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Epilepsy and the Bible

24 December, 2015


I have, for some time now, been concerned about stuff in the Bible that seems to contradict my understanding.  It started with promises about answers to prayer (e.g. that a tree get up and throw itself into the sea), but spread to other things, like instructions to treat dwarfs as moral inferiors or stories about shocking sexual behaviour by various characters in the book of Genesis.  Numerous contradictions also cause me some concern.


Obviously, if you question some things, it can lead to problems with deciding what we can trust and what we cannot trust about everything.  I have taken the position that human error or progressive revelation of God’s will explains much of it, while others have been more staunch in what I would call a “fundamentalist” approach, believing that it’s all perfect, regardless of whether we agree with it or not.  Part of me wants to hang onto that, knowing that, in the bigger picture, the human race has been too quick to dismiss even God himself as a human invention.


I still believe quite literally, for example, that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he rose from the dead, that he is going to return to judge the world… those sort of things.  And I know of others who have questioned some parts of the Bible, but who still cling strongly to fundamental truths in other areas.  I feel unity with such people, even though we may differ on which parts are questionable.


But I saw a movie this week which gave me added hope that even the “contradictions” may come from some human misunderstanding that will one day be made clear to us.  It relates to a story from the gospels, which I have often used to illustrate my concerns about how best to interpret scripture.  It’s the story about Jesus healing the epileptic son of a man who complained because his disciples did not know how to heal him.  The blame was put on a demon, that needed to be cast out, and Jesus rebuked his disciples for not knowing how to deal with it, saying that it takes prayer and fasting to overcome such a demon.


I have always felt that it is quite unfair to think of epileptics as being demon-possessed, when we now have more scientific ways of dealing with what is widely regarded as a neurological defect.  If the Bible could be wrong on this one, then it may well be that we have misunderstood some other things that it has to say about, say, homosexuals.  The whole matter of whether we should trust science or medicine at all comes into question, and Christians all over the world struggle with where to draw the line on health issues.


The movie I’m talking about is “…first do no harm”.  It was made in 1997, and stars Meryl Streep, as the mother of a boy with severe epilepsy.  It starts by showing that doctors really know very little about epilepsy.  What works for one does not work for others, and some of the treatments bring side effects which can be worse than the disease itself.  The boy in the movie gets worse and worse, despite numerous medications, eventually suffering up to 100 fits a day.


And then his mother discovers a dietary treatment for epilepsy that had been used as early as the 1920s, and which was being used at Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore at that time, as well as in the Mayo Clinic.  By this stage, her son had deteriorated to a point where he was near death, and doctors were planning surgery to map his brain, in an effort to find something that they might be able to cut out to stop the seizures.  They strongly opposed the mother flying her son interstate for this treatment, which starts with a three-day fast, and then a very strict diet.  They objected on the grounds that the treatment was not supported by the bulk of the medical community.  They were even making plans to legally prevent the mother from doing this, for fear that the boy would die on the journey across the country.  She came close to having her son taken away from her by doctors who had, themselves, failed repeatedly to meet his needs.


The diet (called a ketogenic diet) is a high-fat, low carbohydrate diet.  When the body burns fat instead of carbohydrates, it produces ketones, which appear to be the magic ingredient that stops the seizures in some people.  To be fair, the movie says that it only works for about one-third of the people who use it (mostly children, I believe), although it does seem to actually heal some completely, so that after a few years on the diet they can eventually eat normally.


So how does this relate to my understanding of scripture?


Well, even in this movie they quote from the story about the epileptic boy brought to Jesus, noting that even his own disciples did not have an answer, and also noting that Jesus mentions fasting as part of the solution.  Both of these references (that his disciples could not heal the boy, and that fasting was part of the solution) are unique to this one healing story in the Bible.  It is also interesting that even after Jesus rebukes the devil, the boy has a fit.  To the general public, no healing happened at all.  The boy eventually pulled out of the fit, but then that is normal for epileptics anyway.


What I would like to suggest is that there may be other parts of the Bible which contain hidden wisdom that will only make more sense as we become more open to revelations which originate from other sources than just scripture itself (e.g. scientific research).  This approach is both “fundamentalist” and “radical” at the same time.  It is fundamentalist in that it recognises that the Bible may actually be right in areas where it appears to be wrong; and it is radical in that the way to reach the truth may not come from our human understanding of the Bible, but from a sincere desire to find and recognise the truth as revealed through other sources.


In the Bible story, one assumes, for example, that Jesus is saying that the disciples needed to fast more if they were to find the power to heal the boy.  There may be some truth in that, and yet the Johns Hopkins solution involved the patient fasting… not as some sort of medieval torture, but as a prelude to a change of diet.  


The disciples had previously reported a lot of success with things like casting out devils in Jesus’ name, and yet in this situation, their previous experience did not seem to be working.  That, too, may have relevance to both fundamentalism on the part of Bible scholars and another form of fundamentalism on the part of the medical fraternity.  With the ketogenic diet approach, neither loud rebukes of the devil, nor administration of drugs solved the problem, whereas a change of diet did.


The “devil” that needed to be cast out actually resided as much in the hearts of those who stubbornly pushed their own understanding (whether it be the medical fraternity or religious fundamentalists) as it did in the patient.


What I have observed with regard to this story about epilepsy (both from the Bible and from the movie) does not provide an answer for other apparent contradictions in the Bible. Neither does it provide a full or perfect explanation for epilepsy; but what it does show to me is that there may be a need for us to merge our understanding of scripture with our understanding of science, focusing more on a humble search for the truth in both.


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