‘What’s the point of theology if it doesn’t help is us come to grips with real life? So asks Danelle when I explain a little of the book I have been reading. And she has a point… surely one major aim of good theology is to help us understand the intersections of the divine with the everyday. Surely theology should help us grapple with the difficult questions of life and suffering is right up there with the biggies.
Husbands Should Not Break by Shane & Elly Clifton was loaned to me by a friend who told me it was about a theology lecturer’s reflections on coming to grips with spinal injury and that it explored the issues of theodicy and suffering. Kerryn had heard Shane present at a recent conference and as a result bought his book. She shared a little of it as we took communion yesterday – enough for me to say ‘I’d like to borrow that…’ and having been laid up with the flu since yesterday afternoon I have had time to read and finish it.
As it’s written in journal style, some of the content are blog entries and Facebook posts. When I was half way thru I started to think ‘This is good, but it’s not theological reflection…’ however the further along I went the more I felt like it was some of the best theological reflection – honest, gritty, expletive laden, at times hopeful and at times totally despairing and certainly unafraid to express stark emotions.In this book you won’t read a systematic theology of human suffering complete with Harvard referencing, but you will hear an earthy, articulate, theologically educated 40 year old man grapple with the life that was foisted on him. It doesn’t hit much on theodicy per se (big subject…) but it certainly does grapple with personal issues of suffering and pain.
That said, it doesn’t offer any clear theological paradigm for making sense of suffering, but nor does it advocate hopelessness. If ‘mystery’ is a paradigm then it probably best fits here. The author is from a pentecostal background and was prayed over/for/under/around by all and sundry but to no avail. If anyone was going to be successful at healing then you would think it would have been his ‘mob’, but he simply has to accept the reality of unanswered prayers (as well as the bizarre oddity of then praying for bedsores to heal while he is still unable to walk…) Clifton hovers between gratitude that he is alive and anger at the way his life has been turned on its head. I liked the absence of trite answers or the call to ‘just trust’. He makes an excellent point in that while God is able to bring good out of suffering we are mistaken to suggest God inflicts suffering as part of his purposes.
The value of the book is in its detailed (some may say explicit) descriptions of living with a spinal injury. Unexpected poo and wee feature prominently in the narrative and are one of the challenges for people in this situation. I found this extremely helpful – the difficulty – the shame – the helplessness… the reminder to look out for folks who are disabled because even as they regain autonomy there simply are times they can’t do what others can. Reading the account of Shane trying to find someone to assist him because his catheter was about to explode and being rejected at the first few attempts was pretty gut wrenching.
I found the chapter on sex really well written and commendable for its boldness and candour. So many Christian authors would shy away from the more intimate issues because they are somehow deemed inappropriate for public consumption, but Shane Clifton and his wife Elly took the risk, opened their world to us and said ‘here’s how it is…’
Shane has a blog here for those who want to read more of his journey.