As I continue to reflect on the state of things in the UK, I wanted to post something that might be a tad provocative, and by this, I don’t mean provocative to those who are currently agitating for the ordination of sea urchins, or whatever it is they are doing these days. Those folks have the bit in their teeth and are beyond provocation.
I want to post something that might be a tad provocative to those who are fighting the good fight, taking a stand, contending for the faith once delivered, and so on. My point is a simple one. In all forms of culture war, strategic defeats that are ongoing are invariably the result of previous strategic defeats, no longer recognized as such.
Here is the drill. Something is held by all, beyond question. An innovation shows up, and is denounced by some and tolerated by most. Those who denounce it say that if this continues to be tolerated, on the grounds that he who says A must say B, we will soon be facing innovation B. And innovation B is, at the time when innovation A is still fresh, unthinkable. “Not B” is currently held by all, beyond question. But sure enough, just like it was a train staying on schedule, B shows up, and is denounced by some and tolerated by most. And so the church in a nation slowly ratchets herself downwards.
But by the time you are in real trouble — at K, say — if someone were to suggest a return to A, the thing comes across as the ultimate in bad manners, flat earthism, and moss-backed troglodytism. K is the new A, and nobody wants to say the alphabet backwards. The most ardent conservative in the current fray wants to get back to G, the ways things were when his mama was a child. He has heard stories.
But there is an internal logic to these things, whatever we agree (for political reasons) to tolerate as within the pale. We may work out a compromise and all shake hands in our new conservative coalition — “the last letter we will say is H.”
And so I introduce my subject, which is that of young earth creationism. Now if the reaction here was to slap the forehead and say, “Oh, no, not that,” I would plead with you to reread the first part of this thing. And to hear me out.
For my part, I will help you in trying to hear me out by stipulating something right up front. I have no problem granting that the first chapters of Genesis are highly stylized and poetic, and that they have many literary layers. Of course. And I will add to this the outrageous notion that many historical events have been recorded in poetry. They were recorded in poetry and with literary embellishment because they happened and because they were important.
I will go a step further. I don’t believe that God was the clodhopping workman, throwing things together however He did, and then the literary touch was added by man as he told the story. No — the literary structures are built into the world itself, and not just in the text. God’s artistry poured forth as He created, and all our art can do is imitate that. The literary structures are in the text because the text mimics the world.
That said, the real issue is one of authority. Do we at all grant any authority to our contemporary scientists when it comes to the exegesis of the first chapters of Genesis? Should the exegete feel any pressure to come up with the “right answer” so that he may continue to be academically respectable? Now of course every conservative Christian knows that the right answer is to say that Genesis stands alone, and that we ought not to be accommodating ourselves to the science of the day. But then a bunch of us add, “It just happens that the text of Genesis makes room for an old earth. If it didn’t I would resist the dictates of science to my last breath. I am not giving way to the pressures of scientism at all.”
But that is not exactly true. The thing about zeitgeist pressure is that so much of it is invisible. For example, let me grant for the sake of argument that Genesis says nothing whatever about the creation being six thousand years ago. Neither does it say anything about it being six billion years ago, or whatever the current orthodoxy is. (They have changed the catechism various times since I was a child. This is how we know the catechism is factual and something that must be trusted.) Now, since we have agreed that Genesis says nothing about when, where does this old earth business come from? There are other logical options. The earth could be older, that’s one. But it could be ten million years old. It could be young, in the six to ten thousand year range, but not because Genesis says so. It just happens to have been that way. The earth could be eternal and uncreated. The objection to this would be that this collides with creatio ex nihilo, a central Christian doctrine, but this is only a provisional objection. We haven’t gotten to Q yet, and when we do, we have plenty of scholars who will do to created what we already let them do to day. But the most fun option is that removal of time references in Genesis allows us to believe that the earth is way younger than that — say about three thousand years old. I know that this runs some of the genealogies back before the world, and makes Abraham a mythic figure, but who takes genealogies literally? And why does no one take the fun option when it would be so much fun?
The fact that the default assumption among so many evangelicals is that of an old earth, given a non-literal Genesis, demonstrates that the school marm of contemporary science is standing here in the classroom with us, ruler in hand, ready to rap our knuckles if we say something silly or biblical. She doesn’t mind if we say that we paying no attention to her, so long as we don’t put down the wrong answer. She is very quiet as she watches us do our exegesis.
In short, the time debates in Genesis are really time debates over the state of the Church in the next fifty years. The chronologies of Genesis are really about the chronologies that will be lived by our grandchildren, and their children after them.
And here is how all this applies to the UK. Your circumstances are far more dire than ours, and the contemporary follies that are being seriously advanced are in the U, V, W range. Pick one of the great satirists your island has produced, a Jonathan Swift, say, and ask what he would be able to do with the material that your newspapers are recording daily. Why is this? Why are things in this condition? Why is it so hard to mount a rally? Why can’t you get enough traction in order to fight back effectively?
The reason is (to mix metaphors) that all your letters are slippery. Every previous place where the Church once stood, virtually no one is currently standing. And those few who do stand there are very cautious about admitting it publicly — for fear of getting pummeled for it by fellow conservatives. Conservatives tag along behind the secularists, trying to retard their rate of speed, and yet conservatives themselves are careful to close behind them each gate as they pass through it. They are preventing all temptations to a reactionary fundamentalism — as though that were the real threat over there. You have another kind of fundamentalism that you need to watch out for — the Islamic variety — and your ability to stand up to that will be directly connected to your willingness to go back to Christian first principles.
Now I am not urging you to adopt a truncated, know-nothing fundamentalism. But I am urging you to adopt something that every learned solon, cleric or poobah on your island will call fundamentalism. If you aren’t accused of fundamentalism, you aren’t doing your job. Mark it — there is a difference between fighting and surrendering slowly.
We are plagued with problems here the States, and I am not trying to pretend that we are not facing our own grim dangers. We are. But for all that, one of the central reasons why evangelicalism in the United States is so full of beans is also found in this. We have millions of Christians here who are still maintaining that the issues surrounding A are important. They do it in all kinds of ways — ranging from silly and uneducated to learned and urbane — but they do it. They believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And ideas have consequences.
So do I believe that this is how God created the world? You bet. And when the secularist shakes his head over my obtuseness, and turns away in despair, I hasten to tell him that I also believe in Noah’s Flood. His eyes widen. And then I say that it is a point of no small significance for me that there be a giraffe involved, with his head and neck sticking out of the window. “You need to be medicated,” he says. And then I tell him that the flannel graph from which I learned all these things was a direct lineal descendant of the two flannel graphs that Noah took with him on the ark.
“You serious?” he asks.
“No,” I say. “That part’s a joke.”