The Fizzling of the Cambrian – and Creationism

Image result for cambrian explosion creationismYou may or may not be aware that one of my research interests is the response of Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians to the theory of evolution. It was actually my whole master’s thesis.

So in studying how Christians have tended to oppose the teaching of Darwinian evolution (in which all living species are descended from a single common ancestor through natural selection and genetic mutation, among other processes) over the past century, one of the key arguments they’ve used against it is the existence of the Cambrian Explosion.

The argument is typically made this way: “Darwinism argues that all of life has gradually evolved from a single common ancestor, but they can’t explain the Cambrian Explosion, where the fossil record goes from basically no living species to an incredible amount of diversity in a very short time.”

This argument had two prongs: One was negative – the explosion is something evolution cannot explain; therefore, it chips at the foundation of support for the theory – and one was positive: The explosion is the fossil record’s evidence of God’s special creation of a limited number of “kinds” that then evolved to the current diversity of life. This idea, let’s call it young earth evolutionism, is still propagated by Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum and Ark Experience, as scientific creationism.

Here are some examples from my research: Continue reading The Fizzling of the Cambrian – and Creationism

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7 Revelations About Revelation

People sometimes look at me a little funny when I tell them my favorite book of the Bible was when I was growing up was Revelation.

Yes, that Revelation. The one with the beasts and fire and blood and war.

Here’s the thing. In the Plymouth Brethren tradition in which I was raised, the worship time includes a lot of dead space – stretches of silence while everyone waits for a man, believing he is led by the Spirit, to rise and offer a scripture or a hymn for us all to sing or a prayer.

And when you’re only allowed a Bible with you to fill those interminable spaces, you go to the most action-packed book of the canon, the one that is literally apocalyptic.

Unfortunately, when Revelation is your favorite book and you grow up in the religious tradition begun by the man who literally invented the rapture-tribulation interpretation that forms the basis for much of the way people view Revelation today, your view of the book – and consequently your view of God can get a little dark.

So when the opportunity arose to teach a class on Revelation at my church – well, OK, I’m a member of the adult education committee, so maybe I carved out an opportunity for myself – I jumped at it. What better way to understand a misunderstood book than by having to explain it to others?

I expected the class to be fun. I expected to learn something. I didn’t expect to finish it with the feeling that Revelation is once again my favorite book.

So how did that happen? How can a 10-week class so thoroughly redeem a book that scares so many people?

1369659Well, since Revelation is filled with sevens – seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls – here are seven, um, revelations that came from the class, mostly courtesy of the excellent “textbook” we used: Revelation and the End of All Things by Craig Koester.

  1. We all know Revelation, whether we realize it or not.
  2. Revelation never intended its message to be hidden from its audience.
  3. Revelation constantly subverts readers’ expectations.
  4. Rather than a linear story, Revelation is cyclical.
  5. The judgments are real, but so are the promises bookending them.
  6. We all fight the Beast.
  7. God’s grace is beyond what you can imagine.

Continue reading 7 Revelations About Revelation

A Brief Review: ‘Texts of Terror’ by Phyllis Trible

Image result for texts of terror phyllis tribleQuick, name the absolute worst parts of the Bible.

Chances are, you thought of one of these four stories [TW]:

The rape and dismemberment of the concubine in Judges, the rape of Tamar by her half-brother, the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter in order to fulfill a vow he made to God, and the use, abuse and expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael.

These stories – all of them describing violence against women without overt condemnation by either God or the narrator(s) – are what Phyllis Trible calls “texts of terror.”

Somewhat surprisingly, she analyzes these passages not to explain them away or redeem them with a pro-woman retelling, but to simply sit with them, to understand the fully the depth and breadth of the horror these passages inflict on the characters – and therefore on us, the readers who cannot help but sympathize with them.

In so doing, Trible hopes to memorialize them. These four women – two of them nameless, one of them voiceless, all of them utterly vulnerable to the whims and lusts of powerful men – do not get preached from pulpits, featured in liturgies or adhered to flannelgraphs. Yet they are essential parts of the Judeo-Christian tradition. If nothing else, they personify, as Trible expertly highlights, the qualities of the “suffering servant” in Second Isaiah’s famous prophecies.

Although originally referring to Israel, Christians, taking cues from the gospels, have appropriated the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 to describe Jesus – “a man of sorrows acquainted with grief,” “as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth,” etc. Trible moves in the opposite direction, identifying these four women as suffering servants, and given the longstanding Christian confession of Jesus as the sufferer, implicitly identifying them as Christ figures.

Most poignantly, Trible makes this association explicit in her analysis of the concubine in Gibeah. Echoing the more famous tale of Lot in Sodom (do these stories reflect a single event buried deep in Israel’s memory and adjusted as needed for different contexts? I’d say it’s likely, but that’s not Trible’s concern here), the concubine and her master spend the night in an old man’s home, where men of the city arrive and demand the male guest be given to them to rape. The man offers the concubine instead, and she is raped and tortured until morning (and potentially killed, although Trible points out the text seems to indicate the concubine’s master actually murders her once they arrive back to his home in Ephraim). Trible describes the key moment this way: “Truly the hour is at hand, and the woman is betrayed into the hands of sinners.”

Trible’s insight and deft handling of the texts make Texts of Terror a swift and insightful read – I’d almost call it a joy, but the subject matter makes that an impossibility. She refuses to get bogged down in questions of authorship, redaction or historical criticism, all things I enjoy getting bogged down in, but which would serve to distract from the women at the center of Trible’s focus. Her goal is to dig as deep as possible into the texts as they are, under the assumption that the text we have is there for a reason, no matter how it got that way.

