The Bible and Young Earth Creationism

I’ve been preparing for the upcoming Faith & Science Seminar that I co-developed (Sat, Sept 21st, 7pm @ Menlo Park Presbyterian), and some of that preparation involves making sure I have a good feel for the current conversations taking place about these topics. Part of this is simply good communication (i.e., know where the people are), but I also want to lessen the odds of getting blindsided by an oddball question.

English: Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose...

Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose, Texas

As I’ve surveyed some of the Young Earth Creationism (YEC) writing, I’ve been reminded of what has long bugged me about their viewpoint. It doesn’t have anything to do with science, because I’m not really qualified to talk about science in public – I get irritated when people talk authoritatively about things they poorly understand, so I probably shouldn’t do it, either.

It has to do with the underlying assumptions that YECs often make about the Biblical Narrative, as exemplified by one article definitively stating that, “it’s the plain words of Genesis 1–2 that tell us how the world came to be.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly find the Bible to be ‘plain’ or ‘clear.’ It *might* be plain if I read it in English and assumed it was written by post-Enlightenment Westerners, but since it most definitely was not, we have a problem. Dismissing any other possible way of reading and interpreting part of the Biblical Narrative because “I have the plain reading…” comes across as arrogant and naïve.

By way of a very simple example for why “plain” doesn’t cut it, if I were to say, “I’m mad about my flat” to you, how would you respond? If you are an American, you would probably empathize with me because it sucks to get a flat tire. If you are English, you might buy my next beer at the pub because I’m excited about my apartment. So… which is the plain reading? The answer depends on the source of the quote and the one listening.

English: Robert Morrison translating the Bible.

Robert Morrison translating the Bible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Americans and English have, essentially, the same worldview. But if you extend that out 2,000-3,000 years, with dead languages and a fundamentally different understanding of the way the world works, perhaps you can start to grasp the enormity of the problem. We not only have to translate the supposedly ‘plain’ documents “that tell us how the world came to be,” but we also have to ask ourselves in what ways the text(s) operate in an ancient worldview and cognitive environment. For example, we can’t assume that when an ancient text says “create,” it means the same thing as when an American says “create” on a blog that no one reads. Considering that a fundamental concept like “create” tends to be particularly affected by worldview, it’s a very safe bet that when Genesis talks about “create,” it means something very different.

But wait, there’s more! That particular article linked to another one that also exhibited an unfortunate problem in approaching the Bible. At one point, the writer said:

 We need to realize that the Bible is God’s Word. And as it is the inspired Word of the infinite Creator, God, then it must be self-authenticating and self-attesting. Thus, we should always start with what God’s Word says regardless of outside ideas. Only God’s Word is infallible.

Starting with what God’s Word says regardless of outside ideas… I can guarantee that even those who propose this kind of approach don’t follow this. Why? Because the Bible(s) that we have in the modern world is the product of at least 2,000 years of work, scholarship, study, blood, sweat, ink, tears, beer, and frustration. We have English translations because very smart and well educated people put countless hours into studying the Biblical languages (Hebrew, Greek, and a little Aramaic) as well as secondary languages (Latin, Coptic, etc), all to have their work revised over and over again. For this to be minimized, which is what that particular group appears to be doing, places their theology of Biblical Revelation more on par with Mormonism and Islam – where the ‘revealed word’ more or less appears completely and immediately. And I’m willing to bet that they won’t appreciate that comparison, but then again, they probably won’t read this.

To push the point further, the same people translating the Bible into English were only able to learn those languages because others actually developed lexicons, preserved the study of the languages, did comparative studies with many, many writings to determine, as best as possible, what the words actually meant, surveyed the cultures that produced these languages, and published and revised their work ad nauseam.

Whether or not we want to admit it, no one actually “starts” with the Bible. Dismissing the thousands of years of history that goes into our understanding of the Bible is not only reckless; it’s dangerous. We run the risk of reading the Bible in a very small, ethnocentric world, where we have THE interpretation because we know the “plain” reading. It’s also intellectually dishonest at worst, or naïve at best.

