December 24, 2011


The Birth of Jesus: From Mary to the manger, how the Gospels mix faith and history to tell the Christmas story and make the case for Christ (Jon Meacham, 12/13/04, Newsweek)

Like the Victorians, we live in an age of great belief and great doubt, and sometimes it seems as though we must choose between two extremes, the evangelical and the secular. "I don't want to be too simplistic, but our faith is somewhat childlike," says the Rev. H. B. London, a vice president of James Dobson's conservative Focus on the Family organization in Colorado Springs. "Though other people may question the historical validity of the virgin birth, and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we don't." London's view has vast public support. A NEWSWEEK Poll found that 84 percent of American adults consider themselves Christians, and 82 percent see Jesus as God or the son of God. Seventy-nine percent say they believe in the virgin birth, and 67 percent think the Christmas story�from the angels' appearance to the Star of Bethlehem�is historically accurate. [...]

A man with no human father, a king who died a criminal's death, a God who assures us of everlasting life in a world to come while the world he made is consumed by war and strife: Christianity is a religion of perplexing contradictions. To live an examined faith believers have to acknowledge those complexities and engage them, however frustrating it may be. "We are in a world of mystery, with one bright Light before us, sufficient for our proceeding forward through all difficulties," wrote John Henry Newman, the great Victorian cleric whose intellectual journey led him from the Anglican priesthood to the Roman Curia. "Take away this Light and we are utterly wretched�we know not where we are, how we are sustained, what will become of us, and of all that is dear to us, what we are to believe, and why we are in being." The Christmas star is just one such light; there are others. Whatever our backgrounds, whatever our creeds, many of us are in search of the kind of faith that will lead us through the darkness, toward home. In Luke, the angelic host hails the Lord and then says: "on earth peace, good will toward men"�a promise whose fulfillment is worth our prayers not only in this season, but always.

Reading Edward Larson's very fine book on the Scopes Trial, one comes to the great showdown between William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow and it is striking, in the original, to see just how obsessed Darrow was by the contradictions of the Bible in contrast to the equanimity of Bryan. If Bryan's beliefs are, by definition, less rational, it is Darrow who comes across as a fanatic:
Judge--Do you want Mr. Bryan sworn?


Bryan--I can make affirmation; I can say "So help me God, I will tell the truth."

Darrow--No, I take it you will tell the truth, Mr. Bryan. You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven't you, Mr. Bryan?

Bryan--Yes, sir, I have tried to.

Darrow--Then you have made a general study of it?

Bryan--Yes, I have; I have studied the Bible for about 50 years, or sometime more than that, but, of course, I have studied it more as I have become older than when I was but a boy.

Darrow--You claim that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?

Bryan--I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there: some of the Bible is given illustratively. For instance: "Ye are the salt of the earth." I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God's people.

Darrow--But when you read that Jonah swallowed the whale--or that the whale swallowed Jonah--excuse me please--how do you literally interpret that?

Bryan--When I read that a "big fish" swallowed Jonah--it does not say whale. That is my recollection of it. A big fish, and I believe it, and I believe in a God who can make a whale and can make a man and make both what He pleases.

Darrow--Now, you say, the big fish swallowed Jonah, and he there remained how long--three days--and then he spewed him upon the land. You believe that the big fish was made to swallow Jonah?

Bryan--I am not prepared to say that; the Bible merely says it was done.

Darrow--You don't know whether it was the ordinary run of fish, or made for that purpose?

Bryan--You may guess; you evolutionists guess...

Darrow--You are not prepared to say whether that fish was made especially to swallow a man or not?

Bryan--The Bible doesn't say, so I am not prepared to say.

Darrow--But do you believe He made them--that He made such a fish and that it was big enough to swallow Jonah?

Bryan--Yes, sir. Let me add: One miracle is just as easy to believe as another.

Darrow--Just as hard?

Bryan--It is hard to believe for you, but easy for me. A miracle is a thing performed beyond what man can perform. When you get within the realm of miracles; and it is just as easy to believe the miracle of Jonah as any other miracle in the Bible.

Darrow--Perfectly easy to believe that Jonah swallowed the whale?

Bryan--If the Bible said so; the Bible doesn't make as extreme statements as evolutionists do.

