Jolie’s theologically significant choice

May 28, 2013

Years ago, Saturday Night Live produced a sharp parody of a prescription drug commercial aimed at women—touting a solution for some female-specific health problem. I don’t remember what problem or product the parody was spoofing, but I remember the commercial’s best punchline: When it was time to offer disclaimers and warnings about scary-sounding side effects (which sometimes make the remedy seem worse than the disease), the very sympathetic female announcer said, “Latrevia [or whatever it was called] won’t cure all your problems; after all, you’ll still be a woman.”

The reason that punchline worked is because it correctly discerned a subtle message underneath many of these appeals to women: “Because you’re a woman, there’s something wrong with you and your body.”

angelina-jolie-people-magazine-cover.jpgFor some reason, I thought of this parody when I heard about Angelina Jolie’s announcement a couple of weeks ago to have a preemptive double-mastectomy. I say “preemptive,” of course, because she doesn’t yet have breast cancer. Based on state-of-the-art genetic testing, however, her doctors believed she had an 87 percent chance of developing it.

I promise I’m not passing judgment on the rightness or wrongness of Jolie’s decision. And who am I, anyway—with my Y-chromosome—to even offer an opinion. I know I’m treading on thin ice, believe me.

But was her decision “brave,” absent any sign of cancer, as magazines as diverse as People and Christianity Today agree that it was? How do they know what was right?

And why isn’t the answer as clear to me?

One thing’s for sure: I don’t like this “Her•meneutics” column in Christianity Today. Guest-columnist Sarah Thebarge, a breast-cancer survivor, asks:

What if all of us women had the courage to shed the external things we’ve used to define ourselves and accept ourselves and each other for who we are instead of what we look like?

I can’t reconcile these words with our Christian hope for bodily resurrection, which I just preached about on Sunday. Contrary to Thebarge’s suggestion, “who we are” is not some intangible, spiritual part of ourselves—a soul—separate from our bodies. We are instead bodies and souls together. On the other side of death and resurrection, God will put us back together again.

And why will God do this? Because God happens to love the “external things” (Thebarge’s words) that make up our bodies. He isn’t willing for us to be “shed” of them—not eternally, at least. Jesus came not to save “souls but ‘wholes,'” as N.T. Wright said. As with all of us, Angelina Jolie doesn’t accidentally have the body she has. God gave it to her for a reason. What we do with our bodies, therefore, matters greatly to God.

And for all I know, God called her to sacrifice part of her body for now—so that she’ll avoid an early death and continue to love and support her many children. But that doesn’t change the fact that what she loses matters to God—even if, in Christ, the loss is temporary.

18 Responses to “Jolie’s theologically significant choice”

  1. Mary Daly Says:

    So the presence of her breasts matters to God? He won’t like her if she’s “resurrected” without them? How about men who elect to have their prostates removed? Will that matter to God?

    • brentwhite Says:

      This is what you take away from this post?

      Is there some percentage of cancer risk below which having a double-mastectomy “just in case” would become a problem, Christianly speaking? Or would our Creator never care because, after all, what does it matter what we do with our bodies?

      • Mary Daly Says:

        Are you Methodist or Jehovah’s witness? Who gets to decide what percentage of risk justifies action? YOU? or the woman who lives in the body?

  2. Mary Daly Says:

    And people who are organ donors? Someone who is killed driving down the interstate? They are unaware of any risk that they may develop cancer, yet their body enters resurrection less than perfect under your standards. Does that matter to God?

    • brentwhite Says:

      Mary, I’m sorry! I’m sure I wasn’t clear. I feel like you’ve misunderstood or misinterpreted me. I won’t speak for Jehovah’s Witnesses, but Methodists, Catholics, Orthodox, and the vast majority of Protestants believe that resurrection into God’s new world will be, in some sense, physical and bodily. Granted, our bodies will be transformed, renewed, redeemed, incapable of suffering corruption or death. What Jesus was in resurrection, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, we will become.

      In my view, the Christian understanding of resurrection means that God cares deeply about our bodies—and what we do with them—on this side of resurrection. Granted, this flies in the face of our culture’s almost Gnostic suspicion of the body. We tend to think that what matters is the spiritual, the soul, and our bodies go on the trash heap. This idea is pagan, not Christian. Human beings are bodies and souls together.

      Anyway, usually Her•meneutics offers more thoughtful theological reflection on these sorts of things. I was disappointed that they didn’t in this case. Mostly, I was criticizing that blog post.

      As for Jolie, I thought I was careful not to pass judgment on her choice, only to say that any such choice is theologically meaningful. Since most decisions about our bodies matter to God, why wouldn’t this one? It matters to a lot of people—which is why the story has been all over the media.

      But you’re right. It’s not my place to judge her. If you think I crossed a line, let me know where. I certainly didn’t mean to.

      • Mary Daly Says:

        i am merely trying to point out that the reason this story even came to light is because of the value that SOCIETY puts on a woman’s external appearance. if we were talking about her ovaries would we be talking at all? or her kidney? or tonsils? seriously, what if the headline read “Angelina Jolie to have tonsils removed”…no one would care…so why do you care about her breasts?

  3. brentwhite Says:

    Presumably, if she had her tonsils removed—or a kidney, or her ovaries—she would have done so because she had something wrong already. If not for reconstructive surgery, how would this not be a drastic and possibly unnecessary act of mutilation? Again—she doesn’t have cancer.

    As for caring about external appearances, well, yes… External appearances are the stock-in-trade of Hollywood stars. I only know Angelina Jolie by her appearance. I don’t know her as a person. None of us does.

