An Attitude of Gratitude

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Since today is Thanksgiving Day in the United States, I thought that some words about having what I like to call “an attitude of gratitude” would be appropriate. So here goes.

The story is told of Mike and Charlie, two old friends who bumped into one another on the street one day. Mike looked forlorn, almost on the verge of tears. His friend, Charlie, asked him, “What has the world done to you, my old friend?”

Mike said, “Let me tell you. Three weeks ago, an uncle died and left me forty thousand dollars.”

“That’s a lot of money,” said Charlie.

Mike continued. “But, two weeks ago, a cousin I never even knew died, and left me eighty-five thousand dollars free and clear.”

“Sounds like you’ve been blessed,” Charlie responded.

“You don’t understand!” Mike interrupted. “Last week, my great-aunt passed away. I inherited almost a quarter of a million dollars.”

Now Charlie was really confused. “Then, why do you look so glum?” he asked.

Mike replied, “This week – nothing!”

That is the trouble with receiving something on a regular basis. Even if it is a gift, we eventually come to expect it. We have been blessed to live in a land of plenty and as a result we become complacent and many times we are completely unwilling to give thanks to anyone for anything. I am reminded of the little boy who, on his return from a school party, was asked by his mother,  “Bobby, did you thank the lady for the party?” Bobby answered, “Well, I was going to, but the girl ahead of me said, ‘Thank you,’ and the lady told her not to mention it. So I didn’t.” It almost seems that we have to be trained to express gratitude, doesn’t it?

“Attitude is everything” we say.  Well, it is no different when it comes to thanksgiving. The attitude we carry with us through life is of paramount importance if we are truly to live lives that demonstrate our gratitude.

I suspect that not everyone feels particularly thankful on this day of national thanksgiving. Perhaps the pain of life has overwhelmed them to the point where they do not see any more how blessed they truly are. Like so many people today, maybe they have been so blessed, that even those blessings do not look all that good anymore.

How, then, can we overcome such a mindset of dispiritedness and turn it more towards a true spirit of thanksgiving in a culture that teaches us to enter into the rat-race and compete for status with a world of un-thankful people? Well, I do not pretend to have all of the answers, but I do believe that at the very least we need to recognize the blessings that we have come to take for granted. If we focus on what we have rather than on what we do not have, I believe that our attitude of gratitude will improve.

Here are a few suggestions that I believe will improve our attitude of gratitude:

  • Be thankful that you do not already have everything you want because if you did, what would there be to look forward to?
  • Be thankful when you do not know something because this gives you the opportunity to learn.
  • Be thankful for the difficult times because during those times you can grow.
  • Be thankful for your limitations because they give you opportunities for improvement.
  • Be thankful for each new challenge because it will build strength and character.
  • Be thankful for your mistakes because they can teach you valuable lessons.
  • Be thankful when you are tired and weary because it means you have made a difference.

It is easy to be thankful for the good things in life, but a life of true fulfillment comes to those who are also thankful for the setbacks in life. As hard as it may be, we should try to find a way to even be thankful for our troubles. Who knows, they may become our blessings.

The following story from the Peanuts carton strip illustrates this last point. In the cartoon, good old Charlie Brown brings out Snoopy’s dinner on Thanksgiving Day. But it is just his usual dog food in a bowl. Snoopy takes one look at the dog food and thinks, “This isn’t fair. The rest of the world today is eating turkey with all the trimmings, but because I’m a dog, all I get is dog food.” He stands there for a moment and stares at his dog food and then muses, “I guess it could be worse. I could be a turkey!”

You know, there is always something for which to be thankful.

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 Happy Thanksgiving Day!

When Medicine and Religion Collide

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I find the following true story both appalling and scary. It is appalling because it should never have happened and it is scary because medical decisions were made, based not on the best medical knowledge available, but on religious doctrine. Here is the story.

A Michigan woman was eighteen weeks pregnant when her water broke. She visited a nearby Roman Catholic hospital twice and was sent home, each time in severe pain. Doctors at the hospital, directed by Roman Catholic guidelines that forbid abortion, did not tell her either that her fetus had virtually no chance of survival or that the safest treatment was to terminate the pregnancy.  On her third trip to the hospital, after she had begun to show signs of an infection, the hospital was preparing to send her home again when she miscarried.

