Christianity Today just published my cover story on two biologists, Todd Wood and Darrel Falk. (It’s online here.) Todd is a young earth creationist. Darrel is an evolutionary creationist. I did in-depth interviews with both of them as research for the book I’m working on, The Search for Adam. I like both of them a lot. They are deeply committed Christians, deeply sincere, and both extremely knowledgeable scientists. I’m hoping this will pique the interest of some publishers!
Archive for the ‘evangelicals’ Category
I’ve been interviewing scientists for my next book, tentatively entitled The Search for Adam. Last week I was in Bozeman, Montana, to talk to Mary Schweitzer. I’ve met some very interesting people through these interviews, but none more fascinating than Schweitzer. She’s a living embodiment of “never say never.”
She was in her thirties, married and with three children, when she started taking classes at Montana State University, aiming at personal enrichment. A class on paleontology got her interested in dinosaurs. She volunteered to work at the Museum of the Rockies and then had so many questions that her mentor Jack Horner, dino consultant for Jurassic Park, told her to get a PhD.
While a PhD candidate she made one of the most amazing discoveries in paleontological history. Making thin sections of a T. Rex leg bone, she recognized small, red circles with darker nuclei embedded in the channels where blood vessels once ran. They looked like red blood cells. That’s still the best guess as to what they are, though proving it is difficult. The discovery made her famous.
A few years later, she was setting up her new lab at North Carolina State when she opened a box of bones chips from a new T Rex skeleton. She pulled one out, looked it over, and said, “It’s a girl, and she’s pregnant!” She had recognized medullary bone, which birds form to store up calcium before they produce eggs. It’s a short-lived phenomenon with a unique structure–only in birds, only when they are pregnant. This was the first (and so far only) time it was found in a dino fossil, and the first time paleontologists were able to identify a dinosaur’s gender.
Shortly thereafter she was experimenting with acid on the bones, trying to etch their surface layer to reveal structure, when the acid went too fast and dissolved the entire bone. Only it didn’t. There was a translucent, stretchy material left behind–collagen, apparently, preserved through ninety million years. It seemed impossible, and many scientists refused to believe it. Her discovery has thrown into question previous understandings of how fossils form. Three times in a decade Schweitzer made discoveries that sent paleontologists into a tizzy.
Schweitzer is a very passionate Christian. (In fact, she was a young earth creationist when she first went back to school.) For her, the world of dinosaurs is testimony to the richness and beauty of God’s creation. I’m looking forward to writing up her story.
I didn’t know Chuck Colson well, but my interactions with him were memorable. My first encounter came when Popie and I were moving west after four years of living in Kenya followed by six months sponging off relatives. We had all our earthly possessions packed in a Toyota station wagon. Our daughter Katie was two and Popie was extremely pregnant with Chase. For a couple of days we visited friends in Southern California. We were having a little party.
My friend Dean came outside and told me I had a phone call. It was Chuck Colson, whom I had never met. How he found me, I have no idea. Nobody knew where I was. He said he needed me to tidy up a book he was writing; it was urgent that I do it now. The book was due at the publisher in six weeks, if I remember correctly.
I said I had no place to live and nowhere to work and I couldn’t do anything for him until life settled down.
The next thing I knew I was on an airplane headed for Washington, D.C. For some reason, we needed to discuss the book in person. Colson would not take no for an answer.
Someone met me at the airport and handed me a manuscript. At 8:00 the next morning, she said, I would meet Colson and we would discuss it.
I got into my hotel room and stared at the cement-block-sized brick of paper I had been given. The manuscript, as I remember it, was at least 600 pages and a mess. Some chapters made sense, some didn’t. Many were incomplete, just trailing into space. It was more like an assemblage of miscellaneous clippings than a book. It took me most of the night to get through it.
In the morning I met Colson—I have no memory of where—and did not beat around the bush. I told him that the manuscript needed a lot of work and there was no way it could be turned around in six weeks. He could never produce a book to be proud of in that time. It would be far better to put off publication and do it right.
My message did not seem to penetrate. He was not about to put off publication. He believed the manuscript could be completed on time, and he wanted me to do it. Very flattering that was for me, an unknown writer without a real job and no home. I did not change my opinion, but I eventually agreed that I would give it all I had for six weeks, and then we would reevaluate. Looking back, I don’t think Colson was thinking about the meaning of the word “reevaluate” the same way I was.
As for payment, he said he would pay me a per diem and that he would cut me in on the royalties, but he couldn’t yet say how. I would have to trust him.
I worked on my typewriter in my sister’s living room, huddling close to the wood stove to keep warm. Six weeks later I had patched up some parts of the book, editor Judith Markham had smoothed out a lot of the rest, and we had the book known as Loving God. It sold a lot of copies and got some awards.
