Thoughts on the Tennessee “Monkey Bill”

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I never learned about evolution in school. 

Even though I attended a public high school, where I took two biology courses, my teachers essentially skipped the first few chapters of our science textbook and declared them “too controversial” to teach.  You just don’t talk about evolution here in Dayton, Tennessee—home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925—without getting calls from parents. 

As I recall, we spent maybe one class session “discussing” evolution. The teacher turned this discussion over to the students and, like good church kids, we ridiculed, rolled our eyes, and dismissed evolution as ignorant, liberal propaganda. “Fish don’t just grow legs and walk out of the ocean!” we laughed.“You’d have to be stupid to believe that!” (Just a year after I graduated, PBS came to Rhea County High School, documented one of these class discussions, and put it on TV. The footage is excruciatingly embarrassing, and has thankfully been removed from You Tube for copyright reasons.) 

I would go on to attend a small Christian liberal arts college named after William Jennings Bryan, legendary orator and assistant to the prosecution in the Scopes Trial.  At the time, the majority of the science faculty espoused young earth creationism, so I learned about evolution in the context of Christian apologetics courses, with the presupposition that evolution was incompatible with the Christian faith. 

It wasn’t until after I graduated that I studied the science for myself.

And it was overwhelming. 

I had never learned about the fossil record. 

I had never learned about carbon dating. 

I had never learned about transitional species, or vestigial traits, or the profound implications of DNA sequencing. 

As it turned out, what I’d always been told was controversial was not controversial at all—at least not in the scientific community. Darwin’s theory of evolution consistently makes testable, verifiable predictions about the world. An honest assessment of the evidence led me to believe that the theory of evolution is sound...(not perfect, but sound). 

I felt betrayed—by my teachers, by my church, by my culture.  

My faith took a severe beating, and I watched in frustration as friends with similar backgrounds left Christianity for good. For some, all it took was one semester of college-level biology. 

Since then, I’ve written a book and a bunch of blog posts pleading with the evangelical community to get rid of some of these “false fundamentals” that act as stumbling blocks for so many young Christians.  Insisting that the science of evolution is incompatible with the Christian faith sets up a false dichotomy that is costing far too many Christians their faith. 

Knowing this about my background, several of you have asked for my thoughts on the so-called “Monkey Bill” that became law this week in Tennessee. The bill guarantees that teachers will not be subjected to discipline for challenging the science of evolution and climate change in class, and provides guidelines for discussing “the controversy” behind evolution and climate change with students.  (You can read the bill summary here.)

On this one, I actually agree with Governor Bill Haslam, who did not sign the bill. The governor told Reuters,“I do not believe that this legislation changes the scientific standards that are taught in our schools or the curriculum.  I also don’t believe that it accomplishes anything.” 

Exactly. 

This is an essentially meaningless bill whose sole purpose is to score political points for its proponents, who have already wasted hours upon hours of taxpayer time and money pandering to the religious right with unnecessary initiatives and bills. (See their attempt to outlaw Shariah Law, the “Don’t Say Gay in School” Bill, the “Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act” and more.)

If this “monkey bill” accomplishes anything, it simply reinforces and encourages what is already happening at public schools across the state: Students are not learning science. 

The bill is opposed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, the American Institute for Biological Sciences, the Knoxville News Sentinel, the Nashville Tennessean, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the National Earth Science Teachers Association, and the Tennessee Science Teachers Association.

Tennessean Stanley Cohen, a Nobel Prize winner in physiology of medicine, also opposes the bill. ”By undermining the teaching of evolution in Tennessee’s public schools,” he said, “HB368 and SB893 would miseducate students, harm the state’s national reputation, and weaken its efforts to compete in a science-driven global economy.“

What these legislators and their religious supporters don’t understand is this:  Evolution is not controversial within scientific circles, and so it should not be taught as controversial in science classrooms. Teach the controversy in history class, sure. (And don’t forget to mention Dayton!) Teach it in Sunday school. But don’t teach it in public high school science classes.

