Spirituality, Medicine & Health - Popular Culture

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This is a collection of reviews of novels, movies, and other popular-culture items that centrally feature spirituality, medicine, and health themes.


Art from here.


Jacob's Pillow, Dance

Located in the mountains of Massachusetts since the late 1700s, Jacob’s Pillow earned its name from the biblical story in Genesis about Jacob’s resting his head on a rock, as a proverbial pillow, dreaming of a ladder to heaven. Known worldwide as “the Pillow,” and recognized as a magical place, this 163-acre National Historic Landmark represents, in artistic dance, the journey on a ladder to heaven. Focused on supporting creative dance performance, as well as educating the public about dance and dance appreciation, the environment at Jacob’s Pillow points towards health in body movement, awareness, creativity, and exercise. Featuring a dance education school and an annual international dance festival that includes performances, hundred of free events, rehearsals and classes, guided tours, performances, and lectures, this place is more than an institution. The grounds are immersed in nature; for instance, the Inside/Out stage is set up against a Berkshire background. The Pillow’s Interactive Website features past performances and illustrates the uniqueness about what happens there: community witnessing of some of the best dance in the world, including much that has its roots in specific cultures and spiritual beliefs. An example of this can be seen in a clip from 2011, Stamping Ground, inspired by Australian Aboriginal Dance expressed through contemporary ballet. The performances at Jacob’s Pillow fulfill dance’s reputation as being the universal language. [SNR]

NYU’s Literature, Art and Medicine Database

This resource contains 4,650 cross-listed annotations of art, film, literature, theater, artists and authors considered by the database creators to be the “most valuable for medical humanities teaching and related scholarship.” Annotations range from William Blake to Louisa May Alcott to Murderball, the documentary about the 2004 US Wheelchair Rugby Team. Annotations are sensitive and thorough, for example Rebecca Garden’s thoughtful explanation of why the book version of The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, rather than Julian Schnabel’s film, serves as a better teaching text for medical students about dealing sensitively and effectively with terminal patients. A dynamic, comprehensive resource founded on the claim that “art is an important element and resource for medical humanities.” [JL]


NYU’s Literature, Art and Medicine Database

[see the listing under Art, above]


Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead (2010)

After doctors report they can no longer help him, Joe Cross decides to take healing into his own hands in this 2010 documentary. Joe’s intention is to lose 100 pounds, get off steroids, and hopefully, treat a chronic autoimmune condition, Urticaria. The journey begins with a 30-day juice fast in NYC after which Joe travels across the United States with a juicer in tow. He meets morbidly obese Phil Staples at a truck stop in Arizona, and eventually, the truck driver asks Joe for help. With a comparable diet plan, Phil joins Joe on a path towards recovery, one he articulates in medical and spiritual terms. Both Joe and Phil record remarkable success. Interviews with doctors (similar to what can be seen on the hit show Biggest Loser), didactic animated shorts, and conversations with people across the country compliment the film’s narrative. Simultaneously, informative and inspiring, this documentary is a must see for anyone struggling with health issues around weight. An accompanying website includes a blog, features a juicer for purchase, has information on juicing, and shares testimonials for the reticent. [SNR]

Foul Water, Fiery Serpent (2010)

This documentary chronicles the work of the Carter Foundation to eradicate guinea worm. If successful, this would only be the second complete eradication of a disease in human history after smallpox. The interest with regard to spirituality and health is that guinea worm very well may refer to the plague of serpents sent to afflict the recalcitrant Hebrews during their wanderings in the desert, as recorded in Numbers 21. The cure for the plague, namely Moses holding up a staff with one of the serpents affixed to it, may be the source for the medical symbol of the snake and staff.

Patch Adams (1998)

This Oscar-nominated drama starring Robin Williams chronicles the true story of Hunter “Patch” Adams, who founded the Gesundheit Clinic to provide integrated and holistic medical care. The film tells the story of Adams encountering what he experienced to be a cold and detached medical system, which in turn inspired him to go to medical school. While not directly addressing spirituality, the emphasis on the positive medical effects of humor and empathy on the part of caregivers points toward a vision of an integrated and holistic evidence-based approach to medicine.


Cancer Queens! A Cancer Prevention Musical Revue

This proudly unprofessional, fun-loving performance troupe has “entertained and educated more than 4,000 women of all ages in Tennessee” since October 2008 when Cancer Queens founder and songwriter Sheila Bates started turning pop songs into cancer prevention “edutainment,” delivered by a diverse crew of healthcare professionals and cancer survivors. The songs cover topics such as pap smears, colonoscopies, and a crowd favorite: “We’re Off to Get a Mammogram,” set to the Wizard of Oz leitmotif. Cancer Queens offers a way to make body awareness, healthful proactivity and women’s aging more broachable and, frankly, more fun. Their mission is to “engage, entertain and educate women ages 35+ about healthy lifestyle choices that can reduce their risk for cancer, heart disease and diabetes.” The website itself is not so much an information resource as it is a flag for innovative and theatrical attempts to expose women’s health concerns to an ostensibly resistant audience in the same vein as Eve Ensler’s popular Vagina Monologues. Performing arts and comedy have long been employed to illuminate taboo conversation pieces; the folksy bounty of the Cancer Queens aims for artistry alongside public health efficacy, upping the ante for cancer prevention message over lectures and graphs. [JL]

