The Missing Link?

This week I recorded and watched the History Channel documentary, “The Link,” which featured the recent scientific findings surrounding a miraculously intact primate fossil, estimated to be about 47-million years old.

The documentary was interesting, but far too long. I’ll save you some time and summarize the two-hour presentation in two sentences:  The fossil, (discovered in the Messel Shale Pit in Germany), appears to be a transitional species that shows characteristics from both the non-human and human evolutionary lines.  Though the animal has features from the prosimian (lemur) line of primates—a grooming claw, a tooth comb—it also has features from the anthropoid (monkey, ape, man) line—a talus bone in the ankle that makes standing upright possible...so it appears to be a well-preserved snapshot from our evolutionary line dating from just after the split with the lemurs, something scientists expected to find within the estimated time period.

This is certainly a significant finding, although I’m not sure it was worth all the hype it has received over the past few weeks. I’m still a little unclear about what characteristics a specimen would need to exhibit in order to undoubtedly represent a  “missing link.”

Having grown up in a conservative Christian environment that taught young earth creationism exclusively, I’m still playing catch up with my basic knowledge of evolutionary theory. Over the past few years, I’ve studied the subject, and found scientific evidence in support of evolution to be too compelling to ignore. I’m beginning to believe that Theodosius Dobzhansky was right when he said that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Dobzhansky was a devout Eastern Orthodox Christian.

However, I still have quite a few friends and family members who remain committed to young earth or intelligent design paradigms...( I live in Dayton, Tennessee, home of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, after all)...so I always try to give these groups a fair hearing.

I went to the Answers in Genesis Web site and found an article about how these recent findings “should in no way faze creationists” because “the fossil does not resemble a human skeleton,” because it  “was found in two parts,” and because the fossil’s lack of a grooming claw and toothcomb “are easily explained by variation with a kind.” The article concludes that “nothing about this fossil suggest it is anything other than an extinct, lemur-like creature” and that “the remarkable preservation is a hallmark of rapid burial...consistent with a catastrophic flood.” 

I’ll let you guys critique that argument.

Marlin Lavenhar once said, “...Now that we have discovered DNA and its code, we know that we are not only related to monkeys, we are related to zucchini. So let’s get over it.”

This quote makes me smile and wince at the same time. On the one hand, I think that the idea that we are interconnected to all of life is quite beautiful and spiritual...maybe even biblical. On the other hand, one has to wonder how descending from apes makes us “created in the image of God.”

Sometimes I wonder if, just as Galileo’s paradigm of a sun-centered solar system offended man’s pride, evolution is meant to remind us that we are not the center of the universe after all. Sometimes I wonder if God uses science to provide us with a healthy serving of humility every now and then.

So what do you think about the news surrounding “The Link”? Is it dangerous propaganda or a reality check?

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Book Club Discussion: History, Mistakes, and Redemption

Today we will conclude our discussion of David Dark’s The Sacredness of Questioning Everything with a look at his chapter on “Questioning History.” (Two more chapters follow, but I thought this one was most conducive to our conversation here.)

In Chapter Eight, Dark observes that “reading history yields the realization that deeply sincere people have gone to houses of worship, looked after their families, and prayed intensely while also participating in unthinkable atrocities. With this in mind, I read in the hope that I might participate in the redemptive movements of history, the kind that will look redemptive centuries from now.” (p. 173)

Those two sentences summarize a difficult and inconvenient truth that should keep us awake at night. I often think of Christians who owned slaves, Christians who opposed integration, and Christians who remained silent as the Cherokees were forced from their homes, and I wonder would I have joined them?

The truth is, sometimes we get it wrong.  In fact, we are probably getting some things wrong right now.

To be honest, this is why I spend a lot of time thinking about issues related to homosexuality, and why I find myself reluctant to join crusades against gay marriage. I often wonder if future generations will look at how the Church treated gays and lesbians and hang their heads in shame.

On page 173, Dark wisely asks, “How do I avoid being yet another uncaring face in a long line of blissfully ignorant people whose action and inaction are harnessed to keep other people down?” 

From this perspective, Dark makes an excellent case for the benefits of historical revisionism, arguing that “our commitment to remembering well, to the details of what really happened in tragic personal histories, war zones, and under the watch of negligent governments, is, it seems to me, inescapably tied to the struggle to think, speak, and listen redemptively.” (p. 185)

Of course, not all Christians have remained silent in the presence of inequity, and not all Christians participated in the aforementioned injustices. Some actually stood up against them, and their stories should certainly not be downplayed or ignored. However, there have been plenty of times throughout history when taking a stand against the government or the Church has been met with the charge of capitulating to culture or even denying the faith. To live a life that looks beyond the present almost certainly carries with it the risk of being criticized, even persecuted.

