book reviews, comics, faith, history, nature, parenting, politics, science

Selected Book Reviews, October – December 2016

This batch of book reviews round out last year’s reading.  I got behind in writing them for reasons that I can’t even recall, but it nagged at me that I hadn’t finished them.  These will probably be the last set of book reviews I do in this format.  In the future, I may do a deep dive into a particularly insightful or powerful book.  Or I may do a roundup of a few books on one topic.  I’m not entirely sure yet. But I’m not planning on doing monthly reviews anymore.  However, I think I’ll still make a list of the best books I read in a given year to recommend.  Speaking of which, I’ll put up a year in review of the best books I read in 2016 shortly.

  • Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics by Jonathan Dudley is a careful critique of evangelicalism by someone who grew up in that world.  It reads as a succinct summary of some of my own changes in thinking on these topics.  Dudley’s book can be summarized well with two quotes.  First, his thesis: “Evangelicalism has defined itself by weakly supported boundary markers, which are justified by a flawed understanding of biblical interpretation and maintained by suppressing those who disagree” (24).  The four boundary markers dealt with in the book are abortion, homosexuality, environmentalism, and evolution.  Basically the hot button topics in the culture wars.  If one takes the wrong view on any of these issues, one cannot be in the evangelical club anymore.  The second quote concerns the justification from the Bible part of the thesis: “Biases and prior beliefs are not something that get in the way of interpretation, something that must be brushed aside; rather, biases and prior beliefs are behind every interpretation” (108-9).  Everyone approaches the Bible with prior beliefs and biases.  Even the straightforward plain interpretation that we think is objective is certainly a matter of the lens we use when we read.  An easy example from the book is that Christians were not all that concerned when Darwin first published his theory of evolution in 1859.  It wasn’t until decades later that fundamentalists and evangelicals felt that they had to reject evolution and believe in a young earth.  Christians approached the same text with different prior beliefs at different points in time and came to vastly different conclusions.  Besides this major point about interpretation, Dudley also wants to make a point about the Christian use of science.  He notes how Christian pro-lifers claim that science shows that a fetus is a person from the moment of conception (an argument Dudley doesn’t accept).  But when it comes to other matters of science, such as the widespread scientific evidence for evolution or global warming, evangelical Christians often find themselves dismissing science.  Evangelicals only like science when it seemingly agrees with their political beliefs.  Dudley grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, home to several evangelical colleges and publishing houses.  He attended Calvin College, then studied religion at seminary, and then began medical school, while finishing this book.  I don’t have the same educational path, but I can relate to his intellectual and faith journey and some of his conclusions.  I would definitely recommend this book.


  • The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 1: Squirrel Power by Ryan North and Erica Henderson is an incredibly fun comic book.  It’s light-hearted and funny.  I find it hard to decide which I like more, the writing or the artwork.  North has fun with Doreen Green and her supporting cast of friends and squirrels, as well as the villains, but he gives them all a lot of heart and personality.  Henderson does a great job balancing cartoony action and characters, but never exploits or sexualizes the characters, a problem all too rampant in comics.  Doreen looks like the college student she is, not an unrealistic supermodel in a swimsuit trying to fight crime.  She’s someone I’d want to be friends with if I had a friend who could talk to squirrels.  She eats nuts and kicks butts.  Even if you think you don’t like superhero comics, you might like this one.  I’m really looking forward to reading more of this series.
  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson is an essential work of history.  Wilkerson tells the story of the internal migration of millions of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North and West during the 20th century.  Actually, she focuses her attention on three individuals as representatives of those millions.  Through the story of Ida Mae we learn how tenuous was the position of sharecroppers in Mississippi, how hard the work was picking cotton and how little they got paid, if at all.  So much depended on the whims of the white landowners.  After Ida Mae’s husband’s cousin Joe Lee, who lived a few shacks down from them, was falsely accused of stealing turkeys and subsequently half beaten to death, Ida Mae and her family packed up and left for Milwaukee, ending up on the South Side of Chicago before long.  There they face housing discrimination; all the black families moving in are forced into strict geographical boundaries, and any time they try to move into a new neighborhood, the white neighbors first try to fight their arrival, and if that failed then they all moved out.  If you want to know why cities are like they are, this book is illuminating.  Even the world famous gospel singer Mahalia Jackson faced housing discrimination when she bought a house in a nice neighborhood.  She received death threats in the middle of the night before she moved in, and after she did, bullets shattered some of her windows.  Police had to keep guard around her house for nearly a year to prevent violence.  No one was immune from discrimination.  Despite the hardships in the North, Ida Mae experienced some measure of true freedom.  She was able to vote for the first time.  The family was eventually able to buy a house, but soon after they did, the whites in the neighborhood took flight.  The two other individuals the book focuses on, Dr. Robert Foster and George Starling, provide more glimpses into life in the Jim Crow South and how they tried to make a better life in L.A. and New York, respectively.  Dr. Foster left a life in rural Louisiana where the highest he could have risen was to a country doctor making house calls to black families with no admitting privileges at the local hospital.  He wanted fame and fortune and a good life.  George Starling picked fruit in the groves of Florida, chafing at the unfair labor practices, before he headed North.  He worked for the railroad on a line that traveled up and down the east coast, so he got to see the changes from North to South for decades.  Throughout these three stories, Wilkerson weaves in all the appropriate context so that we as readers can see the big picture, too.  It’s really a marvelous narrative history that illuminates so much of the 20th century and today.  I can hardly say enough good about it.  Everyone should read it.
  • Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert is a short and excellent primer on climate change (I read it in a day).  The book is based on a series of articles Kolbert wrote for The New Yorker magazine, where she is a staff writer, in order “to convey, as vividly as possible, the reality of global warming” (2).  By traveling to locations across the globe, Kolbert tells how things are changing: glaciers are shrinking, permafrost is melting, oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, animal migrations are shifting towards the warming poles, and plants are earlier than usual.  A small island community in Alaska has to move because of the rising ocean level.  While telling the stories of various changes worldwide, Kolbert also explains the science to a lay audience without getting too technical.  The only downside to this well written little book is that it is already a bit out of date.  It was published in 2006, but since then we have had still warmer years, and the trend continues upward.  Despite that one drawback, I would highly recommend it. [Note: there is a newer revised and expanded edition, so forget what I said.  Read that one instead.]
  • The Everyday Parenting Toolkit by Alan E. Kazdin with Carlo Rotella is a very helpful book for parents.  Kazdin draws on the available social science on children’s behavior and his experience working at the Yale Parenting Center to give useful guidelines for how to change problematic behavior in kids.  The key is the focus on behavior.  Parents, me included, want our kids to be kind and generous, resilient and motivated, and not selfish jerks.  But how do these qualities get cultivated?  It starts with behavior.  Kazdin explains his ABC method, which is backed up by research and with examples of how it works.  He describes his techniques as tools in the toolbox.  They are adaptable depending on the situation; some will be used more than others.  The first thing to think about when considering children’s behavior is the Antecedent of the behavior.  How can parents set up the situation for the behavior they wish to see?  The goal is to make the choice for the child as likely as possible.  Asking in a calm voice one time helps.  Giving a choice also helps.  Children like to have at least a small measure of autonomy.  The next consideration is the Behavior itself.  Sometimes this is clear like when I want my kids to clear their places by putting their dishes into the sink after a meal or brush their teeth before bed.  But often I want them to stop an irritating or dangerous behavior.  It’s not very effective to merely say don’t do that.  What kids need is positive reinforcement for the behavior I do want to see.  In order to make that happen, I have to think of the positive opposite of undesirable behavior.  This isn’t always easy to do, but it’s crucial.  So for example, my 3 year old throws screaming tantrums sometimes.  I can’t change the fact that he gets upset by things, but I do want him to deal with his upset feelings with a different strategy than by screaming.  So I will praise him for any approximation that gets us closer to the desired behavior.  This is called shaping the behavior.  If he never has done the desired behavior, then we can practice a simulation so he can try to do it when he does actually get upset.  The third part is the area of Consequences, which is where a lot of people want to start.  For Kazdin, consequences are positive reinforcement for the desired behavior.  Mostly this means praise from parents that is immediate, effusive, and specific, with some sort of affection added.  Sometimes other methods can help, too, like a point chart, but praise from parents is the best reinforcer.  Kazdin has a lot more to explain and tons of examples (as well as another book for the tough cases of especially defiant children), but this is the outline.  Some of it is definitely counter-intuitive.  But I can see that barking at my children to stop doing something rarely works and it often escalates.  When I’ve been able to implement the Kazdin ABCs I’ve had much more success in changing unwanted behavior.  I’d really recommend this to any and all parents.
  • My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor is a revealing and instructive memoir from one of our Supreme Court Justices.  She details her life with precision and insight up until her appointment as a District Court judge in 1992; the rest of her life and career will presumably have to wait until her retirement.  I was especially interested in finding out more about her life because my kids attend a Spanish immersion elementary school named after her.  There are many interesting details to her early life growing up poor in a housing project in the Bronx.  Her alcoholic father died when she was young, so she and her brother had to assume a lot of responsibility in their household with only their mother to raise them.  Especially humanizing is her diagnosis of type 1 diabetes at age seven that she has had to manage for the rest of her life.  That diagnosis led her to give up dreams of growing up and becoming a detective and instead focus on training to be a lawyer.  She knew from an early age what she wanted to do in life.  One of the overriding themes of her memoir is that of empathy.  In a pivotal passage, Sotomayor explains how she understood the importance of empathy through two events and by reading Lord of the Flies.  In the classic book, a group of boys have to fend for themselves on an island by themselves.  Their survival is precarious, and they must work together in order to make it through.  Sotomayor notices the same precariousness in her own life.  She notices a police officer extorting a street fruit vendor for two bags of fruit.  She also witnesses her own aunt making prank calls to random women, pretending that she was having affairs with their husbands.  Putting it all together, she declares, “I was fifteen years old when I understood how it is that things break down: people can’t imagine someone else’s point of view” (123).  Her story continues as she details how hard she worked to make it through Princeton and Yale Law School, despite “limits of class and cultural background” (171).  It’s an inspiring book, and she doesn’t refrain from talking about mistakes she has made such as her brief marriage to her high school sweetheart.  This is a memoir I’d recommend reading.
faith, history, literature, personal