While this experience occurred in Michigan, I have the uncomfortable feeling that this sort of scenario could just as easily occur at a hospital or a clinic near you or me. I suspect that most people have no idea that Roman Catholic beliefs are steering many of our health care options. Call me overly suspicious if you like, but I do not want the church – any church – in my bedroom or in my hospital room telling me what I can and cannot do.

But that is exactly what is happening. Let me explain.

All across the country, as the health care industry buckles under rising costs, many hospitals are partnering with one another in the hope that such mergers will help them survive and control costs. In some cases that means Roman Catholic health care organizations are acquiring secular hospitals or entering into affiliations and collaborations with non-Roman Catholic organizations. In at least eight states, more than 30 percent of all hospital care is Roman Catholic – and often subject to the directives of regional bishops.

At the heart of the matter for patients such as the woman mentioned above is a document called the “Ethical and Religious Directives (ERDs) for Catholic Health Care Services,” a directive that guides Roman Catholic providers. Written by the United States Council of Catholic Bishops in 2009, the ERDs forbid the following: abortions in any scenario except if the mother’s life is in danger, even in cases of rape or incest; access to contraceptives for the sole purpose of family planning; sterilization procedures; in vitro fertilization, or the use of sperm or egg donors; and assisting terminally ill patients seeking to terminate their lives.

The implementation of such directives could have profound implications for women’s access to reproductive services in hundreds of communities across the United States. Here is just one story: When Emily Herx first took time off work for in vitro fertilization treatment, her boss offered what sounded like words of support: “You are in my prayers.” Soon those words took on a more sinister meaning. The Indiana grade school where Herx was teaching English was Roman Catholic. And after church officials were alerted that Herx was undergoing IVF – making her, in the words of one monsignor, “a grave, immoral sinner” – it took them less than two weeks to fire her.

The kind of situation that I described above is occurring as more and more hospitals merge. The Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) both encourages and facilitates hospital mergers. Many of these mergers involve Roman Catholic health systems as dominant partners. A joint study by the MergerWatch Project and the ACLU reports that ten of the nation’s largest hospital systems are Roman Catholic-sponsored. From 2001 to 2011, the study found, the number of beds in Roman Catholic hospitals rose by 13 percent, the largest such change of any category of hospitals, except the for-profit sector.

In Washington State, for example, which has seen more religious-secular partnerships than any other state in recent years, one quarter of all hospitals are Roman Catholic affiliated. The collision of medicine and doctrine reared its ugly head when in early 2012, Seattle’s Archbishop J. Peter Sartain instructed Saint Joseph Hospital to stop processing lab work for Planned Parenthood. The Planned Parenthood clinic relied on Saint Joseph for a few types of tests, including a series of blood tests drawn twenty-four hours apart to rule out ectopic pregnancy. Planned Parenthood pressured the hospital and the testing arrangement continued. Ultimately, Washington State policy makers, employers and voters are going to have to decide whether to continue supporting Roman Catholic health systems that systematically deprive patients of legal and medically appropriate care.

Roman Catholic control of the healthcare system could also have broader implications for healthcare professionals. Again, Seattle’s Archbishop Sartain and two other bishops hold power over all of Washington State’s Roman Catholic health care ministries, which now employ tens of thousands of people.  In a case now before Washington’s Supreme Court, Franciscan Hospital recently argued that Washington law exempts religious entities from State antidiscrimination laws.  If Franciscan wins that case, bishops could begin purging the health care system of anyone who refuses to adhere to Roman Catholic doctrine – even in their personal lives. That, of course, would include homosexuals and same-sex couples.

Continuing with Washington State a tad longer, I found that the secular Swedish Medical Center in Seattle was at the center of a controversial partnership with Roman Catholic-run Providence Health & Services in 2011. The Swedish Medical Center promised that it would remain secular, but shortly after the two facilities merged, Swedish announced that it would no longer offer elective abortions at its facilities and would instead donate money to a nearby Planned Parenthood facility. Critics say that is simply one of many examples of how Roman Catholic hospital mergers affect women’s health care. But reproductive rights advocates say that foregoing abortions may soon become a pre-requisite for secular hospitals when they join with their Roman Catholic counterparts.

