literature, personal

The Beginning

As I intimated at the end of my 10 Books post, I do have some thoughts to share about Chaim Potok’s novel In the Beginning.  It started off slower than his other novels, but I ended up loving it just as much as I have the others.  Perhaps one of the reasons it took me longer to get into the book is that I find I read books in smaller and smaller chunks at a time.  I rarely have the luxury to sit down and become fully absorbed in a book and read 100 pages at a time as I did in earlier days.  Now I have to prioritize more which books I even pick up.  I find that I set down a book much quicker than I used to.  I used to try to finish nearly everything I started.  These days, not so much.

In the Beginning is the story of David Lurie, a boy born in the Bronx to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.  David is a bookish and sickly little boy.  He has problems with a local bully who hates him because he is Jewish.  Because of its historical setting—it starts in the late 1920s before the stock market crash—I knew some of what to expect.  It was a Depression-era story, followed by World War II.  I knew about some of the American anti-Semitism of the time because of Philip Roth’s alternate history novel The Plot Against America.  But I still cried when the narrator and his family find out the full extent of the Nazi atrocities against Jews.

Like the other Potok novels I’ve read, it’s a book about fathers and sons, and the inevitability of conflict.  They’re all told from the perspective of the sons.  In this novel, the conflict stems from expectations, as it often will.  Before coming to America, David’s mother had been married briefly before to his father’s brother.  They had no children before he was killed in a pogrom—an organized anti-Jewish riot, often a massacre.  His father then stepped in and married his brother’s widow according to the ancient tradition of levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25: 5-10), though he could have easily gotten out of it.  He is a man of honor and his word.

David looks up to his father, but he doesn’t understand him.  He thinks about his dead uncle whom he is named after, and how he wouldn’t exist if his uncle hadn’t been killed.  He considers the contingency of his being.  Out of death comes life.  I’ve considered my own contingency lately.  Like many kids, when I was little I had a security blanket.  Mine was handmade by my Grandma.  It was red, white, and blue with the number 76 on it for America’s bicentennial.  The thing is, I was born in 1977.  The blanket had been intended for someone else—someone whose existence would’ve precluded my own.  But that baby didn’t survive a full nine months gestation, and so I had a chance at life.  It’s terrible to think my parents had to suffer such grief for me to enter the world.

When David considers his contingency on the death of his uncle David, he still “wants to be [his] own David” (311).  And I need to be my own person, too.  I’m still figuring it out.  In my own family, I’m a bit of an outlier.  I still have the faith that I was taught as a child, but it’s changed.  I no longer attend an evangelical church, instead finding solace in Episcopal services.  On political issues I’m often on the opposite side of the spectrum.  And while both my wife and I came from homes where our moms stayed home, now I’m the one home with the kids.  It’s traditional, except not in the expected way.  Fortunately, none of these differences has lead to any breaks with my family.  We still love each other very much.

As he grows older, David asks the hard questions about Judaism.  He becomes interested in source criticism.  He wishes to defend Torah from attack, but first he must learn what the goyim say.  He starts by reading books given to him by an old neighbor.  He finds books that are critical of the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis.  Basically, this hypothesis posits that there are various sources that have been edited together to make up the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Bible traditionally ascribed to Moses.  Reading these books, even though they defend Torah, is frowned upon by his family and community.  They are dangerous to contemplate and read.  His father will not allow him to read books written by Germans while he is in the same room, even though they are written by important Orthodox rabbis.  No one in the community wants to consider what modern scholarship might say if it could destroy Torah.

I relate to David’s predicament.  When I was in Bible college I had a confrontation with a Bible professor about the inherent worth of studying secular literature.  At the time, I was an English major, and all I wanted to do was figure out how a Christian should relate to and read literature.  In my own way, I wanted to be a David and defend Christianity and the Bible from the evils of deconstructionism and other literary critical theories.  But my professor saw the reading of secular literature as a sullying influence, one that could easily lead one into sin.  Reading salacious stories could inflame lust in the mind, which was just as bad as committing sin with the body.