To teach creationism and intelligent design as equals alongside evolutionary theory is incredibly misleading, and it fails massively to prepare students to excel in the sciences in the future.

It also fails to prepare Christian students to engage their faith with intellectual integrity.  What is clearly an attempt by religious lawmakers to help young Christians retain their faith will backfire. 

Like it or not, the scientific evidence in support of evolutionary theory is overwhelming, and, take it from me, when you encounter this for the first time,  having been told  all your life that it’s just a bunch of baloney, it feels like a betrayal.  It feels like you’ve been lied to. If we fail to prepare students to face the reality of the scientific evidence while they are in high school, we leave them vulnerable to those feelings of betrayal once they leave the protective care of their pastors and parents.  You’re not doing young Christians any favors by delaying the inevitable. 

At the end of the day, Tennessee lawmakers shouldn’t be worried about keeping young Tennesseans religious. They should be worried about creating jobs, improving education, balancing the budget, and, if I had my way, stopping mountaintop removal.  (They killed that bill last week.)

But if they really want to give young Christians the chance to keep their faith, they should encourage science teachers to stick with the curriculum so that students can start working through these issues with their parents and pastors sooner rather than later. 

Additional posts about the origins discussion:

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I Could Have Used This Book Twelve Years Ago: A Review of “The Evolution of Adam” by Peter Enns

Within the first week of my freshman year of college, my Introduction to World Literature class included a reading of Gilgamesh, an ancient Mesopotamian myth about a hero who is described as 1/3 man and 2/3 god.

As we read the text together in class, I couldn't help but notice some striking similarities between this text and the familiar texts of Genesis and Ecclesiastes, but when we got to the part where Gilgamesh speaks with Utnapishtim, a survivor of the Great Flood, I disintegrated into a full-fledged faith crisis.  So much of the Gilgamesh flood story sounded just like “my” flood story from Genesis: Both accounts included a boat in which just a few people, along with animals, are saved from a universal flood.  In both stories, the boat comes to rest on a mountain and birds are sent out to find land. And both stories end with a sacrifice to a deity. And my literature book dated the writing of Gilgamesh before the writing of Genesis! 

I was at a conservative Christian college, and so my professor insisted that the texts had been misdated and that the story of Gilgamesh represented some sort of distortion of the historical/scientific account of Adam and Eve, Noah, and the flood. But my literary instincts had kicked in and I just wasn’t buying it. 

“The similarities between these texts must mean that they are of the same genre and share a similar context,” my English-major mind was screaming.  “Why would we regard one as history and the other as story when they use such similar images, styles, symbols, and plotlines? That just doesn’t make sense.” 

Twelve years later, Old Testament scholar Peter Enns has confirmed my suspicions, but in a way that has somehow managed to strengthen my faith rather than weaken it, through a fantastic book entitled The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins.

“The early chapters of Genesis are not a literal or scientific description of historical events but a theological statement in an ancient idiom, a statement about Israel’s God and Israel’s place in the world of God’s people,” Enns explains. “The core issue raised by ancient Near Eastern data has helped calibrate the genre of the biblical creation accounts. The failure to appreciate that genre calibration is responsible for much of the tension in the evolution discussion....To observe the similarities between the creation and flood stories and the literature of the ancient Near East, and to insist that all of those other writings are clearly a-historical while Genesis is somehow presenting history—this is not a strong position of faith, but rather a weak one, where Scripture must conform to one’s expectations.” 

Enns goes on to remind readers that “a text’s meaning is rooted in its historical and literary context,” and to argue that the historical and literary context of much of the Old Testament can be found in the questions and concerns of post-exilic Israel. 

