Cassandra Davis, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, 2013. Photograph taken at the Creation Museum. Davis is a Chicago artist working in photography and installation. She is interested in our deepest desire for the spiritual and her latest body of work “Holy Ground” examines her charismatic pentecostal roots. You can see more of her work at www.questionsfromthesoil.com. Click image for a high-resolution version
One day a few years ago I lost my glasses. I searched all over: kitchen, bedside table, bathroom. I didn’t find them but I did find Elizabeth. “E,” I said, “Have you seen my glasses? I’ve looked everywhere and can’t find them.” She smiled quizzically, then laughed aloud when she saw I wasn’t kidding.
They were on my face. I had been looking through them the whole time. My forward focus had missed them even as they floated at the periphery of vision.
On Saturday it happened again: Something I could until then see only peripherally, something I had been looking for, materialized before my eyes. It was pretty awesome.
It has to do with young Earth creationism. This is the belief that the cosmos and the Earth in it were formed over six 24-hour periods about 6,000 years ago. This number is arrived at using the biblical account alone — its historical markers and begats — to calculate the year of creation. Different methods yield different calendar dates for Day One, but to a single significant figure all round to 4,000 BC.
I think about creationism a lot, and when it enters the scope of my mind’s eye I see science. I see the tsunami of unambiguous evidence that forces us to believe in a 14-billion-year-old cosmos; in a 4.5-billion-year-old Earth; and in the long slow evolution of creatures, Darwin’s “endless forms most beautiful.” And I see the sad caricature of science championed by young Earth creationists in their effort to prop up their historical reading of Genesis. I see their arguments about the Deluge, the Grand Canyon, the receding Moon, and I see exactly why they are wrong. I see all of this and I ask myself, How can the Creation Museum (and the forthcoming Ark Park) even be possible in such a cosmos? Why can’t people see the evidence and change their minds?
This is naive, I know. And I would have admitted as much even before I picked up the October issue of the Atlantic on Saturday. But before I read Jeffrey Goldberg’s article about his visit to Ken Ham‘s Creation Museum, the truth about creationism lurked faintly and furtively at the outer edge of my vision. By the time I put the magazine down, however, my naivete had become a large solid thing standing directly in front of me. I could finally see it in all its obviousness.
The Creation Museum offers up plenty of fun — zip lines, a planetarium, a food court, a petting zoo — but these are so many electrons swirling around a stable and serious nucleus: a series of scenes from the so-called “primeval history” of Genesis 1-11. Up front and central is God’s establishment of Adam and Eve in the bright luxury of Eden. The First Couple radiates contentment (in a mannequin-y kind of way). They are white, healthy, and unfazed by not only their own nakedness, but by a horde of large animals and (yes) dinosaurs.
They are also, per scripture, oppositely sexed. There is no subtlety in the presentation of this fact: “buff Adams and sexpot Eves,” Goldberg writes of the mannequins, “plastic breasts covered by waterfalls of extremely healthy hair.” Male and female God created them; very male and very female Ken Ham presents them.
For me this is a sign pointing to the truth about creationism, which is: Creationism is not about the dinosaurs in the ark, it’s not about the weird chronology, it’s not about the tortured explanations of geology and biology. Creationism, in short, is not about science at all.
What creationism is about, is gay marriage.
Sitting with Ken Ham and Terry Mortenson, a historian of geology and a theologian on staff, I asked why it is so important to convince their visitors — more than 2 million since the museum opened seven years ago — that Genesis is a book of history. “There’s a slippery slope in regard to authority,” Ham replied. “If you say that the history in Genesis is not true… why shouldn’t you just reinterpret what marriage means?”
Mortenson stayed on the subject. “The homosexual issue flows from this. Genesis says that God created marriage between one man and one woman. He didn’t create it between two men, or two women, or two men and one woman, or three men and one woman, or two women and one man, or three women and one man. If other parts of Genesis aren’t true, then how could this idea of marriage be true? If there were no Adam and Eve and we’re all evolved from apelike ancestors and there’s homosexuality in the animal world and if Genesis is mythology, then you can justify any behavior you want.”
Other issues are important to Ham and his fellow creationists: teen pregnancy, pornography, abortion, euthanasia. But gay marriage, it seems, is representative of the lot. It is central. It is, as friend and fellow parishioner David Gushee writes, our generation’s hot button issue.