The Middle

A year ago I began thinking about modern scholarship of the Bible, and how I had never seriously considered it. Up until then, whenever I cracked open the Good Book, I took everything at face value. I accepted whatever my evangelical Christian tradition held regarding the authorship or historicity of any given passage. Although I knew Christians who disagreed on specific theological issues (e.g. the role of free will, how to interpret the book of Revelation, what type of baptism should be used, the role of women, etc.) all of us agreed on certain bedrock assumptions including the authorship of the Torah or the factual nature of the historical books of the Old Testament. God inspired a small collection of men to write down these books, and they were without error.

Though I grew up reading the Bible as literally and factually true in all points, I began this blog detailing how I changed my mind about the issue of creation and evolution. I learned what modern science had to say about origins and I adjusted my view of Genesis.  Mostly that was a matter of reconciling science and faith, seeing them as compatible rather than opposed, though it also concerned the interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis (and other passages, too, but especially those ones). I first encountered scholars who explained that it was possible to interpret the days of Genesis as long periods of time. They allowed for an ancient universe, though they still rejected evolution, presumably because it meant that humans could not be sufficiently distinct from animals and thus couldn’t truly be in the image of God. Later I read Christians who accepted evolution and had synthesized views of science and the Bible.

Despite changing my views on Genesis and the creation account, I still never considered much of modern biblical scholarship.  All I had been exposed to were those who would defend against the attacks of modernism that had tried to debunk the traditional readings of scripture. So while at Bible college I had learned about the documentary hypothesis concerning the Torah—sometimes referred to as the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis for its originators or other times referred to as JEDP for the sources that comprise the Torah (i.e. Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly)—I basically learned that it was an evil theory aimed at undermining belief in the Bible. We never spent time actually trying to learn why anyone would have come up with the theory in the first place.

So in a post I wrote more than a year ago, I explained that I wanted to be a modern day David Lurie, a character in a Chaim Potok novel who wrestles with modern scholarship on the Bible even as it shakes his faith. I began reading James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible to get a sense of what modern scholarship has to say about the Bible. It’s been eye-opening. I’m now more than halfway through the book, taking it real slow. It’s overwhelming at times to have the rug pulled out from under me. I have to sit on the floor for a while and think about it, then get back up, only to have it happen again with each new chapter I read. What follows are some of my thoughts so far, with some examples. I wrote portions of this post immediately after reading passages in Kugel so some of this records my real-time reactions to the book in an almost live-blog format.

Kugel’s book is very unsettling. Each new chapter spends some time looking at a passage first from the ancient interpreters’ viewpoint, and it feels mostly familiar. Much of my evangelical fundamentalist understanding is roughly the same on these points. I can at least see the connection from what they thought to the way I was taught. But then comes the modern scholarship on the passage. And it’s rationalist, and makes the passage come apart and mean something different than I ever thought.

