Deep Calls to Deep:
The Great Physician and Medical Anthropology
In Psalm 42:7, the Sons of Korah lament, “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me” (NIV). For them, this distress was the accumulation of trials that had surged one after another, that had led their downcast souls to call out to God. And nearly three thousand years later, “deep calls to deep” points to the reality of our own souls, for we are also in great need of remedy. The world we live in is plagued with brokenness and sin that must be dealt with—we use laws to check crime, justice systems to correct injustice, and peace organizations to thwart violence. Yet when we still feel despair for our fractured world, it becomes clear that the methods humans have created to rectify sin are insufficient, that our sin runs so deep that it calls for an even deeper redemption.
Reflecting upon Psalm 42 brought me back to the first day of fourth grade—a morning marred by the shriek of fire truck sirens. My mom’s eyes were filled with panic as she shoved me out the front door, as if she didn't want me to notice the three paramedics standing behind her in our living room.
I couldn’t concentrate in school that day. Later that afternoon, when the phone rang, the voice on the other end was shaky and wrenched in anguish: “Grandma, she… she passed away today. Her cancer… it finally—”
That was the first time I ever heard my dad cry.
To be human is to sin, and sin has consequences: it can lead to disease and decay, and it will ultimately result in death (1). But God offers us hope. He says, “I have found a ransom for them… They will go to others and say, ‘I have sinned, I have perverted what is right, but I did not get what I deserved. God has delivered me from going down to the pit, and I shall live to enjoy the light of life’” (Job 33:24-28). In an act of amazing grace, God gave us a Ransom for our sin! Jesus Christ, who is the physician capable of healing all our disease and decay, but more importantly, our source of eternal life, who grants us absolute healing from the sin that leads to death.
Thus “deep calls to deep”: we are in profound need of the unfathomable greatness of a Savior. Only He can completely heal us of our sin and, subsequently, our pain. As the preacher Charles Spurgeon wrote, “the most crimson sins are removed by the crimson of His blood,” and His power to forgive has brought us from death to life (2).
It becomes clear that the methods humans have created to rectify sin are insufficient, that our sin runs so deep that it calls for an even deeper redemption.
But as people living in a modern culture of logic and method, how do we trust Christ's healing?
Manmade models cannot adequately describe the work of an infinite God, but they do offer an interesting perspective from which we can approach this question. In 1963, French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss proposed the “shamanistic complex,” three levels of belief to explain shaman healing rituals (3). But his theory stops at “belief,” which is not enough to understand exactly how healing works. This is where modern medical anthropology comes in. Modern medical anthropology elaborates upon Levi-Strauss’s ‘shamanistic complex’ model by recognizing that effective healing requires an “active agent” and a belief that such an agent will properly work. This expands Levi-Strauss’s original model of effective healing by requiring: 1) the healer’s belief in his or her techniques, 2) the patient’s belief in the healer’s power, and 3) larger society’s faith in the healer.
If we draw a simplified parallel to the Gospel, Christ’s life-giving death and resurrection would be the “active agent,” and the faith through which we gain that eternal life would be the “belief.” Thus, medical anthropology can provide one lens as to why we can find Jesus’ actual, remedial work trustworthy.
1) The healer must believe in the efficacy of his or her techniques.
In the Old Testament, God gave His people a chance to have eternal life: first by granting access to the Tree of Life in Eden, then by providing the Covenant Law through Moses. But Adam and Eve fell in the Garden, the Israelites broke the Law again and again, and God introduced a system of sacrifices in which the shedding of an innocent animal’s blood would make atonement for the guilty sinner—in other words, man could not overcome sin or gain salvation on his own. Yet when man could not fulfill his end of the covenant, Jesus became man and kept it perfectly, so that in Him, we could also enter into eternal life.
In the covenant, there is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood (4). In the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus prayed in sorrow and agony, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done,” Jesus accepted the cup of suffering, fully believing in the power of His blood to wash sinners clean (Luke 22:42). The crucifixion was pain beyond comprehension, yet avoidable—Pilate was already searching for a way to release the innocent prisoner, and Jesus had twelve legions of angels waiting at His command. But Jesus knew only His death and resurrection could overcome the bondage of sin, and so He was determined to pay our ransom. For on the cross, “Christ's wounds are thy healings, His agonies thy repose,… His death thy life, His sufferings thy salvation" (5).
My grandma was first diagnosed with stage IV cancer at the beginning of the summer. When my mom found out, she evangelized to her everyday. In between rounds of chemo treatments and acupuncture sessions, my mom’s Bible was always open as she told my grandma about a Savior who loved her so much that He willingly died for her, who wanted nothing more than for her to be saved. Grandma was scared of dying. She would ask, “Where do we all go?” So my mom shared about the eternal life guaranteed by Christ’s resurrection power, and my grandma intently listened.
2) The patient must believe in the healer’s power.
The four Gospels tell of the multitudes that came to Jesus during His ministry, believing that He had the power to heal them. A royal official from Capernaum traveled twenty miles to Cana, confident that if Jesus just spoke the words, his ill son would recover (6). Jairus the synagogue leader sent for Jesus believing that if He just laid His hand on His dying daughter, she would live (7). And a woman suffering from an untreatable hemorrhage had faith that merely touching Jesus’ clothes would cure her (8). As “crowds of people came to [Jesus] to be healed,” the doctor and disciple Luke noted, so the Great Physician’s patients—no matter if they were handicapped, spiritually-ill, or even terminally-ill—certainly believed in their Healer’s power (Luke 5:15).
