Archive | July, 2009

Science, religion and the NIH

25 Jul
Francis Collins: MD, PhD, Christian, guitar player, NIH director designate

Francis Collins: MD, PhD, Christian, guitar player, NIH director designate

It should come as no surprise that applause mostly greeted President Obama’s nomination of Dr. Francis Collins as the new director of the National Institutes of Health last week.

Collins, almost certain to be confirmed in the post, cemented his reputation as a first-rate scientist when he led the NIH-based effort to map the human genetic code, an achievement that’s been compared to the Apollo space program. Collins’ lab also found the genetic keys for several diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s, providing essential breakthroughs to develop cures.

He also happens to be a Christian – famously so as the author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, a 2006 bestseller in which he described his conversion from atheism as a graduate student and his belief in a “wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith.”

Language book cover“I am a scientist and a believer, and I find no conflict between those world views,” he summarized for a commentary on CNN.com. “As a believer, I see DNA, the information molecule of all living things, as God’s language, and the elegance and complexity of our own bodies and the rest of nature as a reflection of God’s plan.”

Some scientists have a problem with that kind of thinking. “You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs,” wrote Peter Atkins, a high-profile chemist at Oxford University. “But I don’t think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because they (religion and science) are such alien categories of knowledge.”

Dr. Gene Rudd, executive vice president of the Bristol-based Christian Medical and Dental Associations, thinks such views are “biased” and “shameful.”

“A generation or so ago, a scientist’s faith would have been an asset,” he said. “Historically, science has prospered in cultures that understood there was a god who created an order of things, and people tried to understand that order. You will find some anti-science thinking among a minority of people in the Christian faith, but science historically flourished among Christianity and Islam.”

Time, 1996

Time, 2006

On the other hand, not all Christians are thrilled with Collins. His views on hot-button science issues – evolution, abortion, stem-cell research – run counter to typical conservative Christian positions. For example, he accepts Darwinian evolution as fact, and while he opposes abortion in most cases, he doesn’t explicitly rule it out.

Also, while he opposes producing embryos for research, he believes it is morally defensible to use embryos that had been created for fertilization but would otherwise remain unused.

“In the process of in vitro fertilization, you almost invariably end up with more embryos than you can reimplant safely,” he explained in a 2006 interview with Salon. “Is it more ethical to leave them in those freezers forever or throw them away? Or is it more ethical to come up with some sort of use for those embryos that could help people?”

Rudd realizes that Collins’ positions will “irritate” many Christians, and his organization “will have discussions” with Collins about embryonic stem-cell research. Still, he sounded optimistic about Collins.

“He is routinely accepted as an exceptional scientist, and he’s proven to be an exceptional administrator, which can be a rare combination,” Rudd said.

Dr. William Duncan, vice provost of research at East Tennessee State University, agrees with that assessment. Collins, he said, is a “world-class scientist,” and his faith is a non-issue for Duncan.

“Religious beliefs are very private, personal decisions for all individuals,” said Duncan, an immunologist who worked at the NIH from 1987 to 2004. “I’ve known many scientists who were religious, and religion never prevented any of them from pursuing their research. Each scientist needs to balance their religious beliefs and moral values with their career objectives and daily choices.”

The stakes are high: The NIH, the world’s most significant source of research money, will distribute about $37 billion in research grants over the next 14 months. The priority is to gain good data, according to Duncan, and he thinks the institutes’ review and decision-making process is “very transparent.”

“The NIH and the funding agencies in this country are primarily based on not on what your belief is but what is your proposal, the data, your plans,” Duncan said. “Scientists pursue knowledge, and the best science is done in an unbiased fashion. It’s really evidence-based data that drives the good science.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 25 July 2009.

Christian retailing: Buyer beware

20 Jul

Xn retailThousands of Christians gathered out West this week, making decisions that could affect millions of believers, with the potential both to strengthen their faith and to ruin it.

I’m not talking about the triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church, which met in Anaheim, Calif.

