Don’t miss this column by Ross Douthat on the critique of the church emphasizing culture wars over concern for the poor. It’s a corrective to liberal bias, but also a fundamental challenge to the church. I think he’s hitting something very important.
For the last six weeks I have been writing fiction Monday through Friday. It’s what I’ve wanted most to do since I was in the third grade. I love fiction, and I believe in the power of fiction. In my mostly-journalistic career I’ve managed to carve out time to write five novels; this will be my sixth. None of my novels has been anything like commercially successful, but what does that have to do with anything? I have the freedom to write fiction, and that’s what I’m doing.
I have to report, though, that fiction is much harder to write than non-fiction. I’ve written enough fiction that the techniques are not a mystery. I’m not floundering as I sometimes did in earlier novels. It’s just hard—hard every minute and every day. The reason can be expressed very simply: you have to make things up. You start with nothing. Every day you begin with a blank screen, and you try your best to breathe life into words so that people—real, three-dimensional people—walk and talk through your pages. So that real things of consequence go on. So that relationships develop and change. So that life is lived on the page.
It’s so much harder than non-fiction I can’t even put them under the same heading of “writing.” I know how to write. I’m a good writer. I am not sure I know how to create out of nothing. I’m trying, but I teeter on the edge hour by hour and often fall off.
All this to say: when you read the first words of Genesis, where it says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” understand that this is a stupendous statement. A novel is a shadow of reality; God created reality. From nothing.
The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate, by John H. Walton.
When I first read N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God the experience was like that described by G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy. Chesterton imagines an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculates his course and discovers England “under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas.” Chesterton claims to envy this yachtsman, for, “What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?”
In reading Wright, I found that I was looking at all the familiar landmarks of the synoptic gospels but seeing them from a very different angle. Nothing was discarded, in the way that liberal readings are apt to do, but all was heightened and clarified. It took me three or four readings before I began to feel comfortable in this new country that was actually so familiar.
I’m having a similar experience reading John Walton’s two books on Genesis 1-3. Walton is a very conservative Christian—he taught for years at Moody Bible Institute before moving to Wheaton College–who takes every word of Scripture as indispensably true, but he reads this seminal text in a way that is entirely new to me.
It’s difficult to get a clear understanding of the whole argument without reading the whole book, which deals with many nuances of Hebrew, with many Ancient Near East texts, and with careful readings of the Pauline writings on Adam and Eve. Let me try, however, to give a few aspects of Walton’s argument that I found helpful, and that may pique your interest in reading more.
Walton starts by saying that we are a very materialistic age, and that we therefore read the text seeking an explanation of the material universe. But in the ancient Middle East, he says, people took the material as a given: they were more interested in power and organization. All origins texts of that period, including Genesis, place the components of the universe in their roles and explain their purposes.
Walton argued in his first book, The Lost World of Genesis One, that Genesis 1 tells how God made the whole universe to be his temple. There is no interest in when and how, but strictly who and for what. All the players are summoned in an orderly fashion to their roles in the temple, including human beings who are made to represent God’s image and in that role to preside over his temple, keeping it and caring for it. Walton says there is nothing in the first chapter suggesting how long this took, or by what physical process it was done, or whether human beings were made in a single pair or by the thousands.
He makes the point that when God pronounces this “very good,” he does not say “perfect.” “Good” in the context means, “well-functioning.” All the pieces are in their places and are in play. There is no reason to assume that there is no death among the creatures: well-functioning creatures do die.
I particularly like one image that Walton uses to describe the nature of the story that Genesis 1-3 tells. He suggests that we differentiate between a “house” story and a “home” story. We have read Genesis 1-3 looking for the “house” story—how the building was constructed. We think it is all about wooden beams and concrete foundations and floor plans and roof joists. Instead, Walton says, we should read it as a “home” story. When a family moves into a house, they bring in their furniture, their decorations, their equipment. They assign rooms to different people and to different functions. Jill’s room and Kevin’s room, the dining room and the den are not defined by their physical characteristics but by the people who inhabit them and the way they use them. People humanize the house and make it their own. It then serves for family life, for hospitality, for renewal, for family rituals—for whatever purposes the family endorses. The “home” story is much more interesting—and much subtler–than the “house” story.
