Questions, Answers, Death, and Life

11_Lawson_Books_JNBy LeRoy Lawson

Honest Questions, Honest Answers: How to Engage in Compelling Conversations about Your Christian Faith
David Faust
Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 2012

Cheating Death: The Doctors and Medical Miracles that Are Saving Lives Against All Odds
Sanjay Gupta
New York: Wellness Center, 2009

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
Laura Hillenbrand
New York: Random House, 2010

David Faust is known: pastor, preacher, author, columnist, editor, professor, university president, and national Christian leader. We don’t have a more prominent leader in the Christian churches/churches of Christ.

His reputation is reason enough to read Honest Questions, Honest Answers. It’s not why I read it, though. There is simply no one whose “take” on practical Christian living I listen to more carefully. His is a vibrant, positive—cheerful—faith. But not an untested one. He has taken on some very tough jobs (college presidency, anyone?) and somehow, in spite of the slings and arrows he has suffered, keeps smiling.

This book isn’t about the struggles of the faith, however, but about the struggles of the mind. How can you keep believing in God in an increasingly secular culture? How can you speak of a good God when evil looms everywhere? How can you stand the company of Christians when so many of them are phony? And just who is God, anyway?

This is not a text for the college classroom. The answers aren’t going to satisfy skeptical scholars; the book is designed for church discussion groups, for sharing with sincere seekers. It’s one man’s testimony offered in the hope of helping others. You probably won’t have all of your questions answered; mine weren’t. But I enjoyed the conversation.

 

Cheating Death

From now on, when CNN summons chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta to the camera to explain a new medical development or ease the viewing audience’s anxiety over the latest health crisis, I’m going to pay closer attention. The good doctor is pretty easy to dismiss: he’s far too young and good looking for someone my age to take seriously. The truth is, however, the man knows some things. Not only that, he can tell a good story. He narrates his vignettes with the sure hand of a novelist.

Cheating Death is not a new book; it was published in 2009. It has sat on my bookshelf for far too long.

Reading it has been a humbling experience. I have long grumbled over the medical profession’s resistance to letting people die. Doctors go to extraordinary lengths, employing the latest technologies, to keep even comatose patients hooked up to life support. “We don’t have to be afraid of death,” I’ve mentally shouted at them.

Gupta would shout back: “Right, we don’t have to be afraid of death. On the other hand, we want to be very certain the dead are actually dead before we give up on them.”

His book is about the moving line in the sand between life and death, the search for the right definition of “dead.” How do we measure? No heartbeat? Brain dead? You may think you know—until you read his stories.

The tales he tells would in an earlier day have been called miracles: a skier who was submerged for an hour in a frozen Norwegian lake—and lived to tell about it. A brain surgery patient—comatose, vegetative, apparently no longer with us—who now tells his own story. A remarkable surgical procedure on an unborn baby’s defective heart. A young man whose chief weapon is prayer—whose prayer and those of his doubting doctor father and others are answered.

Gupta lobbies for doing away with the breathing component of CPR, advocating just compressing the chest instead. For this, as in all his other observations, he turns to the science behind the recommendations. It turns out there is scant statistical evidence that the forced breathing technique increases the chances of survival.

He relies on the science, but he relinquishes none of the awe that healing elicits. Whether he is talking in wonder about life-after-death experiences or the effect of prayer on healing or a patient’s suddenly waking up and taking nourishment after a couple of decades in a coma, Gupta searches for the medical explanation while admitting there is probably more to the story.

A major theme is time.

When the heart misses a beat, an hourglass starts running. Up to now, we’ve been measuring time in seconds and minutes, an hour or two at most. CPR might stop the falling sand for a few minutes. Zeyad Barazanji and Mike Mertz are alive because someone used those precious minutes to pump on their chests, keeping blood and oxygen going to their vital organs. Anna Bagenholm got an extra three hours. She’s alive because she was doused in a freezing stream, and her metabolism slowed enough that there was time to get her to a hospital before too many cells inside her brain and heart could die. Seconds, minutes, hours. . . .

Here is what motivates the good doctor: “For all the progress we’ve made, we’ve still only scratched the surface when it comes to cheating death.”

 

Rediscovering Life

Well into the first half of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, I found myself thinking of Indiana Jones movies with their rush of spine-tingling, life-threatening, credulity-bursting episodes. There is a difference, though. In the theater you could always remind yourself it’s only a movie. The episodes in Unbroken are for real.

In childhood and youth, Louis Zamperini is fascinating . . . a defiant, courageous, mischievous troublemaker—but with an amazing gift. The boy can run, so fast that in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Adolf Hitler wanted to meet him, so fast that all who knew him expected him to bring home the gold in the Tokyo Olympics.

But with World War II looming, there would be no Tokyo games. Instead of running, Zamperini was gunning as a B-24 bombardier in the Pacific Islands. For a while he defied odds in heavy enemy fire, his crippled plane somehow getting back to base. His second B-24 was doomed, defeated by mechanical failure. Of the 11 crewmen, only three survived its crash into the sea, floating in life rafts, subsisting on raw fish, an occasional bird, and rainwater—and dodging Japanese Zero plane and shark attacks. Amazingly, two of the three washed ashore 47 days after the plane went down.

But far worse lay ahead. Mutsuhiro Watanabe, known as “the Bird,” was waiting for Zamperini. “The Bird was a sadistic corporal whose greatest love was torturing POWs.

[In the prison camps, the] guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity. . . . This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind. . . . Without dignity, identity is erased.

And “the Bird,” though only a corporal, was the worst.

After the war, when Zamperini was asked to reflect on his POW days, he became silent, then finally said, “If I knew I had to go through those experiences again, I’d kill myself.”

Afterward Zamperini nearly died of alcohol poisoning. “Coming home was an experience of profound, perilous aloneness.” He escaped into the bottle.

But keep reading. This is about, as the subtitle says, “survival, resilience, and redemption.” I could hardly keep going through some of the chapters—the horrors are so graphic. Then, when freedom comes, and Louie’s posttraumatic stress syndrome (the label sounds so innocuous but covers such suffering) takes over, you wonder how much more the man can stand. But keep reading. God’s in the story. And Billy Graham. And new life.

 

LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with CMF International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary. He also serves as a Christian Standard contributing editor and member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.

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