My review of Jason Micheli’s Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo [Fortress Press, 2016] is now up on the great Englewood Review of Books. Full disclosure: Jason is one of the pastors I work with in the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church and I was on one of his recent podcasts of Crackers & Grape Juice – a real labor of love by pastors who love theology. Jason also maintains the Tamed Cynic blog.
But on to the review:
Most of what Jason Micheli has to tell you about cancer, you don’t want to know. The title of his new book, Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer, may hint at optimistic self-help with some humorous anecdotes laced throughout, but cancer is not ‘ha-ha’ funny. Micheli is glad to tell you, in harrowing detail, that “cancer f@#$ing sucks.” (ix) This book is as raw as the sores running down his esophagus in mid-stage chemo. Yeah, there’s a lot here you don’t want to know, but it’s a story told by one of the most honest and profane pastors you’ll ever meet and along the way he spins out the heart of a battle-tested theology that is clear-eyed, unsentimental, and fully alive. Plus, too, he’s funny.
I can only imagine the debates that Micheli, a United Methodist pastor in northern Virginia, had with his editors in getting this book to press. Despite the striking cover art (a smiley face sporting chemo hair on a bright red background), the prospect of selling a book about cancer, especially one that refuses to sugar-coat anything, must have been daunting. Micheli’s edgy writing style certainly swims in the zeitgeist of his 30-something generation, but then again, most of them are not facing the rare, aggressive cancer that Micheli faced, (mantle cell lymphoma – a type that usually affects much older men). A tale like this has to be carried along on the vitality and voice of its author and we certainly get to meet such a voice in this book.
This book is as raw as the sores running down his esophagus in mid-stage chemo.
A few years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich used her own journey through cancer as a lens for her book, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. Ehrenreich shares Micheli’s disdain for the Hallmark language and easy positivity we throw at cancer. She wrote, “Breast cancer…did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a ‘gift’, was a very personal, agonising encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before – one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune and blame only ourselves for our fate.”
Micheli chafes at this force, too, but he has a different vocabulary for understanding it—one that is shaped by his own theological journey with the likes of Karl Barth, David Bentley Hart, and Stanley Hauerwas. Through it all, he is placing his own suffering within a thorough-going Christological framework. In doing this he pushes back against the notions that God is only visibly present when cancer is being combatted and defeated. “As Stanley Hauerwas points out, the assumption behind what theologians call theodicy is that God’s primary attribute is power… implicit in this assumption is another one: because humans were made in God’s image, power primarily defines us as well.… Christians, however, believe God’s primary attribute is suffering love, not power–-passio, not potens.”(162)
“The assumption behind what theologians call theodicy is that God’s primary attribute is power…Christians, however, believe God’s primary attribute is suffering love, not power–-passio, not potens.”
In a better world, these insights should be the thing that brings people to this book. Micheli uncorks some great laugh lines. (One of my favorites: “Whenever we picture Jesus tempted by the devil in the wilderness, we usually imagine it in unsubtle comic book lines and hues, with a bad guy readily identifiable as ‘Satan’ and three temptations to which Jesus readily gives the correct answers as though he’s been raised by a Galilean Tiger Mom.”(65)) But it is the way that his theological formation illuminates his suffering (and vice-versa) that give this book enduring value. When he says, “They then both bent me in impossible positions as though I were a yoga instructor or Anthony Weiner on the phone”(7), I think/hope that the Weiner reference will be incomprehensible a few years down the road. But when he writes, “Cancer doesn’t lead you to ask, ‘Why me, God?’ Cancer leads you to wonder why God, whom we call Light, can’t seem to enter or act in our world without casting shadows”(88), well, then I think we’re on to something that will last.
The humanity of Micheli’s writing also shines through here. He is the father of two young children and his relationship with them and his wife is handled with a good, light touch. The poignant moments, and there are many, are not cheap.
Some readers, especially those who are used to the tame and tidy spirituality of much popular Christian writing, will be surprised by Micheli’s unvarnished profanity and his willingness to bare his carnal thoughts in these pages along with his poisoned, prodded body. I’ll admit that I flinched for him at points, wondering if he needed to be that confessional. But good memoirists know that a concern for appearances is deadly to the form.
Micheli is a spiritual heir to Mary Karr, whose The Liar’s Club is the seminal memoir of this era. In Karr’s The Art of Memoir, she talks about the hard work that memoirists must do in order to maintain an authentic voice. “For most, knowing the truth matters more than how they come off telling it.” And this means digging down beneath the pretty.
Micheli has a poetic gear, and it comes through in this book. But he values the rawness he has experienced. His rationale for sharing it comes late in the book and it, like all of the book, is grounded in his theology: “Thinking our holy obligation is to give God the glory, do we, in fact, rob God of glory, hugging tightly to the first draft of our testimony and offering up instead sanitized, sterilized, red-penned spiritualized jargon that intersects only tangentially with our real lives, because–-we think–-God’s not up to the challenge of our pain or unholy emotions?” (192)
This is a searing book. The cumulative effect of reading it through is, perhaps, like rounds of chemo, drawing us deeper into the pain. But we do get a glimpse of the joy Micheli holds onto. Not ‘ha ha’ joy. But life for sure. It’s a journey worth taking with him.