Darrow--The Bible says Joshua commanded the sun to stand still for the purpose of lengthening the day, doesn't it, and you believe it.

Bryan--I do.

Darrow--Do you believe at that time the entire sun went around the earth?

Bryan--No, I believe that the earth goes around the sun.

Darrow--Do you believe that the men who wrote it thought that the day could be lengthened or that the sun could be stopped?

Bryan--I don't know what they thought.

Darrow--You don't know?

Bryan--I think they wrote the fact without expressing their own thoughts.

Darrow--Have you an opinion as to whether or not the men who wrote that thought--

Thomas Stewart (a prosecution lawyer)--I want to object, your honor. It has gone beyond the pale of any issue that could possibly be injected into this lawsuit, except by imagination. I do not think the defendant has a right to conduct the examination any further and I ask your honor to exclude it.

Bryan--It seems to me it would be too exacting to confine the defense to the facts. If they are not allowed to get away from the facts, what have they to deal with?

Judge--Mr. Bryan is willing to be examined. Go ahead.

Darrow--Can you answer my question directly? If the day was lengthened by stopping either the earth or the sun, it must have been the earth?

Bryan--Well, I should say so.

Darrow--Now, Mr. Bryan, have you ever pondered what would have happened to the earth if it had stood still?


Darrow--You have not?

Bryan--No; the God I believe in could have taken care of that, Mr. Darrow.

Darrow--I see. Have you ever pondered what would naturally happen to the earth if it stood still suddenly?


Darrow--Don't you know it would have been converted into molten mass of matter?

Bryan--You testify to that when you get on the stand, I will give you a chance.

Darrow--Don't you believe it?

Bryan--I would want to hear expert testimony on that.

Darrow--You have never investigated that subject?

Bryan--I don't think I have ever had the question asked.

Darrow--Or ever thought of it?

Bryan--I have been too busy on things that I thought were of more importance.

Darrow--You believe the story of the flood to be a literal interpretation?

Bryan--Yes, sir.

Darrow--When was that flood?

Bryan--I would not attempt to fix the date. The date is fixed, as suggested this morning.

Darrow--About 4004 B.C.?

Bryan--That has been the estimate of a man that is accepted today. [A witness had testified on Bishop Ussher's theory that the Earth was formed in 4004 B.C.] I would not say it is accurate.

Darrow--That estimate is printed in the Bible?

Bryan--Everybody knows, at least, I think most of the people know, that was the estimate given.

Darrow--But what do you think that the Bible itself says? Don't you know how it was arrived at?

Bryan--I never made a calculation.

Darrow--A calculation from what?

Bryan--I could not say.

Darrow--From the generations of man?

Bryan--I would not want to say that.

Darrow--What do you think?

Bryan--I do not think about things I don't think about.

Darrow--Do you think about things you do think about?

Bryan--Well, sometimes. (Laughter.)

Policeman--Let us have order....

Thomas Stewart {prosecution attorney}--Your honor, he is perfectly able to take care of this, but we are attaining no evidence. This is not competent evidence.

Bryan--These gentlemen have not had much chance--they did not come here to try this case. They came here to try revealed religion. I am here to defend it and they can ask me any question they please.

Judge--All right. (Applause.)

Darrow--Great applause from the bleachers.

Bryan--From those whom you call "yokels."

Darrow--I have never called them yokels.

Bryan--That is the ignorance of Tennessee, the bigotry.

Darrow--You mean who are applauding you? (Applause.)

Bryan--Those are the people whom you insult.

Darrow--You insult every man of science and learning in the world because he does believe in your fool religion.

Judge--I will not stand for that.

Darrow--For what he is doing?

Judge--I am talking to both of you.

Darrow--Do you know anything about how many people there were in Egypt 3,500 years ago, or how many people there were in China 5,000 years ago?


Darrow--Have you ever tried to find out?

Bryan--No, sir. You are the first man I ever heard of who has been interested in it. (Laughter.)

Darrow--Mr. Bryan, am I the first man you ever heard of who has been interested in the age of human societies and primitive man?

Bryan--You are the first man I ever heard speak of the number of people at those different periods.

Darrow--Where have you lived all your life?

Bryan--Not near you. (Laughter and applause.)

Darrow--Nor near anybody of learning?

Bryan--Oh, don't assume you know it all.

