book reviews, faith, medicine, personal, science

Book Reviews, February 2015

My second installment of mini book reviews as I endeavor to read more carefully and share recommendations for other readers.

  • Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande is a phenomenal book of medical stories and explorations of the human experience at a most vulnerable time.  The book’s greatest strength is its stories.  As a surgical resident, Gawande has the goods when it comes to interesting cases, and he’s a great teller of those stories.  But it’s not merely stories.  He explores important and compelling ideas like the necessity of doctors practicing on patients and the tangled decision-making in difficult cases.  He owns up to the fact that doctors, even the very best ones, make mistakes.  It’s unavoidable as long as humans are involved.  There are three reasons that medicine is an “imperfect science”: ignorance, ineptitude, and fallibility.  Gawande details advances in surgery (such as gastric bypass) and technology that show how the field is improving in the area of ignorance.  There are some protocols in place to deal with inept doctors, but all too often bad doctors keep practicing until they do lots of harm, and he talks about these current limitations and how to improve.  Lastly, he explores how fallibility is inevitable.  There may be decisions that are never clear because the factors involved are too complex.  Each patient and circumstance is unique.  Almost as a bonus, he also spends time explaining interesting and perplexing phenomena such as pain, nausea, and blushing.  The book was a Finalist for the National Book Award.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone.
  • Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans is a memoir I could relate to.  Though she wrote it while still in her late 20s, she felt compelled to chronicle and share her crisis of faith that led her to doubt much of what she used to believe.  Evolution is the guiding theme of the stories she relates, both because of her changing faith and because she lives in Dayton, TN, home of the infamous Scopes trial (which I’ve written about once or twice, okay at least three times or more).  She even attended Bryan College, named after William Jennings Bryan, the defender of creationism during the trial.  Evans does a nice job summarizing the high points of the trial in one of the chapters.  But the bulk of the book is her telling how she used to be a model evangelical Christian who knew all the right answers for arguing with skeptics until she herself became unsettled by the injustice of what she calls “the cosmic lottery.”  It seemed unfair to her that so many people should be condemned to hell because they had never heard of Jesus, only to die horribly in a typhoon or of AIDS.  She couldn’t accept the answers that she used to.  Her crisis led her to rethink all of her assumptions and to be willing to throw away “false fundamentals,” her term for the beliefs that accrete onto the belief system of much of Christian teaching.  She now believes that faith must adapt and that it is okay to have doubts and to say “I don’t know.”  But she hasn’t lost her faith.  It’s a story that I share in the broad outline, and it was comforting to read how she went through the crisis but retained her trust in Jesus.  I’d recommend this book to anyone who has had similar doubts or a crisis of faith.  [Note that the book, though first published in 2010, has since been rereleased under the title Faith Unraveled.]
  • Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach is the perfect bathroom book, and I mean that in the best way possible.  The book is fascinating and funny, and the subject matter is often fecal.  Roach is an excellent science writer, guiding the reader through the digestive system from before the food enters the mouth to the other end of the line.  It all goes down so easily (please excuse me, nearly every blurb for the book includes puns and wordplays nearly as bad), that it can feel almost fluffy at times.  It’s not that Roach doesn’t include the research (the notes in the back show her thoroughness), it’s that she makes it so palatable (again, sorry) with her humorous stories and engrossing tidbits.  I learned about the 19th century man who had a hole in his stomach and how his doctor used him to learn about digestion, about the importance of bacterial composition of the colon, and about the amazing capacity of the colons of prisoners and other smugglers, among other oddities.  Sometimes the book is a bit gross, but nothing made me sick to my stomach.  Anyone who enjoys science or who wants to know more about the digestive system or who simply wants a smart laugh should check it out.

The Scopes trial and Christian subculture

One last time about Summer for the Gods and the Scopes trial (parts 1 and 2 here and here). But first a quick recap: In 1925, spurred on by Christian fundamentalists, the state of Tennessee outlawed the teaching of evolution. The ACLU wanted to show the law was unconstitutional, so they worked with John Scopes in the small town of Dayton as a test case. He was brought to trial for teaching evolution, thus breaking the law. William Jennings Bryan, a former politician and a leader in the anti-evolution movement, joined the prosecution against Scopes. Clarence Darrow, a defense attorney and famous atheist, joined the defense team.

During the trial, antievolutionists felt that the media was biased against them, and they were right. Most newspapers in the country stated that they were for Darrow and the defense. And it wasn’t just the Scopes trial. There were creation-evolution debates back then just as now, and creationists such as George McCready Price (a precursor to Henry Morris and John Whitcomb, writers of The Genesis Flood) complained that the press didn’t acknowledge when they won a debate. Larson points out that media bias probably wasn’t malicious (aside from the obvious attackers like H.L. Mencken), but rather “due to its insensitivity to faith-based arguments” (125). This makes sense: most outsiders don’t understand the intricacies of another group’s thought system or values.

