comforted, by William R. Rogers (Westminster, 1950, 92 pp., $1.95 pb), Let Christ Take You Beyond Discouragement, by Albert L. Kurz (Accent, 1975, 128 pp., $1.75 pb), Raise the Dead, by Myron C. Madden (Word, 1975, 118 pp. $4.95), and Death: The Riddle and the Mystery, by Eberhard Jungel (Westminster, 1974, 141 pp., $6.95), are reviewed by Gladys M. Hunt, author of “Don’t Be Afraid to Die,” Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The statistics about death are very impressive, observed George Bernard Shaw: one out of one dies. Yet until recently we have been tiptoeing around death as if ignoring it would make it go away.

As late as 1969 Rollo May in his book Love and Will complained about contemporary values that make sex an obsession and death a matter of poor taste. When I was writing my own book on death, which was first published in 1971, I noticed an awkward silence each time I answered the query, “What are you writing about now?” People seemed embarrassed. Only one or two bothered to ask what I was saying about death. Joe Bayly when he was writing The View From the Hearse had a similar experience and sometimes felt like an untouchable socially because he had three sons who died.

But times have changed, so much so that recently the Journal of the American Medical Association carried an article entitled “Dying is Worked to Death.”

Without question the breakthrough for a realistic handling of death came with the publication of On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. The resistance she encountered in doctors and hospital workers as she attempted to interview dying patients revealed the medical profession’s uneasiness with death.

Dr. Kubler-Ross has described five stages she believes most dying patients experience: denial (It can’t be true!), followed by anger or resentment (Why me?), then a stage of bartering to prolong life, a period of depression, and finally acceptance.

Her observations have become the basic outline for the seminars and films on death. Several books reviewed here relate personal experience to stages she describes. It’s like finding a formula for dying. The problem with this is that some zealous speakers and counselors almost insist that to be normal a person must pass through these stages. Kubler-Ross, however, does not investigate any of the resources of the Christian faith. While these do not rule out the stages she describes, neither is a dying Christian hemmed into that formula.

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For instance, it is refreshing to me to read the statement of Orville Walters, a capable psychiatrist and a committed Christian, written just before his own death and published in the Fall, 1975, issue of the Christian Medical Society Journal: “With the self awareness that is required in the competent psychiatrist, I cannot identify in my own experience the stages commonly attributed to the dying patient.” Why? Because God’s presence and grace has been a consistent reality. “I believe,” he wrote, “the vitality of that relationship made possible the acceptance of uncertainty concerning the end of my earthly life.” We cannot program the experience of dying; we can only make observations.

The Church has done a poor job in preparing people for death, both to face their own mortality and to handle grief. An amazing number of people who claim to be Christians still believe that people become angels in the next world or else plague themselves with guilt over failure to “believe more” when someone they love dies. Only a few books have been written to help believers see that grief is good, natural, necessary, and often irrational—and that it is not obliterated by our great and steadfast hope in Jesus Christ. We sorrow, but not as others who have no hope. We have sometimes not allowed people to be as human as God does.

Meg Woodson’s If I Die at Thirty and Jo Ann Smith’s Free Fall are likely to be a new experience for readers, for they were written by people facing death. Free Fall was written in the final months of JoAnn Smith’s life as she was dying from cancer. It is a very honest book, sharing the confusion, doubts, fears, and alienation she experienced. She likens death to the “free fall” experience in parachute jumping—the sense of freedom, the separation from those she loves, the assurance that God will be there in the end.

JoAnn Smith previously learned how to share openly, particularly in the supporting Christian community to which she and her husband belonged. Her openness makes the book possible and may even prove too much for some readers. It is a book to give not so much to a dying person (except as its insights might help someone who needs his or her humanity affirmed) as to the family of a dying person.

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As JoAnn and Gordon struggle to accept the news that her illness is terminal, their friends tend to retreat into silence, not knowing what to say or how to act. The Smiths are led to write out their personal theology about what is happening to them and share it with their friends, asking them to stay close, to simply be there and understand. JoAnn is frank about the instability of her emotions: she finds herself trying to use her illness to manipulate events in the family; she sometimes knows she is making others feel guilty for living because she is dying. When she needs her husband’s support the most, she ends up rejecting his expressions of tenderness, which confuses them both and necessitates honest conversations.

She disdains ministers who come to call with their own agenda clearly in mind, never bothering to find out where she is emotionally and spiritually. She talks about the kind of people who really help her. Ministers, theology students, doctors, nurses—and all the rest of us—need to hear this woman simply because she is telling it as she experiences it. You meet a person instead of examining theories.

