‘There is a book,’ but Ken Ham has no idea how to read it

No shortage of opinions may be found when it comes to the Bill Nye and Ken Ham debate. Millions (myself included) have watched it. Twitter was flooded with incredulous one-liners from the befuddled religious and non-religious alike. Even though it is over, the blizzard of articles on who won or lost continue to pile up.

Bill Nye "the Science Guy," left, and Ken Ham, the creation proponent, debate at the Creation Museum on Feb. 4, 2014. Photo from live streamed video by David Yonke/Toledo Faith & Values.

Bill Nye “the Science Guy,” left, and Ken Ham, the creation proponent, debate at the Creation Museum on Feb. 4, 2014. Photo from live streamed video by David Yonke/Toledo Faith & Values.

I hesitate to add to the noise and there is merit in asking, as many scientists and theologians have done, “why continue to give any more time to creationism?” This is akin to asking, why give time to improving scientific and biblical literacy? A significant number of Americans are behind in both.

As to the first, we might point to the Pew Research report from December that shows 33 percent of Americans rejecting evolution. Among those that do accept evolution in some form (60 percent), only half see it as a natural process, like natural selection. This indicates a strong creationist influence and a need to communicate clearly the strength of the evidence to a lay audience.

However, it is the recent National Science Foundation study that shows 1 in 4 Americans are geocentrists that is the real shocker, a number higher than the 18 percent of a Gallup poll from 1999. This opens the door for movies like The Principle, which is to be released in April and which (among many things) espouses geocentrism as truth. Perhaps a concerted effort to correct bad science is not so bad of an idea after all.

As to biblical literacy, specialists in the field of biblical studies have repeatedly demonstrated that when the evidence is taken at face value, a creationist reading of the Bible is very problematic. For example, when Ham was asked about his literal reading of the Bible in his debate with Nye, he launched into a discussion of genre, noting that he preferred the word “natural” rather than “literal.” There is much to unpack in that use of the word “natural.”

The fact is that Ken Ham’s reading of the Bible is really not natural in any sense of the word. Creationism is problematic on two fronts. It interprets the Bible in a way that makes it — as literature belonging to a particular historical context — incomprehensible or unnatural for the original ancient reader. It also turns science — which needs to follow the best and most current evidence — into something that can’t explain the natural world.

There are good reasons for not reading Genesis 1-3 as creation history. The most obvious is the oft-noted discrepancies between chapters one and two, which result in different chronologies, different names for God, and essentially different creation accounts. There are also plenty of indicators that the Torah’s final form is postexilic, meaning that scholars see Genesis 1-3 as actually intended to speak to the people of the post-Babylonian exile.

How? As Rabbi Jacob Neusner says, “For Judaism, what is important is how sages explicitly compare Adam and Israel, the first man and the last, and show how the story of Adam matches the story of Israel.” Both Israel and Adam are formed out of a world of chaotic waters. Both are provided a land or paradise. Both break a covenant with God, and both are exiled—Adam from the garden and Israel to Babylon. Adam in Genesis makes far better sense as a story about Israel for the original postexilic audience.

Ham may never accept the evidence for this, however, and not just because his thriving empire is based on creationism. I understand the creationist impulse to protect the Bible, but it appears that they are confusing their interpretation of scripture with the inerrancy they imbue it. In other words, Ham likely sees his reading of the Bible as divinely directed.

 

In the HBO documentary "Questioning Darwin," it is clear that creationists choose the world they want, rather than the world they've got. Photo courtesy of HBO

In the HBO documentary “Questioning Darwin,” it is clear that creationists choose the world they want, rather than the world they’ve got. Photo courtesy of HBO

In the recent HBO documentary, Questioning Darwin, in which creationists are allowed to talk about their perspective on evolution fairly freely, Ham says, “When you have generations of people being taught that evolution is fact, and therefore Genesis is not true and you have to reinterpret the Bible … there’s no absolutes.” He finds his authority on maintaining his particular interpretation.

