Book Review: Being Mortal

Review by Matt Mitchell

Beautifully written and really depressing.

Gawande movingly explores how Western culture has made end-of-life about medicine, safety and quantity of days instead of life, liberty and quality of days. His book is full of stories (profound, humorous and sometimes personal), research (clearly a scientist and a scholar) and insights (I read things I never knew before but instantly accepted when he said them). I couldn’t stop reading portions of this book out loud to anyone who would listen. The author is a true smith of words.

Gawande is short on answers—our problems in this area seem intractable—but he does show the outline of ways forward. Surprisingly, even though he is a surgeon and the child of two doctors, he doesn’t believe that medicine is the primary answer (and often is the problem).

As a Christian pastor, I am very aware of mortality and try to remind others to make preparations for the next life, but I don’t often think about the painful lead-up to that inevitable death. This book led me to make better and more informed plans for myself and my loved ones.

The author is respectful of religion (his family is Hindu) but doesn’t seem to be a believer himself. I wonder what he would say differently if he were a Christian.

Highly recommended but not to be read in one big gulp. The suffering is too real and raw. Best to read in pieces and ponder as you go.

Matt Mitchell has been pastor of Lanse (Pa.) EFC since 1998 and is the author of Resisting Gossip: Winning the war of the wagging tongue and Resisting Gossip Together (participants guide and Bible study).

Review by Jim Wes

U.S.-born and -trained, Gawande is an accomplished surgeon in his 40s and author of four prior books regarding medicine and ethics. He speaks as a good doctor might to his healthy, college-trained patient: educated and direct. But unlike the clinician, Gawande also speaks openly of personal experiences (including a poignant retelling of walking alongside his own father’s final chapter), and the life-lessons observed when attending to real people.

He warmly applauds the modern hospice movement, champions the inclusion of “concurrent care” (attempts at healing even while in hospice) and encourages readers to discuss these compelling considerations well before emotion-laden decisions need to be reached.

This is a fresh and important book about dying or, rather, about equipping people to live well even through one’s last days on earth. Lamentably, this is not a Bible-informed book. Still, it’s important, because the church doesn’t have much like it. I asked four sextuagenarian pastor friends from unrelated medium- to mega-churches for Bible-based background on this topic. Each quickly confirmed the topical importance, then sadly admitted that he did not have a favorite Bible-based book on the topic.

There are some well-considered and well-written ethical position statements online at the Christian Medical and Dental Associations website, but they don’t reach for the personal connections as Gawande does.

As the lay coordinator of adult ministries at our church, I have considered making Being Mortal’s 10-page introduction required reading for our small-group leaders of all ages, and recommending it to our pastoral staff and care-group teams. In doing so, we need to supplement with biblical insights.

Being Mortal is not an easy read, but it is an important one. I encourage church leadership to become familiar with these universal topics, then equip the discussion with biblical insight, compassion and the confidence of our hope in the Lord.

Jim Wes is adult ministries lay coordinator at the Evangelical Free Church of Diamond Bar (Calif.). “We have a sizeable 60+-year-old segment at our church (including me) who are facing many of these big questions.”

Publications on this topic recommended by other EFCA leaders include: Dying Well: Peace and possibilities at the end of life, by Ira Byock, M.D.; Finishing Well to the Glory of God: Strategies from a Christian physician, by John Dunlop, M.D.; Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the image of God, by John F. Kilner; and LifeCare Memos (pdfs) from Elim Care.

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