A Travelogue of the Interior

faith questions

Ham on Nye: the deeper problem

4 Comments

I realize the news cycle on the Ham vs. Nye debate has moved on. It is just that someone sent me this and I realized that the evangelical conversation continues, and it is into that conversation that I wish to contribute.

Disclaimer: I did not watch the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham “debate” although I have read parts of the transcript. The first thing that needs to be said, and I’m am not the first to do so, is that this was not a debate. It was two individuals speaking totally different languages. Ken Ham’s piece (linked to above) illustrates it well. He says,

“What I found really unfortunate is that after presenting my stand on God’s Word, there were a number of Christians who were more complimentary of Bill Nye than of me because Bill Nye was defending evolution and billions of years.  You would think these Christians would be thankful that I presented the gospel at least three times during the debate. But it seems these Christian critics are more concerned about what I believe in Genesis than about people hearing the gospel.”

There it is: one of these speakers was talking about evolution and one was talking about the Christian gospel. It appears, and if I am wrong please help me see that, but it appears to me that Ken believes the only way you have a “gospel” — the Good News of the saving, redemptive work of Jesus to restore Shalom to all of God’s creation, is to read Genesis literally: six 24-hour periods within which God created the world and everything in it; Eve formed from Adam’s rib; Adam and Eve being the only mated pair of human beings from which the human genome derives; no death of any animal until after the Fall, and so on.

I would further suggest that the reason Ken has a literal interpretation of Genesis is because he believes that a literal reading of the Bible is the only legitimate reading of the Bible.  The Bible is either literal-and-true or literary-and-a-sham. And so we have a bifurcation:

Literal reading of the Bible                    Literary reading of the Bible
Therefore Creation                                   Therefore Evolution
Therefore Gospel                                       Therefore Fairy Tale
Therefore Christian                                  Therefore Non-Christian

From this vantage point, the subtext then of the Ham & Nye debate was all about whether the Bible ought to be read literally, or for believers, whether Christians can read the Bible in a non-literal fashion, with, for instance, sensitivity to literary genre, rhetorical function, and Ancient Near Eastern context, and still be professing Christians.

The problem I have with Ken Ham presenting his gospel message is that he is doing so ONLY within his side of the bifurcation which logically requires that if a person is to accept the gospel (according to Ken Ham), that person must then also buy into a literal interpretation of the Bible. The flip side of the Ken Ham gospel, for professing Christians, is that questioning a literal genesis threatens to unravel (or so they believe) their entire faith and leads irrevocably to apostasy.

This discussion — on science and faith, on literal interpretations of Scripture, on how the Bible ought to function for Christians —  is a robust and engaging one, and if you are interested in jumping in let me know and I can point you to some places to get started.

All I want to say — to my Christian friends as well as to those who are atheists or agnostics or however they self-identify: I have questioned a literal Genesis, a literal reading of the Bible, a literal Adam and Eve. I have actively engaged scientific discussion about evolution and fossils, about a universe and an Earth that are billions of years old. I have pondered what happens to Paul’s view of Jesus when Adam is not an actual being created out of dust in a literal garden with a talking snake.  I have felt enormous dissonance in the face of these questions, in my own soul and in discussions with other people. And still …

  • I am a Christian
  • I am not a Biblical literalist
  • I think God exists and is personally in charge and deeply engaged in our world
  • I think evolution answers the question of how life on earth began and diversified
  • I follow Jesus, trusting in His atoning, redemptive work on my behalf
  • I am more captivated by the Holy Scriptures than ever before
  • I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and is authoritative in my life
  • I love science and the curiosity it foments in me

My faith doubts. It grows as it questions, and it is God who accompanies me in the tension, who challenges me to resist tidy resolution as the basis for my faith.

Author: karen d

Thinker, Dreamer, Traveler. Recovering Pharisee.

4 thoughts on “Ham on Nye: the deeper problem

  1. So how do you know what to take literally – substitutional atonement because it says Substitional atonement – and what to take a analogy? And, once again, I ask your earlier question – who gets to decide?

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    • I ask you!

      OK, so second to that … i don’t think “literal” and “analogy” are the only options, but that aside, I think knowing how to read the Bible is the entire purpose of a robust approach to hermeneutics.