Ham definitely sees his role as one in which he and God have a special connection. Consider what he says in the post-debate interview: “I remember there was a question … can you explain where matter came from?” he recalls. In the debate, Nye admitted to mysteries in science that Ham felt were addressed by the Bible. “I was thinking about it,” he continues, “and I think the Lord uses my strange sense of humor … and it just came to mind, I thought, ‘There is a book’ … I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I really like that.’”

He really likes that, but not simply because he thought it was clever, rather because it appears he thinks it was inspired by God in the moment. What this means is that when the evidence of science points in an entirely different direction from creationism and the evidence of biblical scholarship agrees with science against creationism, it will never trump Ham’s view. His perspective is unfalsifiable because it is in some form inspired.

He is not alone in this view. It goes back to founding evangelical figures like Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley who believed Christians have a divine and supernatural light in their souls, which provided special spiritual understanding. On multiple occasions my more evangelical students have turned in assignments other than the one assigned because “the Holy Spirit told them to.” (“The Holy Spirit should have read the syllabus” is now my regular comment in their papers.)

Frustration over scientific and biblical illiteracy persists (in part) because many opt for their feeling of divine approval over accepting the evidence. They choose the world they want, rather than accept the world they’ve got. This thinking leads me to another interview in Questioning Darwin, one that epitomizes the problem. “If somewhere in the Bible I were to find a passage that said 2+2=5,” Pastor Peter LaRuffa tells the camera, “I wouldn’t question what I’m reading in the Bible. I would believe it, accept it as true, and then do my best to work it out and understand it.”

Many of my mainline, non-creationist Christian friends would have trouble wrapping their heads around that one. They would remind creationists that there are two books written by God — the Bible and the book of nature — and that both require individuals to accept what the evidence says. Ken Ham, unfortunately, has no idea how to read either of them.

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23 Responses to “‘There is a book,’ but Ken Ham has no idea how to read it”

  1. Bob Moyers

    The “perfect” blending of science and religion regarding creation and evolution can be found in the pages of The Urantia Book. Love to all.

  2. Patrick O'Gara

    http://truthbook.com/AudioFiles/UF24K/U86.mp3

    Well thank you very nmuch, Bob. I first thought , “Oh God, The Urantia Book! – more brainless, incomprehensible, gibberish. ”
    But I clicked, more or less at random, on the extract above. Every word is very clear, sensible, and logical.
    I will read it all with great care and attention.

  3. Denis Eble

    “Ken Ham, unfortunately, has no idea how to read either of them.”

    In line with this is Withrow’s statement, “There are also plenty of indicators that the Torah’s final form is postexilic, meaning that scholars see Genesis 1-3 as actually intended to speak to the people of the post-Babylonian exile.”

    This is the point that so many fundamentalists miss. They read Genesis 1-3 as if it were a news report in the New York Times. They neglect the era, the metaphor as well as the purpose of these writings. Genesis was not written for the 21st century citizen of the United States even though fundamentalists think that it was.

    There is an enormous swath of the South which has been referred to as the Bible Belt. Members of the Southern Baptist Convention make up the majority of the religious congregations in the Bible Belt as can be seen on this map:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/files/2013/12/2010-Largest-Group-by-County.jpg

    Preachers and church-goers in these counties believe in the literal interpretation of Genesis. The Bible is ‘true, trustworthy, and without error’ according to their belief code.

    This enormous clustering of members of the Southern Baptist Convention surely must skew the statistical data towards Creationism in the United States- the “33 percent of Americans rejecting evolution.”

    Back in our neck of the woods, the Great Lakes area, religious affiliation is largely Catholic- a religion which does not exact strict literal interpretation of the Bible from their members. As a result, I would guess that the idea of Creationism is not at all popular here. Free-thinking is cherished, thank goodness!

