Introducing the Cancer Theology guest blog series

March 12, 2012 · 20 comments

Cancer & Theology

It didnt take long from hearing the doctor utter the word lymphoma for me to begin reflecting on my cancer theologically — I doubt it takes any cancer patient long, Christian or otherwise. I hold the belief that all of life is one big theological exercise, that our minute-to-minute actions betray a comprehensive and operative theological framework at work either consciously or unconsciously. That we are inherently theological beings suggests that any life crisis — small, medium, or large — equates to a theological crisis.

Now, theres a reason that my Twitter bio says amateur theologian, and its not false modesty. Knowing how to swim does not by definition make someone a great swimmer. Rather, becoming a great swimmer takes years of practice, discipline, motivation, apprenticeships and mentorships, etc. And so it is with theology — were all theologians, but the greatest theologians among us are defined by the same aforementioned qualities.

Which is why Ive asked some of the greatest theologians I know to participate as guest bloggers in a new series here on straightforwardly titled Cancer Theology.

The Objectives

The guest bloggers I have assembled (listed below) will be doing what Howard W. Stone and James O. Duke call deliberative theology or deliberative theological reflection. In their book How To Think Theologically, Stone and Duke define deliberative theology thusly:

Deliberative theology is the understanding of faith that emerges from a process of carefully reflecting upon embedded theological convictions. This sort of reflection is sometimes called second-order theology, in that it follows upon and looks back over the implicit understandings embedded in the life of faith.1

Ive specifically requested that the guest bloggers not reflect on my personal experience with cancer, but rather on cancer generally speaking, as a common human (and therefore religious) phenomenon. Should they choose, Ive provided them with prompts such as What is the relationship between cancer and God/Jesus/Holy Spirit? and How is God present during the process of cancer (sickness to diagnosis to treatment to recovery)? and Can/does God work through medical technology and advances in medicine in general? These and other questions will be considered by the guest bloggers below over the course of the next several months. This is the first and primary objective.

The second objective of the Cancer Theology series is to look at what Stone and Duke call embedded theology or first-order theology and examine how embedded theologies relate to individuals responses to cancer and the people who have it. Think of embedded theology is the theology that we carry with us in our subconscious, or the theology that has not yet been critically examined.

Because it has not been critically examined, embedded theology can reveal itself as immature and even offensive at times. Embedded theology is what leads people to say such things as When God closes a door, he opens up a window! and God doesnt give you anything you cant handle! In the face of darkness, there is a felt need to fill the cavernous void with the light of theological truth, and so folks pitch out what they know — often and unfortunately the weak, flickering light of embedded theological clichés and platitudes.

Because what do you say when someone tells you he or she has cancer?

The great Stanley Hauerwas says of suffering that it makes peoples otherness stand out in strong relief.2 Part of what makes it so easy for folks to offer up theological platitudes is that it (paradoxically) both increases and decreases our relational distance to the other, in this case the cancer patient. It decreases distance by making a sincere attempt to impart a word of grace to the patient. It increases distance by using the platitude as a means of hastily moving beyond the patients real experience.

So: I have asked the guest bloggers to provide original one- or two-line alternatives to embedded theological platitudes that walk the thin line between the two — increasing and decreasing the distance between the patient — and that are evident of rich, deliberative theological reflection.

This series exists as much for me as it does for you; I hope were all stretched in new and imaginative ways in how to think theologically about cancer (and, by extension, other illnesses) and those who have it. Im beyond excited to discover what the guest bloggers below have to contribute.

The Guest Bloggers

Ive done my best to pull together an assortment of adroit voices to contribute to this series. At the time of this posting, the folks who will be lending their theological wisdom include, in no particular order:

