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

Centaurs, Harry Potter and the Book of Revelation

Once you teach a class focusing on a single book of the Bible for 10 straight weeks, you notice allusions everywhere, even if the author didn’t have that in mind.

Last week, it was while I was reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to my daughters.

The scene was when Harry and his friends are serving detention in the Forbidden Forest, looking for a unicorn who seems to have been wounded by someone or something – an act of unimaginable evil.

The group runs into some centaurs, and quickly grow frustrated at their enigmatic answers; they read portents of danger in the stars but provide no practical help.

Firenze, a centaur with apparently different views on relationships with humans, eventually rescues Harry from a sticky spot. His centaur brethren are less than pleased:

“What have you been telling him?” growled Bane. “Remember, Firenze, we are sworn not to set ourselves against the heavens. Have we not read what is to come in the movements of the planets? … Centaurs are concerned with what has been foretold! It is not our business to run around like donkeys after stray humans in our Forest!”

Image result for harry potter and the sorcerer's stone

Firenze responds with some heat of his own: “I set myself against what is lurking in this Forest, Bane, yes, with humans alongside me if I must.”

Later, Firenze tells Harry, “The planets have been read wrongly before now, even by centaurs. I hope this is one of those times.”

It strikes me this could apply to many interpreters of Revelation – so certain they have read the signs correctly, they disengage from the world around them. Evil runs rampant, but that’s just what the prophecies foretold so there’s nothing that can be done. Better to wait for the rapture and let God take care of business.

But that’s not the message of Revelation at all. It’s very interested in this world – in the powers that control it and the ability of the followers of Jesus to resist them. It’s filled with warnings about assimilating into the dominant political and economic cultures and compromising the self-sacrificing example of Jesus.

In fact, to take it one step further, I’d argue it’s precisely because so many Christians have trained themselves to look for portents in the heavens that they have become so vulnerable to the whispers of Revelation’s corrupting and violent Beast.

Let me be clear: Donald Trump is not the Beast. To the extent any world leader ever was the Beast, it was probably Nero. But the Beast as a symbol for the rapacious and seductive power of empire lives in every time and culture, including ours.

And perhaps no one better personifies that power in our time and culture than the American president – especially when that president uses fear and paranoia to amass power and wield it against the marginalized.

This is one of the greatest and saddest ironies of the current American moment: Numerous Christians raised to scrutinize world leaders for signs of the Beast have fallen prey to it. Senses dulled by the drugs of fear and paranoia fed them by the False Prophets in their pulpits, over their airwaves and on their televisions, they have embraced the Beast’s promise of security and victory in this world, abandoning the values of grace, love and self-sacrifice typified by the Lamb and his promise of eternal security and victory in the next.

To merge the metaphors, we are now deep within the Forest, and the Beast is lurking. A large number of Christians, believing they read the stars correctly, have abandoned the fight against the Beast – many have even embraced it, mistaking it for a savior who will lead them to safety. Which of us will stand against it, no matter who is alongside us?

The prophecies of Revelation have been read wrongly many times before now, even by Christians. I hope this is one of those times.

Reading a Different Revelation

Image result for revelation and the end of all thingsWhen I was a kid, my favorite book of the Bible was Revelation.

Granted, this almost certainly was because it was easily the most interesting book to read for a kid who wasn’t allowed to bring an activity bag or any other distractions for worship service – also known as the slowest 45 minutes of my week. All I had was my Bible, and beasts, earthquakes and other calamities helped the time fly right by.

Obviously, growing up in a conservative evangelical faith tradition, I learned the “left behind” interpretation of Revelation, or to use the fancy technical term: premillennial dispensatiionalism. Rapture, Tribulation, World War III, Armageddon and all the rest.

Fast forward two decades or so, and I’m now teaching a class on Revelation at the Episcopal congregation my family attends. Far from repeating the code-book style of interpretation so common in American Christianity, we’re trying to find a healthier way of reading the book that would be recognizable to the original recipients. After all, it seems like the ultimate practice in arrogance to assume that a letter written 2,000 years ago is somehow all about you, and it certainly does us no favors to uncritically accept a reading that argues, as philosopher-theologian Randy Harris once called it, that “God so loved the world that he sent World War III.”