And because creationism is about gay marriage and not about science, science doesn’t matter to creationists. Back in February bow-tied science advocate Bill Nye debated Ham on the question of human origins. He did an admirable job representing real science. But Nye can calmly and rationally present the facts of science to Ken Ham until the Sun turns to coal but it won’t make a difference because the facts of science have nothing to do with it at all. All the scientific posturing of Ham and his team is there to effect a single and manifestly non-scientific end: the protection of a traditional social order, starting with one man and one woman.
This is why creationists can deny science while accepting its technological bounty; this is why they make up their own science as they go; this is why they stand and face science’s great wall of facts — and even comprehend it — and don’t budge a micron from their long-fixed position.
Creationism is not about science. This is so painfully obvious to me now, I’m embarrassed to reveal how blind I’ve been. I may even be more embarrassed than when Elizabeth witnessed me losing my glasses while they were perched on my face.
There are of course plenty of creationists who are not true believers like Ham, who might yet be persuaded by the facts of science. Therefore the work of science apologists like Nye is important. And not all who oppose gay marriage have a view of science even remotely resembling young Earth creationism. But there seems to be a parallel between Nye’s work and that of Gushee, for example, who is in the midst of developing a Christian argument in favor of gay marriage (among other things). Both work to convince not the entrenched but those at the boundaries, where all the good stuff seems to happen.
Living in Decatur, Georgia is interesting. You’ve heard of Decatur, of course; Atlanta is just one of its many suburbs. It is home to many wonderful eating and drinking establishments. It is walkable. It is family friendly. It has decent schools. And it’s a great place for book nerds to live; the annual Decatur Book Festival is one of the largest such events in the country and bigshot writers visit year round.
Decatur has a motto. It is: “A city of homes, schools, and places of worship.”
It was different when I was a boy. Then it was: “A city of homes, schools, and churches.” This was and still is completely accurate, but I guess someone thought it insufficiently trendy. And Decatur needs itself to be trendy, so it was changed.
Which is fine.
But like I said, the old motto is still accurate. As far as I know — and I moved back here almost 7 years ago — there are no synagogues, temples, or mosques in Decatur proper. So when those bigshot writers come to town, the only places large enough for the crowds are the churches.
This is how it came to pass that Reza Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, walked into Decatur’s First Baptist Church last week. I was not there but many of my fellow parishioners were (I and much of my extended family are members of FBCD). By all accounts the event went off splendidly. Aslan is apparently a gifted speaker and a thoroughgoing gentleman.
Which is not to say there were no, how shall I put this, raised eyebrows. Julie Pennington-Russell, our pastor, mentioned that the word “heretical” — or some variant thereof — had been thrown about by some outside the church. And some inside the church wondered aloud why we were so quick to support Aslan.
One fellow, a smart, well-educated, non-reactionary guy who knows a thing or two about his faith — I’ll call him John — expressed his opinion to me a few days ago. He said we should maybe not have allowed it to happen.
The problem? Aslan is a Muslim, which alone is not cause for concern. A little closer to the bone was that Aslan’s a Muslim who came to talk about Jesus.
Now Jesus is a subject of considerable interest to Jesus followers, and Aslan’s thesis — that Jesus should be understood merely as a political revolutionary — is new for many in the church. Perhaps it was new for John, I don’t know. But an obvious corollary of this thesis is the fundamental wrongness of all orthodox Christian understandings of Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection. The latter, for example, simply did not happen.
This is hardly a radical move for a Muslim, but can be a little hard for some Jesus followers to hear in their very place of worship.
Aslan may be a Muslim but he works as a writer and a scholar. And like many scholars — Christian and otherwise — he approaches Jesus with what is sometimes called the “historical-critical” method. This approach draws directly on the wild successes of the Scientific Revolution. It is a standard post-Enlightment-Thomas-Jefferson way of doing things.
What this means for us is that Aslan (who is not a historian) is doing history in the sense of trying to find out what literally actually happened back then. The historical-critical approach asks questions like, What was the exact cultural milieu? And, in this context, which gospel stories could have really happened? Which account of Jesus’ birth-baptism-acts-words, if any, are reliable? If someone had followed Jesus around with a camera phone, what exactly would it reveal?
For example: In Zealot, Aslan says there is no way Jesus could have been born in Bethlehem. His arguments, having to do with logistics and the lack of any record of any event in which people were required to return to their hometowns, are no different than what I heard in seminary. He also makes the claim, also commonplace in seminaries, that this detail was added by Jesus-following Jews retroactively because, after all, the prophets had predicted that the City of David would be the Messiah’s birthplace.
