Does anyone read the Bible literally?

In the WSJ last week, there was an opinion piece regarding the question of biblical literalism.  The author presents a hypothetical and real scenario regarding a non-literal read of the Bible. 

Until this month, John Candide had taught religion at Calvin College, affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, for 25 years. But his “fall from grace,” as the website InsideHigherEd put it, came after he “wrote about challenges science poses to a literal reading of the gospels.” For that offense, he has agreed to leave his tenured teaching job.

As Mr. Candide explains, he recently became troubled by conflicts between science and literal readings of gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection: “The more I read, the more I talked with biologists, the more it became clear to me: science tells us that when people die, they stay dead.” He adds that he continues to believe in the importance of the Bible.

In their joint statement, Mr. Candide and Calvin College said that they agreed to part ways because of tensions raised by his scholarship and a desire not to create “harm and distraction.” Despite this peaceful resolution, his departure raises questions about freedom of scholarship at the college.

Or not—I invented John Candide. The actual story at InsideHigherEd, from which I have borrowed liberally above, was a bit different. The alleged offense involved challenges posed by science to a literal reading of Genesis, not of Jesus’ resurrection. And the professor in question is named John Schneider.

As he wrote in an academic journal earlier this year, Mr. Schneider has concluded that human ancestry can’t be traced to a single couple, the Adam and Eve of the Genesis account. Moreover, he believes—on the basis of science, he says—that the very notion of a fall from a primal state of beatitude must be false.

Let’s compare the fictitious case of Prof. Candide with the real Prof. Schneider. Clearly the gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are at odds with what science tells us about the everyday workings of the world. Faced with this conflict, some Christians have reverted to damage control, saying that of course Jesus didn’t rise from the dead—that’s just silly. What would happen to our credibility if we kept insisting on that? No, the real meaning of the resurrection story is that Jesus lives on in the hearts of all those who follow his example. And so on.

The vast majority of Christians—including those who teach at Calvin College—continue to believe otherwise. Yes, they say, Jesus triumphed over sin and death. But they don’t suppose that Jesus’ resurrection renders the scientific understanding of the world irrelevant. On the contrary: It’s precisely in contrast to the ordinary that the resurrection stands out.

In short, if our imaginary Prof. Candide decided one day that he could no longer affirm the reality of the resurrection, it would seem unremarkable that he and the college should part.

But what about Prof. Schneider? There is a salient difference between Genesis and the gospels. For all their disagreement over the details, orthodox Christians broadly agree about how to read the gospels. But there is no such consensus about how to read Genesis. The range of sharply differing views was outlined in the cover story of the June 2011 issue of Christianity Today, “The Search for the Historical Adam.”

What is at stake in these disputes is not a choice between following biblical authority on the one hand or science on the other, as the matter is often misleadingly framed. Rather, we see rival theological commitments, rival understandings of how to read Genesis.

Undergirding Young Earth Creationism—the belief that the Earth was created only a few thousand years ago—is an unswerving commitment to a certain way of reading scripture, not a disdain for science. A different approach (for example, John Walton’s “The Lost World of Genesis One”) seeks to recover the ancient worldview implicit in the Genesis account of creation, a perspective from which the measurable age of the Earth, however vast, is not relevant. Critical to debates over “the historical Adam” are theological motifs such as Christ as “the second Adam.” These lose their meaning, many evangelicals argue, if Genesis isn’t read literally.

But an alarm should sound whenever the word “literal” is used in this context, whether as a badge of pride (“I just believe in reading the Bible literally”) or as a hint that low-browed fundamentalists are lurking nearby. No one—no one—reads the Bible literally. But some readers are more attentive, more faithful, more imaginative and more persuasive than others.

From a Jewish angle, the question of literalism runs along similar lines. Remembering the responses to Natan Slifkin’s non-literal read of the creation story, The Challenge of Creation, I think that if someone in a Yeshiva were to speculate on Genesis 1 in a non-creationist manner, it would be the equivalent of a Christian read of the Gospels that was non-literal.  I recall some in the synagogue I attended, upon hearing Slifkin speak about how evolution does not equate with creation and how reading Genesis one through the eyes of evolution was creating a falsehood, were bothered.  And of course, the questions about the historical validity of the Torah, from start to finish, began.  Yet, even in certain more moderate Orthodox institutions, non-literal readings are acceptable.

My Worst Enemy’s Shiva

I found this today and felt it was quite important to share as a whole.  People have enough trouble paying a shiva visit in general.  How much more so when we think we need to visit someone we are in conflict with.  I am somewhat concerned by the Q and A here.  While I agree with the author’s response and strategies for visiting and how to visit, I would have started with a simpler question;  why do you feel the need to visit in the first place?  Is it out a sense of reconciliation, or a sense that the fighting was a mistake to begin with?  Or do you merely feel the need to fulfill the commandment of comforting the bereaved?  Nevertheless, consider the answer Hammerman offers for it does provide us a real sense of the appropriate timing and means of visiting while limiting the potential for fighting. 

