Reviewing a book about touch seems a little disingenuous coming from me. I usually default to a joke about my Norwegian heritage whenever I need to politely disengage from my hugging, arm-over-the-shoulder, stand-too-close friends. I’m a girl who likes her personal space. I won’t sit next to someone on the couch. I always leave a chair between myself and the person next to me in waiting rooms. I’ve even ordered my husband to give me space in times when his closeness has made me feel claustrophobic.
To blame my genetics for this closed-off attitude would only be partially accurate. Some of it is undoubtedly nurture as much as nature. I grew up on the Minnesota prairie inspired by wide open spaces—places to breathe deep, throw your hands wide, and drive for miles before seeing another human being. I fit the old cliché well: If I can see the smoke from my neighbor’s chimney, then it’s time to move.
So when I first learned that Lore Ferguson Wilbert was writing a book on touch, my reaction was one of confusion. Who would choose such a topic on purpose? Lore would, of course. And after years of following her work, I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Lore Ferguson Wilbert is the writer that other writers wish to be. Her words are poetic, dense, thoughtful, and prolific. She’s one of the few bloggers disciplined enough to post regularly and her published articles have found their way into many a respected magazine. If anyone else had decided to write a book on touch, I would never have read past the title. But Lore Ferguson Wilbert? Her I trust to take me on a faithful journey, even if it makes me deeply uncomfortable.
Wilbert’s new book, Handle with Care: How Jesus Redeems the Power of Touch in Life and Ministry, is a powerful wake up call to an evangelical culture that often treats such a topic as taboo. She gently challenges readers to consider the concept of touch through the examples of Jesus.
Jesus touched “unclean” lepers and lounged with John. He allowed others to touch him, even when it occurred by way of the incredibly intimate act of a woman washing his feet. So how did the religion he started become the place of side-hugs-only and pat phrases like, “Leave room for the Holy Spirit?”
The issue is undeniably complicated. And, much to my relief, Wilbert allows it to be. Handle with Care offers zero prescriptions for how one should or should not touch. It never draws boundaries or heaps shame on personal comfort zones. Instead, the book aims to start a conversation—both in the church and in the heart by inviting readers to examine why they believe what they do in relation to this topic.
To facilitate the conversation, Wilbert walks readers chapter-by-chapter through a variety of scenarios regarding touch, outlining times in the church and greater culture when our hands and bodies have been used for both evil and good.
Wilbert opens with the universal elephant in the room when this topic comes up: sexual misconduct. She briefly but vulnerably admits that she herself is a victim of sexual abuse and shares other examples of times when nonsexual touch was forced on her when she didn’t want it. If you followed her during the height of the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements, you may recall her support for those made to feel unsafe. Be assured, readers with similar histories will not find themselves discredited or belittled. Instead, Handle with Care helpfully addresses the fact that some of our unspoken rules of conduct in the church are not based on scripture—nor are they helpful to the people we are trying to carefully love.
Wilbert also dives into purity culture, examining the ways in which its well-intended messages backfired, creating a generation of Christians so accustomed to denying their flesh that they now lack the tools for navigating and appreciating proper and godly touch. As someone raised within that movement, I can attest to this struggle personally. I recall well the years of diligent effort I had to make in order to enjoy any kind of sex or romantic intimacy with my husband and not jump out of my skin every time his hand brushed my elbow.
How are these two extremes so pervasive in the same subculture? How can the church have a problem with both too sexual and not sexual enough? Herein lies the brilliance in Wilbert’s format, which forces us to ask: Are these opposite extremes? Or are they identical symptoms of the same problem?
If you’ve followed Wilbert for any amount of time, you know she has a passion for singleness. As someone who married in her mid-thirties, she has spent many years and hundreds of sentences reminding the church to care for single people and abandon the (very unbiblical) habit of prioritizing marriage as a person’s end-goal. In her words, “Singleness can be a lonely place. And its lonely edges, for many, show up most often around touch and the lack of it. This is where many people feel their singleness most potently.”
Wilbert calls the church to think about how to offer platonic touch to others as a gesture of Christ-like love. She also asks readers to think about how they engage with their friends, family, pastors, parents, children and more.
I found the book especially thought provoking as a mom. Since reading, I have paid much more attention to the ways I touch my two-year-old son. How often are my hands instruments of prevention or denial, swatting his fingers or pulling him away from what he desires? How well do I balance that with physical gestures of love and support?
Remembering Our Stories
This book will not turn you into a “touchy-feely” person. I have not suddenly become a known hugger in my circle of friends. But that was never what Wilbert set out to do. As a writer, she is keenly aware of story and discusses how each of our stories impacts the beliefs we have about our bodies. She shares many poignant, emotional stories from her life to invite readers to reexamine about their own pasts.
As a Christian, am I aware of when I should reach out—literally—to put another’s need for touch ahead of my desire to avoid it? Or, as she puts it: “We don’t need another how-to-do. We need an overhaul in how we think about humans and their stories, and how we interact with others as physical beings. We need discernment and Spirit-led love to know the caring ways to touch . . . May God give us the discernment and the presence of mind to do all our stories justice in the way we touch.”
My Scandinavian, Midwestern context was formative, as were many more specific stories that led to how I view touch today. That history will always inform my habits. But everyone around me has a story, too. And Wilbert has challenged me to notice their needs as well.
Cover image by Ricardo Gomez Angel.