Lhasa de Sela

Lhasa de Sela’s Mexican-Lebanese-Jewish-American heritage features in her Spanish, French, and English vocals. Consisting of three CDs – La Llorona, The Living Road, and Lhasa – her music career reverberates the events of her short life, as she died in 2010 of breast cancer at the age of 37. Lhasa’s music is hauntingly spiritual in its simple lyrics, soulful sultry tones, and eternal themes. The songs of her first CD, La Llorona (1997), center around a mythical siren who, challenged at the gates of heaven, must search the world for the children she killed; alas, she bears the name Llorona, or weeping woman. Lhasa’s next CD, The Living Road (2004) - with songs in Spanish, French, and English – depicts life as a road and reflects her travels across the country, living in a bus as a child. The sounds and songs link the past and present: a wind commands her to cross borders in “La Frontera,” while the French vocals of “La Confession” dramatize the making of a choice between truth and the devil as a trumpet, maracas, and various percussion instruments play in a rhumba. Released in 2010, her final CD, Lhasa, all in English, is subtler still; the singer’s voice, often in a murmur, belies her message of the need for others. The songs of this CD, although at times despairing, unfold seductively to point towards a community. Her final song, “Anyone and Everyone” chants, “Your sisters on the open sea/Your Brothers here on land/There’s not enough breath in a single day/To pray everyone will be ok.” To learn more about Lhasa see the web site or view her videos on YouTube. [SNR]

Reiki Healing Music Ensemble

This eponymous album was released in 2010 and features tracks named by an artist clearly familiar with the Reiki energetic healing practice (“Palm Healing,” “Essence of Being,” “Mind and Body,” “The Flow” and “In Your Hands”). This group is listed first under a search for “healing” in iTunes; such prominence alone is what justifies a review of the music. This reviewer believes patients are better advised to seek out their familiar favorites to derive the increasingly well-documented benefits of incorporating music into therapeutic efforts. This particular selection is of generic massage parlor ilk, complete with midi sound effects of crashing waves and bleating seagulls, tinkly synthesizer and treacly classical guitar, each track indistinguishable from the last, resoundingly dissatisfying and perhaps even apt to compromise one’s restorative journey. Best seek out music not tailored to a certain consumer category for your harmonious healing enterprise. [JL]


Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (theatrical play by Tony Kushner)

This two-part play, the 1993 Pulitzer Prizewinner for Drama, surveys with inimitable ambition and heart the sexual, racial, religious, political and social issues of America’s Reagan years, as the AIDS epidemic surfaces. Eight main characters populate the cast, two with AIDS, and the others representing such motley demographics as Mormons, Communist ghosts, lawyers and Valium addicts who confront their convictions about relationships, loyalty, sexual identity, HIV/AIDS, solitude and eternity in the locales of Antarctica, Heaven, San Francisco and Central Park. Angels in America probes life’s meaning beyond biomedical reality in a lively discourse of immunology, religion and politics, using pathos, humor and magical realism to depathologize homosexuality and AIDS. Made into an HBO miniseries in 2003. [JL]

W!t (theatrical play by Margaret Edson)

This one-act play, the 1999 Pulitzer Prizewinner for Drama, pits the death of the body against the life of the mind when a professor of 17th-century poetry is diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer. Known for her brusque way in the classroom, at 50 she is unmarried and has no family emergency contacts or visitors in the cancer ward. Suddenly subjected to “countless indignities” during a course of experimental chemotherapy, she observes as doctors “read” her as she used to read literature and as the viability of her innards matter far more than the mastery of her scholarship. One of her doctors is a former student, similarly obsessed with knowledge; two academics who have made their aim the decoding of poetry and mutating cells find themselves bereft when rational thinking fail them both. Their exchanges with a caring nurse intertwine the science of the sonnet with the humanity of the oncology ward, as both doctor and patient confront evasive mortality. W!t is a sparse, funny, gripping meditation on the interplay of the mind and the body, for a woman whose mind has been pre-eminent to the body and for a young doctor whose emotional attachment to the professor emerges when he overlooks her DNR and rushes to save her. Made into an HBO movie in 2001. [JL]


Omega Institute for Holistic Studies

The Omega Institute for Holistic Studies is a non-profit organization developed in the late 70s to provide education to individuals about the variety of approaches each can take towards self-care and healing. Inspired by Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, an Eastern scholar and meditation teacher, and named from French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s term “Omega Point,” or the zenith towards which consciousness evolves (namely Christ), Omega responds to the need of public education for alternative approaches to health and wellness. Its main campus is located in Rhinebeck, NY, but it hosts events and workshops throughout the world some featuring annually in Washington, DC and New York City. Speakers, or teachers, range from holistic doctor Andrew Weil to Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. The home establishment offers a camp for teens, a women’s institute and a retreat center. Scholarships are available for attendance. Workshops are well organized; speakers and teachers avail themselves frequently for free consultations, and often provide audio recordings of their presentations for purchase. Omega’s offerings can assist anyone who seeks to improve his/her life mentally, spiritually, and/or physically. For more information consult www.eomega.org. The website itself is thorough and includes a list of future and past teachers, many of whom have their own detailed, helpful websites and who host independent events. [SNR]

Key to Abbreviations of Review Authors

[JL] Jenn Lindsay, a student in the 2011 Spirituality, Medicine, and Health seminar at Boston University. [9]

[LAW] Larry A. Whitney, LC+, a student in the 2011 Spirituality, Medicine, and Health seminar at Boston University. [5]

[SNR] Stephanie N. Riley, a student in the 2011 Spirituality, Medicine, and Health seminar at Boston University. [9]