Darrow--Do you know there are thousands of books in our libraries on all those subjects I have been asking you about?

Bryan--I couldn't say, but I will take your word for it....

Darrow--Have you any idea how old the earth is?


Darrow--The book you have introduced in evidence tells you, doesn't it?

Bryan--I don't think it does, Mr. Darrow.

Darrow--Let's see whether it does; is this the one?

Bryan--That is the one, I think.

Darrow--It says B.C. 4004?

Bryan--That is Bishop Ussher's calculation.

Darrow--That is printed in the Bible you introduced?

Bryan--Yes, sir.

Darrow--Would you say that the earth was only 4,000 years old?

Bryan--Oh, no; I think it is much older than that.

Darrow--How much?

Bryan--I couldn't say.

Darrow--Do you say whether the Bible itself says it is older than that?

Bryan--I don't think it is older or not.

Darrow--Do you think the earth was made in six days?

Bryan--Not six days of 24 hours.

Darrow--Doesn't it say so?

Bryan--No, sir.

Judge--Are you about through, Mr. Darrow?

Darrow--I want to ask a few more questions about the creation.

Judge--I know. We are going to adjourn when Mr. Bryan comes off the stand for the day. Be very brief, Mr. Darrow. Of course, I believe I will make myself clearer. Of course, it is incompetent testimony before the jury. The only reason I am allowing this to go in at all is that they may have it in the appellate court as showing what the affidavit would be.

Bryan--The reason I am answering is not for the benefit of the superior court. It is to keep these gentlemen from saying I was afraid to meet them and let them question me, and I want the Christian world to know that any atheist, agnostic, unbeliever, can question me anytime as to my belief in God, and I will answer him.

Darrow--I want to take an exception to this conduct of this witness. He may be very popular down here in the hills--

Bryan--Your honor, they have not asked a question legally and the only reason they have asked any question is for the purpose, as the question about Jonah was asked, for a chance to give this agnostic an opportunity to criticize a believer in the world of God; and I answered the question in order to shut his mouth so that he cannot go out and tell his atheistic friends that I would not answer his questions. That is the only reason, no more reason in the world.

Malone (another defense counsel)--Your honor on this very subject, I would like to say that I would have asked Mr. Bryan, and I consider myself as good a Christian as he is, every question that Mr. Darrow has asked him for the purpose of bringing out whether or not there is to be taken in this court a literal interpretation of the Bible, or whether, obviously, as these questions indicate, if a general and literal construction cannot be put upon the parts of the Bible which have been covered by Mr. Darrow's questions. I hope for the last time no further attempt will be made by counsel on the other side of the case, or Mr. Bryan, to say the defense is concerned at all with Mr. Darrow's particular religious views or lack of religious views. We are here as lawyers with the same right to our views. I have the same right to mine as a Christian as Mr. Bryan has to his, and we do not intend to have this case charged by Mr. Darrow's agnosticism or Mr. Bryan's brand of Christianity. (A great applause.)

Darrow --Mr. Bryan, do you believe that the first woman was Eve?


Darrow--Do you believe she was literally made out of Adam's rib? Bryan--I do.

Darrow--Did you ever discover where Cain got his wife?

Bryan--No, sir. I leave the agnostics to hunt for her.

Darrow--You have never found out?

Bryan--I have never tried to find out.

Darrow--You have never tried to find out?


Darrow--The Bible says he got one, doesn't it? Were there other people on the earth at that time?

Bryan--I cannot say.

Darrow--You cannot say. Did that ever enter your consideration?

Bryan--Never bothered me.

Darrow--There were no others recorded, but Cain got a wife.

Bryan--That is what the Bible says.

Darrow--Where she came from you do not know. All right. Does the statement, "The morning and the evening were the first day," and "The morning and the evening were the second day," mean anything to you?

Bryan--I do not think it necessarily means a 24-hour day.

Darrow--You do not?


Darrow--What do you consider it to be?

Bryan--I have not attempted to explain it. If you will take the second chapter--let me have the book. [Reaches for a Bible.] The fourth verse of the second chapter says: "These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth, when they were created in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens," the word day there in the very next chapter is used to describe a period. I do not see that there is any necessity for construing the words, "the evening and the morning," as meaning necessarily a 24-hour day, "in the day when the Lord made the heaven and the earth."