Without any correcting influences, this higher criticism goes on and on, leaving intact virtually none of the traditional Jesus narrative. It denies Jesus’ miracles, shelves his claims to divinity, and discounts the entire Gospel of John. The Jesus that survives it is a sad anemic character. He seems hardly worthy of adoration.
The overall effect is unsettling, especially to those who have never heard anything like it, who have always taken the Gospels — more or less — as history. To them it seems to border on plain old suspicion and even skepticism (in the worst sense). These new facts, after all, seem to speak for themselves.
As I said, it is common to hear this kind of thing trotted out in seminary, and some students kind of freak out over it too. But there it’s different, because the historical-critical is presented explicitly as one of perhaps a half dozen approaches to scripture. More importantly, the very professor who claimed Jesus could not possibly have been born in Bethlehem, said a prayer in Jesus’ name to open the class. She then served communion at worship the next day. You begin to get the idea — in a whole new and real way — that there is more to the Christian life than the facts, whatever they might be exactly.
In the case of Aslan at First Baptist, the scene’s very different. Here is someone who does not share your faith tradition, who is speaking with authority on the central figure of your belief, who does not explicitly define his method or mention others, who is denying nearly everything you’ve ever thought about Jesus, who is doing this in your sanctuary, who will leave in an hour and never come back, who is nonetheless a perfect gentleman.
A strange confluence, we say.
We don’t think it was a mistake to have Aslan visit First Baptist. We’ve made a commitment to hospitality and this is what that looks like. It’s hard sometimes. FBCD welcomes writers from all walks of life, most of whom bring no religious message at all. Moreover, Aslan makes it clear that he writes and speaks as a scholar and not as a Muslim.
But you must admit, his visit to First Baptist made for a very odd combination.
Pia Stern, A Simple Human Existence, 2011. Used with permission of the artist
In our last post we raked Ayn Rand over the coals for glorifying the ego, which, as Thomas Merton pointed out, is no more than a private fantasy of what we’d like to be. It’s an illusion and has nothing to do with reality. And I think most Christians would agree: We are not our egos.
But where does this leave us? Or, as Alert Reader Michael Lomuscio asks,
As Christians we don’t talk much about what a healthy concept of “the self” looks like. What do you think our attitude toward “the self” should be? There are some religions where ultimate enlightenment and the complete annihilation of the self are one in the same. That is not, however, the message of Christ. So what is the theology of “the self’”?
Is there a Christian self?
Yes. It’s called by many writers, the true self. But it’s not easy to get a fix on it. In this way it’s completely unlike Rand’s ego (the false self), which strains continuously for outward, objective verification: I’m clever, so I must get a clever job and do clever things and speak in clever ways and live in a neighborhood that reflects my clever self. The ego needs these props to solidify itself, to convince itself of its own reality.
Not so the true self. Created in the divine image and grounded in God, it wants for nothing. It seeks no validation. Why should it?
The true self rests in its own reality.
But what exactly is the true self? We can start by looking at scripture, where it makes at least one center-stage appearance.
In Matthew 22 Jesus is being quizzed by his favorite interlocutors, the Pharisees. They ask him to name the greatest commandment. This is a terribly easy assignment for any knowledgeable Jew, and Jesus’ response is straight out of the Torah: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”
Our interest is with the second commandment, which most contemporary readers take to mean something like, You should love your neighbor as you love yourself. But that’s not what it says. And it can’t mean that. The idea of “loving yourself” may not have started with Leo Buscaglia, but it surely wasn’t current in first century Palestine.
We at psnt.net think it means something like, You are to love your neighbor as being yourself. Or, to put it bluntly, your neighbor is yourself. Maybe Jesus and the Torah are trying to say that you have no self at all except the one that emerges when you turn away from yourself and toward your neighbor in love.
You want an identity? Feed my sheep. You want a life? Give it away. You have no identity whatsoever except in communion with others. This makes sense in light of our being made in the image of a God who is trinitarian — communal — in essence.
If this is right, if the self is made concrete only in the loving of others, at least two consequences follow.
First, we don’t get to see our true selves in the objective, external world. Therefore the odd sensation that, when it comes to ourselves, no one’s home. As Walker Percy put it, I appear to myself a black hole among a thousand stars.
Second, when we love, our true, grounded-in-God selves shine though clearly for others to enjoy and to love. We become stars for them, stars we ourselves cannot see.
The trick, of course, is letting that be good enough, because it is.
P.S. From what I understand about Eastern traditions, the annihilation of the self is not the annihilation of what I am here calling the true self, but of the ego, or false self.