Meg Woodson’s If I Die at Thirty is a creative retelling of conversations with her thirteen-year-old daughter, who has discovered that cystic fibrosis gives her a limited life expectancy. Spiritually it is a far more buoyant book than Free Fall, without being sticky. (One senses that JoAnn Smith never had this much solid, consistent teaching about the nature of the Christian life or Christian death or about the personal friendship of God.) Here is a loving family trusting in God, believing the Bible, facing their own humanity, struggling, making mistakes, hurting, and knowing the comforting care of God as he gives them flashes of insight into great realities. It is no less honest than Free Fall, but death is the prognosis, not the imminent reality.

And this thirteen-year-old is special. Her authenticity may be questioned by some who have never met a spiritually perceptive child, but my own experience confirms the beauty and simplicity of this kind of young adult. Uncluttered with adult hang-ups, this half-child, half-adult sees life with a clear eye. I’d like to see teen-agers reading this book.

In Let Christ Take You Beyond Discouragement Albert Kurz shares what Donna, his wife, recorded of her own experience in facing death. But I couldn’t help feeling that he included only her triumphant words, or perhaps she wrote only when she felt spiritually good, knowing how he wanted to use her material. Kurz writes to inspire readers to take hold of God’s promises. The effect is essentially sermonic. Everything he says about God is true; the weakness may be that he does not say what is true about humans. Still, Donna Kurz faced death with a firm faith and is a model for those so caught up in self-pity and discouragement that they never dream Christ can take them beyond it. My concern is that for some this book may produce more guilt than comfort.

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Of the books reviewed here (eight books on death at one time is quite a dose), When a Loved One Dies by Philip Williams is the most comforting. He takes grief seriously. He handles feelings honestly. Williams understands the problems of concentration in grief and the difficulty in prayer. Hence, the chapters are short, concluding with a brief prayer. You can start anywhere in the book, depending on how you feel. Chapters like “It Can’t Be True,” “If Only,” “You’ll Never Know,” and “Those Old Feelings” will take the grieving person from where he or she is to a brief important truth about God.

It’s hard to tell whether Watts wrote his book for adults or for young people, despite its title. He shows a good understanding of questions important to young people and surveys beliefs common among teen-agers. We do indeed need to do some “Straight talk about death with Young People,” as his title puts it. Teen-agers today have a morbid fascination with death, and few know biblical teaching. The drug culture, Eastern mysticism, rock singers, and television programs—everything from “The Littlest Angel” to police dramas where someone dies nightly—all serve to leave a hazy feeling about death.

Westminster issued in paperback a book by William E Rogers written some time ago. It has good insights into the grieving process and decision-making in grief. Its major suggestion is that a grieving person seek out a counselor very soon after the death. The author believes that well-meaning friends often block our show of emotion with advice to brace up, while other family members are trying to cope with their own reactions and cannot be expected to listen to ours. In view of the statistic that three-fourths of all couples who lose a child have marriages that end in divorce, Rogers’s advice may be right. Grieving people need to be understood and to understand something of what is happening to them.

I had a hard time with Myron C. Madden’s Raise the Dead. It hardly qualifies as a Christian book because of its lack of biblical perspective; I kept trying to figure out why Word published it. Madden does not believe death is a foe (unless we let it be), does not believe in the resurrection of the body or in the existence of demons. What he does believe in is his proposal for a new therapy that takes Freud a step further: beyond sex to death. He wants to get death out of life and help update and correct false ideas about death that give it an unreal vitality, he says. He wants, in addition, to help people let the dead be dead, in a final, clean way, whatever that means. To him “biology says life is the aggressive, thrusting, pulsating force, and it takes any death as a bonus. Death has no power but the power we give it.” His view of death is consistently biological rather than biblical or social. He does handle one area not often touched in other books: the problem of dead relationships. However, Madden is better at defining the problem than encouraging a solution. As director of pastoral care for the Southern Baptist hospital in New Orleans he has evidently counseled many people with severe disorders, and much of what he writes is a discussion of what is essentially psychotic behavior. He believes that when the trap that has been locking death into your psyche is sprung, you will get twice as much out of life. I’m hard pressed to think of anyone this book would help.