This chapter was perhaps my favorite of the book, because Dark takes the popular charge that one has a “biased reading of history” and shows how a redemptive bias can be helpful. It was also an appropriately uncomfortable chapter to read, because I found myself wondering how my children and my grandchildren will one day view my life, my words, and my silence.

In looking at the world today, what injustices do you think Christians might be overlooking or even perpetuating? How do you think history will judge this generation? Do issues related to homosexuality come to your mind when thinking about this?

And, to borrow a question from Dark: “Oscar Wilde once observed that the best thing one can do for history is to revise it. Is he right? Why or why not?”

Let me know what you think!

(P.S. If you enjoyed The Sacredness of Questioning Everything as much as I did, consider writing a review on Amazon!)

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Reforming My Attitude: How a Little Church Made Big Impact

Those who know me well know that I’ve had a somewhat tumultuous relationship with Reformed theology and Reformed churches over the years.  A few bad experiences left me with a chip on my shoulder and festering wounds I like to nurse every now and then with a snarky comment or critical post.

I’ve written about some of my experiences before—meeting a six-year-old forced to memorize and recite the Westminster Confession at dinnertime, nearly losing my faith over the notion that God created the majority of the human population for no other purpose but to suffer in hell for eternity, and encountering the famed ‘Jonathan Edwards is My Homeboy” T-shirt in the midst of the so-called “Calvinist resurgence.”

Other experiences have been too personal to write about extensively. When some of my Reformed friends learned that I was reading Clark Pinnock’s work on inclusivism, for example, they called me a “cotton candy Christian” and an “enemy of the Church.” For not embracing all the petals of the TULIP, I’ve been asked, “How can you call yourself a Christian?”

For years, I was under the impression that the Reformed approach to the gospel was best summarized by Mark Driscoll, who has said, “The gospel starts with ‘God hates you’ and it’s going to go really really bad forever” a conclusion that is disturbing, yet pretty faithful to the writings of many Reformed theologians throughout history. 

The Reformed approach to women in leadership, I assumed, was best represented by John Piper, who claims that women are designed by God “to affirm, receive, and nurture the strength and leadership of worthy men,” and that “the Bible summons men to bear the burden of primary leadership, provision, and protection in the home and in the church.”  [In light of his position on gender roles, Piper could not bring himself to endorse Sarah Palin as a vice presidential candidate in the 2008 election, but conceded that “defending abortion is far worse a sin for a man than serving as Vice President is for a woman.”]

So when my mother-in-law invited me and Dan to attend The Hillsborough Reformed Church at Millstone(New Jersey) with her on Mother’s Day, I did so a bit begrudgingly, bracing for an hour of hellfire and damnation among the “frozen chosen.”

Not only was pleasantly surprised, I was moved to tears.

Founded in 1766, The Hillsborough Reformed Church at Millstone meets in a beautifully restored Federal-style building.  Of the Dutch reformed tradition, it is affiliated with the Reformed Church in America.  The congregation follows the Church calendar, and services are generally traditional in style and format.

I liked that the announcements at the beginning of the service revealed that the church members prioritized care for the poor and suffering and that they participated in regular Bible study. I liked that the congregation said the Lord's Prayer in each service. My interest was further piqued when we sang a beautiful hymn, “O God of Every Nation,” a hymn I rarely hear in the conservative, nationalistic churches down South. The lyrics are incredible:

O God of every nation,
of every race and land,
redeem the whole creation
with your almighty hand;
where hate and fear divide us
and bitter threats are hurled,
in love and mercy guide us
and heal our strife-torn world.

From search for wealth and power
and scorn of truth and right,
from trust in bombs that shower
destruction through the night,
from pride of race and nation
and blindness to your way,
deliver every nation,
eternal God, we pray!

Lord, strengthen all who labor
that we may find release
from fear of rattling saber,
from dread of war's increase;
when hope and courage falter,
your still small voice be heard;
with faith that none can alter,
your servants undergird.

Keep bright in us the vision
of days when war shall cease,
when hatred and division
give way to love and peace,
till dawns the morning glorious
when truth and justice reign
and Christ shall rule victorious
o'er all the world's domain.

And then, to my complete surprise, a woman approached the pulpit to deliver the sermon! Student Minister Pam Bakker preached on Acts 8:26-40—the story of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. Meticulously well-researched, carefully written, and beautifully delivered, the sermon highlighted why the eunuch’s interest in the writings of Isaiah were of particular significance to his own life story, illustrating the inclusive and deeply personal love that God has for all people. It was both encouraging and challenging, both moving and informational.  For Mother’s Day, it was a strange and yet delightfully appropriate message, communicated by a most fitting messenger. 

Bakker preaches regularly, but because she is a student minister (still in seminary, I presume), the congregation filled out a questionnaire critiquing her sermon. As I filled it out, I marveled that anyone could deny such an intelligent and capable woman the chance to share the gospel before her peers simply because she was a woman. It was genuinely one of the best sermons I had heard in years. 

