A Modern Day Disciple

Q&A with Martin E. Marty on Granger Westberg

by Stacy Smith

Illustration of Luke 9:2

Terri Scott

Granger Westberg (1913-1999) was an author, theologian and modern-day healer. He is the subject of the new biography Gentle Rebel: The Life and Work of Granger Westberg, Pioneer in Whole Person Care, written by his daughters Jane Westberg and Jill Westberg McNamara. Editor Stacy Smith spoke with Dr. Martin Marty, one of the world’s most prominent scholars of religion and history, and a contemporary of Granger’s, about his life and legacy.

Stacy Smith: Tell me about your history with Granger Westberg, how you met, and how your work intersected.

Martin Marty: I was ordained in 1952 in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and served a congregation in River Forest, Illinois, as an assistant pastor. I loved parish ministry very much. I had never planned to go for a doctorate, but it was written into the call that the assistant pastor should do doctoral work, so I began that work at the Lutheran School of Theology. Two University of Chicago professors came out and talked to us, and they liked what I was doing and said they would like to give me a free ride to work on a doctorate and teach there. Two years after ordination, I went to the university to study full-time for two years.

Like almost everyone, I came without much background in the things in which Granger Westberg specialized and was an innovator. In seminary we learned how to do bedside prayers and console people and confess people, but there was nothing informatively technical about it. At the university, thanks to Westberg, we were brought into a whole new world and I made a great deal of it. The people with whom he studied—Russell Dicks, for instance—were the founders of the modern pastoral care movement. Westberg became a young scholar at their sides. Before too long after seminary and his own career in pastoral ministry, he was brought to the University of Chicago. He was young and new and always accessible. He ended up with an appointment unique in American theological education, a joint appointment between the medical school and the divinity school.

What are some of your strongest memories of studying with Granger Westberg?

I was not a student in his field, but that made no difference: his influence was widely spread in the Divinity School and the university in general. You’d always know where to find him at lunch—usually one-on-one or one-on-three with medical doctors or other pastoral care people. That was a new thing. He always wore a clerical collar, which not many Protestant pastors did in that day. A doctor once asked him, gruffly, “What are you doing here? We’re a med school and we have it all figured out.” Westberg said, “What am I doing here? Let’s see: everything I do is based on two books, the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Almost every page talks about people being healed of sickness, leprosy, demonic possession, and other diseases—even guilt. Further, monks, priests, or nuns have always been at the side of the wounded with healing work. They started the first hospital systems. They housed people and hung in there. There was no greater sin for a priest than to skip town when the plague came. Many of them died. Then came the Protestants who trained their married pastors to deal with the families. Now in modern America we think we have to start over, rather than inherit European institutions.” Granger paused and said to the physician, “The longer I talk, the more it occurs to me, What are you doing here?”

Westberg was not trying be defiant, but it was a teaching venture. He was well read and taught some courses. Many divinity students worked with him.

How would you describe the difference Granger Westberg, a pastor, made in the field of health care?

First, during Westberg’s time at the University of Chicago, clinical pastoral education was on the rise, and increasingly students made that their specialty. Granger was a mentor, tutor, and shaper in those fields. He moved on to Texas, but what he built remained. There’s a new program at the University of Chicago’s medical school that derives in no small measure from Westberg’s original impetus. Granger’s students carried on, and his curriculum carried on.

Second, Westberg always will be remembered for being the pioneer in supporting a new status and enlarging the role of nurses. When I was at the Park Ridge Center we noticed the nurses were often seen as handmaids to doctors and administrators. Westberg didn’t like that. He would say they were colleagues. They needed special recognition and training. My late first wife died from cancer in the clinics there and was ministered to by nurses who benefited from Westberg’s innovations and legacies. By then the nurses had gotten their charter from Westberg, and they said they didn’t feel inferior.

A Canadian scholar wrote the book The Renewal of Generosity: Health, Illness, and How to Live. When I urged my second wife to read it, she asked me why. I said, “There is one sentence, and if it doesn’t persuade you to read it, nothing will. It’s very Westbergian.”

The author quoted a woman who said, “My doctor cured me, but she didn’t heal me; she never once looked in my face.”

Westberg recognized the importance of pulling up a chair, sitting down, looking the patient in the face and saying, “Please tell me your story.” In ten minutes patients would impart things that enabled the physician to be more helpful than would have been possible with only the results of tests and exams. This focus on listening to patients is what is, in part, behind the  founding of the parish nurse program, which is now huge. I got to speak at the first annual Westberg Symposium in 1987. Already back then, there wasn’t enough space for all the people who came.

You used the term Westbergian. What would you say is the essence of Westbergiana

Face-to-face, listening, encouraging the other, lifelong learning, making connections.

It’s not hard to get your name in print and win prizes if you’re the head of a medical school or make some discovery. Westberg’s hard to pin down because everything he did was relational. Because he excelled in several fields, and he focused on enabling others, Westberg’s profile is less clear than that of some in parallel disciplines. But I’d like it if he is enduringly seen as a founder of the new status for the chaplain, pastor, and spiritual counselor, in the bedside clinic and in the lab.

What do you think would have excited Granger Westberg about a new focus on health care in the US, and what would be his frustration?

I think the two would come together. What excited him was the challenge of overcoming what frustrated him. The technology of medicine can reduce everything to a pattern of efficiency. Sherwin Nuland wrote the book How We Die. We became friends. One year, when he was to speak at Northwestern’s Medical School graduation, my wife invited him and his wife over for breakfast beforehand. I asked him, “What are you going to tell the new MDs?” He said, “I’m going to tell them you can never know too much science to be a good physician, and you can never forget enough science to be good at the bedside.” And that’s very close to what this is about. How do you humanize the wonders of technology?

Westberg would say the gains also brought losses. In some ways America is both more religious and more secular. It is more religious in that more people turn to everything from alternative medicine, Chinese medicine, New Age remedies—and all this has religious tinges. And of course there is still the Judeo-Christian mindset. But we’re also more secular in that more health decisions are made without any transcendent order. I think Westberg would accept the challenge of bridging that divide.

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