Scotland’s Cryptic Evangelist

Many years ago it was now, on a Victoria Day bank holiday weekend, my wife and I were on a camping trip with friends in the Scottish highlands. Pitching our tents on the banks of Loch Ness, we joked about the potential danger—after all, Nessie had reputedly attached St. Columba, therefore even the pious had no refuge. Early the next morning, our party still intact, we drove to Urquhart Castle, arriving before it opened. Out on the loch we saw something moving through the water, leaving a wake. It was breaking the surface but was too small to be a boat and it was not a bird. It moved at constant speed until it was out of sight. This was in the days of actual film, and slide processing was “dear” as the Scots say, but I snapped off a photo anyway. The slide is too indistinct to make a diagnosis, but our friends, who had a better camera, came to the conclusion that it was a small boat. After looking at their enlargement, I still have my doubts. I’ve always sat on the fence for the Loch Ness monster. Certainly it seems improbable, but we have only a cursory knowledge of sea creatures and Loch Ness is deep and long and isolated. Is there a Loch Ness monster? Maybe yes and maybe no.

Of course, Nessie has been in the news, as my wife pointed out, backed by the considerable creativity of the creationist camp. Seizing a living dinosaur as the death knell of evolution, Fundamentalist schools in several states are using textbooks that argue Nessie’s existence proves that dinosaurs didn’t evolve and that they still walk (or at least swim) among us. An excellent corrective to this “either evolution or special creation” is Victor Stenger’s book God: The Failed Hypothesis, that I reported on a few weeks back. With apologies to the late Stephen Jay Gould, this tactic puts an entirely new spin on the concept of the hopeful monster theory.

Religion and monsters are thoroughly intermeshed. Often this intermingling comes as the result of revulsion against the unclean or impure aspects of life that monstrosity represents. Numerous analysts have shown that monsters tend to be unholy mixes of elements that religions prefer to keep widely separated—animals that would never have made it onto the ark, yet somehow have arisen since the deluge. Human fear at contamination has an excellent basis in evolution; those who never developed the sense to stay away from the sources of contamination grew sick and died off. Monsters, in this sense, serve as useful reminders for avoiding the “strange fire” that so displeases the Lord. Reading how good Christians are now reaching out the right hand of fellowship to their monstrous brethren, I wonder if a long-held belief is being imperiled. Those who would swim with monsters must be very cautious indeed, for above all things, monsters are notoriously unpredictable.