Instead I’m referring to the International Christian Retail Show, which drew thousands of religious retailers to Denver for a kind of commercial pilgrimage. The convention is “the largest annual gathering in the world of anyone and everyone involved in the creation and distribution of Christian products,” according to CBA, the world’s foremost trade association for Christian stores and the event organizer.

Every year retailers roam among displays of more than 235 publishers, music producers, church-supply distributors, jewelry designers, clothing manufacturers and game makers, looking for new merchandise to feed their customers’ faith. Last year’s convention in Orlando, Fla., attracted almost 7,500 people, representing more than 1,700 stores, from small, independent shops to large chains owned by denominations or multinational corporations.

shoes_focusedslipon_200

These shoes are made for walkin' with Jesus: A "witness wear" sample

Christian retail is big business. Sales of Christian products by CBA suppliers totaled $4.63 billion in 2006, and one-third of all Americans made at least one purchase in a Christian bookstore during 2005, according to a Baylor University survey.

But I have never met anyone who works in a Christian store mainly for the money. People who work at local stores say they want to help customers find a book, a CD or something that might provide fresh insight or offer personal help. They use words like “ministry” and talk about “making a difference.” Years ago an independent store owner told me his business was “just another wrench in God’s toolbox.”

Like any human endeavor that holds heavenly ambitions, however, Christian retailing comes with its own special, sometimes subtle dangers, besides the temptations that usually follow the money. Selling a Bible is not like selling a novel, much less a hot dog. Advertising slogans become theological statements, for better or worse.

Jim Street, pastor of North River Church, a small congregation in the Atlanta suburbs, and a former psychology professor at Milligan College, is sensitive to the issue of marketing among Christians. A dozen years ago, he and Milligan theology professor Phil Kenneson co-wrote a book with the self-explanatory title of Selling Out the Church: The Dangers of Church Marketing. Their target was not marketing per se but the problems that come when the church, the mystical body of Christ, is treated like a commodity.

This isn’t an abstract concern to Street. More than 100 other congregations are located within five miles of his church building, he told me in a phone conversation this week, and he’s watched several families depart for churches that offer more goods and services.

“The issue … is not our commitment to one another and to Christ, but ‘what are my needs and desires and which of these buildings can I go to have them met?’” he explained. “I understand the pressures. As the economy gets worse, the temptation to marketing will increase.”

He thinks selling religious merchandise to Christians carries similar risks.

“The fundamental problem with marketing the church and the business surrounding the church is the elevation of the consumer,” he said. “Selling Christian products puts the consumer at the center of attention. We try to understand him and then shape products to meet his needs. There has to be some amount of consumption to be production, but we’ve elevated the consumer to be a kind of idol in and of himself. The consumer is very much in the driver’s seat.”

That may not be a problem when selling cars, but it can be if someone is trying to walk with God. It’s always been easy enough to let social trends, politics, economics, or just the passing “vanity fair” distort Christian messages (and not just Christian ones). Add the power of modern retail marketing and we can end up with merchandise that creates a house of mirrors more than a window into heaven.

“The story of God is about God, and the Bible is about the works of God,” Street said. “We’re participants in the story of God. But marketing looks at consumers and says we have to shape this to fit what we think they need. Marketing wants to make the consumer into a god. That turns the whole biblical narrative on its head.”

Let the buyer beware. Amen.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 18 July 2009.

The 1,600-year-old online Bible

11 Jul
  1. from I Maccabees 6, Codex Sinaiticus. Note the faint erasure mark.
  2. from I Maccabees 6, Codex Sinaiticus. Note the erasure on the third line. 

Robert Hull, professor of New Testament at Emmanuel School of Religion, has spent much of his three-decade academic career studying ancient biblical texts, how they were first written down and how they changed from copy to copy. What was added? What was deleted? Maybe most important: why?

Such work, formally known as text criticism, might seem like an obscure exercise in eggheadism, but the findings trickle down to the Bibles people read and even to what they believe.

“Studying the early texts presumably gives us a better idea of what the original text said,” Hull said as we sat in the Emmanuel library this week, looking at facsimiles of ancient Bibles. “It also gives us an insight into the early church’s handling and thinking about the texts.”