If the Bible is God’s word (and I believe it is), then it’s worth reading it for what it is, and not for what we wish it to be – as though it were a book that fell out of the sky, in English, and is easily read by anyone with a passing desire.



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Richard Dawkins’ “Mild Pedophilia”

Richard Dawkins has recently come under fire for minimizing his own experiences being molested. He apparently dismissed it as “mild touching up,” and insisted that we should not judge past events with modern standards. Dawkins associates this “mild pedophilia” with caning and racism, which were more common when he was growing up (apparently…I wasn’t there). To be fair, he did make a distinction between his experiences and  rape, murder, and more severe cases of human brutality.

While I’m not interested in evaluating his particular circumstances/experiences, I do feel the need to bring up some important points that Dawkins has evidently not considered. I feel the need to point out that this has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he is an atheist.

English: Richard Dawkins at New York City's Co...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

His statements are absolutely indefensible because his is a respected, public figure, and as such, people listen to him. By way of analogy, doctors everywhere cringe when some movie-star celebrity publicly spouts off medical nonsense that flies in the face of all evidence-based medicine and clinical experience. Why? Because misinformation can kill people, especially when it involves our health.

People respect public figures and don’t always have the critical skills to discern good and bad information. An ex-Playboy bunny spots off about the (now demonstrably false) dangers of vaccines, and children die from preventable diseases.

Dawkins has potentially made the same mistake, but with mental health. He doesn’t seem to understand that his unfortunate experience of being molested, while apparently not affecting him, can potentially destroy someone else’s childhood. His personal anecdote, essentially stating, “It wasn’t that bad, and I got over it,” stigmatizes sexual abuse victims – “After all, if Dawkins can get over it, why can’t I?”

What he said about sexual abuse is irresponsible. Our culture has made great strides in removing the stigma of sexual abuse, to give victims/survivors an environment in which they can heal. I’m fairly certain Dawkins doesn’t want to work against that, but I’m also pretty sure  he just did.

Dawkins…you’re a talented biologist (and a mediocre, at best, philosopher and theologian). Stick with what you’re good at.


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Jesus and the IRS

There’s nothing like mixing politics and religion to upset everyone. As you might have guessed by the title, I’m referring to the (in)famous “Render unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, and to God the things that are God’s.” See Luke 20:19-26 for the full story. I encounter this passage a lot, usually as a way of giving voice to the complicated relationship between Christianity and politics, and often in relation to taxes.

IRS 1040

IRS 1040 (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

The story appears simple: Jesus’ enemies try to get him to say something incriminating. In this case, they want him to commit treason against Rome by claiming that God’s kingdom is above the kingdom of Caesar and that the people do not need to pay taxes to Rome. Under Roman authority, they were taxed for breathing the air and for Roman “protection,” among other things. Considering that Jesus was a charismatic, 1st century Jew with a following, and that Rome had issues with people like him starting fights/riots/wars on a semi-regular basis, their plan makes a lot of sense. Once Jesus says they don’t have to pay, they can hand him over to Pilate and “taken care of.” But, If he did tell them to pay, they could accuse Jesus of selling his people out to the foreign occupiers. Either way, Jesus loses.

So they ask him if it is OK to pay taxes to Caesar – a wildly loaded question. Rome stood as the occupation force, the evil, pagan outsiders that oppressed God’s chosen people, Abraham’s descendants. Jews resented their presence, and the Romans offended almost every Jewish sensibility in existence.

And then Jesus turns the tables (he’s good at that). He asks for a denarius, the Roman-minted coin with which the tax is paid. Coins in the ancient world were more than currency; they were propaganda. When a new emperor took office, coins would be minted in honor of him. When Simon Ben Kosiba led the Jewish revolt against Rome in the 130s, he also minted coins depicting Jerusalem and the Ark of the Covenant, while also declaring it was now year 1 (and then 2, then 3, and then the Romans came and obliterated them). Both have the same function; they declare who is in charge.