David’s curiosity for books and knowledge is insatiable.  One of my favorite moments in the book is when David finishes reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  He’s at a cabin on a lake with his family for an August holiday.  He spends a moment reflecting on how great the book is and how his understanding has changed because of it.  Then he goes back into the cabin to find another book to read.  I’m not nearly as prodigious in my reading or intellect as David, but I still relate to his curiosity.  I want to learn about so many things.  This blog is the testament to my curiosity, the place where I lay out what I am learning and starting to think.

In the end is his beginning.  David pursues his studies of the Bible as literature to the tremendous disappointment of his parents.  I’m about to embark on my own intellectual journey on a smaller scale.  Though practically having majored in Bible while at Bible college, I’ve never seriously grappled with any modern scholarship.  I’d like to know what scholars have to say about where the Bible came from and who the original audience for it was.  It’s important to my faith that I seek the truth about the book that is the vehicle for my knowledge of God.  I’m planning on reading through James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now, in which he attempts to thread the needle between ancient interpreters and modern biblical scholars.  In his designation, the ancient interpreters are the basis for today’s traditional understandings of the Bible, while modern biblical scholars arose about 150 years ago and are those who read the Bible “‘scientifically’ and without presuppositions” (xiii).  I assume he means the presupposition of belief in its literal truth and divine origin, which in itself would be a presupposition.  I’ll have to read more to find out exactly what he means (chapter One is helpfully titled “The Rise of Modern Biblical Scholarship”).  I say that he is threading the needle because he claims traditional faith, even as he wrestles with scholarship that “contradict[s] the accepted teachings of Judaism and Christianity” (xvi).  Kugel, by his own account, is a modern David Lurie.  I’d like to find out what he has learned in his journey.  I’ll report back on my own journey.


The Scopes trial and me, part 1

Summer for the Gods by Edward J. Larson is a history of the Scopes trial of 1925. This trial pitted populist former politician William Jennings Bryan against famed defense attorney and atheist Clarence Darrow in a battle over the teaching of evolution.  The Scopes trial was one of the early so-called “Trials of the Century” (there have been a lot of them besides O.J.).  The trial resulted because the state of Tennessee was the first to pass a law banning the teaching of evolution in public schools.  The ACLU wanted to challenge this law, so they found someone – Scopes—who had taught evolution (sort of, anyway – he was a substitute teacher, not a biology teacher) and was willing to go along with the suit. The drive for anti-evolution laws was led by William Jennings Bryan, who helped make it a crusade for the growing Christian Fundamentalist movement.

First, a word about fundamentalism.  It’s vital to understand fundamentalism to understand the creation-evolution debate and the Scopes trial in particular.  It’s also my background, so I want to understand where I come from.  In American Protestantism, it started as a reaction to modernism, especially as embodied in higher criticism.  In the early years of the 1900s a wide range of theologians wrote a series of pamphlets called The Fundamentals, which is where the name came from.  These pamphlets stressed the vital points of Christian belief, acting as a conserving force opposed to the drifting away they saw in modernism.  They affirmed five “fundamental” beliefs:

  • inerrancy of the Bible (because it was inspired by the Holy Spirit)
  • Christ’s virgin birth
  • Christ’s death on the cross atoned for sin
  • Christ’s bodily resurrection
  • Christ’s miracles are historical fact

Incidentally, two of the contributors to the pamphlets, B.B. Warfield and James Orr, espoused or were open to evolutionary ideas in biology (Larson 20).

The higher criticism that the Fundamentalists opposed is a type of literary criticism consisting of source, form, and redaction criticism, among others.  It’s often referred to as the “historical-critical” method.  Criticism in this sense is not negative, but merely the application of critical analysis to the text, with the goal of understanding the meaning of the text in the original context.  This sounds good, but an example would be an analysis of vocabulary and style to determine if a text has been woven together from more than one source.  This is essentially the documentary hypothesis Wellhausen proposed for the Pentateuch, that the first five books of the Torah were not composed by a single author but stitched together from other sources.  Fundamentalists had a problem with this denial of Moses’ authorship naturally, and all that stemmed from it.  It tended to lead to the denial of the miraculous events recorded and to accepting errors in the text.  Practitioners of higher criticism tended to have naturalistic presuppositions (i.e. disbelieving the supernatural out of hand, opting for a rational explanation instead). The feud between Fundamentalists and modernists split more than one denomination apart in America.  In fact, the two categories of churches, mainline and evangelical, go back to these disagreements.

