Evolving Perspectives

I was a creationist in Britain, where it’s hard. Where disbelief in biological evolution is considered the same as disbelief that the earth is a globe. Where with only a few exceptions, Christians tend to say that God created the world but He probably used evolution to do it. Where believing in a literal six-day creation is considered as fundamentalist and unbalanced at the Taliban and Westboro Baptist Church.

In that kind of a milieu, you’d better have good reasons for doubting the prevailing orthodoxy, and be prepared to back them with hard science.

Worse, my degree is in biology. The question was not “how can you call yourself a Christian and believe in evolution?”, but “how can you call yourself a scientist and not believe in evolution?”

However, I consider my creationism to be more or less scientifically-based. There was no conscious decision that I had to accept that the Biblical creation account was historically and literally factual. I simply got to the point where evolutionary theory was asking me to accept so many one-in-a-million chances and improbabilities in the origins of life that it finally just became less improbable to postulate a single act of special creation.

Interestingly enough, one of the main spurs toward this intellectual position was my reading of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.

If you’re unfamiliar with Dawkins, he’s one of my country’s leading biological scientists and one of my country’s leading proponents of atheism. He makes a logical case for evolution underpinning atheism, or rather, undermining faith in God, but his willingness to accept biological millions-to-one chance after millions-to-one chance after millions-to-one chance in his quest to bolster the idea that God wasn’t needed as an explanation just got to the point where it crossed my threshold of disbelief. This was too much improbability.

I was initially quite a reluctant creationist. As a dinosaur-loving child, I’d somehow absorbed the idea that believing in an act of special creation meant you had to discount all of palaeontology as a lie, that there were no dinosaurs (the fossils were probably put there by God to fool scientists or something), and that the world has always been pretty much like it is today in terms of species range. Creationism wasn’t scientific; it was the product of a mind in retreat; a “God of the gaps” mentality desperately trying to make new gaps. A deliberate step away from knowledge. I didn’t initially want very much to do with it, but I found that evolution wasn’t believable any more.

Then I encountered the Creation Science movement. It’s very fringe in the UK; you almost have to go looking for it. But at least here was a way that I could reconcile my scientific disbelief in evolutionary theory with still being a scientist. There might be some evidence that the long ages required by evolutionary theory need not necessarily have been, or that, as the Intelligent Design scientists maintain, biological and physical systems show the mark of being the work of an organising Intelligence. As a result of finding these guys (in the Creation Science movement), I got quite into it. I even went to a talk given by Ken Ham (an Australian who founded Answers in Genesis and is one of the movement’s leading lights). I’d bend people’s ears about it at the slightest excuse.

Being a vocal creationist in Britain, it’s you, alone, against the world. Even those who share your faith in Christ probably aren’t going to agree with you on this one, but will instead look at you suspiciously as if you’re some sort of lunatic or dangerous fanatic.

So you might think that moving to the United States, where in Christian circles the idea of creationism is practically mainstream, I’d be rejoicing in the company of like minds.

Not so much.

I’m actually uncomfortable with most of US Christian creationism. It often seems way too close to how I initially characterised the idea of creationism – a rejection of science, a “God of the gaps” mentality desperately seeking more gaps. I don’t like this. Really don’t like it.

The “God of the gaps” idea is that “we need God in order to explain those questions science can’t answer”. This, to my mind, is backwards. For me, science isn’t an alternative to belief in God but a result of it. I can do science because the universe is the rational creation of an intelligent Mind, not a chaotic result of random processes. Science is “thinking God’s thoughts after Him”; the whole enterprise has theistic underpinnings. Because we believe that the universe is a real, good creation of a rational God, subject to His rules, we can study the world. We can do experiments, because we are studying a real, good creation rather than trespassing on the domain of some malicious little sprite or trying to study something fundamentally illusory. We can make useful observations, because the universe is ordered, not a random product of blind forces. We can do science. It’s a result of Christian worldview.

I don’t believe in a God of the gaps; I believe in a God of science who is a Revealer of mysteries. We can find things out and make discoveries because there is a God, not in spite of there being a God. God’s domain does not shrink with every scientific advance; instead, human knowledge inches closer to God’s perfect Knowledge. All truth is God’s truth, even if it doesn’t look that way at first.

