Divine Encounters, Good Good-byes, Genes Seen

By LeRoy Lawson

What’s in a Phrase? Pausing Where Scripture Gives You Pause
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014

A Faithful Farewell: Living Your Last Chapter with Love
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015

A Long Letting Go: Meditations on Losing Someone You Love
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015

The Gene: An Intimate History
Siddhartha Mukherjee
New York: Scribner, 2016

When I learned of Marilyn McEntyre’s 2014 book What’s in a Phrase? I had to add it to my “must read” list. Earlier I had read her Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. Her purpose in that book was to urge us to pay attention to words—close attention.

01_fmb_books_jn2In What’s in a Phrase? she moves on from words to phrases, those little vocabulary clusters that snare our interest and lead us beyond mere definitions to the bigger realities behind them. She believes “phrases have lives of their own.” They catch us unawares, insinuate themselves into our awareness, and attach to our memories; in time we adopt them as our own, not being able to remember when we were first introduced but finding them oh so useful.

In this book she combs the Scriptures for such gems, holds them up to light, and reports what she sees in—and through—them. She sees meaning. She sees wonder. She sees God.

McEntyre, an English professor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara and University of California, Berkeley, is a woman after my own heart. In these 50 selected phrases she packs enough food for thought to deepen one’s devotional reading. It did mine.

“Incline your ear, O Lord” (Psalm 86, English Standard Version) is the first phrase, a perfect opening meditation. It’s an appeal to God, of course, but a helpful reminder that the reader’s ear is also inclining toward God. She holds that inclination through the following ruminations as she considers what it means to be “fearfully and wonderfully made,” or to look with reverence on “the beauty of holiness,” and to rest secure in “the fullness of time.” To the author, phrases like these are more than words; they are “places of divine encounter.”

Saying Good-bye

A couple of other treats from this thoughtful, poetic thinker are A Long Letting Go: Meditations on Losing Someone You Love and A Faithful Farewell: Living Your Last Chapter with Love. Both deal sensitively with dying, the first as a guide for caregivers who want to do the right thing but are often at sea as to what that right thing is. They are, after all, standing at the threshold between earthly and otherworldly existence, a dizzying prospect.

The second empathizes with the mind and heart of a person whose life is slowly, painfully, inevitably ebbing.

These are companion volumes. I recommend both. Pastors especially will recognize hers as the voice of one who knows, her hands having held the hands of so many as their life ebbs away. She has heard the thoughts of the dying, struggled with their questions, listened to their complaints and their utterances too deep for words. The sufferings of others have tempered her own faith, moving her hope beyond mere wishful thinking into trust in the God who cares.

I especially liked A Faithful Farewell. She is not dying (to my knowledge) but imaginatively writes as one who is. Every emotion is expressed here—hopefulness, discouragement, anger, doubting, believing, laughing, scolding, hanging on, and then, at last, letting go.

Read the books slowly. Savor them. They are not handbooks for caregiving or getting your house in order before you die. Rather, they lead the reader to deeper reflections and more sensitive awareness of another’s (and one’s own) difficult passage to and through the final leave taking.

Manipulating Genes

Carrie Buck was a young woman in 1927, capable of conception and delivery if she had been left alone. Both were taken from her when she was sterilized. The treatment was science’s answer to a perplexing problem: How can dumb, obviously inferior human beings (in the opinion of their self-appointed superiors) be prevented from producing more dumb, obviously inferior human beings?

The solution seemed so obvious then, humane even. Later, when the obsessed Dr. Josef Mengele of Nazi Germany performed his nefarious “experiments” on Jews, twins, dwarfs, and other “defectives,” experiments that were part of the Third Reich’s campaign to rid itself of “undesirables” such as Jews, homosexuals, and others—an estimated 11 million died in the Holocaust—the new science of genetics seemed anything but benign.

This is only part of the gripping story Siddhartha Mukherjee tells in his masterful The Gene: An Intimate History. A professor of medicine at Columbia University, Dr. Mukherjee, a former Rhodes scholar, is Indian by descent, a cancer physician and researcher by passion and profession, and recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for his 2010 study of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. Add to all these accomplishments his elegance and unusual clarity of expression and you have the ingredients for a fascinating history of our growing understanding of the gene.

In his sweep he includes the insights of Aristotle, Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, James Collins, James Watson, Francis Crick, and many, many others who have pondered the inner workings of organisms, human and otherwise. The scientist Mukherjee becomes the poet/novelist Mukherjee as he tells their stories in brief, memorable vignettes.

This 608-page book, rich in technical detail, could have been pretty tedious slogging, but it isn’t. Potentially dry discussions of the workings of genes and chromosomes and genomes come alive with the author’s narrative skills and his candid sharing of what he learned from his family’s struggles with inherited mental illness.

My own interest in genetics has been heightened by a simple fact: for a long time in my long life I have been observing how certain traits make their way—in my family and several others I’ve known well—from generation to generation. Not just the obvious physical traits (“he looks just like his grandfather,” “she has her mother’s eyes”) but emotional behavior and even political leanings and other traits which seem to be totally dictated by nurture and not nature—except that they aren’t. What governs this inheritance? The Gene provides answers—some reassuring, some not so.

As I neared the end of the book I was cheered by Mukherjee’s treatment of the ethical issues involved in genetic manipulations. Scientists now have the capacity to ease or even wipe out certain illnesses. Should this genetic engineering be employed? Other illnesses can be avoided by prenatal testing. Such tests can have serious consequences. What if the test shows Down syndrome or sickle-cell anemia, for example? Should the pregnancy be aborted?

There is no denying that the human race stands to benefit from judicious tampering with the human genome. What also cannot be denied is that we stand to lose a great deal. Here is a good place to apply some of Solomon’s famed wisdom. History provided a great lesson when scientists in Nazi Germany—in the name of eugenics (“good birthing”) trying to dictate who was worthy of life—triggered horrendous consequences. Scientific capacity undocked from ethics can be pretty scary. Does the fact that we can mean that we should? Who decides?

We haven’t heard the last of this debate. The Gene is a good resource for it.

LeRoy Lawson serves as international consultant with CMF International.

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