Continue reading Reading a Different Revelation

Christians Saying (and Doing) the Right Thing – and Not – on Family Separations

Since my post about the abhorrent family-separation policy enacted by the Trump administration, two major developments have occurred:

One, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House press secretary Sarah Sanders invoked Romans 13 in defending this egregiously anti-Christian policy. I don’t have much to add to the many, many words of outrage directed at this despicable misreading of Scripture, except maybe two things:

  • The Atlantic pointed out the use of Romans 13 to justify slavery in antebellum America, then said its use in public discourse essentially disappeared. That may be true, but I’d add a use of more recent vintage: To defend segregation and criticize Martin Luther King Jr.’s program of civil disobedience. I know I’ve run across examples in researching the response by Churches of Christ to the civil rights movement. So Sessions and Sanders can join apologists for slavery and segregation in misusing Romans 13 for political ends.
  • One of the most disturbing and anguished over sayings of Jesus is his assertion in the Sermon on the Mount that “not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter. On the Judgment Day, many people will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name and expel demons in your name and do lots of miracles in your name?’ Then I’ll tell them, ‘I’ve never known you. Get away from me, you people who do wrong’ (Matt 7:21-23). I confess I don’t have any better idea than you what that really means, but it’s hard not to think of it in light of Sessions’ and Sanders’ comments.

Two, since I leveled some pretty strong criticism of “the pro-life movement” – without acknowledging, as I should have, that there are plenty of progressives who consider themselves pro-life and pro-immigrant, as well as pro-social justice, and that no movement is an ideological monolith – I felt I should return since several organizations and people who I’d consider part of that movement, and largely part of the problem of turning the “pro-life” and “evangelical Christian” labels into synonyms for “Republican Party policy priorities, have since criticized family separations at the border.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, last seen shouting down nuns for their support of expanding access to health insurance, pulled no punches:

Our government has the discretion in our laws to ensure that young children are not separated from their parents and exposed to irreparable harm and trauma. Families are the foundational element of our society and they must be able to stay together. Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral.

Franklin Graham, long one of Trump’s foremost public defenders, was also critical – although notably he did pull a punch or two:

I think it’s disgraceful, it’s terrible, to see families ripped apart, and I don’t support that one bit. And I blame the politicians for the last 20, 30 years that have allowed this to escalate to the point where it is today.

Somehow, of course, none of those politicians over the past three decades managed to implement a policy of widespread family separation the way Trump and Sessions have done.

The Southern Baptist Convention, after hearing from Vice President Pence, passed a resolution affirming “the value and dignity of immigrants, regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, culture, national origin, or legal status” and further rejecting “any form of nativism, mistreatment, or exploitation” as “inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

WORLD magazine’s Twitter feed and website have been remarkably silent on the crisis and Sessions’ response, but one of their reporters, Mindy Belz, swatted him down:

So far, I can’t find any comments from Focus on the Family or the Family Research Council – and Democrats for Life’s Charles Camosy, in a column echoing my post, couldn’t find anything from the National Right to Life or Susan B. Anthony List. If they make a statement, I’ll post it.

Their silence speaks volumes about how much they truly care about innocent lives and family values – and how much they have sold out those lives and values for the taste of power Trump now gives them.

Billy Graham’s Faltering Legacy

When Billy Graham was born in 1918, American Christianity was engaged in something of a civil war between Fundamentalists and modernists.

As Christians, mainly in colleges and big-city churches, increasingly accepted scientific explanations for the origins of life and accordingly changed the way they viewed the creation and transmission of the Bible, they were subjected by conservatives within their denominations to heresy trials, sometimes successfully ousted from positions of leadership.

That division was memorably described by Harry Emerson Fosdick, the famed pastor of First Presbyterian Church in New York City, who in 1922 – when Graham was a toddler – delivered his sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”

“Their apparent intention,” Fosdick declared, “is to drive out of the evangelical churches men and women of liberal opinions.”

Continue reading Billy Graham’s Faltering Legacy