New is Not Always Better…
A key component of this post’s title is the word “new.” For the sake of simplicity, I’ll use the terms fundamentalist and biblical literalist interchangeably in this post. A large number of Evangelical Christians read and interpret the Bible word for word, as if it had been published in modern times and in the midst of modern circumstances. They believe that this is the correct, ancient method of interpreting scripture. They believe that it’s the way the Bible has always been interpreted by the church. Ironically, it’s a method of biblical interpretation that largely evolved around the turn of the nineteenth century.
Literalism is a brand new development when compared to pivotal Christian milestones like the Reformation, the Nicene Creed or even the proliferation of the faith to the new world. Literalism has implications for theology, but also for humanity. The Fundamentalist movement started in the midst of new discoveries and shifting consensuses. People felt threatened. The movement was formed in direct retaliation to a growing liberal theology, which was spurred by a wave of non-Protestant immigrants and the rationalism of the late nineteenth century. From the eighteenth century to the turn of the twentieth century, historical inaccuracies of scripture became more and more evident, which spurred historical criticism of scripture and a more progressive strain of Christianity started to emerge. A culture war was about to break out.
To most within the Fundamentalist camp, this skepticism seemed like a direct attack on the divine inspiration of scripture. Another major cultural and scientific development of that time was Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, which was published in 1859. The theory of evolution converged with ideological rationalism and theological liberalism to create a cultural climate that alienated many conservative Christians.
Time for a Counterattack
Disgruntled conservatives published The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth in 1915, which gave the Fundamentalist movement its name. The Fundamentals sought to conjure a literal interpretation of scripture and outlined five literal “fundamentals.” These included verbal inspiration of scripture, the virgin birth, the death of Christ, Christ’s resurrection and the Advent (imminent second coming).
Fundamentalists condemned theological liberals for embracing scientific inquiry. They saw science as man-made and a secular threat. The Fundamentalists made many efforts to thwart public education policies that conflicted with their beliefs, most famously evolution. Fundamentalists reacted to all of these changes by adopting biblical literalism, which previously was not practiced. The Fundamentalists viewed the Bible like a house of cards: if one small facet of scripture is false, then the entire Bible wasn’t credible. Around the time biblical literalism was born, the Fundamentalists began to form their own denominations and educational institutions. Today, they are just as distrustful of science and liberalism as they were in 1915.
The Correct Method of Biblical Interpretation
The global church actually has a rich, ancient history of biblical interpretation. University of Cambridge mathematics professor, physicist and Anglican theologian John Polkinghorne made the important point that the Bible is not a book. It’s a library, a collection of books. Polkinghorne noted that there is a wide spectrum of literary styles present throughout the Bible. Psalms gives us poetry. Revelation and Daniel provide prophecy. One of the most controversial books is Genesis, which describes the creation of the world and the fall of man, in metaphoric prose. A bookworm doesn’t read poetry in the same way that she reads a history book. Likewise, a medical student doesn’t read a scientific journal in the same that she reads the newest Stephen King novel. The Fundamentalists don’t make this distinction when it comes to reading the Bible.
Biblical literalists are adamant that the creation story must be interpreted literally and if Genesis is “untrue” then the rest of the Bible can’t be trusted. Literalists view the creation story as a scientific account of material origin. Ponder that. What was the extent of scientific inquiry around 600 B.C.E when Genesis was written? Virtually none. John Walton, Professor of Old Testament Studies at Wheaton College condemned literalists for only taking into account the translation of language and not the translation of culture. He asserts that Genesis is not an account of material origin. Thus, because it is not an account of material origin, it does not have to be in conflict with an actual type of material origin, such as a scientific one. The idea he provides is that Genesis gives a representation of the glory of God and the love with which he created the world. It is not a factual account. However, that does not mean there is not philosophical truth in the creation story for rational Christians.
Anglican Bishop and Biblical Scholar N.T. Wright argued that the creation story is a “Temple Story.” In Genesis 1, God is setting up a dwelling place. He creates man in his image as a way of putting HIS image into the temple. Humans are an extension of God’s love and they also reflect that love back to him in the form of worship. Wright adamantly states that this alone is the literal meaning of Genesis. To reduce Genesis 1 to an account that merely describes how God created the world in six days distorts the message.
Other theologians from more conservative strains of Christianity have come to the same conclusion as the ones outlined above, but their work is offensive to many within their denominations. Seventh-day Adventist theologian Fritz Guye pushed back against the majority opinion of his Evangelical denomination, which states the world was created in six literal days (a key feature of SDA theology). Let’s examine this: the National Center for Science Education has measured the percentage of scientists who believe in evolution to be 99.9%. Meanwhile, 99.85% of scientists reject creationism. Clearly, in terms of theological preservation, it’s in the best interest of Evangelical denominations to fight science.
The War on Science = The War on Satan
Seventh-day Adventist neurosurgeon and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, called evolution the work of Satan. These sorts of attacks are not uncommon among conservative Evangelical circles since a literal six-day creation is seen as a foundation of their faith. If evolution is true, Evangelicals believe that God didn’t create perfect human beings who then sinned, therefore necessitating God’s salvation and Christ’s sacrifice. It’s inconvenient.
