I have just finished reading Lore Ferguson Wilbert’s newly published book, Handle with Care: How Jesus Redeems the Power of Touch in Life and Ministry. I will limit this review to four points of appreciation, and three points of concern.
Four Points of Appreciation
- The author effectively highlights the pain that people experience who do not receive adequate loving physical touch. Many people, Christians included, long for the touch of another human, but rarely receive loving touch of any kind. I appreciated the focus upon the longing some people have for loving touch.
- The author highlights the very obvious—but often ignored—fact that Jesus lovingly touched others, and allowed others to touch him, on multiple occasions. This included a few occasions when others in his own first-century cultural context would have disdained his willingness for certain persons to touch him.
- The author uses the language of “ministering touch” to describe healthy touch, and “sinful touch” to describe unhealthy touch (43). I liked the language of “ministering” versus “sinful” as modifiers for the word “touch.”
- The author is a good writer and uses language well. Her willingness to include her own stories, both the positive and the painful, makes this book interesting and rhetorically strong.
Three Points of Concern
(…with a few examples from the book so you will not think I’m making things up…)
- The author regularly employs Scripture, but often forces passages of Scripture to say more than they actually do. She makes unwarranted applicational moves from narrative (which describes something that happened) to normativity (which assumes that you should do the same). She draws implications from passages that simply cannot bear the weight of the implications she draws from them. (The implications—and even allegorizing—derived from “bloodlines” and “blindness” in her discussion of Matthew 9 in chapter 3 is one of many examples.)
The author’s handling of Scripture becomes painfully problematic the further one moves through the book, as she begins pronouncing generalized prescriptions—or even calling people out—because they are not obeying the Bible. Here’s one example: “When we set up boundaries like, ‘I’ll never hug a person of the opposite sex’ as a reaction to present fears or possible outcomes, we are not being faithful to the ways of Jesus, but being driven by weak arguments, unresolved personal histories, or ‘What ifs?’ That’s not the way of the Christian” (133). Notice the author’s appeal to “the ways of Jesus” and her frustrated insistence that other Christians present weak arguments and fail to live the way Christians ought. But it turns out that the author’s own biblical case has not been adequately supported before she starts calling out others. The only thing that gets supported before she starts reprimanding people who disagree with her is that loving touch constrained by holiness is a good and godly thing. Practical applications should fall into the category of practical wisdom rather than under the rubric of biblical requirements.
- Regarding practical applications, the author nudges Christians toward certain practices of touching that most Christians, both past and present, would undoubtedly deem unwise. In particular, she liberally uses stories from her own life to normalize for her readers ways of touching that most Christians would consider foolish.
- She tells of a middle-school female friend with whom she would “sleep squeezed against one another” but says that there was “never anything erotic in our love for one another” (16).
- She speaks approvingly of her past interactions with female roommates: “A back rub, sitting close on the couch while watching a movie, spending the night at the other’s house, sitting on the other’s lap playfully” (20). (But shortly thereafter she admits the drift toward lesbian activity that followed in the wake of such activities for some of those roommates, 21).
- She writes that she “felt no guilt about kissing…” (23-24) in one dating relationship, and claims: “I learned touch could not only be permissible within dating, but also truly good, helpful, healing, and even holy” (24). But she presents no arguments for these sentiments. Furthermore, this set of opinions were written in the context of a dating relationship about which she herself confessed: “There weren’t a lot of physical boundaries with us…” (23). If I have read this section correctly, I think she means that she and her boyfriend learned to sometimes say no to making out, and in the context of learning to say no, she became convinced that: “We were able to be both affectionate and Spirit-led, two things I once thought were mutually exclusive” (25). But this section will undoubtedly open up uncritical readers to experimentation in touching in dating relationships that in many cases will lead them into sin.
- Also troubling from a wisdom perspective is that the author makes no differentiation between how touching should happen between the sexes. She often adds in comments about “brothers” to make sure you don’t miss that her suggestions apply equally women-to-women, men-to-men, and women-to-men. She mentions an older Christian sister whose hugs she loved because that woman hugged “tight and directly” (135). Then she throws in an approving comment: “And, I observed, she did the same with all my brothers”. She doesn’t worry about other people’s evaluations of friendship touch, whether of the “same gender or opposite gender” (139). And notice what advice she gives to unmarried singles: “For unmarried singles who are seeking to honor God with their bodies and yet long for healthy, human touch, find that touch within your friendship with men and women” (italics hers, 144). There are many similar comments sprinkled throughout the book.
- The author regularly confuses needs with desires. She leverages the word “need,” presumably in an attempt to convince others of what she is proposing (which, I gather, is that, in general, there should be more and longer hugging among Christians). But notice the way she uses the word “need” in the following example: “I needed the touch of brothers and fathers and mothers and sisters to acknowledge that even though I felt alone, I was not alone. I needed the ministerial warmth of pastors, showing me my body was not a threat to them. I needed the enveloping hugs of older women, teaching me motherly figures could be trusted. I needed the affection of male peers to assure me our friendship was more important to them than their sexual desires. I needed the embrace of female peers to remember the friendship of God” (53-54). But not until page 187 (unless I’ve missed something) does she tacitly acknowledge that a felt need is not necessarily a true need, and even on that page, she only implies it. (She comments that in marriage a husband “may be incorrectly interpreting his desire for pleasure as a need for pleasure…”). Rather, throughout the book, the author implies that certain types of physical touch—long hugs in particular—are a true human need, particularly because some people crave such touch. But one common experience of humans is feeling strong desires for things or activities that are harmful—thus, the 10th commandment about not coveting. In other words, just because someone feels a need, does not mean that what is desired is truly a need. This necessary—or needed (excuse the pun)—observation was mostly absent in the book.
There you have it, four positives and three negatives. I will not be recommending this book to others because the three concerns listed above are substantial enough to call for a certain amount of caution, that is, more caution than the author allows. But I will say that, personally, I am recommitted within the constraints of holiness—following the example of Jesus—to seek to communicate love to my Christian brothers and sisters through appropriate and meaningful touch.