I first heard Enns present these ideas at a conference hosted by the BioLogos Foundation in 2010, and it was as if a light clicked on in my head.  As a lover of literature, it made perfect sense to me that the best way to understand an author’s meaning is to study the time and culture in which the author wrote, to get a sense of the sort of questions people were asking at the time. Taking this approach to the Bible does not weaken it, but rather respects it for what it is, not what we want it to be

The Evolution of Adam not only answers just about every question I had after Enns’ Biologos lecture, but also includes a lengthy and thoughtful treatment of the apostle Paul’s Adam, again seeking to understand Paul’s intent within his unique context and culture. Enns is quick to note that it is Paul’s view of Adam rather than the Genesis account itself that causes most Christians to wrestle with the implications of evolution, and so it is Paul’s view of Adam that must be investigated. 

“Paul’s use of the Adam story,” Enns concludes, “serves a vital theological purpose in explaining to his ancient readers the significance for all humanity of Christ’s death and resurrection. His use of the Adam story, however, cannot and should not be the determining factor in whether biblically faithful Christians can accept evolution as the scientific account of human origins—and the gospel does not hang in the balance.” 

This may seem like an impossibly complicated topic to cover in a mere 147 pages, but Enns manages to do so with astounding clarity and insight. He is of the best scholarly writers I’ve ever encountered because he somehow manages to be thorough, personable, and readable all at the same time.

In The Evolution of Adam, you’ll find accessible introductions to everything from source criticism to the New Perspective on Paul, which will make you feel oh-so-caught-up on all the important trends in biblical scholarship.  (Try not to show off at parties.) 

For me, this book served as both a reality check and an inspiration—a rare combination that you just won’t find in most books that take historical and literary criticism seriously. I wish I could get into all the details of what made this book so helpful, but this would require a series of posts that will have to wait for a later time. 

For now, just know that The Evolution of Adam comes with my heartfelt, enthusiastic recommendation. Learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be, means taking its context and history seriously. Enns has managed to do that in a way that both enlightens and encourages. 

I’ll conclude with a quote from The Evolution of Adam that ties together perfectly yesterday’s post and today’s: 

For many, it is important for the future viability of faith, let alone the evolution-Christianity discussion, that we recognize and embrace the fact that the Bible is a thoroughly enculturated product. But it is not enough to merely say so and press on, with a quaint nod or an embarrassed shuffle of the feet. It is important for future generations of Christians to have a view of the Bible where its rootedness in ancient ways of thinking is embraced as a theological positive, not a problem to be overcome. At present there is  a lot of fear about the implications of bringing evolution and Christianity together, and this fear needs to be addressed head-on. Many fear that we are on a slippery slope, to use the hackneyed expression. Perhaps the way forward is not to resist the slide so much as to stop struggling, look around, and realize that we may have been on the wrong hill altogether.

Be sure to check out the Brazos Press Web site this week. You can enter win a giveaway in which the grand prize is a book package that includes:

  • The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns
  • Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns
  • The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith
  • Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible by John Polkinghorne
  • The Mind and the Machine by Matthew Dickerson

(Five runners up will receive copies of The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns) 

If some of these titles sound familiar, it’s because most of them are on my list of books to read and discuss on the blog. So go enter!

 

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What happened when I tried to love God with my mind

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Last week Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote an excellent blog post about intellectual discipleship and the importance of loving God with our minds. I actually agreed with quite a few of his conclusions, including this one:

A robust and rich model of Christian thinking—the quality of thinking that culminates in a God-centered worldview—requires that we see all truth as interconnected. Ultimately, the systematic wholeness of truth can be traced to the fact that God is himself the author of all truth… The recovery of the Christian mind and the development of a comprehensive Christian worldview will require the deepest theological reflection, the most consecrated application of scholarship, the most sensitive commitment to compassion, and the courage to face all questions without fear.

Face all questions without fear. 

That’s exactly what I tried to do about two years ago when, despite some serious trepidation, I decided to learn all I could about the science behind evolutionary theory and the biblical scholarship surrounding interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2. I’d been raised with the young earth creationist view and was familiar with the arguments from that camp, but what little evidence I’d studied from “the other side” struck me as compelling and sound. I figured that if “all truth is God’s truth,” then there would be no harm in honestly examining the evidence for myself. 