Chuck cut me in for a portion of the royalties just as he had said, and he was more than fair.
Four years later I helped write portions of Kingdoms in Conflict (now God and Government), which was done in a more orderly fashion. I had a chance to work on several of the storytelling chapters. Again, I was treated in a very business-like and fair manner. I don’t think my mama raised me to work as a gun-for-hire, but if I’m going to do that kind of work, I’d like to do it for somebody like Colson.
He was a take-charge guy. His way of writing a book was like that of a construction foreman: he knew what he wanted to do, he had an overall blueprint, and he chose the best subcontractors he could find to get it done. I guess that’s how presidential speeches get written too.
I think it’s very admirable how he changed his life and dedicated himself to helping prisoners. It was completely sincere, I believe, and from what I’ve seen Prison Fellowship does very good work. Life isn’t lived only in large gestures, though; it’s also how you treat people. I can’t speak for anybody but myself, but Chuck Colson treated me well.
Yesterday I spent the morning with Phillip Johnson, the retired Berkeley law professor who, more than anyone else, fathered Intelligent Design. He is unrepentant. Johnson is as convinced as ever that evolution is a hoax, a demonstration that if you will not consider evidence for God-as-creator, you will predictably find no God in creation.
I like Johnson, not so much for his thinking as for how he communicates it. He enjoys an argument, but he likes to be friends with those he argues against. I detect no rancor. He has fond memories of hammer-and-tongs annual debates with William Provine, the Cornell historian of science, which usually concluded with beer and talk at a local tavern.
Over the last decade Johnson has suffered from two strokes and (most recently) an operation that went wrong and put him in the ICU for nearly two months. He told me when he woke up in the rehab hospital, he just wanted to die as quickly as possible. He couldn’t face another round of rehab.
But he did. He’s struggled to mend, with the tremendous help and encouragement of his wife Kathie. He says he has learned a lot of humility, and with it more sympathy for others.
He’s grateful for his resurrection (his word) not only because of how he has grown, but also because he otherwise would not have seen the 49ers’ tremendous season. With a glint in his eye, he predicted more good seasons to come. Which suggests that, in all likelihood, he’ll be arguing yet awhile.
Yet, Johnson said, “Convincing the world no longer seems so important to me. I’m 71 years old. I feel a lot closer to death. I can almost step across the boundary from this life to the next. If my Christian faith is correct, I will soon hear answers from the most authoritative source available.”
Warning: this may be of interest only to Presbyterians.
I was in Orlando last week for a meeting of the (new) Fellowship of Presbyterians. It’s an attempt to rededicate Presbyterian congregations to core biblical purposes. I won’t try to describe the nuts and bolts of that, which are inevitably tedious. I’ll just say that I appreciated the tone set by the leaders. They resolutely did not complain about the current denomination (PCUSA). They emphasized that they were not so interested in escaping a compromised church as in reinvigorating their own sense of mission.
My highlight, by far, was a talk by John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. (Here’s the video.) I recommend it most heartily. I particularly appreciated his evocation of a faith that is thoughtful, courteous, socially and culturally engaged, and loves Jesus. In this, he said, we really do have something important to offer our world.
In this era when “evangelical” often seems to mean simplistic, sloganeering dogmatism, I found it most encouraging to think that the kind of faith I resonate with can have great significance. Ortberg spoke to that well.
My friend Pete, who’s been reporting on politics for decades, can’t understand why evangelicals don’t like Romney. I’ve explained to him the deep antipathy evangelicals feel toward Mormons, but to him the groups seem more similar than different. How on earth could evangelicals support Gingrich, a serial adulterer and hypocrite, over Romney, a solid God-and-family man?
I’m not sure I understand it myself. I do know, however, that feelings about Mormons go deep. I predict that if Romney is the Republican nominee, a lot of evangelicals will stay home in November, and very few will campaign enthusiastically for him. As evangelicals comprise much if not most of the Republican base, that’s a major problem. Republicans know it; that’s why they keep flocking to the latest anybody-but-Romney candidate.
But why do evangelicals dislike Mormons so much? It has something to do with envy. Mormons violate all the rules of orthodox Christian theology, and yet they outperform evangelicals on practically every point.
–They are not only pro-marriage and pro-family, they actually have a record of staying married.
–They are squeaky clean on drugs and alcohol, while evangelicals broadcast their concern about addictive substances but have skeletons in every family closet.
–They witness to their faith. Every time evangelicals see those boys with white shirts and ties walking in pairs through their neighborhood, they feel guilty that they aren’t witnessing themselves.
Those are the main point, but there are other reasons for jealousy:
— Mormons don’t have professional clergy. (Evangelicals profess the priesthood of all believers, but in reality are ruled by preachers.)
