Thursday, April 14, 2005

Jumping the Gun

I posted an earlier draft of this last night, but pulled it at Burt's request. TfK readers who email me should know that I make every effort to separate messages meant for public distribution from personal discussion. I this case, I jumped the gun.

Burt Humberg is a great guy, and does yeoman work bridging the gap between the science community and the fundamentalists, helping them fundamentalists see that there is no inherent conflict with Biblical beliefs and modern science. He attended the Wednesday sermonar presented by Rev. Jerry Johnston and John Calvert, of IDNet.

FFC is the First Family Church, a megachurch in suburban Kansas City. Johnston is a general in the Kansas culture wars. He lead the fight on gay marriage, and has clearly pivoted to evolution as the Board prepares for its hearings. Observers of the political process will admire the careful timing of broad news cycles, and students of political rhetoric will appreciate how he ties the old fight over homosexuality into this particular battle.

I will make one comment of my own. Burt's right that there is no conflict inherent between science and Christianity. I suspect that Rev. Johnston is using evolution, like he uses abortion and gays, to gain secular political influence. Religious people should be deeply disturbed by that idea.

Many thanks to Burt for giving a peek at the event to those of us who couldn't be there. Everything that follows is Burt's own work. I have to disclaim any credit for its excellence, as well as any errors.

This is my report of the events at FFC tonight. Any errors in transcription, misattribution of actions to the wrong person, or things I get wrong are solely my own fault. (I was writing notes furiously but I’m not a stenographer.) Many of the quotes transcribed verbatim are available on the website on the night’s flyer, which is in PDF format. Any pontification during the reporting part is in <brackets>.

I attended the Wednesday sermonar on The War of the Worldviews: How Did Life Begin. It was the fourth sermon in the series and the particular title of the talk was The Uniqueness of Genesis. I walked in during praise and worship. The talents of the church members were obvious and fairly typical for this kind of non-denominational, evangelical body: hi-def presentation screens, camera platforms and mobile handheld ones to get live action shots, etc. Ushers made available a handout that advertised the church’s programs; while busy, the handout was clearly professionally designed: 4 color print job, etc.

Pastor Johnston ended praise and worship with a prayer, during which he invoked God and apologized to Him for our culture, specifically mentioning the moment of silence about homosexuality and asking forgiveness for the fact that they were not stronger as a church nation to do something about it. (A retrospective quick Google News search yields I had no idea about it.)

The special guests for tonight, a singing trio from Tennessee, came on stage. I will not document their performance.

Pastor Johnston took the pulpit and introduced John Calvert. He said that Calvert would be back to speak again but that he (Johnston) wanted to introduce him that night. Johnston made a remark about how Calvert was helping to get creationism taught in public schools. Taking his cue, Calvert began to speak. Johnston and Calvert then carried on a running dialogue, prompting each other, during this time.

Calvert began by saying that this upcoming trial was the first time credible experts in science were going to subject evolution to scientific criticism. He then backed up and corrected Johnston by saying that the IDnet’s efforts were not to mandate the teaching of intelligent design. With a <nervous?> laugh, he said that he simply wants to introduce the criticisms of science to kids.

At Johnston’s prompting, Calvert then waxed autobiographical. By age 60, he was extremely interested in the intelligent design thing. Because he had an opportunity to take early retirement and because “God was telling me that I could make more of a difference in that area than at Lathrop and Gage,” he retired from his job as a successful trial lawyer to endorse intelligent design fulltime.

Calvert responded to Johnston’s question about the boycott by saying that the scientific community takes the position that there is no scientific criticism of evolution. Calvert characterized our refusal to participate by saying, “If they show up, then they will face the criticism of their peers,” his implication being that scientists aren’t used to criticizing ideas and that we would abhor any possibility that someone would ever be able to see how rotten evolution is. He characterized the boycott as a mechanism to marginalize the opposition.

Johnston pointed out a flyer of the DI’s videos. It notes as the site to get more of them.

Johnston then pointed out members of the growing scientific numbers that endorse ID and are doing research in that field. One of the two cited the upcoming trial as an opportunity to “Wake the churches up across this state.” Calvert said that the congregation was blessed for Pastor Johnston. He ended by saying this was an extremely inspiring issue of dramatic importance to take a stand for and that we should thank the board of education for it.

With that, Calvert was seated. Johnston closed the segment by giving thanks for the work of Calvert, Behe, and Kenyon.