    • Lars

      “Genesis was not written for the 21st century citizen of the United States even though fundamentalists think that it was.”

      As an ex-fundie YECer, I believe that truer words were never spoken! What I often wonder though is, where the audience cut-off? At what point was Genesis no longer written for its reader? Could we not, on some level, say the same thing for the rest of the Bible? Clearly context is key, but the only ‘new’ information, short of more scroll discoveries (or the Rapture ;-)), is gong to be interpretive. This as much as anything emboldens folks like Ham who think rejoinders such as “Were you there?” or “There’s a book about that” provide all the proof their position requires. I missed some the Q&A that followed but I caught, to mind, the most telling response to the question, “What would make you change your mind?” Nye said that fossils where they didn’t belong. Ham, in essence, said nothing would make him change his mind. This is what you’re up against!
      —————
      TOM FOREMAN: What, if anything, would ever change your mind?

      HAM: The Bible is the word of God. I admit that that’s where I start from. I can challenge people that you can go and test that.

      NYE: We would just need one piece of evidence. We would need the fossil that swam from one layer to another. We would need evidence that the universe is not expanding. We would need evidence that the stars appear to be far away, but they’re not.

  4. Christy Besozzi

    Strict literal interpretation of the Bible did not really become common until the 1700s. It apparently came about as a counter to the perception of many people to allegorical or symbolic interpretations that appeared to some to be too varied and totally subject to the readers’ interpretations (maybe as it was intended to be???). Many wanted simplicity over the more complex variety of interpretations.

    Then in the 1800s we had the Englishman John Darby (a traveling preacher and reputed con man) who developed the convoluted, fantastical, and incredulous literal interpretation of Bible prophecies now referred to as “The Rapture”. Thus we now have millions of people expecting the return of Christ to be a Hollywood-like special effects-filled spectacle. NOTE: There are logical spiritual interpretations of these prophecies that do not involve people physically going up into the sky.

    Acceptance of the literal-based interpretation of Bible prophecy has, thus, set the foundation of magical thinking which appears to me to affect how all parts of the Bible are interpreted. Many now apparently think that, in order to show that you believe in God and Jesus, you have to choose the magical-thinking interpretations over logic and science.

    I believe that you can have logical interpretations of the Bible and believe in science, too.

  5. Patrick O'Gara

    Well, the idea of “not believing” in science is really rather silly isn’t it, Christy?
    Like saying you don’t believe in medicine, or arithmetic, or geography.
    But there’s probably lots of Americans who don’t believe in any of those things.
    Probably never heard of them.

    • Christy Besozzi

      Did you know that a recent survey by the National Science Foundation showed that 26% of Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth. But to be fair, 34% of European Union citizens got that wrong, too.

      I’m hoping that it was just a bunch of pranksters who decided to skew the survey results.

  6. Denis Eble

    The book, The Republican War on Science, written 9 years ago is even more relevant today. As the GOP continues to direct the House Committee on Science, we can expect even more illiteracy.

  7. Brandon Withrow quote on Ken Ham -- 022214 | Toledo Faith & Values

    […] Posted by David Yonke | Feb 22, 2014 | Leave a Comment “[Ken] Ham definitely sees his role as one in which he and God have a special connection.” – Brandon Withrow in “There is a book,’ but Ken Ham has no idea how to read it” […]

  8. Patrick O'Gara

    “I’m hoping that it was just a bunch of pranksters who decided to skew the survey results. “
    Would be nice, wouldn’t it? But I fear if we were to take a random sample in downtown Toledo – our hopes would be cruelly dashed.
    But – as the survey indicates – we wouldn’t do a whole lot better in, say, Birmingham, England, than in Birmingham, Alabama, apparently.

