2016-06-30
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In 1984, when a cancer was discovered in novelist Reynolds Price's spinal cord, he was given no hope of recovery. "The tumor was pencil-thick and gray-colored, 10 inches long from my neck-hair down," he wrote in "A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing," his 1994 nonfiction account of the experience. Radical surgeries, radiation, severe pain, and reliance on drugs rendered him paraplegic and consigned him to a wheelchair--yet those dire circumstances ended neither his life nor his brilliant career.

Rather than being defeated, the author used his illness as an occasion for becoming more prolific, declaring that the confinement it brought gave him more time and opportunity to focus. Instead of destroying his faith, the disaster deepened his spiritual life, bringing a healing vision of Jesus that gave him hope through the worst of the suffering.

When the illness struck him at age 51, Price was at work on the novel "Kate Vaiden," which he completed during his painful struggle for survival and which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for 1986. The prize highlighted a career that had begun when Price burst onto the literary scene at age 29 with his debut novel, "A Long and Happy Life," which was initially published in its entirety in a single issue of Harper's magazine in 1962, went on to win the William Faulkner Award for a notable first novel, and has never been out of print since. > Although I'd known and respected Price's status as a fiction writer, it was not until my minister lent me Price's nonfiction book "A Palpable God" in 1983 that I became aware of his eloquent witness as a Christian.

We spoke in the living room of the wood-and-brick home he built near a pond surrounded by trees outside Durham, North Carolina, where he has lived for the past 30 years.

Question: In "A Whole New Life," you criticize the "frozen" attitude of physicians and ask that they treat their patients with "the skills of human sympathy" we expect from the milkman and the dog-pound manager. Did you get a response from the medical profession?

Answer: Their excuse is always "We see so much suffering on a day-to-day basis that we have to develop certain forms of callousness and indifference." But I never encountered nurses who had to develop that--and they see more of it than doctors do. Many of the nurses at Duke Hospital were black women. They were just magnificent. A friend of mine who saw her father through a long illness said, "If you want to find a real human being in a big hospital, go to the bottom of the pay scale."

Q: Weren't physicians angry at you for your criticisms?

A: I did have one angry doctor stand up in Mississippi and say, "You realize you were healed by these people you're criticizing," and I said, "I'm not at all sure that they were entirely responsible for my healing." Some things worked; some did more harm than good. I got my first real relief from biofeedback and hypnosis. They did invite me to Duke to speak to the surgeons and residents at grand rounds. A resident said, "We gather you feel that sometimes when the surgeon has a very dire prognosis, maybe it's not the best idea to tell the patient how dire it is." I said, "You can't know what the patient's powers of recovery are. Somebody in their family ought to know if you think them rapidly moribund, but if there is any way at all you could give this patient any realistic hope, why don't you try it? They're not going to sue you if they live." And my surgeon stood up and said, "Listen to that, because 11 years ago I had absolutely nothing to offer Reynolds, nothing more I could do for him."

Q: I gather that the main thing you had to hang on to was your faith as a Christian, especially after the remarkable "vision" you describe in "A Whole New Life."

A: That single thing, which I continue to call a vision for lack of a more descriptive word, is the only such experience I've ever had. I'm not somebody who looks out the window and sees an angel walk across the backyard. Only once in my life did I have that sense of being transported to a completely alternate place and time. I was moved by that experience all the more because it was unprecedented in my life.

Q: Do you feel that force in your own life, even beyond the experience of the "vision?"

A: I noticed after my illness, as my recovery began, that I was writing with a speed and a fluency and an ease that were completely unlike anything I had known before. I was a thoroughly mature man when I got ill--I was 51, 52 years old. But in the ensuing years I have written and published more than I had in the prior 20-odd years. It has come with a kind of ease that I certainly wouldn't want to call "direct transmission from God," but I am sure you have gotten that feeling when one is writing well, that quality of something "coming in on the wire." You don't feel you are generating it yourself.

Q: In "Three Gospels," you go against current theological fashion. You uphold the literal truth of much of the New Testament, while the Jesus Seminar [a group of scholars working to determine the historical facts of Jesus's life] seems to be trying to disprove the miracles and healing of Jesus, as well as his own words.

A: I have many reasons for feeling that the Jesus Seminar has been more flash than substance. I've read a lot of their publications, and some have been very interesting and useful. I don't think they're charlatans. But it really is sort of touching and amusing to see them trying to apply scientific methods to human history--or take the hopeless stand that if you can't prove that Jesus said so and so, then he didn't say it. How are you going to prove what was said 2,000 years ago?

Just look at the sayings attributed to Jesus, printed in red in many New Testaments. There is this immensely eloquent, insightful voice that you don't find in the surrounding narrative.

Q: I once interviewed John Dominic Crossan, one of the theologians of the Jesus Seminar, and I asked him if he had read your essay on John:21 [the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples after the crucifixion as they are fishing on the Sea of Galilee], which, you argue as a writer, seems a literal account of an actual occurrence. Crossan had not read your essay, and when I told him that I agreed with you about the literal reality of the story, he said, "I think you've both been taken in by a good novelist." A: I think it's the most wonderful story in the world, and it still is to me--I don't care what Crossan or anyone else thinks. It doesn't sound like fiction to me. If it is, then whoever John was invented the techniques of the modern novel single-handedly, overnight, in the first century!

If you are going to call John a great novelist, then you have to examine all the New Testament documents and especially the gospels as lives of Jesus. If they are fiction, it would mean there was suddenly this outburst of great writers who invented forms that had not previously existed in known literature. There is no other parallel phenomenon in which four geniuses suddenly rise up out of the working class and make up a story. It's like saying Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, and Dickens suddenly all turned up in this little clandestine group of threatened people and invented this stuff.

So many people like Crossan think the gospel writers just made up the story. Well, try it sometime, Mr. Crossan. Try making up a story that is going to compel the fascination of a huge majority of the human race ever afterward. Sorry, it can't happen that way.

Q: Crossan also says that Jesus "healing the illness" of people in a psychosocial sense but not "curing the disease" in a biological sense. Do you believe Jesus healed people of disease?

A: Look at me.

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