I sympathise with the plight of the Intelligent Design folks, recognising my own journey in theirs. They’ve bravely come to the point where the evidence of some kind of designing Intelligence in the biological and physical world is so strong that they’ve had to doubt the evolutionary orthodoxy that it all happens due to random processes. They, like me, have come to the realisation that a designed universe implies a Designer, through their science, not in rejection of it. And then their theories are apparently hijacked by a load of science-rejecting ideologues (as they see it) and used to justify their rejection of science and what scientists tell them, whether that’s evolution or climate change or anything else.

Maybe I’m being a “creation snob”. Not everyone has a science background or really grasps the biology. Is it really fair to look down on fellow-believers just because they aren’t scientists?

Well, no, it’s not fair. I hope I can cope with the idea that not everyone’s a scientist, but we Christians have no excuse for being rejectors of science either, and I find way too much of that in a lot of US Christianity.

I still find the idea that the omnipotent God whose existence I acknowledge could have created the world in six literal days to require no great stretch of faith or imagination. I still find the level of improbability which is necessarily part and parcel of atheistic evolution to be frankly beyond my personal credulity. But equally, God could have chosen to work through the process of evolution, and the Biblical creation account could be as figurative as the Psalmist’s description of God having feathers, or as symbolic as Daniel’s description of four beasts. It doesn’t affect the Bible’s ultimate credibility to believe that Genesis 1-2 is something other than a historical record, any more than it damages belief in the Bible’s authority to recognise that the Psalms are poetry, not literal history, or that the book of Jeremiah contains both historical-narrative and prophetic genres.

For that matter, which Biblical creation account are we to accept as the literal and factual one? There are at least four (Genesis 1, Genesis 2, Job 38 and John 1), and they don’t agree in all of the details. For example, Genesis 1 states that animals were created before people, whereas Genesis 2 reverses that order. If this part of the Bible is to be understood as a literal description of events, how do we reconcile this discrepancy?

For me, it’s still simpler to believe in an act of special creation by an all-powerful God than in the same all-powerful God working through a long-winded process of “natural” selection, but I recognise that God could have done it that way. It’s not a big deal either way.

So I find myself caught in the middle. I can’t make myself really believe in evolution again, but I can’t stand the apparent rejection of science that appears to characterise your average US Christian creationist. Some of these people really do look like flat-earthers or like they believe in a Ptolemaic cosmos with all of its epicycles and the sun going round the earth. As far as I can tell, they think modern science is “atheistic” and they want no truck with atheism. Safer to reject science than faith. The Bible is all we need anyway. Just believe it and close your mind.

I don’t really want to be associated with that. It’s the opposite of the way I came to most of my beliefs, scientific or Christian, and it looks dangerously unthinking. We don’t have the luxury of closing our minds. We have to worship God with them.

Why are we so dogmatic about how we should interpret this passage of the Bible? We none of us were there, as God reminds Job. Making dogmatic statements about things we have not seen seems a little like the hubris we accuse evolutionists of. A little less dogmatism and a little more humility might do us all a world of good.

And as for the Bible being all we need, why do we believe the Bible anyway? We believe it because there is good evidence for its reliability. It’s been proven time and again to be historically credible when it talks about stuff we can hold it to account on, so we are on solid ground when we believe it on more unusual events like miracles. We trust it because we believe it’s true, and there’s good evidence to support the contention that it is. If the Bible is demonstrably unreliable in what it says, we shouldn’t be believing it, so how dare we say that “the Bible is all we need”? We don’t believe things “just” because the Bible says them and we’ve decided to believe the Bible in spite of what our reason and observation tell us, we believe the Bible because we know that when it talks about things we can prove and observe, like historical events and human nature, it has a really good track record of accuracy.

The Bible isn’t, in a very real sense, all we need. We first have to be convinced that the Bible is reliable, and for that we must use the tools of science: reason and observation. Anything else is a blind “believing something you know isn’t true” faith of the sort atheists accuse us of having.

I’m not trying to weaken anyone’s faith. But questions of origins are difficult ones involving epistemology (how can we know anything?), several of the sciences, Bible interpretation and matters of faith. No-one currently living on the earth was there at the time and saw it happen, and we don’t always interpret the book written by the One who was there with perfect accuracy, so we ought to be cautious about making sweeping statements about what really happened. Sometimes it’s ok to not know.