Roman Catholic health systems also have pressured doctors with admitting privileges to stop helping terminally ill patients who want to make use of the state’s death with dignity law. Recently it was reported that Pope Francis denounced the death with dignity movement, saying it is a “false sense of compassion” to consider euthanasia as an act of dignity when in fact it is a sin against God and creation. Earlier, the Vatican’s top bioethics official condemned as “reprehensible” the assisted suicide of Brittany Maynard, the twenty-nine year old woman who was suffering terminal brain cancer and said she wanted to die with dignity and moved from California to Oregon because Oregon was one of only five states where death with dignity was authorized.

While denouncing euthanasia in general, the Pope also condemned abortion, in vitro fertilization, and embryonic stem cell research. So much for (“Who am I to judge”) Pope Francis being a Progressive Catholic!

UPDATE: Brittany Maynard’s mother is responding angrily to criticism from the Vatican of Maynard’s decision to end her life early under an Oregon law written to let terminally ill patients die on their own terms. Days after Maynard’s Nov. 1 death at age 29, the Vatican’s top bioethics official called her choice “reprehensible” and said physician-assisted suicide should be condemned.

I believe that all of this is sobering news for anyone concerned about the state of health care, and especially about the state of women’s healthcare. It is in the area of women’s healthcare where medical practice and Roman Catholic doctrine are most frequently in conflict. And it is happening as Roman Catholic hospitals are playing a more influential role in the American healthcare system.

None of this would matter, of course, if the Roman Catholic Church was not trying to impose its religious directives on the practice of medicine. But that is what it has been doing. In Bartlesville, Oklahoma, for example, doctors at a hospital acquired by a Roman Catholic health system were forbidden to prescribe any contraceptives, if they were to be used as birth control. (After the rule provoked a public outcry, it was rescinded.)

The MergerWatch/ACLU report and other sources document numerous instances of interference by religious prelates in medical decisions, especially those in which emergency terminations of pregnancies are indicated to save the mother.

In a recent meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore, the prelates voted almost unanimously – in a 213-2, with 1 abstaining vote – to review its policy on “forming new partnerships with health care organizations” to address a directive issued from the Vatican’s conservative Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith that, in essence, prohibits Roman Catholic hospitals from merging with secular hospitals that do not uphold the same values. The actual wording of the mandate is this: “[Roman] Catholic health care institutions neither cooperate immorally with the unacceptable procedures conducted in other health care entities with which they may be connected nor cause scandal as a result of their collaboration.”

That directive is bound to complicate merger deals, which are complicated enough already. Women’s clinics at some Roman Catholic-controlled hospitals have had to be designated secular zones, so physicians can practice without interference. Whether that would still be allowed under this new revision is not clear at this present time.

The bishops’ action may place new pressures on public officials with jurisdiction over such deals. Officials have not always met their obligations to the public interest when Roman Catholic hospitals take over non-Roman Catholic institutions. For instance, physicians and patients in California saw the process in action after Newport Beach’s Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, one of Orange County’s leading medical centers, merged with Saint Joseph Health System, a Roman Catholic chain. Despite being assured for months that nothing in their medical practice would change as a result of the deal, Hoag doctors were abruptly informed that abortions would henceforth be banned – a restriction imposed at Saint Joseph’s insistence. California Attorney General, Kamala D. Harris approved the Hoag/Saint Joseph merger, even after learning that the abortion ban would be imposed.

But a year later, when evidence emerged that Hoag and Saint Joseph officials might have misled Harris over the consequences of the deal, she redefined abortions so that not all such procedures would come under the ban. Harris made it clear that Hoag could not interfere with physicians performing procedures in their own offices, even if those offices were located on Hoag premises. Hoag’s commitment to maintaining women’s reproductive services at the same levels as before the merger was lengthened to twenty years from ten. And Hoag permanently committed itself not to be bound by the ERDs. I find that action a hopeful sign!

But Harris’ action does not fully remedy the damage that this merger did to women’s rights in California where abortions are, after all, legal. It is a sad truth that as a result of the merger, a woman’s ability to obtain a legal procedure in a leading hospital has been permanently eroded.