The lights went dark and they displayed of one of the videos. A narrator talks over scenes from a Pajarao Dunes house on the coastline. Professor Phillip Johnson invited the best and the brightest to discuss an idea that had “Dominated science for 150 years.”

Behe said that this meeting, “Gave him the motivation to look at evolution critically.” “Necessity” to appeal to non-evolutionary explanations “of genetic information.”

Paul Nelson talked about the problem with evolution was that it “Ruled out design” at the outset. They rebuked methodological naturalism.

With that, the blurb ended and Johnston took the stage. He continued by citing Paul Nelson, Dean Kenyon, Michael Behe, Myers, and Phillip Johnston all as people “Who patently reject evolution.” <Better not mention that Behe endorses common descent..>

He cited Anthony Flew, the atheist who recently endorsed intelligent design creationism. “Some sort of intelligence must have created the universe,” “That this Biblical account… validated by recent scientific discoveries… Intelligent Design.” “Argument to design.”

He segued into his sermon by saying that Genesis is the one book that connects the entire Bible.

He first quoted Vernon McGee, “When we compare the Genesis record with other creation accounts, the contrasts are striking indeed. Most nations have a legend of creation, and probably all of them are corruptions of the Genesis account… I reject evolution because it rejects God and it rejects a revelation. It denies the fall of man and the fact of sin, and it opposes the virgin birth of Christ. Therefore, I reject it with all my being. I do not believe that it is an answer to the origin of the universe.”

Johnston gave the story of Newton, who created a clockwork solar system with moving parts that actually orbited the sun. A friend of his, who didn’t believe in creation, asked Newton, “Who made this for you.” Newton replied, “No one. All the parts came together of their own volition and, wonder of wonders, the contraption started moving by itself.”

Johnston gave a quote from Arno Gabelein. “The first book of the Bible is called in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) ‘Genesis.’ Genesis means ‘origin.’ The Hebrews call it by the first Hebrew work, ‘Bereshith’ – in the beginning. It is the book of all beginnings. We can trace here the beginnings of creation and everything else, except God who has no beginning. The book of Genesis is the great foundation upon which the entire revelation of God rests… Genesis tells the origin of all things; Revelation reveals the destiny of all things.”

He gave a quote by Stuart Briscoe. “In the Hebrew scriptures, the first book was called …”

Johnston summarized Genesis 1-2 as being about creation, Gen 3-4 as being about the fall of man, 5-9 being the flood, and 10-11 as being Babel. Johnston talked about the tragedy at Columbine and, somewhat maladroitly, blended that into the topic by saying the guy who gave testimony who survived Columbine was saved at Johnston’s church prior to his lecture that evening.

Johnston decried philosophers and ministers who refused to teach from Genesis. He decried those in seminary who advised not to teach from it. Genesis is a book under attack. “If Genesis isn’t true, there isn’t anything true in the Bible.” Johnston cited Chuck Colson’s notion of “Salad Bowl Christianity,” in which they take a little of one part but leave other parts out.

Johnston quoted Abeline. <Not available for transcription.>

At some point, Johnston talked about how Darwin in Origin of Species assumed the existence of a first organism that was able to reproduce. Later, he said that there are some who call themselves Christians who have come up with the compromise of Theistic Evolution. “In the beginning, there was an amoeba on a tree branch.” <Snickers from the audience.> Genesis rejects evolution and natural selection. It is a book about the wonders of creation.

He then quoted a Dr. Paul Brand, some sort of hand surgeon, who claims that out of all the millions of operations on the hand, none improve it’s function. The lack of such improving surgeries is reliable evidence of good design. < Carpal tunnel release anyone? > Johnston then agreed with Newton who said that the only evidence for design you need is your thumb.

Johnston then talked about the language used in the Bible. God created (Hebrew: bara) out of nothing. Einstein rejected evolution. Behe readdressed his career. Johnston gave the tired 747 line, about how 6 million parts would come together to form an airplane. <If that’s evolution in action, show me the reproduction with genetic inheritance, please.>

The problem with evolution is that it tries to take credit from God. <Seems like his issue is with science, not evolution, though for some reason, antibiotics do not earn his ire; only evolution.> The universe was created for God’s pleasure; man was created for God’s pleasure to walk in fellowship with God.

