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Gavin Rumney

Creationism? Good Grief!

Part 1: Dominoes and Dinosaurs

Can you accept the concept of evolution and still be a Christian? In the Church of God movement that's a fairly radical thought. This series tackles the creationism issue and suggests that not only is creationism wrong, it may also be harmful to your spiritual health.


Raimondi's Adam and Eve, c.1510

One of the first things that initially attracted me about the Worldwide Church of God was its strong, clear, no-compromise position on creationism. There were regular articles in The Plain Truth that dealt with the issue, complete with colorful diagrams and photographs. And you could send for brochures with titles like “A Whale of a Tale” and “Our Awesome Universe.” The way the church presented it, evolution was a theory shot full of holes.

Garner Ted Armstrong, at that time the voice of The World Tomorrow, did a nice little number on evolution too. The way Ted told it, those evolutionists were just plain dishonest with the evidence. I believed him.

Mind you, there were moments when you had to wonder. Ted said that the expanding universe – where heavenly bodies are flying apart – wasn’t evidence for a Big Bang. Oh no, it was the result of a massive cosmic “war in heaven” caused by Lucifer’s rebellion. I may only have been a teenager at the time, but that seemed a pretty silly explanation even then. But maybe Ted’s mind was momentarily preoccupied with a somewhat different variety of heavenly bodies and big bangs.

There was, however, one distinctive element that impressed me mightily in the church’s version of creationism: the gap theory. There was an unknown time period between the “in the beginning” part of Genesis 1:1 and “the Earth was without form and void.” Church members may not have known much about Biblical languages, but we all knew about tohu and bohu. Thanks to the gap theory, the Earth could indeed be millions or billions of years old, because the creation described in Genesis was actually a re-creation following the ruin resulting from Lucifer's grab for power. That was the clincher. It all made perfect sense. Yes, there were “Pre-Adamic” dinosaurs. Problem solved.

In 1975 that great authority on cosmology and anthropology, former Plain Truth writer William F. Dankenbring, brought out a book that put the church’s accumulated wisdom on the subject between two covers. As creationist books go it was well written. In the foreword Herman Hoeh noted that Dankenbring "proposes a disarmingly simple answer in his examination of broad areas of scientific evidence." I bought both the first and second editions of The First Genesis. Somewhere along the line I gave one copy away, but the 1979 version still sits on my bookshelf among other curiosities. 

The trouble was, by now I'd developed quite an interest in the subject, and I wasn't restricting my reading. I wanted to know why, if things were as clear as Dankenbring and others painted them, paleontologists like Richard Leakey weren't carried away by the sheer force of such "disarmingly simple" arguments. 

Albert Einstein once said, "The important thing is to not stop questioning." Einstein would never have cut it in the Worldwide Church of God! Questioning and the thirst for knowledge can be a major mistake for anyone who wants to keep their beliefs hermetically sealed. If you want to avoid discomfort don’t read anything that will challenge and stretch you. Most creationists read selectively in order to confirm their beliefs.

Books can be threatening beasts. Don’t read that stuff, people will tell you. Stick to “faith-building” material. Sometimes they get pretty strident about it and even try and take the opportunity away. Witness those well-intentioned folk who want to keep certain books out of public libraries.

Why do we do that? Maybe it’s fear. For some it's a fear that they might “lose their faith”, which is a pretty scary prospect. But what that really seems to mean, when you dig a bit deeper, isn’t so much faith in God, but faith in the Bible. Or, more specifically, a literal reading of the Bible. The Bible as an inerrant authority on anything and everything. Question the Bible on the Genesis origin stories, and before you know it you’ll be questioning a thousand other things. One domino falls, so the theory goes, and the rest follow.

Maybe that explains why some Church of God preachers are still dishing out the same tired, discredited messages they did as far back as the 1950s. Try reading a Rod Meredith article from a 1955 Plain Truth, and then compare it with another in the latest issue of Tomorrow’s World. Chances are you’ll find it, as I did, difficult to tell them apart. Rod would probably tell you this is because he “holds fast.” Or could it just be because he’s learnt next to nothing over nearly 50 long years? Ignorance is the constant companion of fear.