Many of the Roman Catholic hospitals merging with secular counterparts promise that the secular institutions will not be governed by Roman Catholic doctrine – although opponents of the mergers say that reproductive and other facilities thought to counter Roman Catholicism are often slowly phased out.

As more Roman Catholic health systems attempt to acquire secular hospitals, the threat to the unfettered practice of medicine increases and it will be up to public officials to monitor this trend and to stop it in its tracks. If they do not, I fear that women’s reproductive rights are in serious jeopardy.

So, women beware: the one who will decide what your health care will be may not be your physician or your insurance company. That health care decision most likely will be a Roman Catholic bishop! And, frankly, from everything that I have been able to learn about this subject, that scares the Hell out of me!

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Bible-Thumpers and Jesus

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I realize that to use the expression, “Bible-thumper” is to use a pejorative term and while it is not my intention to offend anyone, the expression seems to fit for what I want to write today. For me, a Bible-thumper is a Christian (I have never heard of a Jewish Bible-thumper) who uses the Bible as a source to attack/defame another person’s character instead of employing it as a guide to proper living and correct conduct. Bible-thumpers tend to be depressingly ignorant of anything else except what the Bible says and of what kind of behavior is expected of a Christian.

I know that it may be hard to believe but Jesus would not be welcome in most contemporary Bible-thumping fundamentalist churches. Fundamentalists tend to thrive on drawing distinctions between their “truth” and other people’s absence of such “truths.” Even as they profess to spread Jesus’ word, I find that fundamentalists either forget or are oblivious to Jesus’ most important message: compassion. Jesus obliterated such differences with his compassion.

We see this compassion at work every time someone puts love ahead of what the “Bible says.”

We see this compassion at work every time Pope Francis puts inclusion ahead of institutional dogma.

We see this compassion at work every time a gay person is welcomed into a church or a divorced couple is offered the sacrament that Jesus instituted.

And, yes, we see this compassion at work every time an atheist follows Jesus better than most Christians.

As Joseph Campbell, the world-renowned philosopher and author once wrote: “I think of compassion as the fundamental religious experience and, unless that is there, you have nothing.”

Recently, I read sociologist Phil Zuckerman’s thought-provoking book, Society Without God, a study in which he discusses how Denmark and Sweden became probably the least religious countries in the world, and possibly in the history of the world. While many people, especially Christian conservatives, argue that godless societies devolve into lawlessness and immorality, Denmark and Sweden are filled with residents who score at the very top of the “happiness index” and enjoy their healthy societies, which boast of some of the lowest rates of violent crime in the world (along with some of the lowest levels of corruption), excellent educational systems, strong economies, well-supported arts, free health care, unrestricted social policies, outstanding bike paths, and lest we forget, great beer. In secular, non-church-going Denmark, for example, mothers are given four weeks of maternity leave before childbirth and fourteen weeks afterward. Parents of newborn children are assisted with well-baby nurse-practitioner visits in their homes. In addition, the state implements pension schemes, provides benefits for the unemployed and supports those living with disabilities. Of course, the trade-off for such a “happy” society is a high tax rate. At 60.2%, Denmark last year had the highest top personal income tax rate among the thirty-four countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, an organization of developed and emerging countries. And that 60.2% is applied to income over roughly $55,000.

And yet in the pro-life and allegedly family friendly so-called Bible Belt of the “good ol’ God-fearing U. S. of A,” there are conservative political leaders (who are often also biblical fundamentalists) who slash programs designed to help women and children, such as food stamps, nutritional assistance, health insurance for children, and school breakfast and lunch programs, while creating a justifying mythology about handouts versus empowerment. The poor are viewed by the members of the Religious Right as the “takers” and no longer as the “least of these,” to use a biblical phrase. Many Christian fundamentalists side with those politicians who attack the poor, all in the name of following the Bible. But who is following Jesus?