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We’re All Broken

“Brokenness” language seems to have become common among followers of Jesus today to describe the human condition. “We’re all broken”, numerous songs declare, or “I was broken, but Jesus made me whole”, or similar.

As an attempt to move beyond Christianese and find a new way to communicate the Biblical truth that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”, I’ll grant that something needed to happen. “Broken” may be a more accessible image than “sinful” for people who don’t really understand the word “sin” at all (and often think it means “sex”. Or only “big” things like murder).

If saying “everyone has sinned” has become meaningless to our listeners, then certainly we need to find another way of getting that idea across.

And the modern generation seems to have settled on “broken” as the primary metaphor.

It’s got a lot of things to recommend it, but it’s got some problems as well, and while I’m not suggesting we axe it from our vocabulary, I am suggesting that maybe making it our sole way of describing human sinfulness is not as helpful as all that.

Firstly, though, the good.

“We’re all broken” is, as I’ve said, often more easily understood than “we’re all sinners”. “Sinners” is a church word that people in general don’t understand or have a meaning for. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get various answers according to whatever the current Christian social bugbears are. Homosexual people. Abortionists. Liberals. People having sex. It’s a word of condemnation and the way some people claiming the name of Christ have thrown it around as an all-purpose accusation for anyone who disagrees with them has shorn it of its actual meaning.

“Broken” is better than this. It comes with a meaningful image – we’re flawed, imperfect, in need of repair. The fact that it conjures up an image does aid in communication.

Saying “we’re all broken” may also be perceived as less hostile than “we’re all sinners”. A common complaint of people who are not part of a church is that “Christains are always hostile and telling me I’m a sinner”. And we want to reach people and be heard, not rejected outright. There are ways to communicate the idea that we’ve all done wrong things and failed to do right ones without saying “You miserable sinner!”. If “We’re all broken” communicates this to the person you’re talking with, without getting you dismissed out of hand as another Christian hypocrite, you should by all means use that language.

Then, too, “We’re all broken” places us all on the same side. Christians have often given the impression that “we are the good guys, you people out there are the bad guys”. Us against them. You need salvation, you horrible sinners, but we Christians are just fine as we are.

This hasn’t ever been true, and “We’re all broken” is, paradoxically, an attempt to fix this. We’re aware that we all need rescuing from the desire we all have to do the wrong and not do the right. We’re all in need of forgiveness, restored relationships with God and other people, power to beat our addictions, an end to our habit of using other people for what we can get out of them.

“We’re all broken” is an attempt to find an image that communicates the idea that Christians are no different from anyone else in our need of the rescuing and restoration that only God can do.

But when we use imagery, we do need to be careful that the image produced in people’s minds is the one we want. That’s the power and the danger of metaphorical and image-rich language. It can communicate powerfully, but may have unintended connotations.

In this case, part of the problem is that we are no longer a society that repairs very much. If something is broken, we’re apt to throw it away and get a new one rather than repair it. And while technically this is sort of like what God does (“I will take away your hearts of stone and give you hearts of flesh” etc), the idea that God is going to throw us away because of our sin is not the one we want to be communicating.

Second, because of our societal habit of throwing away broken things, we tend to associate “broken” with “worthless”. Even if we’re talking about a valuable antique, the fact that it’s broken makes it worth less than an intact one. Depending on the extent of the damage, it may be worth considerably less. And this is a huge problem with this language.

“We’re all worthless, but God loves us anyway” is a lie from hell. It’s a seductive one, in a perverse sort of way, because a lot of us are already at least half-convinced it’s true.

We know the darkness within. We’ve all experienced rejection, whether from parents or authority figures or our peers. So much of our social skills are learning to camouflage our weaknesses and pretend that we’re cool; an endless quest for acceptance and worth. We deny it because we know with our minds that it’s self-destructive and unhealthy, but deep down we still half believe the lie that we have little or no value.

But it is a lie, and maybe we need to stop feeding it with our “broken” language.

I have intrinsic value, because I’m a human being made by a good, powerful and loving God in His own image. I have infinite worth and eternal significance – valuable enough and important enough that God couldn’t live without me. Literally.