The Lead Pastor, Rev. Dr. Fred Mueller, concluded by quoting the apostle Paul from Galatians 3, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” He said it with such warmth and enthusiasm, it brought tears to my eyes. 

I had finally found a church that emphasized care for the poor, that studied Scripture, that celebrated an end to nationalism, war, and hate, that provided equal opportunities women in leadership, that stayed out of politics, and that spoke of God’s inclusive love for all people....and it was in New Jersey....and it was Reformed! 

God indeed has a very good sense of humor. 

Needless to say, the experience humbled me and forced me to re-examine my own prejudices and assumptions. I’ve been doing some research, and have found that not all Reformed churches are the same and that Mark Driscoll and John Piper do not speak for all of my Reformed brothers and sisters. However, I’m still trying to sort through the differences between PCA, RCA, and CRC...so if you have any insight on this, please post a comment or a link.  I could use your help! 

The truth is, I’ve been making general statements about something I do not understand that well. My dismissal of all things Reformed came from a place of hurt and frustration, and served as a sort of defense mechanism that protected me from seriously engaging those with whom I disagree.  

The truth is, deep down, I wanted all Reformed churches to be the same. I wanted them all to fit neatly into a box so I could pack them away and label them as “bad” or “sexist” or “other.” Labels make life so much easier. Unfortunately, they are seldom entirely accurate.  

So while I obviously have no plans to subscribe to Mark Driscoll’s blog or buy a “Jonathan Edwards is My Homeboy” T-shirt, I’m going to try to be more patient with the Reformed perspective.  It seems I haven’t really heard it in its entirety.

What experiences have led you to re-think old denominational prejudices? What is your understanding of Reformed theology and the Reformed tradition?

Note: Just to clear up some possible confusion - I'm working on reforming my attitude, not my theological position! :-) I remain decidedly Arminian in my perspective. To see why, check out my comments (entitled "Why People Like Calvinism" and "Why I Don't") that follow an older post.) 

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Holy War: How Does This Image Make You Feel?

I don’t know about you, but I reacted strongly when I saw the report from GQ magazine that Bible verses were used on cover sheets of intelligence reports during the Bush administration.  How does this image make you feel?

Transient
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Book Club Discussion: Words Worth Talking About

Transient

As we continue our discussion of David Dark’s excellent book, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything (Zondervan, 2009), I’d like to focus on the author’s thoughts regarding language and interpretation.

I like Dark’s observation in Chapter 6 (“Questioning Our Language”) that “semantics might be all that we have to talk about...The question of what our words mean, what we didn’t mean, or what we didn’t mean to mean, as tiresome as it all feels, is really all we’ve got...If we’re unwilling to reexamine or revisit the meaning of our words, if it wounds our pride to receive a talking-to concerning our ill-suited talk, what’s left?” (p. 130)

Instead, Dark advocates “keeping everything talkaboutable”—a phrase I love, and a phrase I hope describes the nature of our conversations on this blog. Such an approach requires humility and a willingness to think critically. It requires that we remain open to the perspectives of others.  It requires that we listen better and, ultimately, love better.

In Chapter 7 (“Questioning Our Interpretation”), Dark applies the same approach to how we read and interpret (among other things) the Bible.

Writes Dark, “...we have to resist the temptation to read the scriptures flatly, as if any verse can be extracted and deployed to say ‘what God says,’ as if there is no ethical progression or moral development or widening eschatology within the collection. “ (p. 156) Dark goes on to rightly note that Scripture will not interpret itself and that “this work of reading the words well—of trying to do them justice—is never done.” (p. 156)

In mulling over these chapters, I started making a list of certain words I think are worth talking about more, words that are worth reexamining within Christian dialog. These are words that are often thrown about without much thought or are lifted from the Bible with little regard to their context.  Here are my top five:

  1. Inerrancy:  Why do so many insist on passionately defending the use of this word to describe the Bible when the word itself never appears in the Bible? Where did this word come from? Is inerrancy irrelevant when the Bible must always be interpreted by errant readers, when we have no actual access to an inerrant text? Might we benefit by using words like authoritative, or trustworthy, or truthful instead? (
  2. Salvation: Saved from what? Does the word salvation refer to the eternal ramifications of our sins (saved from hell) or to the day-to-day ramifications of our sins (saved from gossip and greed), or does it refer to both? Does salvation happen corporately or individually?
  3. Justification: Check out a great conversation on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog about N.T. Wright’s new book, Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision.  Clearly, this discussion goes beyond “mere semantics.”
  4. Blessing:  Should material abundance always be considered a blessing?  How do we know when something is really a gift from God?Should we use this word more sparingly? 
  5. Truth: Oh, where to begin?

Question For YOU: What are some words that you think are worth talking about?

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