Therefore, Trible points out patterns and structures of the original Hebrew that have become invisible under the layers of translation and interpretation that have accumulated over the millennia. Some of these are brilliant and beautiful; others feel like more of a stretch. But all of them are fascinating and demand careful consideration. Almost uniformly, Trible ends up highlighting how the original text mercilessly marginalizes and degrades these women.

But that’s the point: Trible is “telling sad stories,” as she puts it in her introduction. That they are sad does not mean they are worthless. Indeed, sad stories often tell us more about ourselves than happy ones. They force us to wrestle with the world as the world is, with God as God is, and with the Bible as the Bible is – not as we wish those things would be. For wrestling with them, we hopefully emerge stronger, with greater insight on what it means to be a “suffering servant” in whom we should see the life and work of Jesus.

Published 34 years ago in 1984, Texts of Terror remains a vitally important work, one that should be on the bookshelf of every preacher, every counselor and every church leader. In a day where many women are finding their voices for the first time, we would all do well to return to Trible’s classic, in which she helps four ancient women cry, “Me, too!”

Kill the Beast: Disney Musicals, the Book of Revelation and You

Image result for beauty and the beast musicalBeauty and the Beast is probably my all-time favorite Disney musical.

My aunt took me to see the theatrical version on Broadway for my 14th birthday, and that sort of experience tends to be pretty formative (my 13th birthday was Phantom of the Opera, and I can still basically recite that play by heart without needing the music). But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the depth of the story:

  • It’s a call for open-mindedness and diversity that was pretty unusual for its day (1991) and remains relevant today.
  • Its heroine, Belle, is a much stronger woman character than had been typical to that point (only Jasmine is comparable until we hit the Tangled/Frozen era)
  • And its climactic song, unimaginatively titled “The Mob Song,” is a rousing and chilling exploration of how fear turns people into the beasts they so despise and war against.

I’ve been thinking more about this song lately, especially its 2017 live-action version, which makes the subtext more explicit when Gaston’s sidekick, Lefou (played by the wonderful Josh Gad), mutters to himself: “There’s a beast running wild, there’s no question/But I fear the wrong monster’s released.” Continue reading Kill the Beast: Disney Musicals, the Book of Revelation and You

Book Review: Oh, Fudge, We’re Talking about Hell

13632870Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

In an effort to clear out some of my to-read backlog, I dove into Hell: A Final Word – a semi-autobiographical synopsis of Edward Fudge’s much longer and groundbreaking case for annihilationism as the biblical vision of the fate of the wicked.

Fudge, who died late last year, is little known outside of a very small group of people interested in challenging the traditional Christian notion of hell as the home of eternal conscious torment. In the 1970s, he was commissioned to spend a year researching the subject and to his surprise found that he felt the Bible taught that the souls of those condemned to hell eventually perished in the flames, thus the labels “annihilationism” or “conditional immortality.” That book was The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final PunishmentHell: A Final Word was written to coincide with the release of a biopic about Fudge’s theological journey.

(While you might think a film about a preacher engaging in a yearlong quest of biblical scholarship about hell would be horribly boring, it’s surprisingly good! It’s called Hell and Mr. Fudge, and it’s worth your time if you’re at all interested in the subject. I ended up seeing a premier screening at Abilene Christian University’s annual Summit lectureship in 2012, where I also bought the book. Fudge was a lifelong member of Churches of Christ, thus the ACU connection.)

All of that to say, if you’re dissatisfied (or not!) with eternal conscious torment – either because of your own research or because of your discomfort with the nature of the God it requires you to worship – this is a good popular-level primer for how Fudge came to articulate the most comprehensive case for one of the two major alternatives.

But. Continue reading Book Review: Oh, Fudge, We’re Talking about Hell

How Christianity Created Marxism

29940916I didn’t anticipate writing more about Marx beyond my comments last week about how despite being an avowed critic of religion, Marx has had profound impacts on Christianity, but here we are because I couldn’t help notice some parallels between the Europe of Marx’s time and the America of ours.

In honor of Karl Marx’s 200th birthday, I’m reading Gareth Stedman Jones’ Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion.

As a philosophical biography, Stedman Jones’ work is focused beyond just the nuts-and-bolts info of Marx’s life; instead, he takes pains to paint the social and philosophical context into which Marx was born and raised. This is very helpful, as no one thinks in a vacuum, and if we are to understand Marx and what he believed, we should also understand the currents into which he was born.

Continue reading How Christianity Created Marxism

How Marx Changed Christianity

Image result for marx religious iconSaturday was the 200th birthday of Karl Marx, occasioning a slew of think pieces and hot takes (he was a genius! he was a monster!) – but here’s one that rarely gets made: Marx, that notorious skeptic of religion, was arguably one of the most influential figures in shaping 20th century Christianity.

On the one hand, this is obvious – Marx’s influence on world history generally is hard to overstate, and to the extent that Christianity partakes in world history, it must also have been influenced by Marx. Likewise, because so much of American Christianity, especially the fundamentalist and evangelical strains, embraced anti-communism, Marx obviously exerted a significant, albeit negative influence in the development of those traditions.

But I mean something more specific, and more positive – that Marx’s critique of capitalism’s inherent depredations and his yearning for a better, more just society shaped at least two significant Christian movements in the 20th century.

Continue reading How Marx Changed Christianity