To illustrate how Kugel organizes his chapters, let me give an extended example from the book on a passage that I had never really thought much about before. In Genesis 34 we get the story of Dinah, the lone daughter of Jacob amidst the 12 sons. This is the story known as “the rape of Dinah.” It comes after Jacob flees his uncle Laban with his wives, children, and livestock. Jacob wrestles with God and has his name changed to Israel. Then he meets up with his brother Esau who he had swindled out of blessing and birthright years earlier. Now Jacob and his household settle in the land of Canaan, outside the city of Shechem. A man from the city who also is named Shechem (same as the city) sees Dinah and rapes her. He falls in love with her and wants to marry her. Jacob and his sons aren’t too happy about this, but they agree to the marriage on one condition: Shechem, his father Hamor, and all the other men must get circumcised. They undergo the knife, and while they are recovering, two of Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, slaughter all the convalescing men with swords. It’s all pretty gruesome.

Kugel presents the various lines of thinking by the ancient interpreters on this passage. First, what is the moral of the story? At first glance, it doesn’t appear to have one. But looking closer, they were able to point to the statement in verse 7: “such a thing must not be done.” In context, it might be the implied response the brothers had upon hearing about what happened to Dinah. On the other hand, this might be the voice of the narrator of the story, which would in fact be God who divinely inspired the writing of the text. But if the point of the story is the retaliation for Dinah’s lost honor, why give the story a whole chapter? The ancients were bothered by the apparent lie that the brothers tell when agreeing to the marriage. Simeon and Levi kill the Shechemites even though they abided by their side of the agreement.

Some interpreters said the real reason for the story was the problem of intermarriage. Indeed, that was a problem for Israel’s sons for generations, including the troubling account in the book of Ezra where the men are commanded to divorce foreign wives, which they do. So the brothers did not lie when they said that the marriage was a disgrace and should not take place, and their scheme to slaughter the Shechemites was justified. Some other interpreters thought perhaps the brothers were divided on the idea of Dinah’s marriage to Shechem. Perhaps ten of them thought intermarriage would be okay if they were circumcised, but Simeon and Levi disagreed. So there was no lie because the offer was sincere if not unanimous.

When modern scholars approach the stories of Genesis, they often are looking for an etiological message (a just-so story that explains how something became the way it is). But there doesn’t appear to be anything that the Dinah story explains. For one thing, Dinah completely disappears from the biblical record. The entire incident is only referred to once more (apparently) when Jacob is dying and he gathers his sons together to give them blessings. Simeon and Levi get left out of the blessings because of their violent actions against the Shechemites.

It’s all rather strange for a few reasons. Though Simeon and Levi apparently slaughter all of the Shechemite men in Genesis 34, Jacob himself seems to refer to having conquered Shechem “with my sword and with my bow” (Genesis 48:22). The city of Shechem appears again in the book of Joshua and is apparently re-populated, but there is no reference to what had happened before. Then in Judges 9 there is another reference to a guy named Shechem who lives in the city of Shechem whose father’s name is Hamor, just like in the story back in Genesis 34. Quite the coincidence.

Kugel points out that perhaps there is something that the Dinah story might explain. Perhaps it makes sense of the blessing that Simeon and Levi do not get from their father Jacob in Genesis 49. But a careful reader will note that the curse the brothers receive does not in fact have much connection to the story of the rape and the subsequent slaughter of an entire city. Some modern interpreters conjecture that the story happened at some other time (perhaps the time of the Judges) and has been inserted and retrofitted into the Genesis account to make sense of the fate of Simeon and Levi. So by this theory, Jacob never even had a daughter named Dinah. She was added to the text later with a story of her lost honor in order to make sense of the two brothers who were cursed.

This chapter on Dinah kind of blew my mind.  The more I thought about the passage, the less it made sense with a straight forward traditional reading.  I no longer know what to do with it.  I’m not sure I accept all of the theories of the modern scholars, but I can’t completely trust the ancient interpreters either at this point.  It’s a quandary.

Kugel points out many other compelling reasons to take modern scholarship seriously on matters of authorship and sources when it comes to interpreting Genesis. Many of the stories in the primeval era are etiological (again, an explanatory story for why things are the way they are), so the story of Cain and Abel might be an explanation about the Kenites, nomadic neighbors of Israel or the story of the Tower of Babel might be an explanation about the spread of language and the evils of Babylon’s religion and culture.

So if things aren’t what I thought, like Adam and Eve are not literal people but types, or that the Flood story comes from ancient Mesopotamian sources, what am I left with? A belief that God still exists and reveals himself to humanity. The Biblical accounts are human attempts to chronicle those revelations. But will even this understanding stand up to scrutiny?

The primeval literature (Genesis chapters 1-11) seems less vital, somehow, that it be historically true. It’s mythic and explanatory, an attempt to understand the world and how it got to be the way it is. When it comes to Abraham, it seems more important that he be a real person with a real relationship with God. Scholarship has seesawed on the question of Abraham’s actual existence. But it seems plausible that he was a real man. As I was about to read about the covenant and I was almost scared. After I finished and read how cutting up animals was common practice for covenants, I was relieved that the Abraham story makes sense. Phew. It could be true.

The next chapter was very thought-provoking. Kugel pointed out that there are two very different portrayals of God in the OT. At times he is anthropomorphic, appearing as an angel or man, and does not seem omnipresent or omniscient. The people he appears to seem to “be in a fog” until they realize (if they do) and then they fall prostrate. It happens to Joshua, Samson’s parents, and even to Abraham. It’s hard to mesh this view of God with the more traditional view of an incorporeal, omniscient, etc. being. But the passages that portray God this way seem to be real experiences with the divine. Was it a matter of perception for these people in the OT?

Reading this book makes me feel like I’ve jumped off a cliff and I don’t know where I’ll land. Will it be a 2 foot drop or a 2,000 foot freefall? Will I get battered and bruised on the way down? Will I even land anywhere? There’s no going back. I want to know the truth and face modern scholarship squarely in the face and take it seriously. I don’t want to rest on what I was always taught and accept it blindly. I want the faith I retain to be my own. But I’m worried what this will do to my faith.

Is it possible for me to lose faith? Is there a point at which I could learn something that would make me give up on the Bible? I don’t know. I don’t think I would have been able to say that when I was younger. I was confident, even if I didn’t know everything. I had unshakeable faith. Now all I know is that I have more questions and doubts than ever. But that’s not to say that I’ve given up.

It’s quite a rollercoaster to think through all of these interpretations. While I feel most familiar with the ancient interpreters, even their suppositions are often about problems I never saw in the text. It reminds me of the Talmudic scholars in a Potok novel as they tease out a passage and look at it from all angles. But then the modern scholars come at it and it seems like they’re trying to debunk everything. Take God out of it. Make it entirely a human document. And I don’t know what to do with that. It’s so foreign to me to look at the Bible that way.