Scholars like Hull, whose doctoral work at Princeton specialized in text criticism, were given a new tool this week when a Web site was launched that presents the entire text of one of the most important ancient Bibles.

The Codex Sinaiticus – literally “the book of Sinai” – dates from about the year 350 and contains the earliest complete copy of the New Testament as well as most of the Old Testament. About 800 pages of the original 1,400 pages remain, all handwritten in Greek.

The book got its name from its earliest home, the Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine’s, at the base of Mount Sinai in Egypt. The manuscript came to the world’s attention 150 years ago when a Russian scholar named Constantine Tischendorf obtained pages from the monastery and had them published. While some pages remained in the monastery, most eventually landed at institutions in Russia, Germany and England.

So until now, scholars wanting to study the text had to undertake long and difficult travels, perhaps to all four locations and with no way to directly compare passages housed in different countries.

But in 2005, the four institutions agreed to put the entire text online, digitally reuniting the book. That project was unveiled last week (www.codex-sinaiticus.net/en/).

A Codex Sinaiticus manuscript displayed at the British Library in 2007.

A Codex Sinaiticus manuscript displayed at the British Library in 2007.

The site not only includes detailed photos of the pages, but transcriptions of the text, translations into four languages, including English, a search engine, and even different types of lighting, which allows viewers see page textures, faint notations or flaws – all hints about the history of the text.

The site is a boon to scholars, letting them see details they may have missed before, if they ever had a chance to see them at all.

“Remember that until now, when someone looked at a lot of these pages, they were limited to using natural light or candles,” Hull said. “With digitizing (Sinaiticus) on the Web, paleographers (scholars of ancient texts) possibly can confirm a reading that was dubious or challenge something we thought was established. It will give us a clue about the history of the passage.”

No absolutely original texts of the Bible, or autographs, are known to exist, only copies of copies, and just a few of them the size and scope of Sinaiticus. Many fragments are the size of a postage stamp.

While some pieces date from close to the originals, with each copy scribes could mistakenly introduce an error, or someone might add comments that worked their way into the text.

Scholars estimate that the Greek New Testament as we now have it contains about 300,000 variations. About 90 percent of them are trivial, Hull said, such as misspelled names or grammatical errors.

But that still leaves thousands of more substantial differences. Variant readings in the story of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, for instance, can affect the theological overtones of the Christian communion service. Does it matter that the earliest copies of Revelation say the number of the mysterious beast is 616, not 666?

Is the Christian message compromised because the earliest texts of the Gospel of Mark, including Sinaiticus, end with the women who visit Jesus’ empty tomb “afraid”? (Scholars are convinced the familiar final dozen verses were added later, perhaps to harmonize with the later books of Matthew and Luke.)

Not at all, according to Hull.

“No single variation by itself would overturn Christian doctrine,” Hull said. “The Gospel of Mark still has Jesus raised from the dead.”

But studying the ancient texts – a task made immensely easier with the online Sinaiticus – can help clarify Christian history and thought, and perhaps even help believers better understand what is essential to their faith.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 11 July 2009.

Worth a look: Stanley Fish on Palin and Sanford

7 Jul

Go ahead and insert the perfunctory “I don’t always agree with …” disclaimer, because it’s true with Stanley Fish, who regularly writes/blogs (wrogs? blites?) for the New York Times. But I find myself nodding agreeably fairly often. And today he’s posted a thoughtful piece about why Sarah Palin and Mark Sanford said what they said: Maybe they were being genuine.

What Fish is actually writing about is — to use Palin’s words — the “‘superficial political blood–sport’ politics has become,” and particularly the pundits who join in the game by speculating about every explanation except the ones offered by Palin and Sanford.

Like Fish, I didn’t vote for Palin in November. I don’t know enough about Sanford’s politics to know how I’d feel about him if I lived in South Carolina. But maybe it’s true that they’re human beings first and politicians second. You just never know.

Take a moment to read Fish’s piece.