Johnston then blended, maladroitly, a story about the BTK killer. One of the victim’s sons was saved at that church. <I might be confusing my anecdotes; they were very similar in content and equally out of place.>

Johnston quoted Chesterson who said that our universe was one of order and complexity. Then Johnston talked about astronomy. He talked about the billions of stars in the galaxies. He talked about the innumerable galaxies. He specifically cited the figure of 2M years for the light from some stars to get to us. “2M years in the past.” He cited Milford saying that the galaxies were moving away from each other at a rate of 100M mph, with nothing coming towards us and everything expanding. <Oddly enough, he never mentioned that this was a scientific inference, redshifting being a scientific inference based on terrestrial Doppler effects applied to light and not at all based on a strictly Biblical exegesis. >

He quoted Sagan who put the information content in a single chromosome into perspective. Turned base pairs into bits into sentences into pages into books: quite a few. Clearly, an enormous amount of information. Johnson then added, “Too bad Sagan died without having realized the implications of that information.”

Homosexuals are providing the motivation for this issue. Marriage is between a man and a woman. Christians are called upon to judge evil. He quoted the Bible, “Dust you were made of and to dust you will return.”

Johnston then went into a little Jewish sidebar. He said something about not getting three chapters into the Bible before one starts to see messianic prophecy. Speaking of evangelicals, he said, “We are the greatest friends to the Jews. Evangelicals know this.” He appealed to the Jews listening by webstream.

He cited the legitimacy of the literal reading of the Bible, saying “To the dotting of an I and the crossing of a T.” Genesis was the beginning of language.

At this point, my notes end. He closed the sermon by having an altar call and bringing the singers back up. He stood at the back to greet people as they left the church and I was going to wait to introduce myself to him, but I was representing KCFS and I wanted to hand out fliers to interested parties, greet Calvert, answer any questions, and hopefully meet someone from the KCFS forums who called himself Emmanuel Goldstein.

There was no concerted effort to pass out ID literature. There was no table from the IDnet, nor was there anyone else there but Calvert, to my knowledge. I did recognize several faces from the DDD symposiums whom I believe are more young earth creationists than intelligent design creationists. I ended up handing out about 5 copies of A Word about Intelligent Design Creationism and talking with about three interested parties. I hope that I sold them on our discussion forums and that we may have a few lurkers on the KCFS forums tonight and hereafter.

With the crowd around Calvert dispersing, I was able to get closer. Someone asked Calvert whether there would be any scientists there. I acknowledged that there would be. With this, Calvert and I got into about a two minute thing that I can only describe as a mock press conference. (I could sense Calvert warming up his press routine. Down went the briefcase and up came the orator’s voice he’s developed from a lifetime at the bar.) Calvert grandstanded to those around about how scientists are afraid of testifying and how this is an opportunity to educate the public and how we shirking our duty to answer the call of the board to provide them with the information they need to make an informed decision. <No word yet whether Calvert has seen the Canadian Broadcast showing Kathy Martin on record as firm on her position, refractory to any further data that would be presented to her by experts.>

I responded by saying that the BOE had changed the rules midstream. First, they had formed an expert committee, which advised to teach evolution and not intelligent design. This wasn’t good enough. So then a minority (of the expert committee) report was presented, which was then especially considered by the committee as a whole and voted down. This wasn’t good enough, so now they want a show trial. I asked Calvert why the advice of the very experts the BOE appointed to inform them enough to make a decision wasn’t sufficient expertise to help the BOE make a decision?

<I also think it would have been more soundbytey if I would have said something like, “If you honestly think that actual scientific controversies are settled by debate, then as science educators, we have failed you.” Alas. I’m not very good at soundbytes. I’m much more willing to engage in thought experiments and consider ideas while debating. It is clear that Calvert is definitely a better trial lawyer than me.>

Emmanuel never made himself known. I soon left and drove home.

I’m struck by how incoherent Johnston’s message is, both scientifically and theologically. His sermon style seems disorganized without a very coherent theme. Yes, everything was loosely based around Genesis talking points, but his organization suffered significantly from lack of development and consideration. For example, he decried the scientific conclusion of evolution since it didn’t say in the Bible, “In the beginning was an amoeba on a tree limb.” (The clear implication was that one should only follow the scientific precepts found in the Bible; using the processes of science to come up with explanations that conflict with a literal reading of the Bible is not theologically sound.) A few minutes later, he was talking about the data supporting the Big Bang theory (without ever mentioning it by name) and the incredible distances between stars and galaxies (all extrapolations from astronomical theories) involving deep time.

For another example, he dwelled on the nuance of Greek language used in the Septuagint; I suspect I wasn’t the only person to not understand the relevance or find his highly nuanced argument unconvincing. Yet he completely skipped over the obvious and unrecoverable conflicts caused by overlaying literal interpretations of the first and second chapter of Genesis together. (Highly academic in the former; the sort of thing I noticed but disregarded back in grade school in the latter.)