And we can all put “I” in all of that.

The Bible itself uses a number of different ways to communicate the idea that everyone is in need of the salvation, the rescue that He has provided. The idea of righteous life (“There is not a righteous man alive who does what is right and never sins”). The idea of falling short, of missing the target. The idea of needing to be washed from our dirt, of needing cleansing as from an infectious disease. The idea that we were dead and in need of a resurrection. The idea of a second birth.

“Broken” can be a useful metaphor, but we should be aware of its limitations. Sometimes we may not be saying what we think we are, and we may well need to use a different image.

And that’s the point. There is no one-size-fits-all word we can use to communicate the idea of human sinfulness and need for rescue to everyone. For some people, it may be as simple as saying “we’ve all screwed up in some measure”. For others, the key truth may be that we’re each responsible for our own crap; for still others, that we don’t have to remain a helpless victim of what other people have done to us.

As communicators of the Good News, we need to listen – really listen without condemning, dismissing their concerns, passing judgment or trying to fix it – to the people around us. They aren’t going to tell us their deepest, darkest secrets straight away; we have to earn the right to hear that. And in earning the right to hear where they’re really coming from, we also earn the right to be heard when we say that Jesus can do something about it.

In some senses it’s not easy. It’s going to take time and focused effort; this is the opposite of the “drive-by witnessing”. We have to have real friendships with actual people based on them as friends, not evangelism targets.

But in another sense it’s the easiest thing in the world. It requires no special training to make friends with people based on shared interests, whether that’s quilting or mechanics or Star Wars or LEGO or fishing or sports. It happens on its own, even for us introverts. And when a deep, “spiritual” conversation happens among friends, it happens naturally in the course of friendship, unforced and without a phony sales agenda.

Some people are gifted at building connections with other people very quickly. I’m not; I’m a typical guarded and reticent introvert; it takes time to get to know me thoroughly (though I’ll tell you what I think on any subject you name. My opinions aren’t quite the same as me). But even I can make friends, though I’m seldom sure how it happened. And I usually have a pretty good idea that perhaps saying X rather than Y will raise my friend’s hackles.

That, and actually following the promptings of the Holy Spirit, are all we need to “do evangelism”.

An Apology of Sorts

Firstly I’d like to apologise to anyone in my church who was offended by some of my statements in my last post. I think I went too far in some things, particularly the characterisation of our church’s Fall Festival as an ineffective outreach event. When we first started attending, that’s how I understood the Fall Festival as being billed, and with that understanding, its effectiveness is questionable.

But I’m informed now that it’s more in the nature of a service to the community in providing a safe environment for their kids to come and have fun. This changes things somewhat. So I need to apologise. And since the original post was public, the apology had better be as well. I’m sorry. I’ll try not to let it happen again, but I can mouth off before thinking sometimes, so although I’ll try, I can make no promises.

I do still have the same basic question and doubt, though: is this something any church can and should be providing a safe environment for?

I am absolutely convinced that my church personally mean nothing but good. I’m certain that they are not allowing anything except that which is substantially innocent to happen at their Fall Festival. They wouldn’t be doing it if they thought it was bad. There’s not a doubt in my mind about any of that, but it’s not the source of my discomfort.

My discomfort with the church’s Fall Festival is that I’m unconvinced that it’s not still a participation on some level in Halloween, despite the renaming. Oh, my head can follow the logic of it supposedly being a sort of harvest celebration (and thus nothing to do with Halloween at all), but America already has one of those, on Thanksgiving Day. It would make my life easier to believe it’s “really” a harvest festival, but I just can’t help identifying it as Halloween, still. It’s got the same date. People dress up, go trick-or-treating and get candy. It’s Halloween. Only now they’re doing it in the church, hopefully without all the demented monsters of the official version.

At a bone-deep level, I remain unconvinced that the superhero and princess outfits that are considered normal for American Halloween are anything to do with real Halloween and its witches and ghosts. I see it around me; I’m not blind. But my mind still rebels at the idea that it’s normal to dress up as a ballerina for Halloween. It may be normal for you but it’s unaccountably weird for me.

Every fibre of my background is wailing that it’s not supposed to be like this. They’re supposed to dress up as something scary; wearing an Iron Man costume is doing it wrong. Halloween’s not supposed to be cute and cuddly.