  • Brian D. McLaren (@brianmclaren): Brian is an author, speaker, activist, blogger, and public theologian who in 2005 was named one of Americas 25 most influential evangelicals. He has written a number of books, most recently Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words, and one of which books pretty much changed my life.
  • Mike Stavlund (@MikeStavlund): Mike is a writer, blogger, and semi-pro handyman who is part of an innovative emergence Christian community called Common Table. His first book, Force of Will will be published in the spring of 2013. Hes also primarily responsible for the huge Jesus tattoo on my forearm.
  • Martin E. Marty: Martin is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he taught for 35 years and where the Martin Marty Center has since been founded to promote “public religion” endeavors. He writes the “M.E.M.O” column for the Christian Century, on whose staff he has served since 1956. He is also the editor of the fortnightly Context since 1969, and has written over fifty books, most recently Dietrich Bonhoeffers Letters and Papers from Prison: A Biography.
  • Abigail Rian Evans: Abigail is scholar-in-residence at the Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University Medical Center and Charlotte W. Newcombe Professor of Practical Theology Emerita at Princeton Theological Seminary. Her most recent book is Is God Still at the Bedside?: The Medical, Ethical, and Pastoral Issues of Death and Dying.
  • Greg Garrett: Greg is an award-winning Professor of English at Baylor University, Writer-in-Residence at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest and at Gladstones Library in Hawarden, Wales, and a licensed lay preacher based at St. Davids Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas. He has written over a dozen critically-acclaimed books of fiction, memoir, translation, and criticism, including Stories from the Edge: A Theology of Grief.
  • Matthew Paul Turner (@JesusNeedsNewPR): Matthew is a popular blogger, speaker, and author of several books including Churched: One Kids Journey Toward God Despite a Holy Mess.
  • David Fitch (@fitchest): David is a bi-vocational pastor at Life on the Vine and the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary. He blogs at Reclaiming the Mission and has written several books, including The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism, and Other Modern Maladies.
  • Tony Jones (@jonestony): Tony is theologian-in-residence at Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis and an adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and at Andover Newton Theological School. Hes an ardent blogger who has written many books, most recently The Church Is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement.
  • Carol Howard Merritt (@CarolHoward): Carol is a pastor at Western Presbyterian Church, an intergenerational congregation in Washington, D.C. She writes for the Huffington Post and for Christian Centurys Tribal Church blog and
    has written several books, including Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation.
  • Andrew Root (@RootAndrew): Andy is in the Olson Baalson chair as associate professor of youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. He has written several books, including The Promise of Despair: The Way of the Cross as the Way of the Church (about which I raved) and most recently The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry (with Kenda Creasy Dean).
  • Paul Amlin (@PaulAmlin): Paul is a former lay youth worker and currently serves as a pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in Marion, IA. He is a survivor of Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • Nate Frambach (@nframbach): Nate is an ordained minister in the ELCA and is Professor of Youth, Culture Mission at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He and is the author of Emerging Ministry: Being Church Today and a contributor to The Hyphenateds: How Emergence Christianity is Re-Traditioning Mainline Practices.
  • Adam Walker Cleaveland (@adamwc): Adam is an Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Ashland, OR. He has been blogging at Pomomusings since August 2003 and is a contributor to the book An Emergent Manifesto of Hope.

The Schedule

Starting one week from today there will be a new post in the series, and the series will continue each subsequent Monday until the list of guest bloggers is exhausted — well into June.

Cancer and Theology kicks off next Monday, March 19 with a post from Tony Jones.

Finally, as a bonus, heres a embarrassing photo of Tony and I from 2005 — Embarrassing not because of Tony, but because of my garish goatee and non-ironic Latin t-shirt.

  1. Stone, Howard and James Duke. How To Think Theologically. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006. 16. []
  2. Hauerwas, Stanley. Suffering Presence: Theological Reflections on Medicine, the Mentally Handicapped, and the Church. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986. 25. Sadly, Stanley declined to participate as a guest blogger in this series. On the flip side, it was really cool to actually hear back from him. []
  • Scott Beeman

    I love the shirt, and am guilty as charged.  Looking forward to the series!

  • EricG

    I am 39 and have terminal cancer. Looking forward to this very much youve got some great people posting.  Sorry to hear what you are going through.
    This is a very important topic — in my experience, the most stupid things that are said to someone with cancer usually come from the more religious among us.  And I agree that it often stems from some crazy embedded theology people hold.  
    A large foundation that supports young people with cancer collected some of the real-life stuff people have said to those with cancer. A friend of mine has collected it some of it at this link:
    Some suggestions about what you could do with this series:  (1) Get Pete Rollins to discuss his book Insurrection and its meaning for cancer.  (2) Address the theology of dying and cancer too (people tend to avoid this topic).  (3) Get people who have experienced cancer to post they tend to have a different perspective.

  • Kate B

    I am really looking forward to this series, Jake. Cant wait to read along.

    • Jake Bouma

      I think Im looking forward to it as much as you are! :)

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  • Donna Van Horn

    Hi Jake,

     I just stumbled into your blog and am excited to read where this series goes. Ive been dealing with breast cancer for the last year and a half, and sure feel for what you are going through cancer sucks. I co-pastor a small church in Portland Or, & am about to graduate from seminary, so in many ways this series will be meaningful to me thanks for initiating this conversation!!

    • Jake Bouma

      Congratulations on completing seminary! Thanks for your comment Im thrilled to see that this series is connecting w/folks like I had hoped. May God be with you, Donna.

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