When confronted by the Bible thumpers, Christians are faced with a choice. That choice is either to follow the teachings of Jesus or to follow a cult who worships a book. That book, of course, is the Bible. It seems that Jesus did not like the “Bible” of his day very much. Every time Jesus mentioned the equivalent of a church tradition, namely the Torah, (or Jewish Written Law, consisting of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible – known more commonly to non-Jews as the “Old Testament”) he qualified it with something like this: “You have heard people say. . . . But I tell you . . .” Many times in the gospels Jesus used that formula or a variation of it. When He spoke of what “you have heard,” he was describing the Torah or the Pharisees’ teaching of the Torah. And in each case, he refuted it. Jesus undermined the scriptures and religious tradition in favor of compassion.

In Luke’s Gospel, for example, a leper came to Jesus and said, “Lord, you have the power to make me well, if only you wanted to.” If Jesus had been a good orthodox religious Jew – one who legalistically followed the teachings of the Torah – he would have said, “Be healed,” and just walked away. Instead, he stretched out his hand and touched the leper, saying, “I want to! Now you are well,” even though he knowingly was breaking the specific rules of Leviticus in which it is written that anyone touching a person with leprosy is contaminated. Every time Jesus undermined the scriptures in this way, it was to err on the side of co-suffering love and not on the side of the Jewish Law.

There is a similar story in the Gospel of Matthew: “A woman who had been bleeding for twelve years came up behind Jesus and barely touched his clothes.  She had said to herself, ‘If I can just touch his clothes, I will get well.’ Jesus turned. He saw the woman and said, ‘Don’t worry! You are now well because of your faith.’ At that moment she was healed.” Jesus recognized a bleeding woman touching him as a sign of faith. By complimenting rather than rebuking her, Jesus ignored another of the Torah’s rules: “Any woman who has a flow of blood outside her regular monthly period is unclean until it stops, just as she is during her monthly period. Anything that she rests on or sits on during this time is also unclean, just as it would be during her period. If you touch either of these, you must wash your clothes and take a bath, but you still remain unclean until evening.”

But Jesus’ behavior went beyond healing lepers and welcoming the touch of a bleeding woman. His embrace of the “other in our midst” was both incomprehensible and distressing to both his followers and enemies. A case in point was his encounter of a woman from an enemy tribe in a culture where tribal belonging was paramount. Even the woman knew that his actions were shocking. When Jesus stopped to talk to her, she said, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink of water when Jews and Samaritans won’t have anything to do with each other?” Jesus responded by attacking the destructive effects of religion, tradition, dogma, and group identity, offering instead an entirely new way of looking at spirituality by emphasizing basic human dignity above nation, state, gender or religion. Jesus said to her: “Believe me, the time is coming when you won’t worship the Father either on this mountain or in Jerusalem. You Samaritans don’t really know the one you worship. But we Jews do know the God we worship, and by using us, God will save the world. But a time is coming, and it is already here! Even now the true worshipers are being led by the Spirit to worship the Father according to the truth. These are the ones the Father is seeking to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship God must be led by the Spirit to worship him according to the truth.”

“Worship him according to the truth,” is not about a book, let alone about “salvation” through correct ideas or tradition. For people who say that they follow Jesus, I would think that they would also reject the veneration of the book in which he is trapped by literalism. Fundamentalists struggle to fit Jesus into the Bible, not the other way around. If Jesus is not the “lens” through which fundamentalists read the Bible, then whatever they say to the contrary, they do not really believe Jesus is the one who said: “I came so that everyone would have life, and have it in its fullest.” And I suspect that the Bible- thumpers wish that he had not said that!

Saved By Punctuation

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In the illustration above, I believe you would agree that a period placed after the word “hunting” might making being a pedestrian on a walk trail a lot safer.

Recently, a copy of the Signals catalogue arrived at my home. The Signals catalogue is geared “For Fans & Friends of Public Television” and usually arrives about this time of the year. With it, I usually begin my Christmas shopping. As I scanned the pages of this year’s offerings, an item caught my eye. I was drawn to this item not so much because I wanted to buy it, but because this item started me thinking about something that I have wanted to write about for some time. The item was a popular tee-shirt and/or sweatshirt with a design noting that “commas save lives” and demonstrated its point with two similarly worded but radically different sentences:

“LET’S EAT GRANDMA.”

“LET’S EAT, GRANDMA.”

Commas save lives

And you can have that grammatical “gotcha” for only 19.95 (tee-shirt) or $29.95 (sweatshirt) plus shipping and handling, of course.

