In The Next Page, Erin Newcomb reads stuff she likes and reflects on things eternal and earthly in the popular literature of our time.

My husband suggested I review Giulia Enders’ Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ; he leafed through a copy when we were at a book shop, and something about the back-cover comments made him think it would appeal to my sense of humor. We started dating twelve years ago, spending lots of our time together then (as now) running. There tends to be a certain camaraderie among runners, where bodily fluids are par for the course, and our courtship was no exception. When we did twenty-mile trail runs, I always carried toilet paper. It’s just practical, really. It also made me quite confident when we got engaged that neither one of us harbored any illusions about romance. This is the man who watched me puke lentil soup all over the sidewalk one day. I’ve never eaten lentil soup again, but he’s in it for the long haul.

The point of both Enders’ book and the passage from 1 Corinthians is even that which is underrated is essential.

Now, see, if you’re still reading, you’ve got a sense of the tone of Enders’ book. Except that she provides actual scientific information instead of personal anecdotes. Reading Gut felt like reading a witty scientific textbook with a strong authorial voice—so not like any scientific textbook I’ve ever read before. There are also black-and-white cartoonish illustrations drawn by the author’s sister, Jill Enders, though I didn’t feel like they added much to the text for me. In all fairness, I tend to prefer my books text heavy, so images are rarely going to grab my attention. I cannot say how useful this book would be for readers with medical backgrounds, but for a lay-reader like myself, with a sincere curiosity about nutrition and buzzwords like “gut health,” this was a compelling read.

The tone is accessible and practical. Take, for instance, some of Enders’ concluding advice:

Seen under the microscope, bacteria look like nothing but little, bright spots against a dark background. But taken together, their sum is much greater than their parts. Each one of us hosts an entire population. Most sit in our mucus membrane, diligently training our immune system, soothing our villi, eating what we don’t need, and producing vitamins for us. Others keep close to the cells of the gut, needling them or producing toxins. If the good and the bad are in equilibrium, the bad ones can make us stronger and the good ones can take care of us and keep us healthy.

There is an accompanying illustration of a pipette and a black petri dish speckled with white spots that seem to form the shapes of the continents. This passage pulls together the text as a whole, though it’s not one of the more specific or technical parts of the book. Those parts are framed by paragraphs like this one, so even the more scientific language gets mediated for a general audience; it feels like good science writing.

There are several sections that I only skimmed because I felt no particular interest in the disorder under discussion. The book is set up so that’s easy to manage, and it’s altogether a fast read. Then there are parts about bloody, slimy diarrhea and fecal transplants that I felt the need to read aloud to my husband, just so that we could both appreciate the simplicity of those forest runs. And yes, I’m sorry, but that pun was intended. Much of what Enders’ work does is take scientific research (that in some cases she admits is only in its nascent stages) and try to show its amazing insights and potential for understanding the gut.

Enders claims that the gut is as important to our health and well-being as our brains and our hearts, though that’s certainly not how we tend to view things. As she writes in the Preface,

I want to make new knowledge available to a broad audience and communicate the information that scientists bury in their academic publications or discuss behind closed doors at scientific meetings, while many ordinary people out there are searching for answers. I know there are many patients suffering from unpleasant conditions who are frustrated by the medical world. I can’t offer any panaceas, and keeping your gut healthy is not a miracle cure for everything, but what I can do is to show, in an entertaining way, why the gut is so fascinating, what exciting new research is currently underway, and how we can use this new knowledge to improve our daily lives.

Given that purported purpose, I’d say that Enders and her book are quite successful; her down-to-earth, approachable writing make it easy to delve into topics that it could be difficult to discuss with a physician face-to-face. Yet her book also equips people to do just that, and the fact that this book is a bestseller gives me some hope about our scientific literacy as well as our collective gut health.

I think this book is an important read for two different reasons. The first is that I dislike the false division between science and religion that seems to get portrayed in the media more than in the lives of everyday believers. Learning more about “the inside story” of the gut not only demystifies the strange workings of the small and large intestines, but it also eludes to a Creator with remarkable efficiency and attention to detail. Our bodies are a remarkable tribute to the God in whose image we are made, and knowing more about the precision of our physical forms can help us see the care that nourishes our spirits, too.

Secondly, I couldn’t help thinking about the scripture from 1 Corinthians about the church as the body of Christ. The body serves as a powerful metaphor for conceptualizing how a diverse group of believers with distinct roles and gifts must work together for the glory of God. The same principles underlie Gut, wherein the author asserts the necessity of balance in all of the bodily systems to achieve optimum health. It’s easy to prioritize the brain and the heart, or the outward appearance of the body, and to neglect the gut, but Enders’ book alerts readers that we do so at the peril of our health. The verse from 1 Corinthians tells a similar message in a spiritual context, and the bodily metaphor operates so powerfully because we do assign hierarchies to our body parts. Of course no one wants to be the rectum, but our physical health would surely suffer without one. The point of both Enders’ book and the passage from 1 Corinthians is that even that which is underrated is essential. And doesn’t that message, after all, hit near the heart of the gospel? Or should I say the gut?