Monday, February 26, 2007

knocking down the walls

Imagine a man who has lived his entire life in a building with a stairwell whose railing he has depended on for guidance as he goes up and down the stairs. When he is hungry, he goes down to the kitchen; when he is tired, he goes up to his bedroom; when he has work to do, he goes to his study; and so on. Every room is a floor to itself, and every time he moves, he relies on that railing for support, for guidance, and even for direction.

Then one day he realizes that the railing is loose, and that with a little effort, he can pull the railing out of the wall, or maybe push it in farther. Perhaps he's known this all along and has avoided admitting it to himself and seeing what would happen if he moved the railing, because the railing has been his main means of support as he moves between floors. Perhaps it came to him suddenly, in a flash, because his own study and use of the rail has shown him design flaws he never noticed before; or because a visitor pointed out the flaws to him. Perhaps it didn't come to him suddenly at all, but as time has gone on, awareness has come to him like dawn breaking over the horizon. Or perhaps the revelation of the stairwell has come to him in some combination of those three.

How he came to this realization ultimately is less important than the realization itself. What matters is that one day, even though he didn't know if the railing would hold or give way, or even bring the entire wall down with it, he decided the time had come to stop using the railing out of habit, and he through everything he had into seeing what the rail could take.

That, I suppose, is roughly where I've been in terms of my understanding of Scripture for a while. I tugged, there was a loud crash, and everything shook. The dust is settling, and I'm trying now to tell whether this length of metal in my hand actually had a better use before someone turned it into a railing. To be honest, I'm not even sure if the wall is still there. For all I know, by pulling the railing out of the wall, I've allowed myself to enter a much larger, much more wonderful world than I ever knew existed before.

Enough metaphor. Here it is in a nutshell: I was taught back when I was a Pentecostal, back when I considered myself part of the evangelical crowd, that the Bible is the word of God, no exceptions, and that it was a dangerous (if not heretical) thing to view it as anything less than absolutely authoritative. I heard an Assemblies of God pastor say not once but several times that although it is not a science text, and although it is not a history text, when the Bible speaks on those matters, its word is authoritative.

That means you have to believe that God created the world in exactly six days, in exactly the manner that Genesis 1 describes. You have to believe that a flood once covered the entire earth after it rained for nearly six weeks. You have to believe that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were flesh-and-blood people; that Job lost everything he had because Satan bet God that he could break his spirit; and that a man named Jonah once was swallowed by a giant fish that spat him out three days later.

You have to believe all this, because once you say "The story of Jonah is a parable," you have no basis for saying that the Resurrection of Jesus is an historical event, and without that, Christianity collapses like a house of cards. Since, as the Apostle Paul wrote, "If there is no resurrection of the dead, we are to be pitied above all men," anything that casts aspersions on the Resurrection undermines the very basis of the faith, so to the doctrines of Scriptural infallibility and Scriptural inerrancy, add Scriptural literalism.

Bullocks. As Gordon Atkinson once noted, once people start using the slippery slope argument, it seems as though they don't know when to stop.

There's a tendency today to deride biblical literalists as ignorant hicks, particularly when it comes to the biblical account of creation and the events of the Deluge. That is a mistake. Creationists, whatever their biases, are not ignorant. Being a creationist in the 21st century means looking at evolutionary theory far more closely than the high school biology classes that many of their fiercest critics stopped with.

Being a creationist means you need to understand not only the theory itself and the data that evolutionary biologists have interpreted to support it, you also need to discover the preconceptions those biologists brought to their analysis and then reinterpret the raw data to fit your own preconceptions.

That's going to require an understanding of radioactive dating and its weaknesses, such as the wildly disparate readings a single sample can provide; explaining the fossil record, such as noting that paleontologists have never found a case where the geological column came anywhere near to matching what has been theorized; wading into the deep waters of molecular biology, getting into issues of irreducible complexity not just at the surface level but at the genetic one; gaining a passing familiarity with the comparative Flood mythologies of world cultures, from the Aborigines of Australia to the Mayans of Central America, and seeing how they compare to the Hebrew tale of Noah; and having at least a layman's grasp of hydrogeology, since creationists generally believe that the hydrogeological forces of the Deluge are responsible not only for the fossil record but for stalactites and stalagmites, metamorphic rock, layers of sedimentation, and the erosion that sculpted natural marvels like the Grand Canyon.

Being a creationist also means cataloging the anomalies that don't fit the accepted evolutionary model, such as the lack of significant development in crocodilians since the age of the dinosaurs; tracking the many evolutionary theories, since contrary to what you may believe, there is not a single, monolithic explanation of macroevolution; remembering oddments like the human skeletons and jewelry miners have found in the coal layer, even though it supposedly was formed in the millions of years before humanity arrived on the earth; and noticing other little things like the stalactites that form under bridges and stalagmites that form on cement walkways in caves, all so you can ask how many millions of years old these bridges and cement walkways are.

And then, when all this is done, you have to integrate it with the biblical record, which runs for about twelve chapters. Sometimes it's easy to do. About twenty years ago, scientists discovered that mitochondrial DNA, passed unchanged from mother to child, is virtually identical in people around the world. That fits neatly with the biblical account in Genesis, which traces us all back to Eve.

Other times, it's more challenging, such as the thousand-year lifespans the Bible credits to men like Adam, Seth, Methuselah and Noah. And then there's the disturbing lack of dinosaurs in the Bible. It's easy to suggest that Noah took young dinosaurs or eggs onto the Ark with him, but if something the size of a tyrannosaur or a diplodocus survived the Antediluvian period, it would seem likely that they would be mentioned somewhere.

If you haven't come through the ranks of evangelicaldom, I'm not sure I can convey just how much pressure there is to subscribe to this particular point of view. The unstated message, which of course, everyone would deny if it were put so baldly, is that viewing the Bible this way is part and parcel of being a Christian. If you don't subscribe to it, you're not really "saved."

No one puts it that way, of course; but in an offhanded way, at least among many evangelicals I knew, there was a nod and a wink attitude toward those who didn't take this view. At best they were spiritually immature Christians, but more typically they weren't "really" Christians. They were Christians in name only, or, most insultingly, Christians only by culture.

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