  9. Where Creationism Goes Wrong | The Discarded Image

    […] The fact is that Ken Ham’s reading of the Bible is really not natural in any sense of the word. Creationism is problematic on two fronts. It interprets the Bible in a way that makes it — as literature belonging to a particular historical context — incomprehensible or unnatural for the original ancient reader. It also turns science — which needs to follow the best and most current evidence — into something that can’t explain the natural world. Read the full article here. […]

  10. Sean

    So are you saying that God did not address creation in scripture?

    • Christy Besozzi

      I, for one of the above commenters, need your question clarified. To whom are you addressing the question? The author? Or those of us who commented on the article?

      Maybe some of the commenters would say that they do not believe in what the Bible says – taken literally or symbolically.

      But I do believe the Bible speaks of God creating the heavens and the earth, but that the verses in many locations – specifically the Genesis story – is a story that is allegorical. Not to be taken as a literal creation in 6 days. 6,000 years ago by some people’s count. God created the physical and spiritual worlds. The laws of physics are His invention. The process of evolution is His invention.

    • Brandon Withrow

      On the one hand, I see the Bible as containing multiple creation accounts. Chapters 1 and 2 are different accounts. There are other allusions in the Leviathan sea monster passages, which points to ancient near-eastern creation accounts. John 1 is engaging a creation account built on platonic language of the logos. So in a sense yes, but also no, if one is looking for an actual record of creation.

      This is not to say that the original section of Genesis 1 or 2 weren’t creation accounts of some sort, but I see them as edited and placed with chapter 3 in their final post-exilic forms as a way to retell the story of Israel through Adam as the metaphor. That is the place they hold in the Bible. I’ve written even more on that point at my personal blog here: http://www.discardedimage.com/?p=6512 if you’re interested.

      • Luke

        There ya go! There are at least 7 creation stories in the Old Testamant/TaNaK/Hebrew Scriptures alone… So what type of creationist is Ken Ham? Me, I go leviathan. Best one out there! ;-)

  11. The Hero of Our Own Story

    […] Finally, let me mention Brandon's well-titled opinion piece about young-earth creationism: “'There is a book… […]

  12. Luke

    I found it hard to understand the resistance to the theory of evolution… until I understood the social history. Eugentics and other social engineering nastiness… but that has nothing to do with what Darwin actually wrote.

    Evolution is simply the study of how things change over time. That’s not A definition, that’s THE definition. Darwin’s thoughts are pretty easy and simple. So is the findings of evolution.

    Now Jesus… that’s hard. Loving your neighbor? Walking with the poor? Going the extra mile? No swords? No looking with lust at another person? Whoa dude…

  13. The Problems of Creationism | Brandon Withrow

    […] The fact is that Ken Ham’s reading of the Bible is really not natural in any sense of the word. Creationism is problematic on two fronts. It interprets the Bible in a way that makes it — as literature belonging to a particular historical context — incomprehensible or unnatural for the original ancient reader. It also turns science — which needs to follow the best and most current evidence — into something that can’t explain the natural world. Read the full article here. […]

  14. Jim Allen

    Old earth, new earth, 7 days, billions of years, Big Bang, Let there be light….This debate can go on and on…the most intrinsic question is: Did matter precede spirit or did spirit precede matter? This is the core question and Biblical Literature clearly answers it.

  15. Patrick O'Gara

    “…the most intrinsic question is: Did matter precede spirit or did spirit precede matter? This is the core question and Biblical Literature clearly answers it.”

    No doubt it does, Jim.
    However, I think the core question is whether “Biblical Literature” answers it correctly, or not.
    I have no idea, myself. But am inclined to doubt it.

  16. Sean

    I am referring to the Author.

    • Brandon Withrow

      See my reply to your comment above. Thanks for the clarification.

  17. Ivar

    I don’t see why so many Christians want to hang on to the opening chapters of Genesis, even if they have to interpret it in an obviously anachronistic manner.
    Why not just accept the fact that it is a myth, intended to explain the world in like manner as any other myth? That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist, nor that Jesus wasn’t resurrected.

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