Though Scopes was the defendant, the defense team went on the offensive against a narrow reading of Genesis. Darrow asked that Bryan be put on the witness stand as an expert on the Bible. Against the advice of the rest of the prosecution, Bryan thought it would be a good idea to defend Biblical literalism in the public forum. Darrow took the opportunity to attack every aspect of the Bible, forcing Bryan to defend every miracle or hard question (i.e. Where did Cain’s wife come from? or How could Jonah survive three days inside a whale?). He eventually pushed Bryan so far that he had to repeatedly admit that he didn’t know or couldn’t explain how the event took place as described in the Bible. As for the Genesis account of creation he had to admit: “I believe in creation as there told, and if I am not able to explain it I will accept it” (189). Bryan had defended his faith, even if he couldn’t explain it on all points, but most media saw his reticence as a failure in the face of scientific explanations.

Because they didn’t think they were getting a fair shake with the media, “[a]ntievolutionists increasingly turned to interdenominational journals and publishers to communicate their side of the story” (127). In the immediate aftermath of the Scopes case, both sides declared victory. The antievolution prosecution could claim victory because the jury agreed with them and convicted Scopes. The defense claimed the moral victory that their ideas had triumphed when Clarence Darrow humiliated William Jennings Bryan on the witness stand. Larson shows that it took quite some time for the latter narrative to take hold as the consensus view, aided especially by the play and movie Inherit the Wind, a highly fictionalized version of the trial that really was more about the communist witch hunts of the 1950s (much like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible) than the Scopes trial of 1925.

The Scopes trial highlighted the fissure between modernists and fundamentalists in many denominations and seminaries at the time. Fundamentalists increasingly withdrew from the broader culture and “set about constructing a separate subculture with independent religious, educational, and social institutions” (233). This is the subculture I grew up in, one that only accepted the Young Earth Creationist account. It was also a subculture that was separate and removed from the broader culture, which is how I could seriously never encounter anyone who entertained the notion of an old earth or evolution.

The Christian subculture I grew up in was all-encompassing. I attended private Christian school. On Sundays we attended morning and evening services at church. Wednesdays were prayer meeting. For a grade school boy like me, we had Christian Service Brigade, a more Christian version of Boy Scouts. Brigade had summer camp, which I attended four different times. When I was in junior and senior high we had Wednesday evening youth group. The youth group had socials, took missions trips, and attended the big youth conference for our denomination. For entertainment I read Christian fiction from the Christian bookstore. It wasn’t all that I read, but I did read a number of books by Frank Peretti and the like (my reading habits as a high schooler may be a topic I return to, and for those who don’t know, Peretti’s best known work This Present Darkness is a novel of spiritual warfare between angels and demons). I mostly listened to Christian music, and I wrestled with my conscience when I sometimes listened to secular music. In junior high, I had a dubbed copy of Amy Grant’s secular album Heart in Motion, but I taped over it when I became convicted that secular music was sinful. In high school I eased up on some of my conviction about secular music a little bit, but the majority of my music listening was Christian (or religiously friendly like U2).

Christian fundamentalists perceive that media is against them so they in return reject much media and have created and/or turned to their own alternate media. I was originally going to write on this interesting and worthy discussion, but my thoughts grew as I realized that Christian fundamentalists withdrew from more than just media but from the larger culture and set up their own subculture to replace it. Certainly there were elements of the subculture already in place before the Scopes trial, but the trial served as a wake-up call to fundamentalists that they had to train their believers in the true faith and that could only be done by withdrawing from the larger culture which was antagonistic to their faith.

Most important was setting up alternative education. Bryan College was founded in Dayton, Tennessee not long after the trial, and many other fundamentalist educational institutions sprang up with similar missions of upholding biblical inerrancy and a Young Earth interpretation of Genesis in the wake of the trial. The college I attended, formerly a high school, became a four-year Bible college in the 1930s, along with the wave of other institutions.

So this is the reason I find the Scopes trial so fascinating—the fact that it was a defining moment for American Christianity that led to the fundamentalist subculture that I grew up in. It was a defining battle in what later came to be defined as culture wars. Fundamentalists staked their position as being anti-evolution, and that stance led to a withdrawal in many other areas of life, from media and entertainment to education. They created an entire separate culture that paralleled the broader culture, but was antagonistic in many ways. It was and is an us vs. them mentality. These are all issues that I plan to return to in the future.