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Jungel’s book, Death: The Riddle and the Mystery, is in a different league altogether from the others in this review. It is a heavy, probing book contrasting the secular and philosophical view of death with a theological view. Basically it is a book for philosophers and serious theological students, raising theoretical questions about the meaning of death. Part I discusses the anthropological and biological view of death, and then death as a social fact. Part II examines the theology of death from the Old and New Testaments and has a strong chapter on “the death of death.” It is a thorough, meticulous book. The author is a professor of theology at Tübingen.

When I finished reading these books on death, I opened my Bible and read First Corinthians 15. Now there is a refreshing look at death. I thought of the early Christians, marked in history by the confidence and poise with which they faced death. Any book that really helps us die must tell us about the resurrection. Something has happened in human history to destroy death and to deliver us from its bondage. That doesn’t mean we won’t suffer, that we won’t be afraid, that we won’t know terrible sorrow. It just means that Jesus meant it when he said, “Because I live, you shall live also.”

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Those Curious New Cults, by William Petersen (Keats, 272 pp., $1.95 pb), Reincarnation, Edgar Cayce, and the Bible, by Phillip Swihart (InterVarsity, 55 p., $1.25 pb), The Quija Board, by Edmond Gruss (Moody, 191 pp., $1.50 pb), Transcendental Meditation: A Christian View, by David Haddon (InterVarsity, 27 pp., $.25 pb), and The Meditators, by Douglas Shah (Logos, 147 pp., $3.50 pb). Evangelical refutations of Eastern religious sects. Petersen’s is a reprint treating briefly but capably eighteen groups or practices, two more (Moon’s and Maharaj Ji’s) than in the hard-cover edition. The titles of the other indicate their scope. Recommended.

Jesus Christ Is Not God, by Victor Paul Weirwille (distributed by Devin-Adair, 180 pp., $6.95). At least the leader of a growing Christian deviation does not try to conceal his anti-trinitarianism. For orthodox Christians who might be tempted to think well of The Way because of its adherents’ zeal, claimed biblicism, tongues-speaking, or whatever. Compare with defenses of the biblical teaching in The Deity of Christ by W. J. Martin (Moody) or The Lord From Heaven by Leon Morris (InterVarsity).

Living Christian Science, by Marcy Babbitt (Prentice-Hall, 255 pp., $7.95), The Universal Flame, edited by L. H. Leslie-Smith (Theosophical Publishing House, 263 pp., $5), and The Trumpet of Prophecy by James Beckford (Halsted, 244 pp; $17.95). Some sects are a century old and still going strong. Beckford’s scholarly study of Jehovah’s Witnesses is a major addition to the literature. The other two are by or about several adherents of Christian Science and Theosophy.

Abingdon Bible Handbook, by Edward P. Blair (Abingdon, 511 pp., $15.95). Has brief accounts for laymen of how we got the Bible and what its chief teachings are but is mostly devoted to separate introductions to each of the books of the Bible and Apocrypha. The author affirms the authority of Christ, but takes a mediating or inconclusive position on most matters of conflict among scholars (e.g., personality of Satan, authorship of Ephesians). Although he believes the Bible is “indispensable” for learning about God, he also expects us to decide which parts of the Bible are reliable and which are not! “We should therefore expect different levels of truth and some error in the Bible.” Not recommended for its intended audience.

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The Empty Pulpit: A Handbook for Churches Calling a Pastor, by Gerald Gillaspie (Moody, 159 pp., $2.50 pb), Getting the Books Off the Shelves: Making the Most of Your Congregation’s Library, by Ruth Smith (Hawthorn, 117 pp., $3.50 pb), Ministry to the Hospitalized, by Gerald Niklas and Charlotte Stafanics (Paulist, 135 pp., $3.95 pb), Phone Power: Using the Telephone in Ministry, by Augustus Dowdy, Jr. (Judson, 96 pp., $2.95 pb), and How to Build an Evangelistic Church Music Program, by Lindsay Terry (Nelson, 198 pp., $3.95 pb). Five worthwhile “how-to” books.

Contemplative Christianity by Aelred Graham (Seabury, 131 pp., $6.95), and Yoga and God by J. M. Dechanet (Abbey, 161 pp., $3.95 pb). Attempts by two Christian monks to strengthen Western religion by borrowing from the East. We do better to stay with or recover the revelation to the Hebrews rather than go farther east.

Some Ways of God, by C. Stacey Woods (InterVarsity, 131 pp. $2.95 pb). Interesting reminiscences and very helpful exhortations and insights by a pioneer in worldwide work among university students.

