Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Book Review: Todd Billings' Rejoicing in Lament
Time for another Brazos Bloggers review: J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Brazos, 2015).
It's not always easy to see the connection between a theological book and real, everyday life. Some books seem to forget or ignore that connection; others try to address it by tacking an "application" section on at the end, often brief and unconvincing. This book isn't like that at all: every page reminds us that its author wrote it because of, and in the midst of, his diagnosis of and treatment for multiple myeloma. So it's straightforward and relentless in dealing with suffering and lament. But it's also a joyful, hopeful, and beautiful book.
The first two chapters explore Billings' cancer diagnosis as a sensation of "a narrowing, a tightening, rather than 'a spacious place' to dwell" (5, drawing from Billings' blog about his illness, dwelling here on Psalm 31), while introducing the need for lament as a response to suffering, the Psalms as "companions" for our journeys in joyful and well as lament-ful times, and the questions about suffering that Scripture sometimes leaves unanswered. The next three chapters probe deeper into lament as an exercise of paradoxical faith, trust, and protest -- an exercise made more difficult for the author by the trauma of chemotherapy. Billings excels here at helping his readers to see the bigger story beyond his own body and cancer: "we need to learn how to mourn for that which injures the body of Christ and leads away from Christ's kingdom" (39). In subsequent chapters on the role that death plays in the story of God and his church, and the problems of praying for healing, the author returns often to the words of Colossians 3 ("hidden with Christ in God") as a biblical touchstone. After an especially strong chapter that likens the poison of chemo and the "new life" of a stem cell transplant to the "strong medicine" of God's response to sin and death, Billings concludes with a sensitively articulated argument on divine impassibility and steadfast love, and a final meditation on our "displacement": even in rejoicing and lamenting, "our own stories are not preserved in a pristine way... [but] incorporated into a much larger story -- God's story in Christ" (170).
This book won't be for everyone. It tries hard to be accessible, and it often is, but at other moments it's more challenging, demanding more empathy and/or more patience for theology than some readers may want to bring to the table. For those who do -- and, perhaps better, for groups who might read this book together as a way of walking more sensitively and prayerfully with loved ones diagnosed with severe illness -- there's much to treasure here.