      The instance of substitutional atonement is a good one — there have been multiple versions of this through Church history (you probably know the details way better than I do!) and even now there is a huge debate raging between Reformed folks on one side and the postmodern folks on the other. If you assume, and I do, that the postmoderns love Jesus and honor the authority of Scripture in their lives as much as the Reformed folks, then you can see the problem. There is no passage that says “substitutional atonement” — we’ve read it into the text as a meta-narrative, which is NOT to say it is incorrect or absent. Rather, it points out that people+text = fallible, which again in my book does NOT argue for not forming educated views of Scripture or even simply honoring a tradition, as many do, but holding it with open hands and with the full tension that creates with others who disagree.

      My beef with Ken Ham is the degree to which his view and only his view is legitimate, simply because it strikes him as self-evident and “plain sense” and is therefore “obvious” in Scripture. It is neither self-evident nor “plain sense” to me. Rather than saying, “I read the Bible this way and conclude these things, but others read and conclude differently and we are family…” he effectively says, “If you don’t agree with me you aren’t a real Christian, you aren’t ‘biblical, you don’t submit to the authority of the Scriptures in your life, you are being deceived and misled.” To make matters worse, he seems incapable of actually listening (not to Rye — to other believers who disagree with him) and so its like he’s stuck in his own little point-of-view world. The other person who strikes me as like this is Richard Dawkins, of atheist fame — same exact problem, same exact consequence.

      The question of “who gets to decide” — now THAT is fascinating to me. I have yet to hear anyone with a bully pulpit basically announce, “The other guy gets to decide” — except (and it is a breathtaking example) except the Pope Francis.

      So fisticuffs reign because we are all fighting for the right to say what the Bible “means.” The thing is, with the exception of Paul (i’ll come back to that in a minute), the stories in the Hebrew Scriptures all point to the characters’ relinquishing control of things to God. David doesn’t fight for the crown, even tho’ he’s been anointed. He waits for God to hand it to him. Abraham goes out of his way to give Lot the choicest of the land — to the point of relinquishing his rights as the patriarch. Hannah & Ruth illustrate it too (and Mary) a few centuries later. Lots of examples there.

      Paul comes out swinging — defining and defending the faith oddly enough in ways I think would disqualify him as someone who “honored the authority of Scripture in his life” — he reinterprets the OT in breathtaking ways, taking parts of a verse here and combining it with parts of a verse in a totally different spot, running roughshod over centuries of entrenched Hebrew interpretation and application, and we gloss right over it most of the time because its Paul and he has the Spirit. But we should pause and look at what he’s doing … not so as to say, “see, Paul was just a man interpreting things for himself, therefore we don’t have to believe or submit to them,” but so as to dig deeply into what Paul is doing and why and on what grounds. It is an invitation to go deeper — not to discard. Challenging or questioning the meta-narratives of things like “substitutionary atonement” or as my friend Tim did last week, “Servant-leadership” or the creation stories or what “ezer kenegdo” means — these are all invitations to go deeper — into tension and doubt for sure, but God seems to be present there.

      That and $1.50 will barely get you a decent cup of coffee tho’ … and really you and I could spend days going around on this topic. But we’d have more fun on other ones 😉 xo,k

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  2. having had this same “literal vs literary” debate many times in the halls of my Jesuit undergrad institution, I ultimately concluded that there is a more helpful frame: what did the original author *mean* when they wrote what they wrote in Scripture? If we believe that the “Bible is the inspired word of God” then instead of trying to decide whether to take it literally or not (which feels like it puts us over the Bible), we are instead trying to figure out whether the author of that chunk *intended* it to be a literal statement of historical events or a literary description of the meaning of things. There are lots of parts of Scripture (Psalms etc) that use allegory, etc. and we have no problem seeing that – the challenge with Genesis is not that there might be something “non-Literal” in the Bible but that it’s harder to figure out whether the author intended it to be a literal bit or not.

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    • That is a good way of looking at the challenge! Investigating authorial intent and meaning suggests we account for historical context, genre, rhetorical style, the authors worldview and the symbols they had available to them as tools for communication. Maybe it gets you to the same place without fearing that, as you say, we are putting ourselves “over” Scripture. I read the other day someone refer to the Bible as the Protestant Pope — I thought that was an interesting analogy. What do you make of that?

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