A few months into my reading of Kugel I started reading Robert Alter’s Ancient Israel, a translation of Joshua, Judges, the books of Samuel and Kings, with extensive commentary, especially on translation. I wanted to read this book after seeing the smaller version that focused solely on the life of David. Alter’s translations have been praised for their poetic plainness and fidelity to the original Hebrew. I read the first chapter of Joshua, which isn’t a book that holds a lot of interest for me. When I was younger the stories of the taking of the promised land seemed heroic and adventurous, but now they seem a bit more horrific.

What struck me was the literary composition of the first chapter. It’s basically four speeches with a few words in between as connective tissue. First God speaks to Joshua, then Joshua speaks to the overseers, then to the trans-Jordan tribes, and lastly those tribes reply to him. In their reply, they say the exact same phrase (“Be strong and stalwart”) to Joshua that God says to him twice earlier in the chapter. What are the odds? It seems clearly to be a literary element to repeat the same exhortation to the new leader, showing that he is in fact the new leader now that Moses is dead.

A little later, after the famous siege and capture of Jericho and the subsequent treaty with the scared Gibeonites, the king of Jerusalem organizes 5 other kings against those Gibeonites in chapter 10. Joshua and the Israelite army come to the rescue, as per the treaty agreement. They defeat the armies, kill the kings, and then proceed to take city after city. Curiously, they do not take Jerusalem, despite having killed its king and taken every other city of the instigators. Jerusalem, of course, was not conquered until the time of David two centuries later. Why is Jerusalem left out? Is it possible that the entire account is not exactly factual?

Based on his introduction and the notes, Alter is definitely in the modern scholars camp. I like reading his translation because it uses new rhythms and vocabulary to get me out of any ruts I get into when I read a familiar translation. Sometimes my eyes glaze over as I’m reading the NIV or ESV. I feel like I’m ten years old and back in Sunday School. Alter helps get me out of that and see it anew. But with the fresh eyes is a fresh perspective that pulls bricks out of my biblical foundation.

So a few days ago I started another book (someday I’ll finish one of these books) called Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns that gives me some hope that I won’t have to fall off a cliff, or at least not so far down. Maybe some of my biblical foundation can be salvaged. He takes modern scholarship seriously while still taking the Bible seriously. His model for the Bible is incarnational, so just as Jesus is fully God and fully human, the Bible also is fully divine and fully human. Many of my previous assumptions about the Bible made me overlook its human dimension, overriding it in fact. The Bible had to be without any error straight from God or else it was a book like any other. But the evidence doesn’t support such a view. Instead, Enns argues that God speaks to humanity where they are, in their own language and culture, and even in multiple voices that don’t always agree.

So I’ve got more to chew on and consider. For now I’m stuck in the middle.

book reviews, criminal justice, faith, history, literature, politics, psychology, science

Book Reviews, May 2015

The May installment of mini book reviews has the two books I referenced in my last post about criminal justice, as well as two very different novels set during World War II, and another book on creation and evolution because I can’t stop reading about the topic.