I grew up in an evangelical church but now I attend a mainline Episcopal church.  I’ve crossed over, though I can’t say that I’ve completely left everything fundamentalist behind.  Looking at the list of “fundamentals” above, I can still positively affirm the four about Christ.  In fact, I don’t know how I could give up those beliefs.  They feel intrinsic to the idea of who Christ is, and without Christ there is no Christianity.  The first fundamental, about Biblical inerrancy, I have questions about.  I’m not sure that “error” and “fact” are meaningful categories to apply to the Bible, given the genres of the original books and their context (for a fuller discussion on this, see these two posts by Josh Way). [I plan to talk more about how I’ve “strayed” from fundamentalism in future entries.]

It seems that in some ways the higher criticism has won out, even in academic fundamentalist circles.  When I was an undergraduate at  a fundamentalist Bible college, I was taught to practice a version of the historical-critical method, just with different presuppositions.  We were trying to understand the original meaning of the text to the original audience in historical context, but we believed that it was all true.  In fact, we believed that there was no error in the original text because it had been inspired by the Holy Spirit.  We added to the method by also trying to ascertain what the text means for us today.  Or, how can we apply the lessons of the Bible to our own lives and situations?  I still think this is the way to approach the Biblical text, and it is hard for me to change my presuppositions as well.  I still believe it is true.  But as I change some external beliefs, such as my stance on evolution, it changes how I interpret the truth of the Bible.  Where once I understood the words of Genesis as literal truth, now I read the first chapters and consider their genre and the poetic structure to understand the truth they are trying to convey.

These personal observations on my experience touch on some deep issues that I’ll be returning to, probably many times, in the future.  I’m still figuring myself out (and myself is still changing).  Any readers who want to share their experiences and observations are more than welcome to in the comments. I’d be interested in hearing about them. Now, back to the history lesson.

Fundamentalists such as William Jennings Bryan had many reasons, both moral and theological, to object to evolution.  Bryan focused on the moral objections.  It was what evolution implied that made it unacceptable, “a survival-of-the-fittest mentality that justified laissez-faire capitalism, imperialism, and militarism” (Larson 27).  Bryan was a populist politician who fought against these excesses in his career.  He stood up for the weak against the strong (e.g. his famous “Cross of Gold” speech was a defense of Midwestern farmers and their economic situation).  Evolution was also used as support for eugenics, which was a popular idea in the 1920s, leading to sterilization laws in many states for the mentally challenged, epileptics, and habitual criminals.  These moral objections against social Darwinism are forceful, but to direct them at evolution is a mistake of categories.  Natural selection, the mechanism of evolution, is not moral or immoral.  It simply postulates that within the variety of a population, traits that enhance reproductive success in an environment will be passed on more often.  Its cousin, artificial selection, or selective breeding, is the bogeyman of these moral objections.  Most people do not object to breeding dogs for certain traits, but it becomes macabre when humans are the subject of breeding programs.

The theological objections to evolution relate to humanity’s relation to God.  In Genesis 1 and 2, humans are created separately from the rest of the animals “in the image of God.”  Whatever this “image” might mean, it appears to be something humanity has that the rest of the animals don’t.  So if the Bible has no errors, then humans cannot be related to other animals.  Some people then and now have a hard time accepting the idea that chimpanzees are their relatives.  Perhaps even more troublesome than the “image” problem is the doubt that evolution puts on a historical Adam and Eve.  Again, if the Bible is infallible, then Adam and Eve were real people created by God from dust and a rib, respectively.  They didn’t come from earlier hominids.

Okay, enough of the background for now.

Summer for the Gods is a fascinating book that tells the story of the trial from all sides.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1998 and got positive reviews from Mark Noll (history professor, formerly at Wheaton, currently at Notre Dame) and Philip Johnson (lawyer and author of Darwin on Trial), among many others.  I highly recommend it if you’re interested in American history, religion, or science.

Stay tuned for part two where I talk about my personal intellectual journey with the idea of evolution…