JEFF DANIELS and LOU TAYLOR PUCCI

When I saw a film named The Answer Man in the Netflix catalog, I thought it might be about Albert C. Mitchell, who had a radio show by that name that was still running when I was a kid. In that show, Mitchell offered to answer any question that was called or mailed in by a listener. The show was contrived to give the impression that Mitchell could answer these questions off the top of his head, but that wasn’t the case. Steve Allen famously did a parody of this show in which he played the “Question Man.” He would be given an answer, and he would provide the question. One answer, for example, was “the cow jumped over the moon.” The question was, “What happened when lightning hit the milking machine?”

LAUREN GRAHAM and JEFF DANIELS

Anyway, the movie isn’t about that. Instead, it’s about a writer named Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels) whose one success was a book called Me and God, in which he revealed that he had had a personal encounter with the Creator of all that is  . The book took the form of a series questions and the Almighty’s answers. This one success was the only one Faber needed. The original book and a wide variety of spin-offs — including a cook book — written by other people made him a wildly popular celebrity.

MAX ANTISELL

But Faber wasn’t interested in fame. In fact, in the 20 years after the book appeared, he hasn’t made a public appearance or consented to an interview, despite the pleas of his publisher. He spends most of his time in his Philadelphia apartment and, on the rare occasion that he speaks directly to another human being, his behavior ranges from disagreeable to obnoxious.

His  routine is upset, however, when his life intersects with those of two disconnected strangers: Elizabeth (Lauren Graham), a single mother who has just opened a chiropractic office, and Kris Lucas (Lou Taylor Pucci), a young man whose bout with alcoholism has put at risk the book store he runs with his assistant Dahlia (Kat Dennings).

LAUREN GRAHAM and OLIVIA THIRLBY

Faber comes in contact with Lauren because he needs treatments for his bad back. Lauren and her receptionist, Anne (Olivia Thirlby), don’t know what to make of the volatile and manipulative Faber, but Faber is attracted to Laurenr — the first such attraction for him in decades — and he develops an uncharacteristically benign relationship with her young son, Alex (Max Antisell). Faber wants to get rid of some of the books that he has accumulated in his apartment, and he tries to sell them to Kris, who has no cash to buy them with. The impending loss of his store is not the worst of Kris’s problems, though. His effort to stay sober isn’t helped by the fact that he lives with an endearing but alcoholic father. In a desperate attempt to keep from slipping under the waves, Kris blackmails Faber into an arrangement in which Kris will take a few of Faber’s excess books off his hands each time Faber, drawing on his supposed supernatural source of wisdom, answer one of Kris’s questions .

JEFF DANIELS and MAX ANTISELL

There is, of course, a reason why Faber has hidden from public view for two decades, and that back story eventually comes out into the daylight.

This film, which was made in 2008, got mediocre reviews, but we found it engaging. I did object to some unnecessary physical humor, but the premise is unusual, the main characters are interesting, and the actors are effective in those roles. Although this is described as a romantic comedy, Pucci’s performance as a young man in the grip of addiction is particularly disturbing.

Don’t believe the critics.

THEA BOWMAN

The literary scholar and Catholic nun Thea Bowman recalled in the video “Almost Home” that the old folks she knew when she was growing up in Mississippi were steeped in Holy Writ. “I was reared around a lot of old people,” she said. “They knew Scripture. I knew people who could not read or write, but they could quote you a Scripture with the chapter and verse. They would use Scripture when they were tired and a Scripture when they were frustrated, a Scripture to challenge us . . . a Scripture to threaten you, a Scripture to reward you or to praise you or to teach you; I grew up in that kind of world.’’

But these folks, Bowman said in the album “Songs of My People,” didn’t concern themselves with whether or not Jonah and the big fish that swallowed him were real. What these folks were interested in was the truth that was communicated by that story — a truth that had to do with life today — namely, the imperative of accepting the will of God.

For my money, that was an enlightened point of view, a sensible way of approaching the Bible. Everyone doesn’t agree. There are Christians who believe that the Bible means what it says — period.

If there are two contradictory accounts of the creation of human beings, two differing accounts of the death of Judas, four accounts of Easter morning at the empty tomb, and three accounts of the conversion of St. Paul — well, this is the infallible word of God, so they say.

This is one of the issues that is explored in The Rise and Fall of the Bible (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), an engaging little book by Timothy Beal, who is a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Beal writes a great deal in this book about the Bible-publishing business, which he thinks is on the wane — likely to decline if not disappear in the digital revolution. Even at that, he argues, although there are lots of Bibles being published and sold — in a dizzying variety of formats — the number of people who are actually reading the sacred texts is another matter.

In fact, Beal maintains, some versions of the Bible — loaded with sidebars and commentaries and graphics that tend to push the Chapters and Verses into the background — are not calculated to get people directly engaged with Moses and Isaiah and Mark and Matthew and the rest of that crowd. In many cases, he thinks, the design is to get the reader to accept a particular interpretation of the Biblical content and to overlook — or remain unaware of — the ambiguities and contradictions that are in the very nature of the Bible. These are Beal’s own words:

The icon of the Bible as God’s textbook for the world is as bankrupt as the idea that it stands for, of religious faith as absolute black-and-white certainty. Just as the cultural icon of the flag often becomes a substitute for patriotism, and just as the cultural icon of the four-wheel-drive truck often becomes a substitute for manly independence and self-confidence, so the cultural icon of the Bible often becomes a substitute for a vital life of faith, which calls not for obedient adherence to clear answers but thoughtful engagement with ultimate questions. The Bible itself invites that kind of engagement.

Beal maintains that the iconic view of the Bible as the single source of religious truth ignores the history of the Bible, which did not exist as a single entity until hundreds of years into the Christian era — and still appears in more than one configuration. Beal predicts that Bible reading — like most other reading — will eventually become a digital experience, and he welcomes that prospect. He sees a healthy similarity between the generations of transmission of the traditions and texts that eventually became the Bible — a process that involved, and still involves, constant re-reading and re-translating and re-interpreting — and the generations to come in which the Scriptures will be subject to the kind of discourse that is already going on in other fields of study on, of all things, the Internet.

Beal points out that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t take the Hebrew Scriptures to have one literal meaning, but engaged in interpretation of a kind that still goes on among Jewish scholars — a process I have listened to with fascination at no less revered a venue than the Western Wall. The author doesn’t see religious faith as a science of certainties but as a struggle that has its intermittent moments of enlightenment and elation and doubt and discouragement. His viewpoint reminded me of an observation made by Albino Luciani — Pope John Paul I — that even the angels ascending to heaven on Jacob’s ladder were taking only one step at a time.

This is Beal’s conclusion:

In kindred spirit, what if we were to think of the Word of God not as bound between two covers of a book but as that endless noise of interpretation, an inconclusive process that we are invited to join? What if that cacophonous hymn, rising up across time and space from digital networks, living rooms, lunchrooms, churches, and bus stops is the living Word of God? An endless, inarticulate din of talking, arguing, reading, and rereading in the library of questions. The Word as we don’t know it. The Word as we live it. Word without end.

THOMAS AQUINAS

“The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Catholic, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false.”

Thus spake the Dominican priest Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Aquinas was a master of the syllogism, and his idea of scientific scrutiny was that conclusions had to be based on premises which themselves were either self evident or had been objectively demonstrated. I thought of Aquinas when I wrote a post yesterday about Albert Einstein, who was in the business of putting together premises and conclusions. In a sense, Aquinas and Einstein came at the question of the origins of the universe from opposite directions. Aquinas was a man of faith, but he believed — and sought to demonstrate in his “Summa Theologica” — that a person could arrive at the existence of a First Cause — God — through reason alone.

ALBERT EINSTEIN

Einstein didn’t believe in God in the sense that Jews and Christians and Muslims do. In that sense, he didn’t believe in a god at all, no matter how hard religious folks try to hear him saying otherwise. However, Einstein’s  lifetime of inquiry into the physical laws that govern the universe did lead him to speculate — forgive me if I don’t express this precisely — that somewhere beyond the seemingly endless questions about the universe must lie some force that governs it.

I recently discussed all this — Aquinas, Einstein, God, the origin of the universe — with, of all people, the actress Sandy Duncan.

SANDY DUNCAN

By “of all people,” I don’t mean to imply that there is anything surprising about Sandy Duncan discussing such things. In fact, I gathered she gives such things quite a bit of thought and has had provocative conversations about them with her two adult sons. I only meant that I would be unlikely to talk to Sandy Duncan at all, except that she was scheduled to appear in a new play that examines the outfall that can occur when science and religion collide head-on. The actress was to play the title role in “Creating Claire” by Joe DiPietro, but she took ill, withdrew from the cast, and was replaced by another talented performer, Barbara Walsh.

JOE DiPIETRO

DiPietro’s play begins previews tomorrow night at the cradle of new theatrical works, the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. The title character, Claire Buchanan, is a teacher but now works as a docent at the Museum of Earth and Sky in upstate New York. She leads visitors on the Origins of Life Tour, reciting a script that focuses on the evolution of species. The script is the brainchild of Victoria Halstead, museum director and friend of Claire – in that order, as things work out. Victoria encourages a docent to “personalize” the presentation as long as the glosses are innocuous, but Claire is no automaton, especially when a reference in the script to “random mutation” complicates her attempt to understand a fact of her own life. Claire and her husband, Reggie, have an autistic 16-year-old daughter, Abigail, and Claire has been considering how the process described by Charles Darwin could result in an individual such as Abigail. Eventually, Claire’s contemplation creeps into her talks at the museum as she suggests to visitors that the processes of nature may have been – gasp! – designed. Once that genie is on the loose, there is hell to pay, as it were.

LYNN COHEN

Victoria — to be played by Lynn Cohen — puts her own belief in science and her vision for the museum ahead of friendship when she learns about Claire’s transgression. Reggie – a high school teacher who has considered his bond to Claire a “mixed marriage” only to the extent that he is an atheist and she is an agnostic — is stunned by this change of Claire’s train of thought. Disagreements over Abigail’s status have already revealed strains in the couple’s relationship; Claire’s public speculation about a “designer” pushes those strains to the breaking point.

This play, however, is not a death struggle between science and religion so much as an examination of intellectual openness and honesty. Claire is willing to at least entertain an idea that had been anathema to her but does not insist that others accept that idea. Victoria and Reggie opt to defend their “rightness,” as Duncan called it, regardless of the professional or personal consequences. The implications for contemporary political discourse may be painfully obvious.

Believe in God or not, but in the end it is Claire, and not the more “scientific” Victoria and Reggie, who seems to have heeded Einstein: “Only daring speculation can lead us further, and not accumulation of facts.”

god2Bill McGraw writes in the Detroit Free Press about what seems like the increasing tendency of political figures to invoke the name of God to justify virtually anything. The immediate inspiration for McGraw’s column was a remark by Detroit City Councilwoman Monica Conyers, who is in the crosshairs of a potential federal bribery indictment. “On Tuesday,” McGraw writes, “when it became clear the feds were closing in on Conyers, she described herself to viewers of her weekly TV show as ‘a child of God,’ and told viewers ‘if you’re not praying for me, then you’re just adding to the problem.’ Then she added: ‘All these things that are going on right now … I believe in my heart that God will deliver me from them.’ ”

McGraw went on to reminisce about invocations of the Diety by Detroit public figures over the past couple of decades, including former Police Chief William Hart who was charged in 1989 with using public funds to subsidize $72,000 in rent on his daughter’s former home in Beverly Hills. “With God as my witness,” Hart said, “I swear I did not do that.” He was subsequently convicted of stealing $2.3 million.

GodMcGraw observed that few office holders have made as many public references to God as did George W. Bush while president of these United States. “I trust God speaks through me,” the president told an audience in Lancaster, Pa., in July 2004. “Without that, I couldn’t do my job.” I’ve seen that quote many times, and I’ve always suspected that the president said, or at least meant, “I trust God speaks to me.” I don’t know about George Bush, but I don’t think I would attribute to God many of the things that come out of my mouth.