Saved by a comma! How important that comma is, especially if you are grandma! The lack or improper placement of punctuation can lead to interesting misunderstandings.

To illustrate, here is an example that I came across some time ago. It comes from an English teacher in New Zealand, though I am not certain that it originated with her. Be that as it may. The following examples show the importance of punctuation. Please note that the words in these two examples are exactly the same, only the punctuation has been changed.

Example1.

Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we are apart. I can be forever happy – will you let me be yours? Gloria

Example 2.

Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you I have no feelings whatsoever. When we are apart I can be forever happy. Will you let me be? Yours, Gloria

The power of punctuation is seen in this example. An English teacher wrote these words on the chalkboard: “A woman without her man is nothing” and asked the class to punctuate it correctly. All the men in the class wrote: “A woman, without her man, is nothing.” But all the women scripted: “A woman: without her, man is nothing.”

And finally, here is a biblical illustration. In Mark’s Gospel, the writer applies a prophecy of Isaiah to John the Baptist saying that his is “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Mk. 1:3). Isaiah, however, seems to have said something slightly different. Isaiah wrote: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” (Isa. 40:3) Matthew and Luke, relying on Mark, repeat his slightly altered quotation. The question is: Is the voice crying out in the wilderness or is the way of the Lord in the wilderness? The gospel writers and the prophet seem to have a disagreement. Punctuation might have cleared up this misunderstanding.

Punctuation makes all the difference in the meaning of these examples. But why would I use this post for an exercise on punctuation? After all, this blog is not about English grammar. The simple reason is that such things as punctuation illustrate a primary problem that I have with biblical fundamentalists who make excessive claims for the accuracy of the Bible.

In my not-too-distant past, I was an associate priest with another priest in an Episcopal parish. My colleague professed that he believed that every word of the Bible was the inerrant Word of God – every “jot or tittle,” to use a biblical phrase. (Yes, contrary to popular belief, there are fundamentalist clergy in the Episcopal Church). Such a proclamation was such an astonishing statement that I began to wonder if my associate had ever really read the Bible. Several years separated us in our theological training, but when I was in seminary, I was taught to take the Bible seriously, but not literally. Obviously, my coworker and I went to two radically different seminaries.

When I hear this fundamentalist rhetoric even today, I am still stunned. It is so uninformed that I cannot believe that people who make this claim actually read the same Bible that I read.

The claim of biblical inerrancy is even stranger when one inquires about which version of the Bible is the inerrant one. Is the “correct” version the New International Version (NIV), clearly the favorite among the fundamentalists? Or is it the Jerusalem Bible (JB), the version preferred by Roman Catholics because it does not challenge the dogma of that Church in regard to the Virgin Mary? Or is it the King James Version (KJV), the version that the traditionalists so love? Or is it the Revised Standard Version (RSV), the translation that scholars seem to prefer? Or is it the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the rendering of the text that attempts to remove sexist language from the various texts? Or is it my favorite translation – the New English Bible (NEB) – the version that has been considered by many scholars to be one of the more important translations of the Bible to be produced following the Second World War? How can there be an inerrant Bible if there is such variety in the available translations? And those are just some of the English translations.

When challenged, fundamentalists generally fall back on the argument that inerrancy is in the original text, not in the translations. Fair enough, but let us examine that assertion a little deeper. For instance, does there exist a copy of the original manuscript of any book in the New Testament? Yes, there are fragments of the text, but the oldest full text of any book of the New Testament is dated no earlier than the seventh century of the Common Era (CE). Before Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press came along in the fifteenth century, the Bible had to be hand-copied by a scribe. Is it possible that no scribe in seven hundred years of copying ever made a mistake or added a clarifying word? The answer, of course, is no. The fact is that in various ancient texts of the Bible, there are thousands of places where the oldest texts we possess disagree with one another.

For example, in the Gospel of John the passage relating the story of Jesus’ and the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) does not appear in manuscripts until very late in medieval history. During the sixteenth century, Western European scholars – both Roman Catholic and Protestant – sought to recover the most correct Greek text of the New Testament, rather than relying on the Vulgate Latin translation. At this time, it was noticed that a number of early manuscripts containing John’s Gospel lacked John 7:53-8:11 inclusive; and also that some manuscripts containing the verses marked them with critical signs, usually an asterisk.