We don’t know which coin they handed to Jesus, but they all had similar imagery. There would have been a bust of Tiberius, the current emperor, as well as the inscription PONTIFEX MAXIMUS – or “High Priest.” Because, as emperor, Caesar was considered the High Priest of the imperial religion. On the part of the coin that gave Tiberius’ name, they also likely saw the description ‘DIVI,’ indicating his divine standing.

Tribute Penny

A Denarius with Tiberius. Image courtesy DrusMax.

They handed Jesus a coin that promoted Caesar Tiberius as both divine and the high priest of everything, which stood in complete opposition to both Jewish monotheism and the centrality of the Temple in Jerusalem (with the true high priest). When Jesus asks them whose image was on the coin, they have to name the one person in the empire who claimed to be the lord of all, divine, the high priest, etc.

Here’s where it gets interesting (and often misunderstood): When Jesus responds, “Give to Caesar the things that belong to him,” what does he mean? Or, to put it differently, what does Caesar claim belongs to him? Because the answer to that is, essentially, everything. And what belongs to God, according to the Jews? Everything. In other words, we have two conflicting claims.

Jesus is decidedly not describing two kingdoms that exist in parallel. These kingdoms (of Caesar and God) cannot co-exist because they make the same claim. Instead, Jesus is pointing out, in a very striking way, his enemies’ own implicit collusion with the empire – whether they meant it or not. After all, they were the ones with the coin.

So here’s the big question: How does this translate over to us in the 21st century, especially in terms of federal/state taxes? To be honest, it doesn’t. This exchange between Jesus and his enemies isn’t about how we relate to our government, unless, of course, our government is claiming to be run by the divine son of a god and the high priest of the imperial religion. In other words, if the government claims to be god, then we have a problem. Otherwise, this passage is not likely involved.

That’s not to say that Luke 20 has nothing to say to us in the (post)modern world. The kingship of Jesus is central to the Christian life – Jesus is king, is becoming king, and will be king. Being a part of this kingdom means that we enact what will eventually be true here and now, and we have a responsibility to hold those in power accountable for their actions. But my fear is always that this devolves into simple, party politics and single issue voting. As we can see from this apparently simple passage, there are some serious levels of complexity – probably because life tends to be that way, too. Just don’t assume that this has anything to do with the IRS.

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A Response to Rachael Slick on ‘The Friendly Atheist’

Yes, that’s the best title I could come up with.

Rachael Slick, daughter of the founder of Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, recently wrote a guest post on “The Friendly Atheist.” In it, she shared what it was like to grow up in a household that obsessed over apologetics (defending the Christian faith). She writes courageously, and, as I post my thoughts, I don’t want to take that away from her.  Growing up in the shadow of CARM sounds like it was absolutely bonkers, and I sense that her writing comes from a place of pain and struggle.

Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry

One part of her story particularly caught my attention: She explained that her breaking point with faith in Jesus came from a question that she was unable to answer. This makes sense, because when you emphasize apologetics to the exclusion of almost everything else, an unanswerable question quickly becomes a proverbial nail in a coffin. She was raised to have all the answers in order to “prove” the Christian faith, and when she didn’t, her system fell apart. That is, unfortunately, a very common story.

Rachael Slick

She writes (warning – heady, philosophical concepts up ahead):

“If God was absolutely moral, because morality was absolute, and if the nature of “right” and “wrong” surpassed space, time, and existence, and if it was as much a fundamental property of reality as math, then why were some things a sin in the Old Testament but not a sin in the New Testament?”

She then continued:

“Everyone had always explained this problem away using the principle that Jesus’ sacrifice meant we wouldn’t have to follow those ancient laws. But that wasn’t an answer. In fact, by the very nature of the problem, there was no possible answer that would align with Christianity.