Darrow--Then, when the Bible said, for instance, "and God called the firmament heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day," that does not necessarily mean twenty-four hours?

Bryan--I do not think it necessarily does.

Darrow--Do you think it does or does not?

Bryan--I know a great many think so.

Darrow--What do you think?

Bryan--I do not think it does.

Darrow--You think those were not literal days?

Bryan--I do not think they were twenty-four-hour days.

Darrow--What do you think about it?

Bryan--That is my opinion--I do not know that my opinion is better on that subject than those who think it does.

Darrow--You do not think that?

Bryan--No. But I think it would be just as easy for the kind of God we believe in to make the earth in six days as in six years or in 6 million years or in 600 million years. I do not think it important whether we believe one or the other.

Darrow--Do you think those were literal days?

Bryan--My impression is they were periods, but I would not attempt to argue against anybody who wanted to believe in literal days.

Darrow--I will read it to you from the Bible: "And the Lord God said unto the serpent, because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life." Do you think that is why the serpent is compelled to crawl upon its belly?

Bryan--I believe that.

Darrow--Have you any idea how the snake went before that time?

Bryan--No, sir.

Darrow--Do you know whether he walked on his tail or not?

Bryan--No, sir. I have no way to know. (Laughter.)

Darrow--Now, you refer to the cloud that was put in heaven after the flood, the rainbow. Do you believe in that?

Bryan--Read it.

Darrow--All right, Mr. Bryan, I will read it for you.

Bryan--Your Honor, I think I can shorten this testimony. The only purpose Mr. Darrow has is to slur at the Bible, but I will answer his question. I will answer it all at once, and I have no objection in the world. I want the world to know that this man, who does not believe in a God, is trying to use a court in Tennessee to slur at it, and while it will require time, I am willing to take it.

Darrow--I object to your statement. I am examining you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes.

Judge--Court is adjourned until 9 o'clock tomorrow morning.

[originally posted: 2004-12-12]

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Posted by at December 24, 2011 12:00 AM

Absolutely fascinating. Thanks.

Posted by: JimGooding at December 12, 2004 8:24 PM

Darrow was a fanatic, and a not very bright one at that.

I recall doing a paper on the death penalty in college, and coming across a compilation of various arguments for and agin.

The book included Darrow (against of course) and John Stuart Mill (pro).

All I knew of Darrow was the legend -- great trial atty yada yada yada.

Reading Darrow's pathetic arguments next to Mill was a revelation.

Darrow came across as a half-wit.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at December 13, 2004 1:31 AM


Any lawyer who gets to pick the jury can look like a genius, just ask Johnny Cochran.

Posted by: Bart at December 13, 2004 6:48 AM

I'm not sure Bryan comes off any better.

Bryan--I do not think they were twenty-four-hour days.

In what context does the term "day" have any meaning except on a rotating planet?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 13, 2004 7:44 AM


In what context does the term "day" have any meaning except on a rotating planet?

<OldTimerVoice>Well, back in my day...</OldTimerVoice>

Posted by: Roy Jacobsen at December 13, 2004 10:34 AM


Excellent. And someone might reply: "Well, Grandad, this is the dawn of a new day."

Posted by: Peter B at December 13, 2004 10:52 AM

Roy, Peter:

Perhaps you are being too dismissive.

When Bryan dodges the question, he was either being disengenuous, or hadn't given it a thought.

From his point of view, God had revealed the story of creation to men, in terms they could understand. Days, to them, and us, have a very constrained meaning.

Bryan did not have the strength of his convictions, and instead tried simultaneously to support literal and metaphorical truth.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 13, 2004 12:13 PM

My point was, and is, that "days" does not have as constrained a meaning as you seem to insist.

Posted by: Roy Jacobsen at December 13, 2004 12:25 PM


The point of it all is that scripture is not science and not history. Darrow was trying to pin Bryan down on scientific terms, and Byron properly declined. You seem to belive that those who challenge scientific naturalism must have an alternative explanation that will meet scientific naturalist standards. It doesn't work that way.

There are lots of good and effective ways to challenge the religious, Jeff, but scientifically verifiable empirical evidence is not one of them.

