Review: Hoping for More
Dr. Deanna A. Thompson, Professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, begins her new book, Hoping for More: Having Cancer, Talking Faith, and Accepting Grace, with a brief description of what she calls her "95 percent ideal life." She narrates the transition out of a life in which she could hardly hope for more, into a struggle against cancer in which she and her loved ones are forced into a position of hope. This struggle also reveals much more grace surrounds her than she knows.
To begin the book, Thompson speaks to her identity as a healthy forty-two year old wife, professor, and mother of two. She is nagged by pain in her back that suddenly presents as a burning sensation. After two encounters with a chiropractor, two visits to the hospital, ineffectual pain medication, and a claustrophobia-inducing ride in a MRI machine brings Thompson to a new identity: forty-two year old woman with an inexplicably fractured spine. Thus begins Thompson's rigorous ordeal in the grips of the medical diagnostic apparatus.
A semester later, full of trips to the doctor, heavy-duty pain medication, and weeks lived out in a full back brace, Thompson and her physician find that not only has her back not healed, a second vertebra has fractured. This leads her to a visit to a spine specialist, the discovery of fluid buildup around the fractured vertebrae, a biopsy, and finally the diagnosis of stage IV estrogen-receptive metastatic breast cancer that had spread from her breast to her back, hip, tailbone, and pelvis. The hospitalist "listed close to a dozen different bone locations in all." Not a hopeful diagnosis.
Throughout the book, Thompson takes the reader through her journey with cancer, through good and bad days, through bliss and despair, through many tongue-tied moments in the face of grace and trauma. Throughout her narration of this journey, she pauses to reflect on theological implications of her life as a cancer patient, the lives of the loved ones around her, and living in the face of death, while hoping for the future promised by God. The result of her open hearted witness is an accessible book with deep theological grounding that I would recommend to anyone—especially those living through their own suffering or the suffering of a loved one.
What is true of her academic work, Crossing the Divide: Luther, Feminism, and the Cross, is also true of this book. Namely, Thompson's prose is accessible without being facile; her God-talk is approachable without being theologically shallow. There is much to consider within this short book, and at 148 pages it can touch only momentarily upon concepts such as suffering, grace, friendship, church, prayer, and medical ethics. But while she does not tarry long with these issues, Thompson suggests the depths of each, their interconnectedness, as well as their meaning and implications as they are experienced in everyday life.
While Hoping for More suggests a nuanced theology working behind the scenes, lay readers will not find themselves bogged down in theological jargon. The theologically trained might want for more direct theological engagement, but I see the book's accessibility as a strength that invites lay readers, clergy, and academics alike into theological reflection. Indeed, more books like Thompson's would go far in building a bridge between professional academics and clergy on one hand, and the individual seekers and self-professed Christians they serve on the other.
Thompson has a quick, sharp wit, and it shows. The book is often funny—something that did not surprise me, but did catch me off guard, especially when she describes the deeply serious issue of facing death. Her wit functions as a defense, not just for herself but also for her reader. But Thompson does not sugarcoat illness and its effects. The moments of levity, sarcasm, sometimes even cynicism, do not dismiss cancer, but make one feel the seriousness of the illness even more deeply. The comic and the tragic are one, after all, plus or minus timing. And with cancer, your comic timing has to be just right. Out of context, many of the portions at which I laughed out loud through tears just come off as, well, disturbing. So, you may have to take my word for it.
That some levity in the face of cancer exists in the book, however, does not mean it is not serious. Thompson's description of cancer makes it impossible to view her predicament—the predicament of anyone facing the disease—through rose colored glasses. Thompson does not pull punches, but she does take the good with the bad finding small victories here and there, seeing clearly the beauty of her daughters' love, or her husband's, or that host of saints gathered around her, championing her health.
Particularly intriguing is Thompson's seventh chapter detailing her experience of coming to see a widened vision of the body of Christ. Thompson shares the stories of friends and colleagues who find themselves praying, some of them who have never done so before. She tells us of prayer shawls, the dedication of prayer and worship services in her name, of Native American healing rites carried out in her honor, of Buddhist meditation focused upon her healing, and of a Jewish woman who otherwise has an uneasy relationship with religion in general finding herself addressing prayers to Jesus and hoping she is doing it correctly (54-62).
Though she recognizes that she is wading into murky waters, she is still confident in her "growing conviction that [the] notion of the church universal extends even further, beyond the bounds of Christian communities to include those of other faiths and even those of no particular faith" (58). This conviction is grounded in what Thompson calls "boundary-breaking experiences of grace" (59).
Theological musings about the universality of Christ are fraught with pitfalls. This is especially true when theologians reflect from on high, disconnected from the lived experience of Christians, churches, and particularly the religious other. Thompson acknowledges these risks, but when a theologian like her, one who writes out of the reality of tremendous mental and physical suffering, makes such an observation about the radically catholic nature of the body of Christ, we would do well to stop and pay attention. When she couches such reflections in open-ended questions and mystery, we ought to embrace her and her God-talk as part of a new way of understanding what it is to be a religious person in the 21st Century.
Those of us with our own loved ones who suffer often feel as powerless as the one who suffers. Thompson shows us the power individuals have when they gather in community around a sufferer, the simple, human impact we can have and the grace we may extend, even when we may not know that we have it to offer. As the title of the book foreshadows, we are left only with hope. As is always the case with our human stories there is no Hollywood ending and we are left with an ellipsis.
It is ever as Thompson writes, "In the midst of uncertainty we stand with hope: for what's before us and for the more beyond" (148).