From Day to Day: A Message From the Bible For Each Day of the Year, by Frank Gaebelein (Baker, 193 pp., $6.95, $2.95 pb). A book of meditations by one of the most widely respected elder statesmen among evangelicals.

Faith and Freedom, by Mary Senholz (Grove City College [Grove City, Pa. 16127], 179 pp., $6.50). Biography, with numerous excerpts from writings and speeches, of J. Howard Pew (1882–1971), prominent evangelical businessman and munificent donor.

Sons of God Return, by Kelly Segraves (Revell, 191 pp., $1.40 pb), UFO: What on Earth Is Happening, by John Weldon and Zola Levitt (Harvest House, 156 pp., $2.95 pb), and Gods in Chariots and Other Fantasies, by Clifford Wilson (Creation-Life, 143 pp., $1.50 pb). A new religion of sorts—UFOlogy is perhaps the best name for it—has been gaining more publicity, especially since the best-selling books of Erich von Daniken. Generally UFOlogy starts with flying-object sightings and other strange phenomena past and present but attributes to extra-terrestrial, naturalistic beings what Christians attribute to the supernatural. However, these three evangelical books opposing UFOlogy give more concessions to the alleged phenomena, only with a supernatural interpretation, than other investigators would be willing to grant. They are probably better used to woo away cultists than to instruct Christians.

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Can Psychotherapy Be Christian?

Faith, Psychology, and Christian Maturity, by Millard Sall (Zondervan, 1975, 181 pp., $5.95), is reviewed by Lawrence Crabb, Jr., clinical psychologist, Boca Raton, Florida.

The raging debate continues between those who insist that mental illness is the direct result of sinful behavior and those who maintain that spiritual problems and psychological problems are separable and distinct, one requiring pastoral ministrations and the other professional psychotherapy. In a non-polemical, reasonable, and informed way, Dr. Sall, a clinical psychologist, aligns himself with the latter position. He defends his thinking as consistent with a biblical understanding of man as spirit (vulnerable to spiritual problems), soul (vulnerable to psychological problems), and body (vulnerable to physical problems). His central thesis seems to be that psychotherapy, when carefully understood, in no way contradicts Scripture and in fact offers a valuable tool in promoting the goals of Christianity.

One immediate concern is this matter of goals. Sall argues that the Bible and psychotherapy are “compatible because their goals are not dissimilar—they both seek to bring good and fulfillment, maturity and enrichment, and the ability to receive and give love in a permanent way so that life may bring the highest satisfaction and enjoyment possible.” When his own happiness becomes the Christian’s primary goal, we have reversed Christianity into a man-centered system in which God is reduced to a wonderful resource to be exploited rather than the Lord who requires worship and service. Life becomes less of a warfare for God and more of a quest for joy.

Although I think his assumption of compatible goals is open to question, Sall’s clear, strong commitment to evangelical Christianity is not. In Part I (What Psychology Teaches Us About Ourselves), he helpfully and simply summarizes traditional psychological thinking (primarily psychoanalytic) about personality structure, focusing on the definition and development of the ego. Anticipating the charge that all forms of self-love are bad and that the ego is an evil to be reckoned dead, Sall devotes much of Part II (What the Bible Teaches Us About Ourselves) to the idea that a good self-concept is indispensable to Christian maturity. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on pride in which he asserts that there is a healthy form of pride and then describes false or sinful pride, and how it displays itself in neurotic behavior.

In Part III (Harmonizing Psychology and the Bible as We View Ourselves) he attempts to articulate the valid role of psychotherapy in the Christian community. Christians who are struggling with personal problems and pastors who insist that people who are hurting should simply “trust the Lord” and “turn their problems over to Jesus” would do well to read this part. In discussing whether sin is the cause of mental illness, Sall helpfully suggests that a temper outburst may accurately be called sin but may with equal accuracy be viewed as the expression of underdeveloped ego controls. Both views are correct, and this suggests complementary strategies: set the goal as overcoming the sin problem, then help the person develop stronger ego controls through which the Spirit can more effectively work.

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Precisely how we develop stronger ego controls is open to question. Is it a psychological process of uncovering repressed material in a supporting relationship? Or is it simply a matter of choosing to obey God regardless of fears and doubts? Does one have to be whole before he exercises the faith which obeys, or does one become whole by exercising that kind of faith?

Adamsian counselors will be likely to take issue with much of the book. Other Christian counselors like Narramore and Hyder will probably find it generally consistent with their thinking. Most will agree in part, criticize here and there, and end up moving a step ahead on the long road towards a crystallized view of Christian counseling.

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