In Mark Gospel, Jesus institutes the Last Supper with these words: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” Some ancient texts, however, add the word “new” before covenant. A minor change, one might say, but an example of how a word might have been added by a scribe to address a later conflict between the followers of Jesus and the traditionalist Jews. Surely some scribes took liberties in their copying by inserting words to make the text conform to later teaching. No passage from any book in the Bible can be guaranteed to be the exact copy of the original author’s work. How then, knowing this, can anyone claim inerrancy for a text, the accuracy of which could never be guaranteed? I suspect only fundamentalists can.

Beyond these complications, fundamentalists must contend with the fact that Jesus’ earthly life seems to have ended around the years 30-33 CE. Biblical scholars believe that Mark, the earliest of the gospels, wrote around 70 CE, during Nero’s persecution of the Christians in Rome, and John, the final gospel, was composed in three “layers,” reaching its final form about 90–100 CE, so every word attributed to Jesus in the gospels, and every gospel story about Jesus, existed in oral transmission during that 40 to 70 year period. Were the words or stories always repeated identically? I believe it stretches credibility to think that! Do you remember the children’s game called “Whispers?” The name derives from the game in which one person whispers a message to the person next to him and the story is then passed progressively to several others, with inaccuracies accumulating as the game goes on. The point of the game is the amusement obtained from the last player’s announcement of the story he heard, that typically being nothing like the original. So much for the accuracy of oral transmission.

The gospels themselves are not even in agreement with one another. We know that both Matthew and Luke had Mark in front of them when they wrote their later narratives, yet they omit some things that Mark had included, change others with which they do not appear to agree and add new things to Mark that perhaps he had not known. Where there is a clear textual disagreement in the gospels themselves, can the claim be made with any credibility that any particular version is the inerrant word of God?

Add to the mix the fact that Jesus spoke Aramaic, yet all the gospels were originally written in Greek. So every word of Jesus that we have has undergone a translation. Is there such a thing as a perfect translation? Of course not! Every language is deeply influenced by its culture so that few words in any language can be translated exactly into another language. Anyone ascribing inerrancy to the Bible apparently has no knowledge of these elementary facts.

The final thing that fundamentalists do not seem to understand is that in the earliest manuscripts of the gospels, there is no punctuation! If we were to study these ancient manuscripts, we would find that they have no chapters, no verses, no paragraphs, no capital letters, no commas and no periods. There is not even a space between the words. These manuscripts are simply row after row of Greek letters. If a word could not be completed on a line, it was simply broken wherever the space ran out, without a hyphen, and the remaining letters of that word continued on the next line. There is nothing to indicate to the reader that a word has been broken. So when we read the gospels today, we need to be aware that every paragraph, every comma, every period and every word division that we find in the New Testament today has been imposed on the text hundreds of years later by interpreters. Did those interpreters always get it right? The suggestion that they always did defies rationality. Punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence dramatically as we saw earlier.

Relatively speaking, punctuation is a modern invention. So are spaces between the words, although they have been around longer than colons, semi-colons, and full stops. By around 1000 CE, European texts were written with spaces between words. Spaces were the bright idea of Irish monks working on early medieval manuscripts. The introduction of a standard system of punctuation has been attributed to the Venetian printers Aldus Manutius and his grandson. They popularized the practice of ending sentences with the colon or full stop, inventing the semicolon, making occasional use of parentheses, and creating the modern comma. By 1566, Aldus Manutius the Younger was able to state that the main object of punctuation was the clarification of syntax. Punctuation marks were not even all that common when the translators of the Authorized (“King James”) Version made their estimations of where to put them in the biblical text in 1611.

I believe that one can only hold to a fundamentalist view of the Bible if every rational faculty is suspended. The slogan “God said it; I believe it; that settles it” is more a search for security than it is a pursuit of the truth. That approach to reality is what makes real dialogue with fundamentalists, whether that discourse is over evolution, or homosexuality, or abortion, or contraception, so unbearably difficult. No rational basis exists upon which to explore an issue if one believes that quoting the Bible is the only way that one arrives at conclusions.