Q. The mother of my worst enemy just died and I’m not sure whether to visit during Shiva. In truth, I sincerely see this as a chance to reconcile (we haven’t spoken in about five years but have a lot of friends in common). My only concern is that he would misinterpret the reason for the visit and kick me out of the house. I really don’t want to cause him any discomfort. What should I do?

A. Do you think this would be the first time that two people at a shiva had unresolved issues?  It happens all the time, usually involving people from the deceased’s family who are barely on speaking terms. I’ve seen amazing moments of reconciliation happen during the period of grieving. When someone says “over my dead body,” sometimes that’s precisely the most likely location for enemies to reunite, as happened to  Isaac and Ishmael when they buried Abraham.

So go.

But I add this disclaimer: If you poisoned his Akita or stole his birthright, I might hold off until the time is right. Jacob’s journey back to Esau was paved with gifts and trepidation. It took decades before each party was ready. In any event, if you do go to the Shiva, I’d avoid visiting during peak periods, when the mourner might feel you are simply making an appearance for show. If the guy shows signs of being uncomfortable with your presence, or worse, begins to make a scene, I’d make a hasty exit and not take it personally.  The rabbis explained that the second Temple was destroyed because of the resentment of a person humiliated in public by his worst enemy. Don’t let that happen to you. It’s also OK to wait until after shiva, when you might call and meet for coffee in a quite spot. Or maybe the best strategy would be to write a heartfelt letter.

I believe that all conflicts have an expiration date. Even the Hatfields and McCoys signed a truce just a few years ago. If you could reconcile with your worst enemy and become a true pursuer of peace, echoing the words of Psalm 34:15, you will make the world a better place. And an enormous weight will be taken off your shoulders.

Are we fooling ourselves?

I came across another of Rev. Jacob’s posts on Huffington Post revolving around end-of-life issues.  She focuses on an article written a month ago which I already wrote about here.  She uses the story to elicit from her readers the question of how we would want our own death to look like, assuming we don’t suddenly drop dead.  She poses the following questions for us to contemplate:

What would you do were you in Dudley Clendinen’s situation? I am not asking you to judge what he has decided is right for him. I am asking you to consider what you would want were you to find yourself in Dudley’s situation. Would you want to die the way he describes his mother, cousin and his aunts did, “… all of whom would have died of natural causes years earlier if not for medical technology, well-meaning systems and loving, caring hands”? Or would you prefer what Dudley has decided? Or something else?

Also, thinking about the prospect of only having several months to live (although death could occur for any of us at any time — whether it be while walking down the street, eating a meal or sleeping), I wonder how many of us could do what Dudley is doing while he is dying — living one day at a time? For those of us who have not done a 12-step program, are we able to live today and focus only on this day? Can we appreciate what we have before us right now? “Consider the birds in the fields” (Matt 6:26) “Behold the lilies of the field” (Matt 6:28) — Can we just “be still, and know” (Ps 46:10) — Can we see the “goodness of the Lord in the land of the living?” (Ps 27:13)

What do you think that God expects of us as we live this life — and await our time to die? And, then, as Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is a time for everything … “A time to be born and a time to die …” (Eccl 3:1-2) We know that we will one day die. And, what do you think that God expects of us as we are dying?

From the standpoint of the questions she poses, I am left with one thought.  There are times we, the healthy, look on the ill or the elderly and say, “I don’t want to end up this way.  I would rather no aggressive interventions to prolong my life.”  Yet, I would venture that for many of us, as we age, we will think somewhat differently when faced with the closeness of our own mortality.  This is not to suggest a lack of belief in G-d or an afterlife, a subject unto themselves.  It is rather to say that a part of what makes us who we are will never want to disappear.  Our self is afraid of not existing.  That is why contemplating death is a difficult spiritual practice.  I think many are too quick to say I would rather not live if… On the flip side, for those who are suffering, realize that my critique is not about any of the trauma and challenge of chronic or life limiting illnesses.  I am merely saying that it is easy for the young and healthy to prefer death over a partial life when it is a hypothetical decision as opposed to something that is current in his/her life. 


You have to be crazy to rule a country

In last weekend’s WSJ review, an adapted piece was written on the value of mental illness, specifically depression, in helping define great leaders.  It seems that mild depression provides people with a greater clarity to see the world as it truly is, as well as a greater ability to adapt in the midst of crisis.  I should note that not all depressed leaders are great.  A story I always found remarkable pertains to Joseph Stalin at the beginning of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.  It is reported that Stalin was in a state of shock for weeks after the invasion, and it was so bad that he was not even running the nation during that time.

When times are good and the ship of state only needs to sail straight, mentally healthy people function well as political leaders. But in times of crisis and tumult, those who are mentally abnormal, even ill, become the greatest leaders. We might call this the Inverse Law of Sanity.

Consider Neville Chamberlain. Before the Second World War, he was a highly respected businessman from Birmingham, a popular mayor and an esteemed chancellor of the exchequer. He was charming, sober, smart—sane.

Winston Churchill, by contrast, rose to prominence during the Boer War and the first World War. Temperamental, cranky, talkative, bombastic—he bothered many people. During the “wilderness” years of the 1930s, while the suave Chamberlain got all the plaudits, Churchill’s own party rejected him.