-Mormons boast an actual tourist magnet in the Salt Lake City temple complex. (Evangelicals love Disney World and have tried unsuccessfully to launch a Christian theme park to match it.)
Add it all up, and the short-haired, clean-cut Mormon boy who goes on a two-year mission trip to Guatemala and comes home to marry his sweetheart, produce babies, and join his dad’s construction company, is the son every evangelical dreams of. They’re living our dream, despite their heretical beliefs. Most aggravating of all, they are nice.
Yesterday I had a two-hour talk with the sister of a well-known Christian leader. I’m not going to name names; this is a sad story of family disaffection, and though I wasn’t sworn to secrecy I think it’s better to keep the details private. I hope and pray these two can someday make it up and find ways to express their love.
The sister left the faith some years ago. She’s really bitter about the way she’s been treated. It’s not that anybody has abused her, it’s that she’s treated as an outsider.
She feels that her brother makes no attempt to understand her. “He never wanted to have a real conversation with me about my changes and my decisions. He made huge assumptions about what has gone on in my life. In a way I don’t fault him. That kind of response to somebody rejecting the faith fits entirely with the mindset of that kind of faith. That’s partly why I rejected it: it’s not open-minded, not interested in listening. [When I was a Christian] we didn’t do any listening. We had all the answers. We’re right, everybody else is wrong, and it’s [spiritual] war. My biggest relief [when I gave up the faith] was to join the human race, to stop putting people into categories.”
I was saddened by the story, and by the obvious torment in the sister’s voice as she spoke of it. At one level this is a family quarrel peculiar to the personalities involved, but it’s also frequently the story of religion today. “I’m right, you’re wrong” is seen as an intolerant and anti-human stance, and religious people are the chief offenders.
Let me offer a few thoughts. First, I think every human being who holds opinions believes that “I’m right, everybody else is wrong.” That’s in the nature of holding an opinion. Even if you say, “There are many paths to the truth,” or, “There is no truth,” or “I believe in the truth of diversity,” you’re still asserting, “I’m right, everybody else is wrong.” If you insist that there are many paths to the truth, you assert that I am wrong to believe there is only one way. If you believe in diversity you are denying my faith in singularity. If you don’t put people in categories, you are putting me in the category of somebody who does. And according to you, I’m wrong.
It’s hard to have good conversation unless everyone admits to holding beliefs that are incompatible with others’ beliefs. The pose of complete open-mindedness may be held sincerely, but it’s often used as a stick to beat down the narrow-minded people we disagree with. Let’s agree to start by agreeing: we disagree, and that’s okay.
It’s not easy to love somebody whose beliefs or actions offend you. It’s not easy to tolerate opinions that you consider immoral. But that’s why we need love and tolerance: it’s not easy. These are strong virtues that can cope with human differences. In fact, they only really come into play when we believe the other person is wrong.
Now let me speak for the sister. It’s a terrible feeling to be pigeonholed. I believe her when she says that her brother doesn’t really try to understand her.
However, I don’t believe that pigeonholing necessarily comes as a result of Christian faith. Quite the opposite: there are resources in Christian belief to counter it. One is the conviction that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Sin is not just acts of obvious immorality, such as adultery. The sin of spiritual pride, or intellectual hubris, goes against all we are taught by the Bible.
One of the first facts of human life, according to Christian teaching, is that we are lost and need someone to save us. We remain in need of saving all our lives. Anybody who knows this should be very wary of the thought, “I’m right, everybody else is wrong.” Fallen creatures, we are always capable of going wrong. As Paul warned the Romans, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.” (12:3),
Not only are we all sinners, we are all creatures. We did not make this world. Complete understanding belongs only to the one who did. We have every reason to be humble: we are made from dust.
What does God want? Truth, as far as we humble creatures know it, but mostly love. As the sister said, “He has always been totally enamored with miracles, and with the gifts of the spirit, as though that was the proof of the faith. I’m not impressed with gifts of the spirit, but I would be with fruit of the spirit. Just listen to me. That would be love. That would be the presence of God. That would show me that God is at work in your life.”
The news that Fred Shuttlesworth died got lost in the flow when Steve Jobs died shortly thereafter. Not to take anything away from Jobs, whom I admired (I was there for his 2005 Stanford graduation speech, and it was certainly the best such I have ever heard–very thoughtful). But Shuttlesworth was the more important, and the more valiant, figure. I’ve read everything I can find on Shuttlesworth, who was one of the great heroes of the civil rights movement. This piece by Diane McWhorter does him justice. (Her book on Birmingham, Alabama, Carry Me Home, is one of my favorites of the many fine books on the movement.) Shuttlesworth is the basis of one of my main characters in the novel I intend to publish next year, Birmingham.
