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A Word Fitly Spoken
by Bill Schwan
08/25/08
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Jerry awoke with a start when Elsbeth gently shook his shoulder.

“How do you manage to do that?” she asked.

“Do what?”

“Fall asleep five minutes into the flight.”

“It’s like sitting in a really uncomfortable vibrating Barca Lounger. I think the vibrations of the plane are what put me out.”

“How lucky for you. I’m going to move forward to chat with Jiana, so there might be a stranger in my seat the next time you wake up.”

“Should you really be up and about? Why don’t you stay here and I’ll go swap seats with Jiana.”

“It will be one of my less impressive scars,” she said as she touched the bandage covering the biopsy incision beneath her blouse. “It isn’t even sore anymore, so there’s no real need to dote. But I appreciate the fact that you do.”

He knew that she and Jiana would be talking on the way to Chicago because Dr. Gangatirkar had told Elsbeth as they waited at the gate that she had new photos of and stories about the grandkids. As he followed her up the aisle with his eyes, he thought about the conference.

The Serendipity Group, affectionately known as Serendip, was sponsoring the Bioethics In Genetics Symposium (promoted as The BIG Symposium) and Jiana and he were expected to give the keynote addresses. Jerry was the chief operations officer at D-Code, a Serendip holding that specialized in the mapping of diseases with a genetic component. Jiana headed operations at N-Code, a sister company that ironed out the kinks in the genetic blueprint Jerry provided.

As he went over the speech in his head, he smiled at the portion that speculated about the eventual fate of people who tinkered with DNA for a living. In which circle of hell would Dante have placed geneticists for fiddling with things that were strictly under the sole purview of the Almighty?

He glanced toward the aisle and was surprised to see a man in a tweed jacket and horn rimmed glasses staring down at him.

“Hello. Does your wife have a slight British accent?”

“Yes she does.”

“Sorry, but I was told to expect you to be sleeping, so I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place.”

“I decided to fight the urge to drift off again. I knew someone would be coming back and snoring makes such a bad first impression.”

As the balding man slipped into the aisle seat, he introduced himself as Dr. Valerian Anders. Valerian turned out to be a history professor at a small college in northeast Pennsylvania. He was on sabbatical for a semester to research a book he had been meaning to write for twenty years.

“Is there a working title?” Jerry asked.

“ ‘Toward A New Past’, and its purpose is to refute history revisionism. I get so upset when scholars who should know better try to put a spin on history that favors their own view of the world simply to lend credibility to that point of view.”

“I applaud your effort and promise to buy a copy when it makes it to Amazon. I have my own issues with people who play fast and loose with the facts to promote an agenda.”

“What people are those?”

“People like the Jesus Seminar who try to undermine the authority of scripture by casting doubts upon it.”

“I thought Dr. Gangatirkar said you were a geneticist. I never expected to hear you talking like a Sunday school teacher.”

“As it happens, I’m one of those, too. And I occasionally lead a Bible study/ discussion forum at work.”

“I’m sure it’s very rewarding,” Valerian said.

Jerry could tell from the patronizing tone that Valerian had no desire to hold a spiritual discussion, but he was not going to let him off that easily.

“I don’t think that ‘rewarding’ comes to mind. I’m more apt to think of it as intriguing.”

“Intriguing? Why is it intriguing?”

“Fishy, fishy in the brook…” Jerry thought. “You see, in Sunday school my wife and I work with four to eight year olds. We get to see the seed of faith germinate, watch them learn to trust God, and hear the excitement when they receive answers to their prayers. The intrigue comes in when we find that we are learning from the kids as much as we are teaching them.

“And at D-Code, I work with a class of people who are suspicious by nature. What is that protein chain up to in this band of chromosome 21? Why do these oil-based proteins work so well with those water based proteins when chemical laws state they shouldn’t react at all with each other? And these curiosities carry over into their faith for the folks I work with who profess to have faith. How do we know that the story we base our lives upon is true? How do we know that we aren’t just making it up and labeling it ‘reality’?”