Using Genesis 1 as a weapon in a scientific debate is dangerous and abuses the text. Theologians and religious scholars are often frustrated by literalism because it is an extremely jaded method of interpreting scripture. Literalism was controversial when it first surfaced because it attempted to form linkages within scripture that didn’t exist. Fundamentalists did not view the Bible as a collection. To them, it was a single, united statement formed by God. This ignores the fact that the canonization of the Bible was heavily influenced by political factors of the early church. Historically, we know that the Catholic Church spent centuries canonizing the Bible, adding and deleting certain books. Revelation was taken out and put back in. Scholars have formed a consensus, regarding the actual authors of many books that conflict with literalist teachings. For example, the writer of the gospel John is not John the Beloved. Likewise, Revelations is believed by most literalists to be written by John the Beloved. The consensus of scholars says otherwise.
The distortion of the scriptures is not the worst effect of literalism. It’s dangerous because it promotes a mindset where adherents are unable to integrate new information and adjust their views accordingly. Since the rise of Fundamentalism, scientific developments and discoveries have emerged at exponential rates. Psychology, geology, chemistry, biology, meteorology, climatology, physics, cosmology, anthropology and many others have bombarded the human race with new understandings of the world and of the universe around us. These discoveries provide minor and major problems for Fundamentalist theology. These discrepancies are then characterized by Evangelicals as either Satanic or based on questionable science.
Science is particularly damning for Young Earth Creationism (Earth < 10,000 years old), which many Evangelicals believe. For example, Cosmologists say that the elements that make up our body and the planet came from stars exploding eons ago. Geologists have noted that Mt. Everest is the result of continental drift, where India slammed into Nepal and began sliding under the mountains millions of years ago. Anthropologists have discovered a myriad of hominoids that unequivocally prove that humans were descendants of a common ancestor with apes. Climatologists can measure the carbon dioxide levels and temperature in ice bubbles dating back thousands of years. All of these discoveries from various scientific fields punch serious holes in a literalist worldview.
A lack of intellectual integrity is a casualty of Fundamentalism. It promotes willful ignorance. This is a passive effect of literalism; the preservation of one’s own misinformation. When Evangelicals are threatened by new information and discoveries, they often retaliate. Creation science (later renamed intelligent design) was the literalist alternative to evolution. The problem with creation science is that it’s a perversion of the scientific method. The scientific method consists of observing natural phenomena, taking measurements and conducting experiments. From there, hypotheses are formed, tested and modified over and over again. Scientists constantly reevaluate their conclusions based on new data. Many scientists have gone on record saying they would be happy to abandon evolution if the evidence warranted it.
Creation science starts out with the conclusion (God created the Earth in six days) and then works backward. Creation scientists cherry pick data that helps their case and ignore data that doesn’t. Most importantly, unlike real scientists, creationists never reevaluate their conclusion based on new data. This, by definition, means that creation science is not science at all. Despite this, it’s taught in Christian schools and in Christian colleges. Evangelical lobbyists want it taught alongside evolution. “Teach the controversy” they say. The controversy is a religious one, not a scientific one, as the polls of scientific opinion above showed.
There are some groups that have made it their mission to spread anti-scientific ideas to the public. Ken Hamm’s Answers in Genesis constructed the Creation Museum in Kentucky, which joins evangelical fundamentalism and creation science together in a cheesy, but horrific carnival. The most disturbing thing about this facility is that it’s designed to indoctrinate children, not educate them. Impressionable kids see people playing next to dinosaurs. They talk about the fall of man and the effect of sin. The line between science and religion has never been more blurred. Answers in Genesis also recently built a replica of Noah’s ark, which was funded by tax dollars. The organization is quite masterful at dispensing religious propaganda and misinformation to the public in the name of science.
Forty percent of the American public believes in creationism. This is considerably higher than the rest of the world, where twenty-eight percent believes in creationism. I find this disturbing. First, creationism is simply not true and its untruth causes people to reject other forms of scientific consensus that conflict with creationism. It is dangerous when people get into the habit of rejecting science. It becomes natural to them. I’ve explained the science of climate change to people who’ve said “Well some scientists says that evolution is true and we don’t believe that, so maybe we shouldn’t pay attention to these climate scientists.” Rejecting science becomes so easy to literalists; it has to be in order for the ideology to survive. Mainstream science becomes a buffet for literalists. They can take what they want and disregard the rest.
The sheer number of American literalists means that they have a considerable effect on public policy. They don’t care about climate change. They don’t care about what geology says about the validity of the Flood story. Ultimately, they don’t care about science (except perhaps in medicine), and often, they wish to suppress it. This has implications for education and the creation of an informed electorate. Unfortunately, it also has grave implications for those interested in heeding the warnings and teachings of science, because they face a great adversary in biblical literalism.
The following documentary, directed by Ryan Pettey was a source for this post.
Pettey, Ryan. “From the Dust: Conversations in Creation.” Highway Media. 2013.