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander is a devastating critique of American society.  Alexander argues, persuasively I feel, that upon the end of Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s, instead of ushering in a time of equal opportunity, America erected a new racial caste system based on mass incarceration (via the War on Drugs) with devastating effect on African Americans.  Her argument is a complex one, requiring diving into history, law, and social science research.  It started with calls for a return to “law and order” during the tumultuous 1960s, then with Nixon calling for a “war on drugs” that didn’t really come to fruition until Reagan’s administration.  Reagan truly initiated the Drug War early in his time in office by dramatically increasing anti-drug budgets.  Interestingly, at the time he called for a War on Drugs in October of 1982, only 2% of the country thought drugs were the most important issue facing the country.  Things didn’t get better under Clinton in the 1990s.  He enacted many “tough on crime” policies such as 3-strike life sentences for certain crimes.  His administration cut public housing at the same time it was increasing money for corrections.  In Alexander’s telling, no one is blameless for the current predicament of mass incarceration.  After detailing the history, Alexander shows how police have virtually no legal restraints in carrying out the drug war.  Because there are few, if any constraints, the seemingly race neutral drug war ends up targeting and incarcerating people of color disproportionately, especially in light of the fact that whites and people of color use drugs at similar rates.  Even after someone has served a sentence for a drug crime, the system isn’t done with them yet.  Policies that control ex-prisoners make it difficult to truly re-integrate into society, often leading to second class status or, even worse, recidivism.  In order to end mass incarceration as a caste system, it is not enough to point out that drug use is a public health problem and not a criminal one.  Alexander argues that the racial component of mass incarceration has to be confronted head on.  If it is not, then even if mass incarceration is ended, another racialized caste system will emerge just as Jim Crow followed slavery, and mass incarceration followed Jim Crow.  I would highly recommend this book.
  • Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado is a critical examination of the American criminal justice system.  And it is vitally important that we look at it.  Benforado details the many, many ways that the criminal justice system does not, in fact, deliver justice.  The structure of the book, from investigation to adjudication to punishment, allows him to show how things can go wrong each step of the way.  Along the way he points out the relevant social science research that helps to explain how these mistakes can be made.  For instance, some innocent people confess to crimes that they didn’t commit in order to make a grueling interrogation stop.  Or they might take a plea deal if they’re led to believe that a trial will not show their innocence.  Astoundingly, over 90 percent of those charged with a crime and offered a plea take it without a trial.  During a trial, it can be hard to determine guilt or innocence when prosecutors withhold evidence or a jury inaccurately rates a witness trustworthy or not.  Or take an eyewitness’s evidence: people’s memories can be notoriously unreliable when looking at a lineup or recalling the circumstances of a crime.  Memories can be easily corrupted or altered or even fabricated without the eyewitness realizing he or she is doing it.  And the impartial judge who oversees the proceedings of a trial may not be as objective as we would like to believe.  Of course everyone has biases, but it’s amazing how something like the time of day can affect someone.  In studies, judges are more lenient earlier in the day, but they are much harsher before lunch or at the end of the day.  How is that fair?  When it comes to punishment, Benforado puts forth the scientific evidence that “it is a desire for retribution—not deterrence or incapacitation—that has the strongest influence” (191).  This type of punishment leads to mandatory minimum sentencing, three strikes laws, life without parole, and the death penalty, which don’t work to actually deter crime.  Once in prison, it’s hard not to become “institutionalized” or broken as a person (whether by solitary confinement or the threat of rape and violence), so it’s not surprising that so many prisoners cannot re-integrate into society after serving time.  Benforado offers a smattering of possible reforms big and small that could get us closer to true justice.  One of the best suggestions, I thought, was the virtual courtroom.  It would remove obvious problems like being “swayed by the attractiveness of a witness” (266) or thinking a nervous witness is lying when they are merely nervous at speaking in public (we are not good at detecting whether people are lying or not, though we think we are).  My only real complaint with the book is that it sometimes reads too easily.  Benforado presents historical cases or the social science research so smoothly and convincingly (similarly to Malcolm Gladwell) that I was almost entertained by the story he was telling or the research findings he was presenting, when I really should be outraged.  It’s not that I wasn’t ultimately outraged, but maybe the pill should stick in the throat more rather than go down so easily. Despite that slight, and possibly idiosyncratic, complaint, I would highly recommend this book to everyone.  [Disclosure: I received an uncorrected proof from the publisher via a giveaway in the hopes that I would give an honest review of the book.]
  • The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust and Operation Reinhard by Patrick Hicks is a novel of witness and remembrance.  It’s an unflinching account of the horrors of a Nazi extermination camp told in a documentary style.  I’ll admit that I mistakenly thought it was going to be told more from the point of view of the title character (though the back cover and the blurbs are quite clear about the documentary nature of the story).  A story told from the POV of the Commandant would have been contrary to the spirit of the novel.  Rather, the narrator refers repeatedly to the absences and the missing, to the thousands killed on a daily basis, about which “traditional modes of storytelling fail us” because “the darkness itself is the story.”  It’s powerful.  And haunting.  The fictional camp of Lubizec is modeled on real camps like Treblinka.  In high school I read Jean-Francois Steiner’s account of Treblinka and the revolt by the prisoners there.  Something similar happens in this novel, but the narrator reminds us that this is not an adventure story, it is rebellion against the killings.  And though this is not a character study of the Commandant, it does in its own way try to humanize him by detailing his family life outside of the camp.  He is truly a bifurcated individual, a loving father at home and a cold, unfeeling engineer of murder at the camp.  His two selves seem impossible to reconcile.  Near the end of the novel, he even refers to himself in the third person when trying to explain his actions during the war.  I would highly recommend this book to everyone wanting to understand the Holocaust better.  [Disclosure: I am acquaintances with Patrick Hicks; he teaches literature and writing at the same college where my wife teaches.]
  • City of Thieves by David Benioff is a marvelous adventure story set during World War II during the siege of Leningrad.  The narrator, Lev Beniov (in the conceit of the novel this is the author’s grandfather telling him the story), along with Kolya, a deserter from the Army, must find a dozen eggs for an important Colonel, so that his daughter can have a wedding cake.  The city is surrounded by the German army, and the people are starving during the winter months.  It simultaneously has the quality of a fairy tale where the heroes have to accomplish an impossible task while also being a coming of age story for the 17 year old narrator.  During their search, the two young men encounter the many brutalities of the war, but there is also a lot of humor in the story, especially the way Lev and Kolya interact.  Kolya treats Lev like a younger brother whom he can teach about the ways of the world and women.  Like any quest narrative, it hits the right notes with twists and obstacles to keep our heroes from their objective, while also subverting some of our expectations along the way.  It was a very satisfying read.  As it was primarily a guy book, I would recommend it as that, though noting that anyone could enjoy it.
  • Evolution from Creation to New Creation: Conflict, Conversation, and Convergence by Ted Peters and Martinez Hewlett is a useful book on the topic of theistic evolution.  The two authors (one a theologian, the other a scientist) offer a helpful guide to the landscape of Christian approaches to origins.  They critique the young earth creationist and the intelligent design positions, but in the most fair and serious way I’ve ever seen.  They treat those who hold those positions with the utmost respect as fellow Christians (it’s a marked contrast to books I’ve read by Karl Giberson and Kenneth Miller).  Curiously, they don’t spend any time with old earth/progressive creationists.  The best part of the book is where they detail the spectrum of beliefs in the theistic evolution camp.  They analyze various thinkers in five areas: (1) deep time, (2) natural selection, (3) common descent, (4) divine action, and (5) theodicy (i.e. an attempt to answer why a good God would allow evil and suffering).  Afterwards, they present their own model that avoids some of the pitfalls they see in the other positions.  For example, most of the other thinkers used some version of the free will defense to answer how God could allow evil.  The problem they see with a free will defense is that it requires God to relinquish interacting with creation, which then makes evolutionary processes random and purposeless.  Most theists would like to avoid that conclusion.  Their approach is novel, by contrast, but it too is rather unsatisfying.  They view creation as both an initial point in time (creatio ex nihilo) as well as an ongoing process (creatio continua) that is not yet complete until it can be redeemed as a “new creation.”  In their reading, the “very good” declaration of Genesis is from the standpoint of the new creation, looking back on the whole history of creation (seems like a stretch).  They admit that they, like Job, don’t know why suffering and death are part of the creation at this time.  So, it’s still a mystery.  Regardless, the book is a handy reference for the various positions within theistic evolution.  I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the debate on creation and evolution.
book reviews, faith, history, literature, personal, science

Book Reviews, January 2015

Here is the first installment of mini book reviews that I promised earlier this year.  I’m planning on writing these reviews for nearly every book I read, first posting them on and then collecting them monthly to post here (so you can eagerly anticipate the next installment on February 28th!).  My goals for this project are twofold.  Most importantly, I want to make sure that I am paying attention and digesting what I read.  I’m hoping that the process of writing these reviews will encourage closer reading and understanding on my part.  The secondary goal is to provide useful book recommendations for anyone who reads my blog (I’ll try to avoid spoilers for the fiction reviews).  Feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments.