“So how do you know it’s true?”

“Whenever the discussion at work heads in this direction, I always send people back to the source. We look at the reliability of the Bible. If we manage to get that clear, the other questions usually take care of themselves.”

“Then how do you prove that the Bible is a reliable source of information?”

“Let me first ask you something. What are the criteria you use to determine the value of historical documents?”

“SARF. That’s source, author, reader, and format. Regarding the source, what is the document’s origin, do we know that the information it contains is accurate, what is the historical context in which it was created? As to the author, who is the writer, what authority did he have to write about what he did, and does he seem reliable? Where the reader is concerned, who was the audience? What was its intended effect upon that audience? What was the reader supposed to think or do as a result of reading it? And then what format was the document written in. Was it a letter, a governmental decree, biography? And finally, in the case of your Biblical documents, we would need to compare the copies of the various gospels and epistles to see if they agree or if there are large differences in doctrinal statements between the copies.”

“All right, let’s work our way back through those criteria. There are in excess of five thousand copies of Greek New Testament manuscripts. There are no variations between these early manuscripts that in any way affect the major doctrines of the Church. The variations that do occur amount to changes in word order or variations in spelling, none of which have ever caused me to lose sleep pondering my eternal destiny.”

“Five thousand, eh? Compared to what we have from other writers from that time frame, that’s an ocean of evidence. I mean, we have nine Greek copies of The Jewish Wars by Flavius Josephus. There is only one manuscript containing Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome,” Valerian admitted.

“So the Bible has an ocean of manuscript evidence on its side and other well known works from the same era amount to a puddle’s worth of evidence. The number of manuscripts and the agreement between the manuscripts make the Bible unique in terms of ancient literature.”

“If I recall correctly, the formats run the gamut. Poetry, biography, inventory lists, letters, and historical records. That’s a healthy mix and gives a well-rounded account of the Jewish people’s dealings with their God,” Valerian noted.

“There is ample evidence that the authors are not some mythic copyist three hundred years after the fact but the people whom tradition has credited for the books they wrote. Plus, there are good arguments for early dating of the New Testament texts. For example, Acts ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome. Paul was executed in 62 A.D. and if Acts had been written later than that, you’d expect Paul’s martyrdom to be included just like James’. That means Acts was completed prior to 62. And if you recall, Acts was a companion piece to Luke, which was referred to in Acts as ‘my former account’ by Luke, indicating it was written prior to Acts, placing the gospel even closer to the time of the events it records.”

“Okay, I’ll concede that the author’s authority was based upon the fact that they were eyewitnesses to the events they recount in their writings and that they were in effect preaching to the choir, writing to and for believers. But what is it that gives this two thousand year old document any weight today? I mean, our world is so different from that one.”

“Is it? Don’t people still fall in love and have babies? Sin remains a perennial problem, though we’ve done our part to give the problem a different name. Murder has become Choice. The covetous have become upwardly mobile. Adulterers are simply finding new ways to have their needs met. The terms and means of skirting God’s commands may have changed, but humanity hasn’t. We are still selfish, angry, greedy and lustful. For all the knowledge we have acquired since the days when Jesus walked the earth, we have fallen far short where wisdom is concerned.”

“All right, at the most basic level, people always remains the same. I’ll give you that. But how can the Bible be of significance to people so far removed from the culture of the Bible?”

“You are really asking several other questions couched in the word ‘significance’. Where did I come from? What is the import of the experiences of my life? What is my overall purpose, and what should I be doing? Where is this all heading? Is there any meaning to my existence? The Bible answers each of these questions for us.

“We could seek to establish our own meanings, but what will serve as our guide? By what shall we measure such things? What if that which is meaningful to me is offensive to you? Furthermore, what if the goals we pursue are not capable of living up to the meaning we try to assign to them? We can try to provide our own limited meanings for our existence, but we continue to look for something bigger than ourselves, something that will explain our existence.”