She approached faith in an extremely absolute, black and white way, as she was taught. Put more simply, she asks, “If God’s requirements for humanity are absolute (reflecting God’s own righteous ‘absoluteness’), and violating those requirements is sin, then why do the requirements change in the New Testament? Is God changing the rules, and, therefore, himself (which isn’t allowed, by definition)?”

If we read the Bible as though it were written by modern, western Americans, then yes: there is no way to satisfactorily answer her question – simply stating that “Jesus died for it” doesn’t explain everything. But the Bible wasn’t written by Americans. It’s a distinctly Jewish collection of writings, even (and especially) the New Testament. The point of the “Old Testament” laws, about which I assume she means the laws described in Torah (the food laws, laws about hair and clothes, etc.), isn’t morality. We do see moral laws, such as don’t murder, but most of the regulations are ceremonial and cultic in nature.

Why have these laws? There are two facets that are important. First, it separated Israel from everyone else. The laws formed a dividing line, so everyone would know that the people of Israel were different from all other people. This was a way to enact and live out the fact that God had chosen them specifically and specially, because they even looked different, acted differently, ate different foods, etc.

Second, as time went on, many Jewish people (now after the return from exile beginning in 538 BC) also saw that the history of their people was heading in a certain direction. God would vindicate his people, right the wrongs, and establish his kingdom on earth. Often this was seen as the role of the Messiah, but some viewed this as the thing God was going to do on “The Last Day,” the day of Resurrection. These two ideas also overlapped, but an explanation would take way too long for a single article.

In the wake of this anticipation, the writers of the New Testament came to realize that when Jesus took on the mantle of priest and king (as Messiah), went to his death, and then was vindicated when God raised him from the dead, all of those ancient laws, ceremonies, and cultic practices were actually signposts which looked ahead to the day that God himself would fulfill them.

Or, to get at the question raised above, it isn’t that Jesus’ sacrifice cancels them out. Rather, Jesus took on the task of being Israel throughout his life, faithfully following and interpreting Torah, and he fulfilled the role of Israel’s king and priest. In Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s covenant, God deems the covenant fulfilled. And Jesus, being the representative of Israel, actually represents the nation who was supposed to be the representatives of all humanity. Jesus’ faithfulness to the covenant (all those “Old Testament Laws,” if you will) implies our faithfulness, so long as we are in him.

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...

(Photo: Public Domain)

The “problem” raised by the writer isn’t with God changing the nature of morality, but, rather, she has forgotten that the Bible isn’t to be read like a math textbook. The Bible has a narrative arc, meaning it moves in a certain direction within history and has a goal. When Jesus (the goal) hits the scene, we then can look back and reinterpret the story because we now know where the story has been heading.

Once we step out of the Bible-as-set-of-axiomatic-principles and God-as-fundamental-properties world that we have inherited from modernity, and once we step into the world of the Bible, all sorts of things that didn’t make sense actually fit together quite well. And, *spoiler alert*, it begins and ends with Jesus.

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Rick Warren, His Detractors, and the Body of Christ

The news that Rick Warren‘s son had passed away by suicide will undoubtably continue to be international news for some time, because the combination of tragedy and celebrity tends to be so tantalizing in our culture. Not that that’s healthy, but there isn’t much I can do about it.

Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Church.

I did notice one oddly uplifting trend as the news spread… and I say “oddly” because it came from social media, which basically draws its dark life-force from vitriol, ignorance, and hate.

Among Warren’s many critics from within the Christian world (and any supremely public figure within Christianity will, by definition, draw a zillion critics), I have yet to find one that does not consist of pure grace and empathy. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I’ve yet to find one (Westboro, I’m looking in your direction).

And there is a special beauty in that observation. Ever since the advent of Christianity, even in the months following Pentecost, disagreement and dissent has been a mark of Christian life. Dissent, regardless of appearance, is not a sign of weakness, but, rather, it indicates strength. Whenever an organization exists without any conflict, it is reasonable to assume that something unhealthy and dangerous lies beneath its surface.

