Brief Book Review: Aging, Spirituality, and Religion: A Handbook

Aging, Spirituality, and Religion: A Handbook

Edited by: Melvin A. Kimble, Susan H. McFadden, James W. Ellor, and James J. Seeber

Publisher: Fortress Press, hardcover, 637 pages, including: Illustrations, Contributors, Forword, Preface, Introduction: Beginning the Conversation, Index of Names, and Index of Subjects

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson


This is a very impressive, comprehensive volume. Counting the 4 editors, there are a total of 55 contributors to this volume. The work was funded by the Lilly Endowment, and is the result ofecumenical, interfaith, and interdisciplinary cooperation. It consists of the following parts: Part One: Religion, Spirituality, And The Aging Person, Part Two: Pastoral Care In An Aging Society, Part Three: Congregational Ministry In An Aging Society, Part Four: Community Outreach In An Aging Society, Part Five: Theological Perspectives On Aging, Part Six: Social Scientific Perspectives On Aging. Each of the parts contain several chapters. A Bibliography is included at the end of each chapter, some of which are very thorough. 

Brief Highlights

Since this is merely a brief review, here are a few insightful highlights and observations that may motivate readers of this review to consult this helpful resource.

Harold G. Koenig, in Part One, highlights some of the research done on religion and health among seniors. He claims that there is more evidence supporting the view that religion enhances mental health and less evidence supporting the view that religion enhances physical health. When asked what helped the elderly to cope with issues of aging, they cited the following: i) prayer; ii) Bible reading; iii) trust in the Lord, faith in God, Jesus Christ; iv) going to church; v) support from their pastor or other members of their congregation. 

Longevity was attributed to three factors: (1) activity (“hard work, exercise, keeping active physically and mentally”), (2) a strong belief in God and “Christian living,” and (3) a positive attitude toward self and others. (p. 24) 

In Part Two, there is an informative chapter titled “Pastoral Care of African Americans” by Anne Streaty Wimberly and Edward P. Wimberly, in which they emphasise the importance of the church and family networks, wherein older African Americans make significant contributions to the growth, development and identity of the next generation. 

In Part Three, the chapter titled “Age-based Jewish and Christian Rituals” by W.A. Achenbaum, points out that Jews honour their elders. In the Talmud there are no limits placed on how often Jews should visit the sick. Full membership in Jewish burial societies were reserved for the elderly, and surplus income from burial plots was used for charity, including orphan care. (p. 204)

For this reviewer, the most helpful chapter in Part Four was “Spiritual Challenges of Nursing Home Life” by Dayle A. Friedman. The author highlights many of the significant factors involved regarding spiritual challenges and care in nursing homes, such as: Routinized, tyrannical, and empty time, loss of meaning, grief, disorientation and disconnection, life with meaning, vertical and horizontal connections, family, religious, and individual celebrations, education, and more. 

Part Five consists of seven theological perspectives on aging: Jewish, Catholic, Evangelical, Neo-Orthodox, Process Theology, Feminist Theology, Constructive Theology, with a concluding chapter entitled “Science and Religion in Dialogue. In the chapter on Feminist Theology, author Mary M. Knutsen points out that elderly women live seven to eight years longer than men, and are more likely than men to live in poverty. Over half of the black and Hispanic elderly females living alone lived at or below the poverty level, according to one study. 

The chapter in Part Six by Barbara Pittard Payne, “The Interdisciplinary Study of Gerontology” is quite informative. It provides a brief history of gerontology, which came into existence as an area of scientific study in the mid-twentieth century, trends and themes in social gerontology, including health-care costs, caregiving, minorities and gender, trends and themes in gerontology and religion, including faith and aging, religious practices, beliefs and behaviour, nonorganizational religious activities, the differences between religious liberals and religious conservatives, religion and health.

This volume is a comprehensive, helpful “go to” resource for seminarians, pastors and chaplains, as well as others who work with seniors in a variety of professions.

Please note: This review is of Volume 1. Volume 2 was published later, and I have not read it. 

Annual Study Conference

Annual Study Conference

This past week I attended our annual Synod Study Conference in beautiful Canmore. Our keynote speaker was the Rev. Dr. William Willimon, a U.S. Methodist bishop from Alabama. He is considered one of the top twelve preachers in the English-speaking world and a prolific author. I had never met him before, and was quite surprised by his Southern accent. He delivered two lectures on the topic of “Worship as Pastoral Care.” In addition to the main content of his message, Willimon regaled us with his bottomless well of stories, anecdotes and folktales. Here are a few of his pearls of wisdom that I jotted down:

After 911, people in the U.S. were jolted and in grief. They went to church seeking comfort and to alleviate fears. The church cares in the name of Jesus, and people don’t always want that kind of care.

There is a temptation to ‘run errands’ for people in our culture where ‘desire’ is jacked up to ‘needs,’ and needs are jacked up to ‘rights.’ ‘Desires’ become a bottomless pit; we live in a supermarket of desires. It is dangerous to ‘care’ for such people when there are no limits. Drowning people tend to drown their saviours.

Shepherds were business people—they fattened sheep up for market. Caregivers are considered honourable people. However as preachers, preaching sets the goal of our care. Our care isn’t always what people want.

‘Detoxification,’ that is baptism. What does it mean to have this revived as the primary metaphor of ministry?

What does it mean when all or most of our prayer requests are for health needs? Isn’t it curious that the worst thing that can happen to folks is ‘bad health’? Why can’t people accept that the aging process is normal and that we are mortals? Jesus never mentioned good health in the Lord’s Prayer, which is our model prayer. There is a danger among Christians of ‘good health’ becoming idolatry.

The sermon, according to Martin Luther, is a ‘cutting into the soul.’ Preaching the sermon is a countercultural act in that we say what the world wants kept quiet.

In our culture, ministry and the Gospel get reduced to being therapy. The Gospel can be therapeutic, but it should not be reduced to that. As Lutherans, we believe that nobody gets saved by our performance.

Quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bishop Willimon stated that in preaching the risen Christ walks among his people—that should be our goal in pastoral care too.

You’ve got to worry about the Church where Mother’s Day is bigger than Easter.

In worship, we are with our people in the most intense way as pastors. Worship is at the centre of our life in Christ. This is at the heart of the matter, and gets most explicit about how God has got us and how we worship and serve God.

A lot of people are in pain today because they’re ignorant. It takes training to pray and to confess the Trinity. Lutherans, surmised Willimon, may be in a stronger position to do this than other denominations on account of our catechetical tradition, along with our hymnody, liturgy, and educational institutions.

Thriving congregations today have at least sixty percent of their membership in small groups.