When not irritably manic in his temperament, Churchill experienced recurrent severe depressive episodes, during many of which he was suicidal. Even into his later years, he would complain about his “black dog” and avoided ledges and railway platforms, for fear of an impulsive jump. “All it takes is an instant,” he said.

Abraham Lincoln famously had many depressive episodes, once even needing a suicide watch, and was treated for melancholy by physicians. Mental illness has touched even saintly icons like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., both of whom made suicide attempts in adolescence and had at least three severe depressive episodes in adulthood.

Aristotle was the first to point out the link between madness and genius, including not just poets and artists but also political leaders. I would argue that the Inverse Law of Sanity also applies to more ordinary endeavors. In business, for instance, the sanest of CEOs may be just right during prosperous times, allowing the past to predict the future. But during a period of change, a different kind of leader—quirky, odd, even mentally ill—is more likely to see business opportunities that others cannot imagine…

“Normal” nondepressed persons have what psychologists call “positive illusion”—that is, they possess a mildly high self-regard, a slightly inflated sense of how much they control the world around them.

Mildly depressed people, by contrast, tend to see the world more clearly, more as it is. In one classic study, subjects pressed a button and observed whether it turned on a green light, which was actually controlled by the researchers. Those who had no depressive symptoms consistently overestimated their control over the light; those who had some depressive symptoms realized they had little control…

Depression also has been found to correlate with high degrees of empathy, a greater concern for how others think and feel. In one study, severely depressed patients had much higher scores on the standard measures of empathy than did a control group of college students; the more depressed they were, the higher their empathy scores. This was the case even when patients were not currently depressed but had experienced depression in the past. Depression seems to prepare the mind for a long-term habit of appreciating others’ point of view.

Can praying be an act of murder

In today’s Star Ledger, there was an article about a woman who was charged with her son’s death because instead of giving him antibiotics, felt that prayer alone would heal.  While I find her decision troublesome, I also  question whether there is legal basis to convict someone for murder out of negligence due to religious conviction.  This also goes to show that just because one assumes prayer to be the true mode for healing does not mean one should neglect using the physical discoveries of modern medicine as the conduit to health.

When Kay Burdette’s 17-year-old son became sick with flu-like symptoms, the faithful mother chose the same prescription she has used for years: prayer.

This time, though, her son Jesse did not recover and Burdette was charged with manslaughter. She pleaded guilty to lesser charges and avoided prison, in part because authorities lost a tissue sample that was crucial to proving that her son died of bacterial pneumonia, which is treatable, rather than viral pneumonia, which generally isn’t.

Pale, coughing and weighing only 130 pounds at the end, Jesse died in his mother’s bed the night of March 19, 2008. His mom called a friend from their charismatic, non-denominational church, then her daughter. She never called 911 nor sought medical assistance.

“Because of my religious beliefs I trust in God to forgive my sins and for physical healing,” she told investigators. “We’re not discouraged … from seeking medical help, but I chose to totally trust God for Jesse’s healing. Jesse and I both prayed for his healing.”

Burdette had used prayer as an antidote since Jesse was little. Once, he bumped his head on a hearth and Burdette asked a fellow church member to pray for him. Soon, he was acting like nothing ever happened…

There were other problems, too. An investigator had been deployed to Iraq and couldn’t testify, and a conviction of a devout Christian mother would be difficult to win in the Bible Belt…
“My reason for not giving my son medical treatment was because of his and my conviction of trusting God for healing,” Burdette wrote to the judge. “I loved my son dearly and his loss has brought great pain and grief to my heart.”

Jesse’s father was angry over what happened.

“His death was tragic, but I also hated the fact that his body was cut up …,” David Burdette, Kay Burdette’s ex-husband, wrote to prosecutors. “Now part of the evidence that came from that autopsy has mysteriously vanished. … It is pathetic!”

Problems are not new in the forensic department, which has long battled staffing and budget shortages. In 2004, a forensic pathologist resigned, leaving hundreds of unfinished reports. One of those resulted in a judge refusing to admit an autopsy report in a capital murder case. The defendant ended up being convicted of a lesser charge of murder, which does not carry a death sentence.

Forensics officials did not return emails seeking comment about the Burdette case. Kay Burdette also declined to comment through an attorney.

David Burdette said before Jesse was born, he and his wife visited Sandhill Bible Church, located in the country a few miles from Auburn University. The church seemed fine at first, but he left after about a year because the pastor was too controlling and the members too self-righteous, he said.

The church taught that members should rely solely on prayers, not medicine, for healing, he said, but Kay Burdette and other church members denied that claim to investigators.

David Burdette described himself as a Christian and said he has no doubt that God miraculously heals people.

“I’ve seen it happen. But God also uses the medical community for healing,” he said.

David Burdette grew distant from his family, divorcing his wife in 2000. He learned of Jesse’s death only after Kay Burdette’s mother called his mother with the news. He went to the funeral home and saw his son in the casket.

“It was the first time I’d seen him since 1994,” he said…