  • Saving Darwin by Karl W. Giberson is a decent overview of the creation/evolution debate from a theistic evolutionist, if not as in depth as I would sometimes like.  But sometimes it’s good to step back and view many facets of a debate instead of focusing solely on particulars.  While I am in the same camp as Giberson (someone of faith who accepts evolution), I am still learning much about the issue.  So while I’ve enjoyed more thorough treatments of the Scopes trial by Edward Larson or the history of young earth creationism by Ronald Numbers, it was helpful to read a summary of the U.S. court cases since Scopes and an analysis of the “dark companions” of evolution such as social Darwinism and eugenics.  Giberson is well read on all aspects of the debate so I found his end notes especially helpful in preparing a further reading list to delve deeper on some of these issues.  As a Christian, I especially liked the section where he wrestled with intelligent design, admitting that he wished that the argument from design were true.  He cannot accept it theologically though because of what it would say about God when one considers bad designs (human knees that wear out) or seemingly horrific designs (various parasites).  Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone of faith willing to consider evolution and looking for a solid overview of the debate.
  • The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer is an enjoyable Sherlock Holmes adventure, filling in a perceived gap in the canonical works by Arthur Conan Doyle.  I only finished reading the complete Sherlock Holmes stories last year (though they were given to me when I was in junior high by my older brother—thanks Alex!), so I was looking for something more now that the BBC’s Sherlock is between seasons as well.  Meyer’s book was a decent “fix” for my itch.  Watson narrates, as he does most of the original stories, and his voice is a credible facsimile.  I never felt taken out of the story because of the narration.  The plot concerns Holmes’s addiction to cocaine (the “seven-per-cent solution” also mentioned in the original stories) and his heretofore unmentioned meeting with Sigmund Freud.  It’s all very clever and well done, but that’s part of what I didn’t love about the book.  It seems that books (or movies) like these—prequels, reboots, or continuations of famous characters or series—often succumb too much to fan service instead of trying to do something new.  By fan service, I mean bringing back beloved elements or tying together every last unexplained detail in the original or having a huge crossover event (world’s most famous detective meets the father of psychoanalysis!).  But maybe it’s the predictability of the original series that makes it beloved in the first place.  So a reasonable facsimile can keep people happy in the meantime.  I was reasonably entertained.
  • Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail by Robert E. Webber is a book I needed to read.  Perhaps it would have been even better if I had read it when I first started attending an Episcopal church in grad school.  The book is mostly a story, the first half Webber’s personal story from evangelicalism to the Episcopal church, and the second half the stories of other like-minded evangelical pilgrims on the Canterbury trail, so to speak.  Webber frames his own story as a search for six needs that he found fulfilled in the Anglican tradition: mystery, worship, sacraments, historic identity, ecumenicalism, and a holistic spirituality.  Sometimes I wished he would spend more time on any of these topics, but he was more concerned with telling his story instead of deep analysis of liturgy.  I suppose that means I need to look somewhere else for that kind of book.  I found Webber’s and his co-pilgrim’s stories comforting as they found richness and freedom in the same way as I have in the Episcopal church.  The book is not meant as a critique of the evangelical churches that they left, but merely a way to tell through personal spiritual journeys how not everyone’s needs are met in an evangelical church.  Webber points out the many strengths of evangelicalism and how the two traditions can learn from each other.  I think this is a book that any evangelical who is interested in liturgical worship should read.  Episcopalians should also seek out this book to find out why evangelicals (like me) were attracted to their door. [Please note that there is a newer edition of the book which keeps all of Webber’s text and story, but replaces the original co-pilgrims’ stories with newer examples.  I have not read this new edition, so I cannot say if I prefer it over the original.]
  • The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould is an excellent history of science that argues against biological determinism of intelligence.  His main argument is that intelligence is not a single, innate, heritable, quantifiable entity, able to be ranked.  By going back and looking at the data and methodology of key figures along the way, Gould is able to show where scientists erred.  He shows how easy it was for scientists’ bias to affect how they measured the size of skulls in the 19th century or how IQ tests for U.S. Army recruits in World War I were inadequately administered and the content biased against immigrants and those without formal education.  This history is humbling for science, a warning always to be aware of bias.  However, I had trouble following his arguments against the theory of general intelligence (g) by Spearman and later Burt.  It involves factor analysis, a method of statistics initially invented to analyze mental tests (but used for many other things).  I don’t have any background in statistics, so I couldn’t tell if his critiques hit the mark or not.  But I did understand when he pointed out that the correlations between a set of mental tests could just as easily show the advantages or deficits of environment as a biological IQ.  He also explained how using other statistical methods on the same data, it is possible to see multiple intelligences (as in Gardner) instead of one general intelligence underlying everything.  Gould wrote the book originally in 1981, but revised it after The Bell Curve came out in 1994 so that he could add a few supplementary essays rebutting it.  The Bell Curve made a big splash when it was published, but Gould feels that it was merely rehashing the same biological determinism of intelligence that he had already shown was mistaken.  I would highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of science or the science of intelligence. [Please note the comment below about the controversy surrounding this book]

The Scopes trial and Christian subculture

One last time about Summer for the Gods and the Scopes trial (parts 1 and 2 here and here). But first a quick recap: In 1925, spurred on by Christian fundamentalists, the state of Tennessee outlawed the teaching of evolution. The ACLU wanted to show the law was unconstitutional, so they worked with John Scopes in the small town of Dayton as a test case. He was brought to trial for teaching evolution, thus breaking the law. William Jennings Bryan, a former politician and a leader in the anti-evolution movement, joined the prosecution against Scopes. Clarence Darrow, a defense attorney and famous atheist, joined the defense team.

During the trial, antievolutionists felt that the media was biased against them, and they were right. Most newspapers in the country stated that they were for Darrow and the defense. And it wasn’t just the Scopes trial. There were creation-evolution debates back then just as now, and creationists such as George McCready Price (a precursor to Henry Morris and John Whitcomb, writers of The Genesis Flood) complained that the press didn’t acknowledge when they won a debate. Larson points out that media bias probably wasn’t malicious (aside from the obvious attackers like H.L. Mencken), but rather “due to its insensitivity to faith-based arguments” (125). This makes sense: most outsiders don’t understand the intricacies of another group’s thought system or values.

Though Scopes was the defendant, the defense team went on the offensive against a narrow reading of Genesis. Darrow asked that Bryan be put on the witness stand as an expert on the Bible. Against the advice of the rest of the prosecution, Bryan thought it would be a good idea to defend Biblical literalism in the public forum. Darrow took the opportunity to attack every aspect of the Bible, forcing Bryan to defend every miracle or hard question (i.e. Where did Cain’s wife come from? or How could Jonah survive three days inside a whale?). He eventually pushed Bryan so far that he had to repeatedly admit that he didn’t know or couldn’t explain how the event took place as described in the Bible. As for the Genesis account of creation he had to admit: “I believe in creation as there told, and if I am not able to explain it I will accept it” (189). Bryan had defended his faith, even if he couldn’t explain it on all points, but most media saw his reticence as a failure in the face of scientific explanations.

Because they didn’t think they were getting a fair shake with the media, “[a]ntievolutionists increasingly turned to interdenominational journals and publishers to communicate their side of the story” (127). In the immediate aftermath of the Scopes case, both sides declared victory. The antievolution prosecution could claim victory because the jury agreed with them and convicted Scopes. The defense claimed the moral victory that their ideas had triumphed when Clarence Darrow humiliated William Jennings Bryan on the witness stand. Larson shows that it took quite some time for the latter narrative to take hold as the consensus view, aided especially by the play and movie Inherit the Wind, a highly fictionalized version of the trial that really was more about the communist witch hunts of the 1950s (much like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible) than the Scopes trial of 1925.

The Scopes trial highlighted the fissure between modernists and fundamentalists in many denominations and seminaries at the time. Fundamentalists increasingly withdrew from the broader culture and “set about constructing a separate subculture with independent religious, educational, and social institutions” (233). This is the subculture I grew up in, one that only accepted the Young Earth Creationist account. It was also a subculture that was separate and removed from the broader culture, which is how I could seriously never encounter anyone who entertained the notion of an old earth or evolution.