    • Mary Daly Says:

      you’re right. people usually have their tonsils removed because they have had repeated tonsillitis and it is inconvenient to suffer from it over and over, though death is rarely a concern. Some people have their teeth removed (preemptively) to avoid rot, etc and removal is just easier. So apparently when it comes to tonsils and teeth convenience is an acceptable reason for removal and when we are talking about breast cancer probability is just not good enough. but why am i arguing this with you when you have very clearly proven how you value women?

      • brentwhite Says:

        Mary, that’s a little unfair. But I see your point: Obviously when Angelina Jolie walks the red carpet, no one notices her tonsils. So why the double standard?

        Fair enough. But we live in a world in which everyone considers mastectomy far more serious, traumatic, and deeply personal than having tonsils out or a tooth removed. You don’t have to be a troglodyte to appreciate this fact.

        Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting. I’m just happy that a theological/philosophical rock star is reading my blog! Back from the dead! 😉

  4. Mary Daly Says:

    it’s been enlightening. i was thinking about getting the nails on my pinkie toes permanently removed bc of constant discomfort, but your thoughtful words have given me pause.

  5. Mary Daly Says:

    PS YOU were the one that said mastectomy mattered to God. You were not talking about how “everyone” (ie human beings) felt about it. You said it matters to God if a woman has her breasts removed. And apparently you are saying it DOESN’T matter to God if someone has their tonsils or wisdom teeth removed. So what I hear is that God gauges a woman’s value by the existence of her breasts? God cares about her breasts, but not her teeth or tonsils?

    • brentwhite Says:

      My point is that we Christians do not have a gnostic disregard for the body. The resurrection implies that God cares about our bodies and what we do with them. Therefore decisions we make regarding them are not ours to make alone. This point isn’t hard to follow.

      Everyone knows the difference between mastectomies and tonsillectomies, including you.

      In the spirit of collegial dialogue, please tell me why this bothers you so much. What do you want me to learn?

      • Mary Daly Says:

        what do you not get? you say that God cares about our bodies and what we do with them. This makes sense to me in the sense that God would not want us to abuse/misuse our bodies. God wants us to take care of our bodies. But what is so infuriating about your post is the particular choice that you made to judge a woman who is choosing to put herself through something (your words) “serious, traumatic, and deeply personal” because what will most likely happen if she doesn’t will be far worse. Of course I know the difference between mastectomies and tonsillectomies. But the fact that you are saying GOD puts more importance on BREASTS than TEETH is so sexist it’s ridiculous. After all, without teeth our health would be gravely compromised (were if not for dentures). And that is what you are saying here: God values breasts over teeth. Everyday somewhere someone is having their wisdom teeth removed not because there is something “wrong” with them, but because they will crowd their teeth if they come in. This is removing a perfectly good part of the body that God gave us for mostly cosmetic reasons. Throughout the third world people elect to have their teeth pulled when there is nothing wrong with them bc they are trying to avoid decay and infection that will surely ensue. So why not write a rant about that? First, because people would think you insane, but mostly you would not be perceived as the counter-cultural you hope to be. And secondly, the only reason ANYONE including you is talking about this is because it has to do with breasts. You are contributing to the myth that you seem to oppose in the beginning of your post (Because you’re a woman, there’s something wrong with you and your body). You are saying, “WOMAN: there is something wrong with your body if you have your breasts removed regardless of the reason.” and you say God agrees.

      • brentwhite Says:

        The last paragraph of my post indicates that I’m not necessarily saying she made the wrong decision. I’m saying I don’t know, but it’s not an insignificant decision. The church father Origen castrated himself in a vain attempt to ward off lust. Ask me what I think of that—even if it “worked.” (Although I’m not placing Jolie’s decision in that category!)

        Regardless, I think you even concede my point by ignoring my earlier question: hypothetically, is there some percentage of cancer risk below which you would have some ethical problem with having a mastectomy? If so, then how different are our points of view, really? Let’s say she had a 10 percent risk of cancer. Would that justify having a mastectomy?

  6. Mary Daly Says:

    I am not going to judge any woman who chooses to have a mastectomy for any reason. Just as I would not judge someone who had their teeth pulled. You are ignoring my point completely. Answer me this: Does God value breasts more than teeth?

    • brentwhite Says:

      Beats me. Although, again… Nearly everyone else—both men and women—seem to see a difference between having a tooth pulled and having a double mastectomy. Hence the headlines and cover stories. You don’t see a difference? That most people see a difference is because of sexism?

      • Mary Daly Says:

        this is turning into a big huge circle. as i said before, we are not talking about what PEOPLE think. You said, “But that doesn’t change the fact that what she loses matters to God” we are not talking about PEOPLE, but GOD. And YES you would have to be sexist to say that breasts matter to God, but teeth don’t. You say “beats me” but what all your other arguments and the fact you wrote this original post to begin with says, “yes! breasts matter to God! Don’t get them removed! But your teeth, well, no those don’t matter so much since everyone has those removed and after all PEOPLE care more about breasts so God must too.” ridiculous.

      • brentwhite Says:

        I didn’t say “don’t get them removed.” Remember, the thrust of the post was to comment on the Christianity Today piece. As we’re created in God’s image, I guess I’m counting on some correspondence between our moral intuition (that having a double-mastectomy is actually a much bigger deal than having a tooth pulled) and the order of the universe, designed by God. I can’t prove it, and by sheer logic you’re probably right. But logic isn’t everything.

        Nevertheless, our bodies and our lives don’t belong to us to do with as we please. Important decisions we make regarding them are never inconsequential.

        With that, you can have the last word if you like. Thanks again for your comments.


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