An extended review of a 2021 book by Keith Dow.
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Book by Keith Dow. Baylor University Press, 2021. 224 pages. $54 (e-book $50)
Formed Together examines how Christian caregivers might offer care in a way that’s motivated and formed by Christian thought. Through telling stories that highlight the mystery of human nature, Dow invites readers to disrobe from their pride and love deeply.
This book is specifically written from the context of caring for the mentally disabled, yet it has profound contributions for caregiving in every situation. It’s a book for anyone – pastors, scholars, healthcare workers, leaders, spouses, parents, and singles – provided they can work through the thick webs of thought woven here.
Author Keith Dow is “a backwoods theologian who believes that care lies at the heart of our beautiful and broken humanity.” He is manager of organizational and spiritual life with Christian Horizons, a charity that supports people who experience disabilities and promotes communities where everybody belongs. He holds a PhD in theology from Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.
His book introduces a wide array of philosophers and theologians. It uses language that is somewhat technical, but without being overbearing. Its goal is to “question and to unsettle assumptions regarding the privilege of intellectual ability in the accounts we give of our shared humanity.”
According to Dow, finding ourselves before an other creates an ethical demand; all the more when that other calls out to us for care. This call is complex, and we may try to simplify it through what Dow calls “myths of transparency;” accounts that we grant to ourselves and others, often with the aim of negating our responsibility to their call. Dow argues that we cannot see others as transparent, even if we are that other. Instead, “we regularly fail to recognize that we encounter the image of God in one another because of our own cognitive presuppositions.” The most challenging component to caregiving is our unwillingness to submit to the mystery of the other person. Human opaqueness combined with our tendency to tell stories about people’s desires and motives are what destroy our ability to respond carefully to them.
Reading Formed Together was made delightful by the coherent conversational flow. Every time a question naturally arose it was deliberately answered as the next step in his argument. Dow’s emphasis on the gravity of our call to care naturally led me to question if there were limits to this care. Dow answered my question by telling about “Trudy, [who] subscribed to a kind of transparency myth that her needs and interests were to be entirely subordinated to the needs of her son.”
Without me spoiling the narrative, Dow’s answer cut deep but true; his stories have weight.
In his concluding chapters Dow creates a list of virtues that aim at shaping Christian caregiving with postures of humility and love in the face of the divine. He describes these postures as “an overflow of gratitude,” in contest with “Hypercognition and transparency myths [that] have undermined the virtues of care.” These are not complicated virtues; “Sometimes [confession] means saying ‘I’m sorry” to someone when we have run roughshod over their attempt to communicate with us, or just be with us.”
Dow’s narratives illuminate his theory well, and his theoretic wrestling somehow manages to read as smoothly as fiction while also balancing the weight of an entire academy in his bibliography. How Dow managed to balance style and substance is in itself a mystery readers can approach with awe.
Recognizing that stories are what shape hearts, Dow frames his account of Christian caregiving with robust pillars of theology and philosophy. He aims, with practised Kierkegaardian riposte, at the ways academics can hide from their neighbours inside ivory towers of criticism and theory. I was immediately concerned he would either use academic practises to critique academia, or that he would use the more appealing language of Luther to oversimplify complex moral situations. Instead, Dow notes that “The Irony of relying upon highly developed rational arguments for these purposes is not lost on me.... The divine image is mysterious.... Even in its biblical source, the imago is clothed in secrecy.” Dow selects an appropriately sacramental toolkit to duel with the dehumanising effects of academics and demagoguery.
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