But when we continue through the rest of history, we see that Jesus’ “patients” not only believed in His ability to cure the sick, but even more so in His ability to completely heal their spiritual needs and bring them into eternal life. This was Paul’s conviction as he sat in jail waiting for execution, writing, “for to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). And this confidence in the eternal life found in Christ—that the place He prepares for us in heaven is far better than anything on earth—is what made Perpetua refuse to deny her faith when faced with Roman stadium execution in 203 AD, William Tyndale unable to recant his English Bibles when brought to the noose in 1536, and Jim Eliot so eager to spread the Gospel to the Auca people even when it cost him his life in 1956; not to mention the thousands of other Christian martyrs so willing to die for their faith. Today, God’s promise of eternal life remains the same, encouraging believers to faithfully follow unto His calling—whether it be committing to full-time ministry or missionary work, or simply testifying of God’s love on a college campus. Because in accordance with modern medical anthropology, the healing we believe in has credibility— and the most powerful evidence is that it has indeed worked before.
Grandma stopped treatment two months after her diagnosis. “It’s terminal anyways,” she explained. Instead, she laid on her hospital bed in the middle of our living room, praying and listening to “Amazing Grace” on repeat. Though her body grew weaker and weaker, she was still so full of joy and life, excited for her upcoming baptism. She would often call me to her bedside to whisper,“I’m saved now, and I know God’s waiting for me.”
(3) The healer must meet the faith and expectations of larger society.
For thousands of years, the Jews had awaited a Messiah foretold by the Old Testament prophets. Between 739-686 BC, the prophet Isaiah spoke of a Savior with no outward majesty, who would be rejected and crushed for man’s iniquity—so that in His righteousness sheep that had gone astray would be counted righteous. Seven hundred years later, Jesus fulfilled all twelve verses of Isaiah 53 with remarkable accuracy. The meek and humble Servant, scorned by the ones He came to save, was pierced in His hands, feet, and side. The immeasurable weight of man’s sin was nailed with Him to the cross, and by His wounds man was healed to “live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24).
Jesus not only fulfilled Old Testament Scripture, but He also surpassed all expectations. The Jews had been waiting for a Messianic King who would overthrow the Roman Empire and establish a powerful militaristic kingdom for them. Jesus certainly was a king: a descendant of King David whose word established a New Law, with all authority in heaven and earth (9). Yet Jesus also had the eternal divinity of the capital-K King of Kings: He spoke life-giving words and performed life-saving signs and miracles. But unlike the militaristic king expected by the Jews, Jesus was gentle and humble, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. The Gospel of Mark portrays Christ the servant who associated Himself with the lowest in society (prostitutes, tax collectors, widows, and Samaritans). While on earth, He spent most of His ministry among the simple and needy multitude, and today, Jesus cares for us in the same way. He feels compassion for those who are suffering, and He has the tenderness and empathy we seek in a healer. He knows our every struggle; for as a man, He suffered and overcame all the sin and temptation that we wrestle with. Jesus fully understands the plight and need of humankind, and His heart goes out to His people. His mercies are tender and His affections sweet to those who come to Him for healing.
When God finally did take my grandma home, my mom was heartbroken, sobbing in frustration and anguish at the seeming unfairness of it all. But then, she would quiet: “Grandma’s in a better place now… eternal life in heaven, where there’s no more pain or death or weeping...”
It was a miracle of complete healing for my grandma, and then an overflowing of comfort for my mom. When deep called to deep, the Great Physician certainly answered.
Medical anthropology affirms Jesus’ healing work. The three levels of belief required for effectual healing have been met—(1) Jesus believed in the effectiveness of His salvation, for He willingly suffered and died to grant it; (2) billions of Christians today and throughout history live or have lived testifying of their full belief in Jesus’ ability to heal; and (3) Jesus is wholly equipped to be our healer, fulfilling Old Testament Scriptures and even soaring past our expectations. We can be confident that complete healing has already been achieved both in and through Christ. Medical anthropological theory thus attests to the Gospel, illustrating just one of many arguments as to why we find the uttermost redemption from sin and death through Jesus.
“Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls”—sinners, in the depths of despair, received a perfect healing. Guilty, broken man was unconditionally forgiven, brought into eternal life when Christ hung on the cross. For His cry rings as thunderously now as it did two thousand years ago, the roar of a waterfall proclaiming, “It is finished!”
(1) Romans 6:3
(2) Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892). Charles Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening. 1973.
(3) Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009). The Sorcerer and His Magic. 1963.
(4) Hebrews 9:22
(5) Matthew Henry (1662-1714). Exposition of the Old and New Testaments. Volume 5. 1708-1710.
(6) John 4:46-54
(7) Matthew 9:18-19, 23-25; Mark 5:21-23, 35-43; Luke 8:40-42, 49-56
(8) Matthew 9:20-22; Mark 5:24-34; Luke 8:43-48
(9) Hebrews 8:6-13, Matthew 28:18
Claire Lin is a sophomore at Brown studying Biology.
Photo by Melanie Kim, Brown '23.