Finding Normal Against the Backdrop of Incidentalomas

Watchman Nee wrote only one person on earth lived the “normal Christian life.” Many would not quibble with Nee except to note Jesus’ divinity and unique relationship with God certainly “bound” him to the very life lived. Nee as much as affirms the same when he wrote,

What is the normal Christian life? We do well at the outset to ponder this question. The object of these studies is to show that it is something very different from the life of the average Christian. Indeed a consideration of the written Word of Godâ??of the Sermon on the Mount for exampleâ??should lead us to ask whether such a life has ever in act been lived upon the earth, save only by the Son of God Himself. But in that last saving clause lies immediately the answer to our question.

Dallas Willard suggests the way to follow Jesus is to live life as Jesus would were he us. More compelling than WWJD. Jack Caputo explored the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” as a deconstructive hermeneutic of the Kingdom of God turning on “would” in the question generated from Sheldon’s In His Steps. Recently, Pete Rollins’ new book looks to pose the question “What would Judas do?” as a means of faithfulness to God.

Thomas Goetz, Deputy editor for Wired Magzine, wrote a piece titled, “Finding Normal” for the May 2008 issue. In this fascinating piece Goetz suggests the shift to predictive medicine results in some to undergo unnecessary treatment with damaging side effects.

For example, Goetz refers to a recent study by the Cancer Institute of New Jersey,

But in February researchers at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey found that 80 percent of men over age 66 with detectable prostate cancer who do nothing (so-called watchful waiting) will likely die of something else. In other words, most of those who get treatment – and could be impotent as a result – should have gone without it. (Wired, May 2008, p.24)

Goetz contends the shift to predictive medicine left us looking for problems without a full understanding of normal. There is the potential in a “Normal Human Project” described as something of a “comprehensive, quantitative molecular and cellular characterization of “the normal human.”

He ends his piece quoting Pat Brown adding an important final commentary,

“to accept the fact that we don’t know a tremendous amount about things we think we know. We could learn some humility.” That, however, may be asking too much of science.

Jesus’ life is certainly normative for those who commit to following him. But, our derivative attempts to emulate Jesus seem often far from “normal.” Without a comprehensive understanding of the life and work of Jesus we tend to become hyper-focused on one aspect to the exclusion of others. Like the legalists of Jesus’ day we too over-emphasize those problems which we fear may be our own undoing and exclude the matters resulting in what really should distinguish us as different persons.

Since 1960, Goetz notes the decline in human autopsies. At one time more than 50 percent of all deceased underwent autopsies. Today the number is under 10 percent. This move away from wanting to know what “normal” looks like to “how can we detect a problem” results in “incidentalomas.” These, “smudges that look like cancer but turn out – often after surgery – to be benign.”

Too often we make much of “incidentalomas” in our efforts to live out the life of Jesus. We discover, often after the damage is done, our way of life grated against someone’s sensibilities but not against the life of Jesus. While, as Goetz rightly notes,

Though new detective technologies like proteomics have made great progress in associating particular biomarkers with certain cancers or diseases, we still don’t know how often those same markers turn up in nondisease situations.

We quickly point to Jude’s call to “contend for the faith once delivered to the saints” and then promptly insert just what the “faith once delivered” means to us. In our case, Baptists and particularly Southern Baptists. Our “normal’ becomes normal for all others. Our rhetoric gets ramped up under the banner of the Word of God as though our interpretive grid somehow came down from on high. I can pick on we Baptists – “I are one.”

The truth is, when it comes to living out the faith every Christian denominational expression contends for their understanding of Jude’s charge. Inter-nicene squabbles erupt in many denominations, including ours, as rivals assert their visions of just what the “faith delivered to the saints” looks like. Rather than a proper confidence many express a certainty leading to unnecesary diagnoses. Ridding a given denomination of an alternate understanding becomes the over-riding agenda. Charges of “weak ecclesiology” and “heresy” super-charge the debate making real honest conversation impossible.

Normal Christians could really care less about these squabbles. Leaders in these denominations come off looking pious to some but ridiculous to others. The “normal Christian” life is full of incidentalomas – non-cancerous experiences in need of shepherds to come along side and help navigate. Sometimes in need of a prophet to offer a cleanser for the smudge rather than chemo for what is non-threatening.

Why take a survey of the “normal Christian” life. Rather than studying to pass an informational exam created by seminary graduates or intellectual wannabe’s, these folks do understand the need to not only live as good people, but want to live lives reflective of the glory of God. The solution is not getting every turn of Reformed doctrine right or holding a John 3:16 conference. The real solution is to let the normal life of Jesus be normative. When Jesus calls for turning the cheek, saying no to anger, trusting rather than worrying or any number of calls to live as truly human under the rule and reign of God we respond with not just an affirmative, “Yes.” but an obedient life. Obedient not to the gatekeepers of “sound doctrine.” Obedient to the Gatekeeper himself.

Many will decry such a bifurcation. The separation between the two realities is palpable and leaves many liking Jesus but not the church. And, leaving many church leaders, liking Jesus but not the church. Call it a false dichotomy (gatekeepers of sound doctrine and the Gatekeeper). You may have some grounds on the merits of our need to be faithful to the teaching of Jesus. But you will miss the point if you think the exercise is purely intellectual. Not only are our own people wrestling with this silly division that marks our leadership conversations in many a denomination, it is downright repelling to those we would invite into a “normal Christian” life of following Jesus.

Goetz’s final commentary is instructive as well as stinging. We could re-write it this way

to accept the fact that we don’t know a tremendous amount about the things we think we know (insert being persons of faith over against being confident of our doctrine). We could learn some humility.” That, however, may be asking too much of some Christians in general and Christian leaders in particular.

About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.