Posted by: Peter B at December 13, 2004 8:38 PM

I thought you guys admired fanaticism.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 13, 2004 9:54 PM

So, Jeff, are you completely familiar with the Hebrew term that has been translated as "day," and with all metaphorical usages of that word in Hebrew?

In English we certainly have metaphors, but I do not think Bryan was claiming that it was written in English first. Your argument based on the meaning in English is not only mistaken, but nearly irrelevant.

In any case, it is quite clear that Bryan's testimony was quite different from how popularly portrayed. It was Darrow apparently couldn't understand metaphors, not Bryan.

Posted by: John Thacker at December 14, 2004 1:49 AM


No, I'm not familiar with the metaphorical usages of that term. And, as Roy points out, the term 'day,' by itself, isn't quite as constrained as I stated; however, in a context using terms such as "evening" and "morning," the meaning seems quite constrained to that given by Earth rotating on its axis.

So my argument is not whether the writers of Genesis meant literal days (is there any evidence that they didn't?). But rather, that Bryan, in saying I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there is talking as a scriptural literalist in putting the entire contents beyond discussion. then turns around and follows it up with weasel words and evasions.

Darrow, it seems, failed to take his audience into account, and was needlessly antagonistic. But Bryan comes across a passive waffler.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 14, 2004 7:30 AM


But rather, that Bryan, in saying I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there is talking as a scriptural literalist in putting the entire contents beyond discussion.

I don't think he was necessarily talking as a scriptural literalist. He could have easily added the following: "If something in the Bible is given as poetry, accept it as poetry. If it is given as metaphor, accept it as metaphor."

Posted by: Roy Jacobsen at December 14, 2004 4:42 PM


Excellent point; one that I hadn't fully thought of.

But who is to tell? Once one starts making personal decisions about which is metaphor, and which is narrative, then it seems one is getting very subjective about the whole thing.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 14, 2004 7:28 PM


At what point is one not subjective?

Posted by: oj at December 14, 2004 8:06 PM


I don't know. But unless you have a "Can you hear me now? Good." channel to God, then deciding which is metaphor, and which is textual, is an exercise where mileages will definitely vary.

That isn't a problem for me, since I view the Bible as both a great deal of time honored wisdom and some arrant nonsense, none of it Divinely Inspired.

But there is no explaining away the plethora of Christian sects without their subjective replacement of my word "none" above with subjective assumptions ranging from "very little" to "all," with the phrase "some arrant nonsense" varying in inverse proportion.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 15, 2004 7:50 AM


No, the point is that reason demonstrates that it's all metaphor.

Posted by: oj at December 15, 2004 8:48 AM


No, my point is that for being the font of Absolute Truth, the Bible is astonishingly flexible.

Kind of like measuring things with a rubber ruler.

This has nought to do with reason.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 15, 2004 12:12 PM

Absolute Truth is astonishingly flexible precisely because all is merely metaphor.

Posted by: oj at December 15, 2004 12:22 PM

John, the audience in the courtroom believed, most of them, that the Bible was written in English and that 'day' meant the 24-hour period we associate with that word.

I grew up there.

Bryan was a cosmopolitan sophisticate, dangerously out of touch with the community standards of Dayton.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 16, 2004 1:44 AM

There's no reason a 24 hour day couldn't be billions of years in geological time.

Posted by: oj at December 16, 2004 7:59 AM

Absolute Truth is astonishingly flexible precisely because all is merely metaphor.

That's it. I'm going into seclusion. OJ has become a Jacques Derrida disciple.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 16, 2004 8:01 AM


Derrida was right, he was just aping Hume. The difference is that Hume and the English realized that insight about Reason failing is unimportant to our faith-filled lives.

Posted by: oj at December 16, 2004 8:17 AM

Well, either you have been lying all along everywhere else, or are doing some hand waving here.

I'm betting on the latter.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 16, 2004 12:37 PM

Maybe not, Orrin, but you'd be thrown out of any church in Dayton for saying so.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 16, 2004 2:07 PM

Bryant wasn't.

Posted by: oj at December 16, 2004 2:21 PM


Conservatives rely on time honored standards far more than just metaphors.

Derrida believed in no such thing.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 17, 2004 12:10 PM

Standards are metaphors.

Posted by: oj at December 17, 2004 12:58 PM
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