Within a few months, it became clear to me that to deny the scientific veracity of an old earth required an interpretation of the data that I could not in good conscience accept. And by the end of the year, I’d uncovered so much rich biblical scholarship regarding creation narratives in ancient Near Eastern culture that to demand that Genesis 1 and 2 address modern scientific questions seemed wholly unnecessary to preserving the inherent truth of the text.  

(Note: Some of the most helpful books I encountered during this period of study included The Language of God by Francis Collins, The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton,  Saving Darwin by Karl Giberson, and Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne.) 

I spoke one-on-one with scientists. I read through commentaries as old as Augustine. I got connected with the BioLogos Forum and even attended a conference on science and faith where I pretended to understand jokes at the lunch table about protein biosynthesis.

I did my due diligence to love God with my mind, even when it required a dramatic shift in my perspective. 

And Al Mohler didn’t like it. 

Responding to a piece I wrote for the Washington Post about my journey from young earth creationism to evolutionary creationism, Mohler told readers that my “glib and superficial endorsement of evolution and its reconciliation with Christianity is all too common and all to irresponsible.”

My quest for truth—with all of its searching, its tears, its research, and its late-night prayers—had been deemed “glib and superficial” by someone who didn’t even know me. It seems that Al Mohler is fine with Christians loving God with their minds so long as they reach the same conclusions that he has. 

As I’ve said many times before, I’m not particularly interested in converting young earth creationists into evolutionary creationists.I believe that Christians should be able to fellowship together in love and unity regardless of their various positions on the interpretation of Genesis Being neither an Old Testament scholar nor a scientist, I’ll leave that debate up to the experts. 

But I will tirelessly and unequivocally advocate on behalf of those Christians struggling to reconcile their faith with their intellectual integrity because someone like Al Mohler told them that they have to choose between Christianity and scientific consensus.  I cannot overstate the fact that the evangelical community…indeed the Christian community… is losing young people every day to a false dichotomy.  

Take it from me: When you grow up being taught to love God with your mind and then get punished for trying to do so, the temptation to leave the faith in anger and disillusionment is overwhelming.  

My request for Al Mohler is not that he abandon his convictions regarding the age of the earth but that he accept the fact  that if the Christian community indeed devotes itself to intellectual discipleship it will inevitably result in some diversity of opinion. 

And that’s okay. 

What does loving God with your mind mean to you? Have you ever been punished by the Church for asking tough questions or pursuing a new idea?

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Al Mohler responds

Al Mohler has responded to my piece on the Washington Post’s religion blog about evolution and Christianity. 

Read my piece: When Atheists and Baptists Agree

Read Mohler’s response: Evolution – When Atheists and Baptists Agree? 

Mohler seems to agree with my premise (that both atheists and young earth creationists present faith and evolutionary theory as incompatible), but not my conclusions (that perpetuating this dichotomy is harmful to the future of the church). 

I am honored that someone as influential as Mohler would take the time to engage me on the issue. My attitude toward Mohler is the same as my attitude toward Ken Ham: We can disagree on the age of the earth and still have peace with one another, for at the end of the day we can affirm together that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again. I would gladly break the bread of communion with both of these men, and I can only hope that they feel the same way about me. 

I thought Mohler’s piece was fair, except perhaps for this statement: 

“Her glib and superficial endorsement of evolution and its reconciliation with Christianity is all too common and all too irresponsible.”

If only Mohler knew how much time I have spent in doubt, prayer, tears, sleepless nights, research, questioning, listening, and worship as I’ve wrestled with this tough issue! Of course there are serious theological implications to embracing evolutionary theory; it’s just hard to cram them all into a 700-word blog post! 

I’ll touch on some of these theological issues in a post on Wednesday, but I don’t feel the need to respond to Mohler any further. Like I said, I’m honored that someone important enough to grace the cover of this month’s Christianity Today would take the time to interact with my ideas. 

So, what do you think of Mohler’s response?

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