Hamming it up

The Super Bowl provided plenty of fodder for a blog post: the “controversial” Coke (and Cheerios?) advertisements and the meaning of America, the mania surrounding the Super Bowl blinding us from the sex-trade that runs amok in its shadow, Bart Millard (of Mercy Me) affirming Bruno Mars’ halftime show and receiving (un)surprising push back from Christian twittizens (citizens of the twitter universe). Yes, plenty to comment on in early February.

Nye V Ham DebateThen, like a pass from Peyton Manning, my attention was picked off by the recent debate between Bill Nye “the science guy” and Ken Ham “the creation guy”. I love debates. I love the clash of ideas.  It’s like an intellectual super bowl–public, flashy, competitive.  The debaters prepare to intercept lines of reasoning and tackle weak assumptions. The audience cheers on it’s team regardless of the outcome.

One pastor tweeted: “I should’ve watched the creationism/evolution debate, but I’m running low on both patience and brain cells.”

Good news, I have un-exercised brain cells and the patience imposed by an ice storm. So I checked it out on youtube.  And it was about what I expected:  an adventure in silliness and talking past one another. There were a few amusing, laugh-worthy moments, but it was mostly a disappointment (like the Bronco’s offense). Nye is, admittedly, not a theologian.  He is not an expert in biblical criticism or the history of transmission. He is a scientist. And a good one. His concern is that science is being hi-jacked and co-opted to advance a spiritual agenda at the expense of our children’s education and the well-being of our society.  As a scientist he wants the public to take notice of creationism as bad science. So he does his best to do this, even taking on Ken Ham at the Creation museum.

Ken Ham, has an interest, too. He is concerned with the authority of the biblical text. For Ham, the bible is the revealed Word of God, and that means every word (whether in Hebrew, Greek, or translated in the trendiest English) is authoritative for interpreting the world. For Ham, the authority of the bible is bound up in its accurate and truthful depictions, especially since the bible’s trustworthiness implicates the “story of salvation”. To put it differently, if the bible doesn’t give us an accurate picture of our origins, why should we trust it to tell us anything true?  How can we trust that Jesus is the Christ, God saving us, if the universe and its contents were not spoken into being in six days only six thousand years ago?

A couple of exchanges were particularly telling. In an attempt to cast suspicion on modern dating techniques (the “assumptions” in a scientific theory about the age of the earth), Ham identified an archaeological artifact below the surface of the earth significantly younger than the rock material around it.  Nye responded, placing one hand over the other, that it seems simpler and more reasonable to conclude the rock layer slid on top, not that a great (Noadic) flood mixed up younger and older material. Later, responding to the creationist claim that all animals were originally peaceful, plant-eating dwellers of Eden, Nye said something to the effect, “The only lions I have observed have teeth made for eating meat, not for eating a vegetarian diet.”

Let me boil this debate down to size:

Ken Ham wants to show the authority of a text and interprets the world according to his reading of the bible, even if it takes a few (okay, a lot of) wild maneuvers to do so. He appeals to divine revelation. He isn’t offering the simplest explanation, just one he feels is consistent enough with the stories told in the bible.

Nye wants to leave the biblical picture (and other religious depictions of our origins) out entirely, creating a picture of our origins that flows purely from our empirical observations. He appeals to the simplest explanations of our human experience.

We could call it the battle of Revelation v. Experience.

We could, but I won’t. I can’t possibly catalog all the wrinkles, over-statements, and issues–there are many books devoted to the mess that is “science v. religion” or “creationism v. evolution” (I recommend Creationism on Trial by the theologian Langdon Gilkey, if you’re interested). But In the end I don’t feel Bill Nye is the best interlocutor for dealing with young earth creationism.  I think a theological debate is necessary, namely around how we read Genesis and how the bible functions in our life of faith. Let me offer a sketch of my thoughts:

1) Genesis is not a science textbook in any modern sense.  It should not be read as such.  Genesis includes (but is not limited to) a mythic depiction of origins that illuminates the character of God, the spiritual dimension of the material world, the divine value of all life, the corrupting presence of Sin, and the responsibility of human creatures.

2) Even so, Genesis does suggest an ancient cosmology that is scientifically refutable (no, there are not “three tiers” to the universe).  The truth of Genesis is not necessarily dependent on this dimension of the text. The bible can retain its spiritual centrality to the life of faith without being entirely accurate (for a mathematical example, see the questionable addition at the beginning of the gospel of Matthew when the the generations are used to make a symbolic point). In other words, we don’t have to agree with everything in the bible (like its various endorsements of slavery, the secondary status of women, or the authorship of certain books) for it to have “saving significance”. This frees us from what I like to call “hermeneutical gymnastics”: trying to come up with wildly complicated (even if plausible) explanations to justify a scriptural account of something (whether that’s the natural world or how many animals Jesus sat upon when riding into Jerusalem–see the questionable interpretation of Zechariah 9:9 in Matthew 21:7).

3) God created (yes, I can and do use that verb) us with minds.  We don’t have to check them at the door to the sanctuary. Nor do we have to ignore our experience. We are invited to read scripture with our hearts and minds so that we might notice God in our everyday experience of the world and be convicted to live in Christ’s Spirit: with respect for all creation and love for all people, especially the oppressed, poor, abandoned, sick, and hurting.

In case you were wondering, we haven’t “grown past this” in our day. I just saw a tweet about the President of the Mormon Church being summoned to a court in the UK where there are (albeit peculiar) allegations of financial fraud based on the teaching of young earth creationism.  And then there is the Pew Research data on the public’s view of evolution.

This is all relevant to me personally, too.  There are more and more young people checking out of the church because they feel there is only one way to be Christian and that one way has little room for their suspicions, questions, doubts, and disagreements with scripture. I’ve found and settled into another kind of Christianity, one that embraces the mind, scientific inquiry, and our human experience.  I hope others will find it too.

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