And that’s just the secular Halloween, without the question of whether we can bring this into the church.

When it even existed as an event, the Halloween of my childhood didn’t have cute and innocent bits. Trick or Treat was the legitimised extortion of “Give us treats or we will egg your house”. The dressing-up was resolutely horror-themed, and the decorations likewise. No, we can’t “provide a safe environment” for this junk!

Of course, that was in another country. Things may be different here. But I’m aware that people are people, and if there’s a way to turn something toward the nasty, someone’s going to find it. American Halloween is still Halloween.

I’m quite prepared to be in a minority here. It’s a novel experience for me to be on the side saying “I really have a problem with trying to Christianise this”; normally I’m much more likely to argue the other way. I don’t have may lines in the sand, so it seems like my subconscious has taken all of my willingness to adapt in other areas, inverted it and piled it on for Halloween.

Maybe this is God’s way of teaching me to see things through the other guy’s eyes. I don’t have a problem with a lot of the shibboleths of the American church (and I was the same way in Britain), so it’s sometimes difficult for me to relate to people that really do believe that the drinking of alcohol, for example, is always a strict no-no for followers of Jesus. Perhaps recognising that in this I’m the one with the tender, weak conscience might do me some good.

I’m not going to forbid anyone from celebrating Halloween (except for my own children, and I think I have that right as their parent). I don’t have the authority to do that, and if I did, I hope I wouldn’t use it for something so self-serving.

If you believe that the route of having a Fall Festival on the 31st is a positive alternative to Halloween, go right ahead. If you can celebrate Halloween itself as unto the Lord, I rejoice in your freedom in Him. I can’t. And nor can I shake the idea that calling it Fall Festival isn’t just putting a different name on it.

If the mutual conviction of my church is that the Fall Festival is a thoroughly positive thing and nothing to do with the dark Halloween I remember, I can accept that as the mutual conviction of my church. You go right on having your Fall Festival, and I hope you are all blessed. Absolutely no sarcasm intended. Sincerely, I hope it’s a blessing to you. If you’re doing it unto the Lord I’d expect nothing less.

If you, as a believer, can celebrate Halloween with a clear conscience and a light heart, I rejoice in the freedom you have in Christ.

But please don’t try to press me to join you. This is a settled matter in my heart and I’m genuinely uncomfortable about church Halloweens no matter what you call them.

I’m groping for a way forward to come to terms with this ubiquitous but hated holiday, trying to breathe new life into All Saints, just as I recognise that’s probably what the US church as a whole is trying to do with its Fall Festivals and Trunk or Treats.

I didn’t ask to be leery and uncomfortable with that route, and I don’t really know why All Saints should seem any better. I’m answerable to my conscience more than I’m answerable for it. But this is my personal line in the sand. I recognise the sovereignty of your conscience in this – I’m not demanding that everyone conform to my personal foibles. But I don’t like feeling put under pressure to do something I’m not at peace with, and I’m already facing that pressure to join in from school, TV, neighbours and friends. Last year it felt like my church was just adding to the pressure. Unintentional it may have been, and I have no right to explode at anyone for something they did not mean. But pressure is pressure, so my apologies if, in finally feeling like I might have discovered a safety valve, that rather a lot of hot air may be escaping.

All Hallows

It’s October, which means that stores have been decorating for the horrible mess that is an American Halloween for about a month already, and still have a month to go before they’ll swap jack-o-lanterns and zombies for snowmen and reindeer. If they don’t leer at one another across the aisle.

I’ve complained about the inescapability of American Halloween on this blog before. Last year, in fact.

My kids are bombarded with it from stores, from friends, from school. And in turn, they bombard us with incessant “why won’t you let us celebrate Halloween?” questions.

Um, you know all those skeleton decorations and zombies and stuff? The ones that creep you out and give you nightmares? That’s why.

“But why won’t you let us celebrate?”

Because it’s nasty and disturbed and tries to make darkness and evil look fun and exciting.

“But I don’t want to do that! I want to dress up like a princess ninja and get candy! Why won’t you let us celebrate?”

Because I’ve got too many dark associations with it to be comfortable with the idea.