“And it is your contention that the Bible provides the explanation?”

“Exactly. We are drawn to the One who created us and gives our lives meaning as part of His purposes. We are significant in ourselves because He made us, and there is meaning in our daily activities because that is the context in which God works out His plans for our lives. And we matter to God because He cared enough to send His Son to die for us. This should say something about how highly God values us. The meaning of life is discovered when we find our place in God's world. We come to know who we are once we have learned whose we are.”

“That’s fine in the abstract, but is there a practical application for this knowledge you gain from your Bible?”

“Did Jiana spell out for you what it is we do for a living?”

“A thumbnail sketch, yes.”

“Then because of the resources at my disposal and the fact of a history of breast cancer in my wife’s family, I worked up a genetic profile for her a long time ago to see what we might be up against as we got older. It turns out she has one of the BRCA1 gene mutations that allows for tumor growth. We have identified more than 600 mutations in the BRCA1 gene, many of which are associated with an increased risk of cancer.”

“Am I correct in assuming BRCA1 is an acronym for breast cancer?”

“Yes, but that acronym doesn’t do justice to the genes.”

“There is more than one of the same gene?”

“No, there is a BRCA1 and a BRCA2 gene. But the BRCA1 gene is the error-correcting gene in the DNA molecule. Just like a CD player comes with built-in software that averages out any errors on an audio CD to minimize distortion during playback, the BRCA1 gene corrects any errors that might occur when the DNA molecule replicates. And I dare any disciple of Charles Darwin to chalk that one up to chance. It’s the mutations I mentioned that keep it from doing what it’s supposed to do and what keeps my wife going to the doctor for regular checkups.”

“It must be hard to live with that knowledge.”

“In truth, it has served to prepare us for what may happen. Right now Beth is recovering from a biopsy done on a lump. We believe the promises that God makes to us and lean on them in times like this.”

“So believing the Bible makes it true?”

“No, believing what God has said in the Bible honors truth. And in this situation, we lean on Psalm 55 verse 22: Cast your burden on the Lord, and He will sustain you. And He has done so several times with other similar scares. But should the unthinkable happen and we end up going down a very dark road together, we know that we can rely on the Lord to carry us through.”

“I want to admit something to you. As an historian, I am committed to respectable scholarship. I am interested in the truth that history passes down to us and that truth uncompromised. Yet I have to say that with all my passion for the truth history offers us, I have never with an adult mind looked at the Bible as anything more than a collection of interesting stories. In my youth, I accepted it without question. As an adult, I rejected it without giving it a fair hearing. And I realize now that I have never bothered to examine the evidence with a critical eye. I want you to know that I am going to begin a study of the Bible and the Christian faith. I will go whatever direction the evidence leads.”

“Glad to hear it. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed by your study.”

“I also want you to know what it is about you that impresses me. In an increasingly cynical world, you seem to be a person of hope. I get the notion that this sense of hope would be present even if your world turned upside down. Because I personally don’t see much of such hope in this world, I would like to know about yours.”

“Valerian, the reason I am a person of hope is because of my connection to the source of all hope. And that source is named Jesus.”

“Hey, I don’t mean to interrupt, but I thought you’d like to see this,” Elsbeth said and handed her cell phone to Jerry.

On the screen, he read the text message- < Fibrocystic/ benign. Have emailed the particulars to your home e-dress along with details regarding your next six-month checkup. Enjoy the Windy City. >

As he reached over and grasped Elsbeth’s hand, he handed Valerian the phone and nodded permission to read. Valerian read the text message and smiled at Jerry as he got up and prepared to head back to his seat.

“Did you just let a perfect stranger read my biopsy results?” Elsbeth asked after she became settled in her seat again.

“As imperfect as you or I and not quite a stranger anymore. Besides, it was something he needed to read. Let me explain…”


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