George and Martha and Adam and Eve … and other problems with a patriotic Bible

4 Jul

adam_and_eve_2george-and-martha-washington_small

Thanks to a marketing video that compares George and Martha Washington to Adam and Eve, I’m trying not to think about the nation’s first First Lady walking around a garden without her petticoats.

But what really sets my teeth on edge is how the advertisement equates Jesus and his disciples with the Continental Congress as “founding fathers,” with its closing line: “Sometimes history does repeat itself.”

The ad is for the American Patriot’s Bible, released last month by Thomas Nelson, with Atlanta megachurch pastor Richard G. Lee serving as general editor. Nelson won’t disclose sales figures, but it is already preparing for a second printing of the hefty, colorful book.

AmericanPatriots_Bible8
“You will find a great volume of both information and inspiration revealing the ‘strong cord’ of the Bible’s influence that runs through the colorful fabric of our nation’s past and present,” Lee wrote in the introduction. “Joining with the sacred text are stories of American heroes, quotations from many of America’s greatest thinkers, and beautiful illustrations that present the rich heritage and tremendous future of our nation. If you love America and the Scriptures, you will treasure this Bible.”

Maybe so, but I mostly just felt annoyed. It’s not the emphasis on the role of religion in the American story, particularly a certain strain of Christianity. That’s old news.

It’s true, after all, that the majority of revolutionary leaders were Christians of some kind and many were motivated by their religious convictions, often arguing from the Bible against tyranny. There’s no question that the nation’s founders, not to mention later leaders, were shaped by their beliefs, which of course influenced their ideas and actions.

Even unorthodox deists like John Adams, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson (who literally cut the miracles out of his Bible) used religious rhetoric and biblical imagery.

But then there’s the matter of what is often called civil religion, a kind of ecumenical devotion to the ideal of the United States. The nation itself becomes the object of veneration and Uncle Sam is dressed in priestly garments.

It’s a common impulse. People throughout history have considered their kingdoms on earth to be special outposts of heaven: Italy, Poland, Spain, England, France, Japan – the list goes on.

Many Americans can keep their belief in their country distinct from their religious faith. We can love the U.S., they say, and we can love God and remember the two are different.

But others forget the distinction, entwining American ideals so tightly with a Christian identity that they become confused, usually with bad results. That is the trap where the American Patriot’s Bible falls.

John Quincy Adams thought Christmas and American Independence were "indissolubly linked."

John Quincy Adams thought Christmas and American Independence were "indissolubly linked."

A full-page sidebar uses a story from Abraham’s life to illustrate … the right to bear arms? That seems like a stretch. John Quincy Adams is quoted saying that “in the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Savior” – and that notion isn’t challenged?

Then there’s the irritating historical revisionism that comes from leaving out uncomfortable details. Adams, Jefferson and Paine are all favorably quoted, for instance, but the details of their beliefs – or lack of beliefs – are glossed over. It would be easy to make the mistake of thinking they were Christians.

Likewise, the book frequently presents wartime sacrifice as supreme examples of Christlikeness, but ignores the significant tradition of Christian pacifism.

Then there is the two-page essay that rightly discusses how Christians led in the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements, but does not explain how other Christians opposed those rights, quoting Scripture to justify sexism, segregation and slavery.

"Declaration of Independence," by John Trumbull, 1817

"Declaration of Independence," by John Trumbull, 1817

Such myopia isn’t only annoying. It’s unnecessary. Honest historians know that biblical ideas (along with Greek philosophy, rationalism and other worldviews circulating in the 18th century) helped the founders craft the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It’s no secret that men and women of faith are among this nation’s chief architects.

We can admire leaders like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln without confusing them with Adam, Moses or Jesus (much less imagining Martha Washington as a new Eve). I can believe the U.S. fills a distinct role in the world without casting it as God’s singular chosen nation.

And today I can certainly celebrate what the nation’s founders did without believing their sacrifices repeated the history of Christ’s sacrifice. Believing that wouldn’t make me a patriot. It might only make me a heretic.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 4 July 2009.

%d bloggers like this: