We need to do the "rat thing"

David Burchett

Associated Press Science writer Seth Borenstein article described how studies give more weight to a 17-year-old theory that the sanitized Western world may be partly to blame for soaring rates of human allergy and asthma cases and some autoimmune diseases, such as Type I diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. The theory, called the hygiene hypothesis, figures that people's immune systems aren't being challenged by disease and dirt early in life, so the body's natural defenses overreact to small irritants such as pollen.

The new studies, one of which was published Friday in the peer reviewed Scandinavian Journal of Immunology, found significant differences in the immune systems between euthanized wild and lab rodents.

When the immune cells in the wild rats are stimulated by researchers, "they just don't do anything they sit there; if you give them same stimulus to the lab rats, they go crazy," said study co-author Dr. William Parker, a Duke University professor of experimental surgery. He compared lab rodents to more than 50 wild rats and mice captured and killed in cities and farms.

A rat at a Brooklyn subway stop – AP Photo

Also, the wild mice and rats had as much as four times higher levels of immunoglobulins, yet weren't sick, showing an immune system tuned to fight crucial germs, but not minor irritants, Parker said. He said what happened in the lab rats is what likely occurs in humans: their immune systems have got it so cushy they overreact to smallest of problems.

Challenged immune systems — such as kids who grow up with two or more pets — don't tend to develop as many allergies, said Dr. Stanley Goldstein, director of Allergy & Asthma Care of Long Island.

Human epidemiological studies have long given credence to the hygiene theory, showing that allergy and asthma rates were higher in the cleaner industrialized areas than in places such as Africa. Parker's studies, looking at animal differences, may eventually help scientists find when, where and how environmental exposure help protect against future allergies and immune disorders, said Goldstein, and Dr. Jeffrey Platt of the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota., both of whom were not part of Parker's studies.

Parker said he hopes to build a 50-foot artificial sewer for his next step, so that he could introduce the clean lab rats to an artificial dirty environment and see how and when the immunity was activated.

That may be the biggest thing to come out of the wild and lab rodent studies, Platt said: "Then all of a sudden it becomes possible to expose people to the few things (that exercise the immune system) and gives them the benefit of the dirty environment without having to expose them to the dirt."

A couple of thoughts immediately come to mind. First, how do you sell your boss on building a 50 foot artificial sewer? Second, I remembered the house that eldest and second sons lived in during their college years. Squeamish parents would stop at a gas station to use the bathroom before visiting the guys. We wondered why they were not sick all of the time. Now I realize that they were probably healthier than I ever could have hoped. These men utilized the brilliant strategy of creating an artificially dirty environment to stimulate a healthy immune system. It is always great when science validates slothfulness. And it is even greater when you can figure out a way to incorporate slothfulness into a sentence.

But how does this relate to an ineffectual Christian life? I think that the average Christian in America has also compromised our spiritual immune system by choosing a cushy and safe Christian experience. We have tuned our immune system not to fight crucial sin in our lives, but minor irritants. When you talk to fellow Christians are you passionately concerned about communicating the gospel to the world or about some minor irritant (person or program) at your church? Do we agonize over injustice in the world or petty injustice in our lives? Have we programmed our spiritual immune systems to battle pride and selfishness? Not likely. And by the way…I did not fare well in the pop quiz posed in this paragraph.

And the rats may hold another clue. I recently read a quote from an excellent book called Organic Church. The author noted that to reach the world for Christ we have to be willing to sit in the smoking section. I don’t mean to imply that all smokers are not Christian. The point is we have to be willing to get out of our “comfort bunkers”. 

Paul wrote this to the Roman church.

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Paul is not saying that we are to avoid being conformed to the world by isolation from it. We are instead to be transformed by the Holy Spirit renewing our mind. Isolation does not transform us at all. If anything, isolation makes us lukewarm. Because we can’t have a robust spiritual immune system if we live in a sterile sanctuary environment only. And that may be where the rats can teach us the biggest lesson. Our tendency is to stay in the sterile lab (church) and never venture into the sewer (lives of hurting people). We have too often chosen the safe route of turning on the light and praying those in need will come to the light. Some will. But most will not. Instead we are called to take the light to those in need. Jesus noted that in the Sermon on the Mount.

 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. 

When Jesus says to let your light shine before men I think He was talking about Monday through Saturday as well as Sunday. I am sick of Sunday Christians. I have spent too many years putting my light under a bowl. I have too often chosen the safe and antiseptic sanctuary over the authentic and often dirty sewer of people in need. I want my spiritual immune system to attack real threats and not minor irritants.

That scares me. But not as much as not pursuing that scares me.