One thing McWhorter doesn’t mention is that Shuttlesworth was a preacher who took the Bible as God’s literal word. He never bought into liberal theology the way King did, nor was he the kind of preacher who used the pulpit for his own purposes and quoted the Bible when it suited his program. The Bible’s vision of justice was his vision, and he took it straight.
This morning our local NPR affiliate, KQED, hosted Francis Collins on the morning talk show. It’s a pleasure to hear an evangelical on the radio who doesn’t make you cringe. There are a lot of hostile folks in the media audience ready to rant against anything Christian, but Collins comes across as bright, competent, friendly, appreciative and articulate. Of course it doesn’t hurt that he’s one of the world’s best-known scientists.
Here’s the link, in case you want to listen: http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R201110040900
I’ve just finished a book I’d highly recommend: Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? by Denis Alexander. Alexander is a biochemist heading the Faraday Institute at Cambridge. I interviewed him back in July, somewhat embarrassed that I had only read bits of his writing. (But not embarrassed enough to skip the interview.)
He writes as an unapologetic evangelical with a robust view of the sovereignty of God, and as a convinced (and practicing) evolutionist. He begins with a strong statement of God the creator, a view from Scripture. Then he gives a careful and thorough layman’s explanation of genetics and how an evolutionary biologist sees the genome evolving over millions of years. It’s a serious treatment, which stretched me considerably. (I’m sure a biologist would find it mundane.) It helped me understand to some degree the complex knowledge that binds together evolutionary theory with a thousand strands; and it also helped me comprehend to some degree the plausibility of the theory. The creativity is in the details, and what seems impossible in the large (the self-assembling 747) begins to look quite realistic in the small.
I can’t begin to convey what he says. You have to read it for yourself.
I was struck by the level of detail that scientists have already drawn from genomic studies, only a few decades after we first grasped what DNA is. One small example: approximately 1,000 genes have been detected enabling a mammal’s sense of smell. All or nearly all of these can be found in human DNA (which is largely identical to any other mammal’s) but 60% have been “switched off” by mutations. They are there as genetic fossils. By contrast, mice have “switched off” only 20%. Eighty percent of their smelling genes remain functional, which is why mice smell so much better than we do. One presumes that humans are not nearly so dependent on smell for survival, so our mutations have piled up. For mice, poor senses of smell get weeded out.
One might possibly explain these facts by other theories, but evolution surely is an excellent fit. And there are many, many, many such particular examples.
Alexander goes on to cover everything that somebody worried about evolution and creation could be interested in. He is a thoughtful and careful student of Scripture, and it shows in his thorough treatment of Genesis and other important texts. He takes up Adam and Eve, the Fall, questions about God’s responsibility for natural evil (the tooth and claw critique of creation), and the biblical understanding of death. He critiques Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design.
Some of this is undoubtedly subject to counter-critique. Alexander obviously is extremely knowledgeable on multiple fronts, and he is generally charitable. (Not so much in his criticisms of ID.) But a detailed argument will always be answered, and for lay people like me it is hard to assess the quality of the arguments.
What I particularly like is the foundation of Alexander’s thinking: that God made the universe, and the task of science is to figure out how. He takes Christian delight in his conviction that his own and others’ scientific work has revealed a great deal of the magnificent “how” of God’s work. But in his chapter on the origins of life—i.e., the first cell—he is not bothered in the least by the admission of ignorance, that “at present we have very little idea as to where the DNA does come from.”
“I would like to suggest that theologically it doesn’t matter two hoots whether we ever manage to understand the origins of life scientifically or not. The simple reason is that God’s work in creation is not dependent upon whether we understand it or not.”
In that chapter he gives a great deal of information about the state of research into the origins of life. Alexander obviously does think that eventually, maybe in fifty years, scientists will be able to offer a credible story of how God brought life into being. But he doesn’t think for a moment the story will reveal “blind, materialistic, naturalistic forces” at work.
“These are God’s chemicals, God’s materials, that are being talked about here. A mystery bigger than the origin of life is why Christians should ascribe pagan-sounding characteristics to God’s world. Is this God’s world or isn’t it? … To confidently proclaim that the precious materials God has so carefully brought into being in the dying moments of exploding stars do not have the potentiality to bring about life, seems to me… insulting [to God]. Christianity, in a sense, is a very materialistic religion. We believe that all the materials of the universe without exception are God’s materials. ‘Who are you, oh man’, to tell God what potentialities are or are not built into his materials? All we’ll ever come up with anyway, if ever, is a detailed step-by-step description as to how God did it.”
That seems to be a very strong idea of God’s creation and of science’s role in exploring it.