If Genesis 1 is a “home” story, what is Genesis 2? Walton reads it not as a repeat of and detailed account of the sixth day of creation, but as a subsequent series of events. He believes Adam and Eve are real historical creatures, but not necessarily the first homo sapiens. Rather they are chosen by God (like Abraham, later on) to be representative and archetypal human beings to extend God’s rule. They are placed in a garden where they fellowship with God, name the animals, discover the meaning of sexual differences (Walton argues that the description of God making Eve from a rib and presenting her to Adam may be Adam’s revelatory dream of the value and purpose of marriage), and are given two trees—one a tree of life, so they need never die, and one a tree of wisdom, which they are warned not to eat. They seize wisdom, rebelling against God. (Perhaps, in God’s good time, he meant to share it with them. But they wanted it for themselves, immediately.) Their expulsion from the garden means that, just like all the other creatures, they cannot eat from the tree of life. And so they bring death to the whole human race, because we cannot enter the garden that they were evicted from.
This understanding of the fall turns the original sin upside down—not as an introduction of death, but as a rejection of life. That leaves room for an interpretation of our world where God’s good intentions are shown not in a perfect original creation—one without death, suffering, pain, earthquakes, disease, predation—but one that is well made with an end in mind. That end is that image-bearing humans in fellowship with God (through the One Man, the Image of God) might achieve a perfect new earth and heaven.
Even as I write this brief summary I am aware that you can take exception to Walton’s exegesis at many points. It’s hard material to interpret—and it’s not just Walton’s grasp that one might question; any interpretation you care to summon up raises its doubt and questions. Walton doesn’t skip over hard questions. He tries to deal with every word of the text, including New Testament writings that are relevant. (In one chapter on Paul’s view of Adam, N.T. Wright himself adds a brief section.)
I found it stimulating stuff. Perhaps the most significant contribution is to bring Genesis 1-3 into the literary world of its period. When we do that, Walton says, we find that many of the material questions we want to ask are not addressed at all. Instead, a worship-oriented view of the cosmos as God’s home and temple emerges. That clearly connects to the rest of Scripture, as a material history does not.
As for the possibility that science’s evolutionary story of origins is true, Walton simply makes the case that nothing in Genesis 1-3 rules it out. How and when God created the living creatures, including humans—Walton says Genesis does not address those questions. We can believe the science or not, on its own evidence.
My friends Dean and Mindy took us along on their excellent adventure visiting churches all over California. (They are warming up for a 2016 odyssey visiting 50 churches and 50 bars in 50 states.) Since they are doing urban churches right now, we went to an Oakland church (ACTS Full Gospel Church of God in Christ) that just happened to be within walking distance of the Oakland Coliseum. It turned out that the A’s were playing, so after church we attended the game, which the A’s sadly lost in extras. Here’s Dean and Mindy’s blog, in case you are interested in the church. They forgot to write about the game.
I wrote last week about My Promised Land by Ari Shavit, a powerful, emotive history of modern Israel. What struck me most was the recording of Israel’s founding—the evocation of a people on the brink of an abyss, about to be exterminated in eastern countries and assimilated in western countries. The idea of the nation of Israel—Zionism—was anathema to many Jews who saw their salvation in religious identity, not in establishing a state after more than 2,000 years without one. Even if you believed the premise that a Jewish state would transform their situation, was the idea practical? Shavit shows that it was made practical only through a remarkable combination of zealous idealism and ardent pragmatism. He dramatizes real people and real places where extraordinary determination, skill, chutzpah, smarts and risk-taking created a desert miracle, a vital, successful, creative and sometimes joyful country. If a degree of cold cruelty was unavoidably at its heart, Israel was still a remarkable accomplishment.