And on, and on. No evidence that the explanation has penetrated at all.

Even our church does Halloween. Most American churches seem to, though they’ll cosmeticise it by calling it a “Fall Festival” (echoes of “Winter Holiday” instead of Christmas) or a “Trunk or Treat” or whatever, and then do exactly the same as if it were still called Halloween. It’s baffling. Why is the church doing a festival associated with the glorification of everything scary, dark and evil?

They make a big deal out of it, too. One of our church’s big “outreach events”, despite the fact that no-one that I know of in the church ever joined because of the trick-or-treat. So we get bombarded with Halloween even by our church, and pressured to join the whole American world in “celebrating”. As you can probably tell, I’m not comfortable with this.

This is a sample of conversation between Heather and I and some of our church members from about this time last year:

“Are your kids coming to the Fall Festival?”

<politely> “No, we don’t do Halloween.”

“Oh, that’s such a shame you can’t be there! It’s so fun for the kids! Can you come and help us set up, then?”

<slightly more insistently> “No, we don’t do Halloween.”

“It’s really a fun time! Can you buy some of the candy we need for it?”

<Sigh> “No, we don’t do Halloween.”

What part of ‘we don’t do Halloween’ is sailing right past you? For us this is a dark and evil-glorifying festival. What makes you think we’ll be interested in helping the church participate in it? You can go ahead and celebrate it if you like; that’s between your conscience and the Lord. But you’ll do so without my help.

I tried to go into my objections to Halloween in my blog post last year, and I don’t really want to rehash that old ground, but what it comes down to for me is evil associations. It’s my own personal equivalent of idol food; if your conscience is ok with participating in Halloween I’m not going to stop you, but neither will I allow you to bully me into doing something that I’m really not ok with.

This year, however, we may have found a defence. A way to counterattack the nearly omnipresent seasonal assault on our family and our beliefs, and provide a way for our kids to have fun without participating in something that violates our consciences.

It’s quite similar to what a lot of British churches have done when faced with the increasingly high profile of Halloween over there.

We’re going to resurrect All Saints.

All Saints, on November the first (or the day after Halloween for the calendrically challenged) hasn’t had much of a profile in Protestant-majority parts of the world ever since they became Protestant. In some quarters it gets seen as a slightly weird minor holy day associated with all the Catholic excesses of saint-veneration, perceived as tripping across the line into outright worship of people who may be Godly but are by nature not God.

Still, no-one is forcing us to go all the way over there with it. And a day celebrating the martyrs, missionaries and heroes of the faith who have gone on before us, from Paul and Silas to Columba and Boniface to Hudson Taylor and Mary Slessor, is far and away better than what we have right now.

Heroes of Faith Day. Cloud-of-Witnesses Day. A celebration of what God did through all of those wonderful faithful men and women down the ages.

We can do this. We’re still working out the precise details of how, but we can do this. The kids can stay up a bit later than usual and get candy, but instead of the morbid focus on ghouls and witches and unclean dead things, we move the focus to what is true, right, pure, noble, excellent and praiseworthy.

I’ve got no problem with an occasional late night for my kids. I’ve got no problem most of the time with them dressing up: except on the Eve of All Hallows when it has participatory implications, it’s good clean harmless fun. I’ve not even got much problem with the candy, as long as we can avoid the sanctioned extortion and petty thuggery of Trick or Treat. (Or how else would you characterise letting kids wander around demanding sweeties as protection money in exchange for them not playing nasty “tricks” like egging people’s houses? Let’s just not go there, ok?)

But we can maybe have a family dress-up party, with sweets and late nights and lots of lighted decorations that aren’t necessarily made from carved gourds. We can tell the stories of some of these heroes of faith, maybe even play some of the harmless autumnal games that have become ensnared in the American Halloween and don’t necessarily belong there.

The kids will hopefully have fun. We’ll get a break from the incessant badgering to be allowed to celebrate Halloween. No-one’s conscience will be violated. I think we might be on to a winner.

So this year we won’t be not celebrating this season like we did last year. We’ll be celebrating differently, celebrating the Kingdom of God, not the dark and the demented. Putting the focus back where it ought to be. Reclaiming the season, because October 31st, too, is the Lord’s Day, and I’m done with letting the Devil have it without a fight.