William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Reviewed by Andrew Lustig
Allen Verhey is perhaps unique among today’s theological bioethicists in his combination of scholarly skills. He is well versed in Scripture studies and nuanced in his exegetical readings. He is rigorous and wide-ranging in his command of the literature of theological, philosophical, and clinical bioethics. And, along with William May, Verhey is surely one of the most eloquent writers in current bioethics—always a joy to read, judicious in his insights, probing and prophetic in his analysis.
Verhey’s most recent book reconfirms his status as today’s foremost expositor of the ways that a nuanced reading of Scripture can illuminate the dilemmas posed by modern medicine. The shaping power of the Christian story is at the core of Verhey’s discussion. The church, formed by the power and promise of the Spirit, is faithful to its mission by “remembering Jesus” in its rituals and in its communal reflections. It is faithful by always considering particular moral questions in light of the person and saving acts of Jesus and the central themes of the ongoing tradition—by telling and retelling the “story Christians love to tell and long to live.”
Verhey eschews any tendency to read Scripture simplistically, or to confuse Christian allegiance with literalism or fundamentalism. At the same time, he emphasizes the importance of extending the conversation beyond the church; the theologian’s task is also to “talk ... of God with those who would rather not.” What Verhey insists upon throughout the book is a commitment to theological candor, to an expressly theological conversation as a two-fold form of service. Moral deliberation and discernment is of obvious service to the Christian community, as it grapples with bioethical issues in light of its central convictions. But theological candor is also a service to the larger public. Because secular bioethics too often settles for moral minimalism, theological candor in Christians “may at least remind the public of richer accounts of morality” and “of neglected wisdom.”
Verhey considers both broad themes and specific issues. The book addresses the full range of controversial topics in bioethics: genetic interventions, abortion, assisted reproductive technologies, neonatal decision-making, end-of-life decisions, assisted suicide, and the allocation of health care resources. In each chapter, particular reflections proceed from and return to the task of “remembering Jesus.” Thus one chapter focuses on “Mapping the Human Genome ... Biblically.” Another is entitled “Judas, Jesus, and Physician Assisted Suicide.” A final chapter considers “The Good Samaritan and Scarce Medical Resources.”
More broadly, the title of the book itself captures the power and prophetic edge of Verhey’s discussion.Verhey reads the Bible in what he calls the “strange” world of medicine. Why is medicine strange? In contrast to the richness of the Christian story, much of modern medicine emerges bereft of substantive moral moorings. In an age dominated by the language of individual rights, today’s medicine emphasizes the procedural minutiae of informed consent rather than the substance of what is chosen.
In its seeming obsession with personal choice, modern medicine tends to reinforce an unbiblical dualism between the naked power to choose and the limiting conditions of our embodiment. Moreover, medicine often distorts the virtue of compassion by reducing patients to their pathologies, thus confusing the virtue of compassion with the wielding of mere technique. By so doing, medicine further alienates patients by treating them as objects of medical manipulation rather than as suffering subjects of far more complex stories, requiring more of caregivers than a merely technical competence.
In brief compass, I cannot do justice to the excellence of this book. It deserves a wide readership. And it prompts in me a deep sense of gratitude to Verhey for his faithfulness to Christian scholarship as a vocation.
Andrew Lustig, Ph.D., is a member of the Religious Studies Department at Rice University and Director of the Rice Program on Biotechnology, Religion, and Ethics.