The Christian subculture I grew up in was all-encompassing. I attended private Christian school. On Sundays we attended morning and evening services at church. Wednesdays were prayer meeting. For a grade school boy like me, we had Christian Service Brigade, a more Christian version of Boy Scouts. Brigade had summer camp, which I attended four different times. When I was in junior and senior high we had Wednesday evening youth group. The youth group had socials, took missions trips, and attended the big youth conference for our denomination. For entertainment I read Christian fiction from the Christian bookstore. It wasn’t all that I read, but I did read a number of books by Frank Peretti and the like (my reading habits as a high schooler may be a topic I return to, and for those who don’t know, Peretti’s best known work This Present Darkness is a novel of spiritual warfare between angels and demons). I mostly listened to Christian music, and I wrestled with my conscience when I sometimes listened to secular music. In junior high, I had a dubbed copy of Amy Grant’s secular album Heart in Motion, but I taped over it when I became convicted that secular music was sinful. In high school I eased up on some of my conviction about secular music a little bit, but the majority of my music listening was Christian (or religiously friendly like U2).

Christian fundamentalists perceive that media is against them so they in return reject much media and have created and/or turned to their own alternate media. I was originally going to write on this interesting and worthy discussion, but my thoughts grew as I realized that Christian fundamentalists withdrew from more than just media but from the larger culture and set up their own subculture to replace it. Certainly there were elements of the subculture already in place before the Scopes trial, but the trial served as a wake-up call to fundamentalists that they had to train their believers in the true faith and that could only be done by withdrawing from the larger culture which was antagonistic to their faith.

Most important was setting up alternative education. Bryan College was founded in Dayton, Tennessee not long after the trial, and many other fundamentalist educational institutions sprang up with similar missions of upholding biblical inerrancy and a Young Earth interpretation of Genesis in the wake of the trial. The college I attended, formerly a high school, became a four-year Bible college in the 1930s, along with the wave of other institutions.

So this is the reason I find the Scopes trial so fascinating—the fact that it was a defining moment for American Christianity that led to the fundamentalist subculture that I grew up in. It was a defining battle in what later came to be defined as culture wars. Fundamentalists staked their position as being anti-evolution, and that stance led to a withdrawal in many other areas of life, from media and entertainment to education. They created an entire separate culture that paralleled the broader culture, but was antagonistic in many ways. It was and is an us vs. them mentality. These are all issues that I plan to return to in the future.

history, politics

The Scopes trial and democracy

Back to Summer for the Gods – Edward Larson’s book on the Scopes trial.  A quick recap for those just joining us (Part 1 here): The state of Tennessee passed a law banning the teaching of evolution.  John Scopes agreed to be a test case for the ACLU, who hoped to show that the law was unconstitutional.  He taught evolution in his biology class and was prosecuted for breaking the law.  William Jennings Bryan, himself a leading proponent of anti-evolutionism, offered his services to the prosecution.  Clarence Darrow, the famous defense attorney, attached himself to the defense team for Scopes.

One of the key disagreements at work in the Scopes case was not science versus religion, but rather differing political philosophies.  The prosecution argued that the law banning the teaching of evolution expressed the will of the people; Scopes broke the law when he taught evolution.  Open and shut case.  Book ‘im.  The defense countered that sometimes the will of the majority tramples on the rights of the individual.  In this case, Scopes was denied the academic freedom to teach the generally accepted view of science.  In other words, let the experts teach their subject.

William Jennings Bryan embodied the majoritarian argument of the prosecution.  Majoritarianism had been his political philosophy his entire life.  He was a populist and reformer.  According to Larson, “Reform took two forms for Bryan: personal reform through individual religious faith and public reform through majoritarian governmental action” (37).  It was an interesting paradox—he combined “left wing politics with right wing religion” (97).  It’s hard to imagine such a politician today.  He rose to fame at the 1896 Democratic convention, when, as a congressmen, he bucked the party establishment and the incumbent president Grover Cleveland by trying to win the nomination.  Bryan delivered his “Cross of Gold” speech, a populist plea to ease the debt and credit burden on the farmers by switching from the gold standard to a currency backed by silver.  The speech won over the audience, and he secured the nomination.

Though Bryan did become the party’s nominee for president, he lost the election.  He ended up becoming the Democratic nominee twice more, but he never became president (again, impossible to imagine either modern political party nominating the same candidate three times for President).  After losing the nomination to Woodrow Wilson in 1912, he served as Secretary of State in Wilson’s cabinet, but resigned in protest when Wilson wanted to enter World War I.  Though out of office, he continued working towards reform.  He gave hundreds of speeches and argued for the passage of several constitutional amendments:

  • direct election of senators—previously, senators were chosen by the state legislature; by electing senators directly, voters had more say in who represented them, making this a majoritarian reform.
  • Prohibition—this amendment made the possession and sale of alcohol illegal in an attempt to reform social ills.
  • women’s vote—thus giving the right to vote to half of the population of voting age; clearly the most majoritarian reform possible at the time.

The Scopes case combined his views of majoritarianism with his personal faith.  The vast majority of Tennessee voters didn’t believe in evolution, so a law banning the teaching of evolution expressed the will of the majority.  It was his argument that the people who paid for the education of children should decide what they are taught.

Majoritarianism sounds like democracy in pure form, but it runs into an obvious problem when the will of the majority is immoral (slavery comes to mind as an easy example).  I think another obvious problem is if the majority of people are ignorant.  It’s vitally important to have an informed electorate.  It’s no surprise that there are fights about curriculum: whoever controls public education wields great power.  In my own life, I feel that my history education, much like my science education, was woefully inadequate in high school.  I want to be an informed voter.  It’s one of the reasons I have been reading a lot more American history lately.

The United States is not majoritarian (at least in most aspects, referenda and other state and local issues are sometimes put directly to the voter); rather, America is a representative democracy—we elect others to be our proxy, hoping they are experts in areas we don’t have the time or inclination to know enough about.  When we do have strong opinions, we let our representative know how we feel, either beforehand by calling or writing our members of Congress (or state legislators, or city councilors), or afterwards at the ballot box.

I’m rather torn about majoritarianism.  On the one hand, I want to affirm democracy.  I want everybody to have a voice in how they are governed.  But as oft-quoted Winston Churchill affirmed, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”  The majority can get it wrong.  And that’s not to mention all the ways that democracy can be abused (stolen elections, suppressed votes, beholden politicians to money, etc.).   In this specific case of anti-evolution laws, I would side with the scientists (who I would consider the experts) over the will of the majority.  Does this make me anti-democratic?  Perhaps.  But this is why education is so important.  If one disagrees with the majority, it’s then up to the minority to educate and persuade in order to change the will of the majority.