In the wake of tragedy, we put aside the differences, theological disagreements, frustrations, jealousies (the guy sold, like, a billion books), and squabbles, to come together to offer support for the Warren family in the unifying center of who we are: Jesus. And if I know anything about Jesus, he does not shy away from tragedy, loss, and suffering. Actually, that is sort of his thing…

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Empiricism, Truth, and My Response to Jonathan.

An intrepid reader, Jonathan, had a great comment on my last post about that guy offering $10,000 to ‘prove’ a particular way of reading the creation narratives in Genesis. It’s important to point out that by ‘intrepid reader,’ I mean ‘one of my oldest friends from high school and college, who was also in my wedding.’ Calling Jonathan a ‘reader’ is like saying my mom is a huge fan of my music: it might be true, but it also masks reality.

That said, here is his comment (reposted without his permission):

I’ve thought a lot recently about this, and how hard it is to disabuse ourselves of post-enlightenment thinking. Science is so very good at what it does, that we seem incapable of seeing truth as anything other than empiricism. And really, that’s a shame. Because trying to reconcile empiricism is a losing battle (and frankly, a waste of time much better spent).

I thought this deserved a direct response because I think he is absolutely correct. The scientific method excels at what it does: studying repeatable events. I am living proof of the effectiveness of science, as without it, I would have died of leukemia in early to mid 2006 (dx’ed Oct 2005). But when we equate ‘truth’ and ‘science,’ we have a problem. Indiana Jones, in “The Last Crusade,” put this clearly: Science is the search for fact. If you want truth, go to the philosophy department.

Cover of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crus...

The reason why this confusion between fact and truth is problematic is that 99.9% of my existence and experience consists of non-repeatable events. If we limit truth to empiricism, as Jonathan warned, we unwittingly dismiss most of the human experience, and the things that make us human – the arts, aesthetics, relationships – get implicitly marginalized and dismissed as fluffy bits that really aren’t important.

Ironically, assuming that science is the fount of all truth ends up dehumanizing us.

I don’t know…what do you think?

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Ten Grand and Genesis

Young Earth Creationist has offered a $10,000 prize to anyone who can “disprove” the “literal” interpretation of Genesis 1.

The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. CrumbThere’s that word again…”literal.” While I am not qualified to talk about science with any authority, I can talk about the Bible. And I cringe every time someone uses the word “literal” to describe the way they interpret a set of documents that are at minimum 2,000 years old (quite a bit more than that for Genesis, as it were).

When we start using words like “literal,” “metaphorical,” or “allegorical,” we are unwittingly imposing modern categories on ancient texts. Ancient writers simply didn’t think in those terms, and herein lies my biggest concern: when we assume the Bible possesses a modern, post-Enlightenment worldview, we inevitably force the texts to say things they never intended. And that’s a problem.

We can see that Joseph Mastropaolo is making this exact mistake because he is seeking to argue that Genesis 1 (the creation narrative of 6 days) is the most “scientific” explanation of origins. But assuming that Genesis 1, along with the rest of the Bible, made sense in its original, ancient context, why would we want to apply a thoroughly modern category like “scientific” to something that came to its final form well before even the pre-modern era?

People don’t read the Bible for instruction in anatomy and physiology (e.g., they believed our thoughts came from our intestines) or geography (they thought the Earth was a disc or “chug”), so why do we assume that the Bible is fine for other scientific questions?

This isn’t an attack on the Biblical Narrative (as anyone who knows me will attest, I take it very, very seriously), but it is a short plea to stop and evaluate what the Bible is and isn’t trying to tell us.

Ultimately, I think we have lost our ability to read these ancient writings with historical empathy. In our narcissistic minds, we assume that the ancient writers perceived and talked about reality much in the same way as we do today. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and it doesn’t take much effort to see it – though we must be willing to look.

If this peaks your interest, I will be co-hosting a seminar on faith and science at Redeemer Lutheran Church on April 14th, 6:30pm. We will look at some of these issues in much more depth… but there won’t be any $10,000 prizes, unless you are feeling generous.

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