But what about those falling Bible dominoes? There’s no gentle way to tell some people: maybe a few of those dominoes should fall. It's not the Bible that will be affected, just our perceptions and misconceptions about the Bible. The Bible is many things, but was certainly never meant to be a scientific authority. It contains different genre (types of writing) from different periods. It isn’t some kind of “instruction manual.” It had multiple authors spread over many centuries. And the idea of “inerrancy” would surely have puzzled those ancient writers. Inerrancy is a modern concept and, frankly, a rather stupid one.

And that’s without even mentioning the vexed issue of what should or shouldn’t have ended up in the Bible canon, the official list of books regarded as scripture. 

... millions of Christians honor the Bible and ground their faith in its stories, parables, metaphors, histories, poetry and theology without falling for the proof-texting nightmare of fundamentalism ...

No wonder then that millions of Christians honor the Bible and ground their faith in its stories, parables, metaphors, histories, poetry and theology without falling for the proof-texting nightmare of fundamentalism with its rigid, wooden, literalistic approach. Rod, Ted and others would tell us that’s because such people are not real Christians. The implication being that if you don’t believe the way they do, you won’t be a proper Christian either. Some people seem to have confused the Bible with the God revealed in the Bible, the message with the medium.

And you don’t have to be some kind of “super-liberal” to appreciate that simple fact. Bob Bakker is a case in point. He’s a paleontologist and a Pentecostal preacher. “Evolution has happened. It's a fact. Cambrian life is different from Ordovician and different from Silurian and different from Devonian and there's progress in life”, says Bob. And he adds, “There's warped ideas about the Bible and there's warped ideas about Evolution.” Maybe he read The First Genesis too.

Another example: the American Scientific Affiliation is an association of professionals in the sciences who also happen to be evangelical Christians. They clearly recognize that evolution isn't the bogeyman fundamentalists usually make it out to be. 

So why does the creationist view still carry the day in many Christian circles? Perhaps because the underlying scientific issues can get quite complex. People who see in black and white rarely appreciate shades of gray. Who wants that when a simpler, less disturbing alternative is available. That we swallowed Herbert Armstrong's belief system indicates that most of us prefer not to wander too far into the world of the intellect ("intellectual" being almost as bad a word as "liberal.") And, to make matters worse, evolution is often maliciously identified with atheism, communism, you name it. As one true believer said: No liberal so-called "interpretation" is needed. God said it, I believe it, and you are going to hell. Praise God!

Creationism isn’t just bad science. It’s bad theology. Which might help explain why Sunday morning televangelists - Benny Hinn, Oral Roberts and the whole “Elmer Gantry” brigade - are all ardent advocates of creationism. It goes with the territory.

 And just as fundamentalists resort to proof texting in their preaching, creationists do something similar in trying to marshal their case. The Jehovah’s Witness comes armed with a few well thumbed passages in their New World Translation. The creationist wants to ask you about how something as complex as the eye evolved. Of course they’ve read up on the topic recently (in a suitably safe book from a Christian publisher) and expect you to be thrilled by the profundity of their learning and logic. No matter the fact that issues like this have been extensively discussed in the literature for years; your average amateur “creation scientist” can be fairly certain their audience hasn’t been dipping into the specialist journals lately.

And that was a pretty safe bet with the old Plain Truth articles too. They were written by church journalists like William Dankenbring who dabbled in a bit of everything: diet, prophecy, Bible commentary, family counseling and prehistory, but had no real background or experience in any of these fields.

Creationism is about apologetics, not science. It begins with a conclusion, then works its way back to stack the evidence. And then, in a brazen act of finger-pointing, its spokesmen often turn around and accuse the scientific community of doing the very thing they're guilty of.

How should you react when confronted with one of these well-meaning enthusiasts? Are you really supposed to be impressed by what amounts to a bad second-hand book review? When the subject is raised of dinosaur and human footprints being supposedly found together (or whatever nonsense is currently on their swot list) I cheerfully advise them to take it up with the National Geographic.

And if "nonsense" sounds a little uncharitable, perhaps it'd help to note that Scientific American used that very term recently (June 2002) when it published an article called 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense.

There's no question that most creationists are sincere, deeply committed Christian people, just as there's no question that there are many Christians who are thoroughly unconvinced by creationist rhetoric. Maybe it’s time to ask a new question: does creationism help us understand the Bible and build genuine faith, or does it actually get in the way of that process? That's a theme we'll explore as this series continues.

Copyright © 2003 Gavin Rumney

Now available: Part 2: the origins of modern creationism.


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