As a side note on education, high school curriculums can have a profound effect on later views of biology.  A recent study shows that college students are more likely to accept creationism if it was taught in high school (even if it was presented along with evolution).  Another study shows that high school biology teachers are often reluctant to teach evolution.  It’s no wonder that a third of U.S. adults do not accept evolution.  But acceptance of evolution is also a matter of who we consider the experts on the matter and how we decide who the experts are.  When I was a young earth creationist, I had a group of experts I trusted, including teachers and creationist authors.  But now that I accept evolution, my group of trusted experts has shifted accordingly. /end side note

I’d love to hear what others think about majoritarianism as a political philosophy.  Feel free to bring up other issues besides the teaching of evolution that involve majoritarianism.


The Scopes trial and me, part 2 (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Accept Evolution)

The question of evolution is one I’ve thought about a lot, and from both sides of the issue.  I started as a William Jennings Bryan and have become, if not a Clarence Darrow, at least a member of the defense counsel for Scopes.

When I was in grade school I was convinced that I was going to disprove evolution.  How exactly I was to do that I wasn’t quite sure.  My first step involved filling a notebook with a list of dinosaur names and facts about them.  I attended a private Christian school throughout elementary, junior and senior high.  So when it came time to put together a Science Fair project, I did one on the extinction of the dinosaurs.  My report was a garbled mishmash of Flood geology, a water vapor canopy, and National Geographic articles about extinction events like asteroids or a comet.  I created a diorama in a fish tank of plastic dinosaurs on land made of green Play-doh surrounded by blue plastic wrap to signify water: Voila!  The Flood.  What this was supposed to show or prove is beyond me.  Even my teacher had doubts about my project, noting that I had not followed the scientific method.  I had no testable hypothesis.

The standard Young Earth Creationist explanation of the dinosaurs’ extinction is that dinosaurs were created on the 6th day along with the other animals.  This happened approximately 10,000 years ago, give or take (or 4,004 B.C. if one is following James Ussher’s chronology where he added up all of the genealogies in the Bible to arrive at a date for creation).  Humans and dinosaurs coexisted until the time of the Flood.  The Flood was a catastrophic event that changed everything.  Before that time there was a water canopy that surrounded the Earth.  Once the water canopy was gone, (presumably the water rained down as part of the Flood), then the climate of the Earth changed.  Pre-Flood, the Earth’s climate was temperate and mild.  Post-Flood, the climate became closer to what it is today, perhaps even allowing for some sort of ice age or two (though the work of glaciers on the landscape could just as easily be explained by the Flood).  So dinosaurs died out after the Flood presumably because of the change in climate (or maybe an extinction event like an asteroid/comet also contributed, or so I guessed).

In high school, instead of learning evolution, we learned evidence that the Earth and the universe were young, no older than 10,000 years.  The evidence included the rate of magnetic decay of the Earth and the amount of dust found on the moon (the latter of which I could not find with a quick perusal of Young Earth Creationist websites, perhaps that argument is no longer used).  We were told that the magnetic force would have been too strong if the Earth were older, and the moon would have had much more dust.  There was a lot more evidence.  The eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 was meant to show that catastrophism could cause immense change that would make the affected area appear old.  The Flood, of course, was meant to be the prime catastrophe that caused mountains to appear or layers of sediment, and all the fossils and the Grand Canyon, etc.  Carbon dating was right out.  It didn’t show what it was meant to show, and wasn’t even accurate past a few thousand years.  Troubling aspects like visible light from distant galaxies was hand-waved away with the confidence that God could create the universe with the light already having traveled to Earth.  The universe could have the appearance of age if God so chose.  Humans, animals, and plants were all created fully formed, so it made sense that so would the universe.  Why it had to be so big was a question I never asked.

I continued my education at a private Christian college in the South.  Halfway through my first year, I picked up Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time from my roommate’s shelf.  I didn’t know much about it, except that Hawking was supposed to be a genius.  My memory of the experience is that much of the astrophysics went over my head, but that the overall grandeur of the universe, its immensity, hit home.  The evidence for a nearly 14 billion year old universe stacked up.  I faced some major cognitive dissonance.  The thought of an old universe was unsettling, but I had no intention of giving up my faith.  I remember trying to broach the subject of an old earth with some friends in the cafeteria.  I was nervous because it seemed like I might be flirting with potential heresy.  Nothing we talked about gave me an idea how to reconcile the impasse, so I ruminated on it for the next few months.

Fortunately for me, the college had invited Hugh Ross as a speaker for their annual lecture series in the Spring.  Ross is a Christian astrophysicist who interprets the days of Genesis as long periods of time (commonly referred to as the day-age theory of creation).  His interpretation does not allow for any macro-evolution of species into other species, instead relying on God to perform special creation at various stages of cosmic history.  It was a huge relief to me that there were other Christians who thought the Earth might be old, too.  I didn’t have to give up my faith or my new understanding of the universe.  I didn’t know much about science at that point, but it was clear to me that the Young Earth Creationism that I had believed considered a certain interpretation of Genesis as primary over scientific inquiry.  The only point of science was to prove what was already known from the Bible.  There was no discovery possible, only confirmation.  In theological terms, Young Earth Creationism treats special revelation (the Bible) as superior to natural revelation (the created universe).  Now that I’d had a personal encounter with science (not one mediated by the lens of creationism), I could no longer accept that.

So how could I have let go of my belief in a young earth, given my fundamentalist upbringing?  I had only attended Christian schools up to this point.  I was surrounded by people who thought very similarly to me, who believed the same things I did.  Before I heard Ross, I had never had a serious discussion about the age of the Earth where it wasn’t already assumed that it was created less than 10,000 years ago.  While it was this bubble that created my confident belief in a young earth, I think that it was also this same environment that actually let me question those assumptions.  If I had gone to a public high school or a state university, I would have felt under attack for my faith.  I undoubtedly would have stood up for my beliefs in a biology class, and held onto them all the tighter because they were part of my identity.  Because my belief about the age of the earth was safe in my Christian school environment, I could question it.

A few years later while in graduate school I read Del Ratzsch’s The Battle of Beginnings and  Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, two books that attempt to reconcile Christianity with evolution.  I found both of them very interesting and compelling, but I wasn’t sure that I was ready to agree that God used evolution.  But I was now willing to say it was possible.  In the years since then, there wasn’t a single dramatic moment when I decided that I could accept evolution as an explanation for the diversity of species, but it gradually happened.  I suppose a change like this takes a lot of time.

I’ve only had a handful of conversations with family and friends about evolution since I became evolution-friendly, but the situation always makes me feel like the outsider, the stranger, the black sheep.  I’m no longer on the creationist team.  It’s the Bizarro-version of the creationist standing up to the evolutionist teacher and defending the faith: Now I’m the one standing up for evolution (or not saying anything). It’s pretty strange.

Evolution is a topic I’d like to return to again as I read (and reread) more.  I’d like to explore the theological implications of evolution: what does it mean for creation and humanity. But I’d also like to look at the science of it, too, as a layperson who doesn’t know much about science.