Evolving Intelligence

In the process of unpacking books, it became clear that evolution has been a large part of my life.  More sophisticated colleagues might wonder why anyone would be concerned about an issue that biblical scholars long ago dismissed as passé.  Genesis 1–11 is a set of myths, many of which have clear parallels in the world of ancient West Asia.  Why even bother asking whether creationism has any merit?  I pondered this as I unpacked the many books on Genesis I’d bought and read while teaching.  Why this intense interest in this particular story?  It goes back, no doubt, to the same roots that stop me in my tracks whenever I see a fossil.  The reason I pause to think whenever I see a dinosaur represented in a museum or movie.  When a “caveman” suggests a rather lowbrow version of Adam and Eve.  When I read about the Big Bang.

The fact is evolution was the first solid evidence that the Bible isn’t literally true.  That time comes in every intelligent life (at least among those raised reading the Good Book).  You realize, with a horrific shock, that what you’d been told all along was a back-filled fabrication that was meant to save the reputation of book written before the advent of science.  The Bible, as the study of said book clearly reveals, is not what the Fundamentalists say it is.  Although all of modern scientific medicine is based on the fact of evolution, many who benefit from said medicine deny the very truth behind it.  Evolution, since 1859, has been the ditch in which Fundies are willing to die.  For this reason, perhaps, I took a very early interest in Genesis.

Back in my teaching days it was my intention to write a book on this.  I’d read quite a lot on both Genesis and evolution.  I read science voraciously.  I taught courses on it.  I’d carefully preserved childhood books declaring the evils of evolution.  To this day Genesis can stop me cold and I will begin to think over the implications.  When we teach children that the Bible is a scientific record, we’re doing a disservice to both religion and society.  This false thinking can take a lifetime to overcome, and even then doubts will remain.  Such is the power of magical thinking.  I keep my books on Genesis, although the classroom is rare to me these days.  I do it because it is part of my life.  And I wonder if it is something I’ll ever be able to outgrow.

Clash of the Watchers

NoahMovie

I don’t know about you, but I think I got gypped with my Bible. I have just come out of Noah where I saw amazing sights and a seriously troubled Noah to whom God refuses to say a single word. Controversy still swirls around the web concerning the movie, but I honestly have to say that it was more like Clash of the Titans (2010) than anything else. Except a thin part of the plot—and a few character names—that were borrowed from the Bible, this could have been Herodotus rather than Moses. I don’t recall finding any exploding lava angels in Genesis 1-11, and magic rocks that seem to fit better into a Mormon worldview than a biblical one. Gopher-wood trees grow incredibly fast, and Noah sure fights very well for being a six-hundred year-old man. So why all the fuss? This is a movie folks, not scripture. For the price of the ticket you can buy yourself a new Bible and read the entire story in fifteen minutes (it’s just over two chapters long). If it’s an action movie you’re looking for, I thought The Avengers was better.

What struck me most about the movie, apart from the watchers, which were admittedly an improvement on Holy Writ, was the subtext of evangelicalism. Noah, when he decides to build the ark appears suddenly with an evangelically approved haircut. He also had grown decided misanthropic, insisting that the ark is only for the animals’ sake, and that he only allows Shem to have a wife because he thinks she is barren. When he considers finding wives for Ham and Japheth, there is a huge meat for sex kind of deal going on in Tubal-Cain’s city that disgusts Noah so much that his vegetarian righteousness declares that all people will die off once the ark runs aground. And, of course, he will have to kill his granddaughters. This is a dark and tormented Noah who drinks to forget his problems in a world where God only speaks in cryptic dreams and one gets the sense that Noah is very Republican in his lack of compassion. Take out the whole human race while you’ve got the chance.

The movie is filled with mixed messages. Noah certainly doesn’t appear to live up to his name (“comfort,” by simple translation), and although the supernatural is everywhere, a compassionate deity is utterly lacking. Species die off when Tubal-Cain gets hungry. And the very sign of blessing is the skin shed by the serpent that led to the fall. What are we supposed to learn from this? A vague, Avatar-esque “the planet is good” message does give me a little hope, but seeing Noah poising a knife above an infant’s head only because she’s female makes me a bit squeamish. Noah obeys simply for obedience’s sake and people are mere stains on an otherwise ideal world. Before the fall Adam and Eve veritably glowed. Adam stoops to pick up the serpent’s skin while Eve engineers the fall of all. The special effects are good, but the story, it seems to me, is all wet. That’s the gospel truth.

Science Me This

I’ve just finished going over the creation and flood myths in Genesis 1–11 with my students. By my reckoning, this is about the twentieth time I’ve taken this journey. One comfort of walking a well-known trail is you know what to expect. The fact that always sticks in my mind is how good of a job the Creationists have done. In every setting where I have taught I have many students who unquestioningly accept that Genesis 1–11 was written as science by some kind of Mosaic mosaic of scientist, law-giver, and prophet, a regular Bronze Age Renaissance man. Since biblical scholars do not communicate well with the public (nor do they play nicely with each other), most students come into class wondering why the Creationist viewpoint is even under question.

I want to suggest something radical here: in our culture where science, technology, and finance are highly valued, we neglect to educate our kids in the basics of literary study. Schools push the technological envelope, and this is not a bad thing, but the kids come home and are shuffled off to church where the Bible is revered and a basic disconnect forms in their minds. A compartmentalized Bible, factually true, resides in one region of the cortex while in another scientific theory lurks. And when fact clashes with theory, fact always wins. They know they have to tell biology teachers that they understand evolution, they simply don’t believe it. They come to collegiate religion classes expecting Sunday School part 2.

Just this summer a grown man, Randall Price, director of Liberty Uni-, Univ-, University’s (sorry, I always choke on that one) Center for Judaic Studies once again made the weary trek to Mount Ararat to find Noah’s Ark. If he’d read Atrahasis or even Gilgamesh, he might have known he was looking in the wrong place. Nevertheless, he received coverage from a major news network (FOX, of course!), and those who never studied ancient mythology cheered him on. If we could teach children that the Bible is a literary document, teach them that it can be studied seriously, and that the Big Bang and “let there be light” are not the same thing, we might make some progress. Until then, we will have to contend with silly cartoons trumping hard-earned education.

Jack Chick has more publications than any Bible scholar

Jack Chick has more publications than any Bible scholar