Shavit mourns this Israeli history—sees it as tragic as well as triumphant—because he thinks the tough and practical unity that built Israel has been splintered, its idealism gone down the drain, its smarts smothered in a senseless macho that is its own enemy. I don’t know much about today’s Israel, so I can’t agree or disagree with Shavit’s analysis. I do know that it struck me as having a parallel in my own country. During much of our history the USA has been highly pragmatic and determined when it faced large national problems. We have been a can-do nation. That has meant facing and solving problems, doing whatever it takes, regardless of our ideological presuppositions and differences. The Depression is a good example. Franklin Roosevelt found traction with approaches that violated many well-established principles of government. The nation—not all the nation, but most of it—threw itself behind what he wanted to do. It’s not clear that people were converted to his ideas about activist government. But they knew they had a problem, and they were willing to put their ideas to one side while they solved it.
I can’t imagine us having the toughness to do that today. We can’t even fix our bridges. Maybe it’s just that we haven’t faced a great enough problem, one that shows us we have no choice but to respond.
Shavit’s description of Jewish desperation also reminded me of a much earlier time: the 1st century AD. Then too Israel faced a double threat: assimilation into prosperous Greco-Roman culture, and annihilation by the military power of Rome. Revolutionaries and terrorists—zealots–led a violent response. Other Jews saw their survival in assiduous law-keeping, which would preserve their identity as a separate people. Jesus offered a different solution. He proposed love for enemies and neighbors alike. He insisted on forgiveness seventy times seven. He and his disciples would enter Gentile homes to bless them. Law-keeping would promote love and sacrifice, not separation. They would heal and cast out demons, but never take up a sword. They would willingly give their lives.
If you see this through the lens of private religion, as Protestants (and a good many Catholics) have been eager to do, it’s not so offensive. A few nice and harmless individuals don’t rock the boat much. But Jesus addressed not a collection of individuals, but the nation of Israel. He came to be King. What he proposed dealt with personal sin, but also Israel’s sin, which according to all the prophets had led to its loss of identity and its subjugation by foreign powers. Jesus proposed his way as the nation’s way—and as the nation’s salvation.
Most of the Jews of that day couldn’t see it. It was too radical, too dependent on miracle. They chose either law-keeping separatism or war-making—much as did Jews in the 20th century. In the first century, the war-making led to national catastrophe. Modern Israel seeks to undo that catastrophe.
I don’t know whether that second attempt will succeed. It’s early: the nation of Israel has been with us less than threescore years and ten. Thinking about it, however, sharpens my awareness of how radical a course Jesus followed and bids me follow. It goes against our most basic instincts to choose the cross. Think of offering that pathway to Israel today. They are not much more likely to accept it than they were the first time.
Two thousand years later, it’s still too soon to say whether Jesus’ movement will succeed. That’s where faith comes in.
Today I had a conversation with a friend about somebody he loves very much. She is struggling with herself and that makes her difficult to live with. He wants—for his own sake as well as hers—for her to snap out of it. He doesn’t understand why she continues to make bad decisions. She knows what she ought to do—why doesn’t she do it?
He is a recovering addict, so he knows addiction very well. Nevertheless I had to spell it out to him: sin is an addiction.
Like addictive substances, it has a short-term appeal. It meets a need. It may even make us temporarily happy. But of course, the long-term is very destructive. As with heroin, so with sin.
Also as with heroin, we may know perfectly well what we ought to do, but the pull of addiction is too strong for us. We are all perpetrators, but we are also all victims.
Christianity Today Magazine has published my lengthy retrospective on Robert Schuller. (He died April 2.) Schuller was an important figure in 20th century American Christianity, with enormous influence. My best line: “He did for church what Disneyland did for amusement parks.” That may sound snarky, but if you think about how Disneyland changed the image of amusement parks (formerly seedy, dirty, morally dubious) you’ll understand that it’s not. For a certain generation, Schuller rehabilitated church, making it a happy, light-filled, positive place. But did that transformation really work? Thinking about Schuller makes you consider seriously whether the Christian faith can be managed through a marketing campaign. He wasn’t the first or the last to try, but he was purer than most–and more skillful than most–in his wholehearted commitment.
Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel is a wonderful and troubling book, a history of modern Israel that uses carefully researched profiles to tell Israel’s story and pose its dilemmas. Shavit is a secular Zionist and a journalist who writes for Haaretz. He begins the story of Israel with his own great grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, an English Zionist who visited Palestine in 1897 to test the possibilities of establishing Jewish colonies. Shavit paints vivid pictures of the early kibbutz movement. He describes in detail the men who fought for Israel’s independence in 1948, and carefully draws out what is known of the development of nuclear weapons in the 1960s. Shavit writes beautifully, and his deep love for and pride in his country suffuses the book. He made me feel the severe beauty and energy of modern Israel.
He also looks unblinkingly at Israel’s cruelty. As he sees it, Israel was a necessary and astonishing innovation intended to solve the problem of the Jews of Europe—under deadly persecution in the east (which would lead to the Holocaust) and at risk of complete assimilation in the west. If the Jews as a people were to survive, they needed a place of their own. He makes a strong case that Israel was necessary, and he clearly believes that it is necessary today. But with equal insistence he describes the fatal flaw in the vision: Palestine was already the home of somebody else. The early Zionists (including his great grandfather) chose not to see Palestinians; the later Zionists saw them and recognized that they could not coexist. Some of the most harrowing passages in My Promised Land describe the actions and thoughts of men whom Shavit clearly admires as they steeled themselves to cruelty and murder, forcing Palestinian Arabs out of their ancestral villages and towns.
Given what his ancestors did, Shavit sees no possibility of peace. He does not blame Palestinians for hating Israel, and he does not blame Israelis for defending their land at all costs. He believes that Israel’s current occupation of Palestinian territory is a policy disaster, as well as a humanitarian outrage, but he understands that it is rooted in well-grounded fear. “On the one hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is occupying another people. On the other hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is existentially threatened. Both occupation and intimidation make the Israeli condition unique. Intimidation and occupation have become the two pillars of our condition.” Try as he may, he cannot see a good future in this combination. He has only an amorphous hope that somehow the genius of Israelis will find a way, again, to preserve their country. Otherwise Israel’s triumph can only lead to tragedy for Jews as well as for Palestinians.
Shavit is a passionate man with strong ideas, and he writes with verve. Some of course disagree, and he allows them, including Palestinians and religious Jews, to have their word, which he treats with respect. He is impressively fair-minded, a journalist who asks probing questions and listens to the answers. All the same it is his passionate conviction—his fear, his pride, his hope, his shame—that makes him a wonderful dialogue partner in trying to understand the past, present and future of Israel. I learned a lot from reading this book, and it sparked many thoughts about the meaning of life and history far removed from the triumph and tragedy of modern Israel. More on that in future posts.
Let’s not argue about whether 98% of climate scientists are correct in predicting global warming. Assume for the moment that they are right and that at least some of their catastrophic predictions will come true. What will be the result?
I don’t mean economically or ecologically. There will be hard facts—sea levels, temperatures, storms—that will play out, and we human beings will make our responses. We will build sea walls, move away from the coast, migrate from hot areas, change our crop rotation, and so on. We will do our best to cope with change, often in surprising and unpredictable ways. Who knows just how successful we will be?
As I imagine it, however, one change will be almost certain. There will necessarily be a change toward revering science. If and when those predictions come true, scientists will gain a lot of credit. They predicted it, and we ignored it.
These days, appreciation of science is mixed up with a great deal of skepticism and even hostility, from people on all sides of the political spectrum. Lefties tend to despise GMO foods, anything with man-made chemicals, and sometimes vaccines. Righties fight to deny evolution and global warming. All sides include people who believe instinctively that alternative medicine (diets, supplements, naturopathic medicines) is better and safer than what scientific medicine recommends.