Far from exhibiting caution in such murky theological waters, the deliberations and hesitations of Biblical scholars who had gone before him did not apparently weigh upon him in the least as he pressed his clear but Biblically incoherent message. Indeed, he took special effort to decry the ones in seminaries who had cautioned him against literal interpretations of clearly figurative passages. He disparaged “those who call themselves Christians” who believe in theistic evolution, many of whom teach at his seminary, apparently.

His anecdotes and references were at best tangential, usually inappropriate. See, for example, the references to the BTK and Columbine killers and homosexuality that seemed to be more for flavor than content, peppering his talk and giving this whole evolution business a sense of urgency that it wouldn’t have had otherwise, but not really advancing his thesis much. (Sort of like the post-9/11 “terrorism, terrorism, terrorism” one saw gracing many an unrelated issue.)

He worked from notes that appeared to draw him back from the train of thought he often lost himself in. His reference to the Jews also seemed shamelessly political and out of place. These may be issues of style, but I don’t think that’s his problem.

Those in KCFS and many of the creationists who know me are aware of my fundamentalism as a child. In my history, I have seen quite a few fundamentalist preachers, men of God. I have spent years in Brother Joe Wright’s congregation in Wichita; he was the minister at my father’s homegoing service and I attended Wright’s sermons at an age when most of my peers would have been in youth group. While I disagree with his politics in retrospect, he at least appeared to put his money where his mouth is. For example, when George Tiller was shot, Wright spent a few weeks on forgiveness and leaving vengeance for God, specifically chastising anyone in the congregation the Sunday following who thought to themselves that the assault was a good thing, “Shame on you.” His sermons are not usually overtly political and, when they are, the theme he set usually justified it. (Commenting on a particular action or breech by a politician, for example.) Brother Joe often cited caring for the sick and poor as inducements into action; these were certainly not the leitmotif of homosexuality and horrible murders that Johnston riffed on tonight. Joe Wright put his own money up to pay for a mother he had talked out of an abortion. Whether right or wrong, Joe Wright’s theology appears consistent. It is therefore easy to respect.

I don’t know how sincere Johnston is in his walk with God and my dataset is only what I have observed from this evening. But if tonight is any indicator, it seems to me that he is speaking with a political, not theological, message in mind. All the abnormalities I have documented above, all the lack of coherence Biblically and scientifically, become coherent when one looks to political ends. Johnston seems the sort of preacher who cares less about the quality of his content, misleading his congregation, or helping his parishioners actually develop an ability to read the word themselves than about staying on political message: “Gays bad. Heterosexuals good. BTK killer. Evolution bad. Evolution-endorsing creationism bad. Johnston’s (incoherent) creationism good. Columbine. Get saved. Gays bad. Support our work (by voting appropriately). Thank you Jesus. Amen.”

As someone who professes Christianity, I have to give Johnston the benefit of the doubt. Like he, I believe that appropriately-placed faith can indeed move mountains. His life story is one in which dedicating his life to a cause (in this case, Christian and unfortunately antievolutionary) has helped him to climb out of the pitfalls of his youth. Clearly, there are aspects of his faith that are good.

But faith can be misplaced. That someone with his pastoral responsibilities would dismiss so easily the cautions of those who have studied scripture more than he is of concern. And his perpetuation of the warfare model of science and religion and his “Support the BOE’s antievolutionism” at the expense of a coherent theological message should be of concern to anyone interested in developing a theology robust enough to withstand the onslaught of our ever growing scientific understanding. And that he would decry a clearly innocuous effort by homosexuals to illustrate the silent adversity faced by those who are in the closet – even if they were sinners in God’s eyes – as the sort of thing he openly prayed for sufficient political power to crush, again, is of concern. I am worried about any man of the cloth who seems to care more about a political message than leading his flock down the wrong path.

Therefore let me close by paraphrasing something I heard Will Keim say: If by the time you’ve studied the topic enough to render a judgement on the matter, if your best guess of what constitutes Christian righteousness involves demonizing gays and lesbians so that you can tell the scientists and theologians of this world that they are liars or are wrong about evolution, then you have missed the point of the gospels.


Again, thanks to Burt for his service to the public in sharing the event and his insights into it. The outreach he at the event is of great value to everyone involved, and letting me publish his observations is valuable for the same reasons.

The Spy” by The Doors from the album Morrison Hotel (1970, 4:17).