Most of these are small-scale issues, and the consequences of getting them right or wrong is hard to measure. With global warming, though, something really huge is at stake. We are making a global gamble that science is wrong. We’re letting skepticism about science have the decisive word. It will take some time to see how that gamble works out, but my guess is that our grandchildren will ask us, “How could you sit by and make no serious attempt to arrest climate change? Didn’t you listen to what the scientists said?”
Our grandchildren will grow up believing in science much more than we do. They will be a lot less tolerant of the science skepticism that animates so many people today.
There’s always this reversal after a national failure. The failure to address the Depression led to the New Deal and the government-enmeshed economy. The failure to face Hitler early led to the lasting popularity of the military-industrial complex after WWII. And the failure to address climate change will lead, I expect, to an era where science rules.
Whether that is a good thing is another matter.
I wish every doctor in the world would read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, because it speaks so eloquently—and practically, as well—to a fundamental change in the way we live. It’s a change we owe partly to modern medicine: we not only live longer but we die slowly. It used to be, Gawande says, that the majority of deaths came without much warning—heart attacks, sudden infections, strokes, or even the sudden onslaught of cancer for which medicine had no healing response. (TB was the one great exception.) Now our mortality tends to a long, slow decline.
Medicine tries to beat back this trend, fighting for life, but not paying much attention to what will make our lives worthwhile day by day. Because medicine is so dedicated to resisting death, it does a terrible job acknowledging its inevitability; and because it focuses more on disease than on the human beings who are diseased, it is quite capable of making our lives worse. Caught up in the dramatic imperatives of the medical system, people get lost and end up with miserable existences.
Gawande, a Harvard surgeon who writes for The New Yorker, tells the stories of many patients, including his own father, who had to negotiate this journey without much help from their doctors and sometimes with the doctors’ actual interference. He also introduces us to medical professionals who have thought long and hard about these matters, and gives us hope that a long, slow, miserable death is far from inevitable. Something can be done to make it better.
Gawande is attracted to the holes in medicine—not to modern miracle stories of bizarre diseases and heroic science, but to medicine’s blind spots and failings. He has written extraordinarily well about why medicine costs so much, and about why there are so many medical errors (and what can be done about it). But in writing about mortality, he has landed on a subject with deeper, more fundamental implications.
“The problem with medicine and the institutions it has spawned for the care of the sick and the old is not that they have had an incorrect view of what makes life significant. The problem is that they have had almost no view at all. Medicine’s focus is narrow. Medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul. Yet—and this is the painful paradox—we have decided that they should be the ones who largely define how we live in our waning days. For more than half a century now, we have treated the trials of sickness, aging and mortality as medical concerns. It’s been an experiment in social engineering, putting our fates in the hands of people valued more for their technical prowess than for their understanding of human needs.”
This social experiment has many sides, but perhaps the most pernicious is the loss of autonomy by the aging. Gawande quotes a colleague: “’We want autonomy for ourselves and safety for those we love.’ That remains the main problem and paradox for the frail. ‘Many of the things that we want for those we care about are things that we would adamantly oppose for ourselves because they would infringe upon our sense of self.’”
Gawande explores the institutions we have designed for the elderly and the chronically ill—nursing homes and assisted living facilities—and helps us see how, by eliminating autonomy in the name of safety and care, they often create an inhuman environment. He describes in detail how 911 and ICUs and heroic cancer-fighting tools may actually shorten life as well as make its end horrible and inhuman. But he does much more than identify the disease, he probes for a cure.
It is hard to imagine that Gawande is really a surgeon, given that he is so willing to admit his own failings as a doctor, his own ignorance of how to treat his desperately ill patients.
The result is a very moving book, one that often brought tears to my eyes. It also made me think long and hard about my own life and the lives of others, about the kinds of questions and responses I myself make to friends who are seriously ill or dying.