Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Fundamentalism, Creationism, and the Escape from History | Righting America

by Jason Hentschel

Jason A. Hentschel has a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Dayton, and is currently senior pastor at Wyoming Baptist Church (Wyoming, OH). His research focuses on the intersection of evangelicalism and modern American culture. He has contributed chapters to The Bible in American Life and The Handbook of the Bible in America,  both of which were published by Oxford University Press in 2017. He is currently revising his book manuscript, “Inerrancy and the Evangelical Quest for Certainty,” for publication.

When in 1992 Ron Numbers published the first edition of his masterpiece, The Creationists, there was virtually no one else engaged in the academic study of creationism. But thanks to Ron’s groundbreaking book and ongoing research, here we are, decades later, and the work on creationism has simply exploded (see pp. 314-316 in Righting America for a listing of some of this work). So it was that last weekend at the Ohio Academy of History to the point that there was a session devoted to creationism.  Dustin Nash (Muhlenberg College) presented on “Dinosaurs and Jews at the Creation Museum”; Carl Weinberg (Indiana University-Bloomington) spoke on “Adnan Oktar’s Turkish Creationism as a Mirror on America”; and, we (Bill and Sue) discussed “Patriarchal Creationism and the Feminist Challenge.”

It was a very lively session, with many questions and comments from those in attendance. In fact, there were so many questions that Jason Hentschel, session chair and respondent, graciously turned over his allotted time to the audience. But given that Jason’s prepared remarks are so insightful – particularly regarding the effort of fundamentalists to escape history – we are very happy to publish them here.

Do you know what’s great about a good panel? I think a good panel is one that, even while each paper raises its own specific questions and concerns, when you put all of them together, a common theme or two seem to arise independently. Well, I think we have a good panel, and, to me, the common theme that rises to the surface is this: Creationism, whether the American Christian brand or the Turkish Islamic brand, is trying to get away from history, at least as how we think of history today: as the story of change, the story of complexity, the story of contingency.

Let me give some examples. In “Dinosaurs and Jews” Dustin notes that the Creation Museum erases the “memory of Judaism from the totalizing story of time” that the museum wants to tell. For Answers in Genesis (AiG), the Christian story remains fully coherent even when you slash out two or three thousand years of it. This cavalier approach to the complexity and stickiness of history is echoed in loads of evangelical theology. Whenever I think of this, I think of Charles Hodge’s description of the theologian’s task. (Hodge, a theologian at Princeton during the late 19th century, is in many ways the father of American evangelical theology.) As Hodge explained in his Systematic Theology, the Bible is a storehouse of God-given facts “which the theologian has to collect, authenticate, arrange, and exhibit in their internal relation to each other.” What theologians are supposed to do is mine the Bible’s story for the true propositions hidden underneath all the miscellaneous historical or narratival junk, and then put all those truths into a more systematic and coherent form. Well, here’s the deal: When you read Hodge, you get the feeling that once we do this, we don’t really need the Bible and its story anymore. We’ve taken from the Bible what God really wanted us to know . . . and now we can discard the Bible. No wonder the Creation Museum can extract “David the psalmist” from “David the Jewish king,” and then lay claim to David as some sort of proto-Charles Wesley. David’s history doesn’t really matter.

We can mildly see the same sort of thing in Adnan Oktar’s appropriation of a kind of “Berkleyan” idealism. Oktar’s point, as Carl puts it in “Turkish Creationism as a Mirror on America,” is to argue that the only real absolute being is Allah. Everything else is illusion, and so we have “no basis for concluding that external reality exists.” The payoff for Oktar, it seems, is that he can then claim that social evolution is nonsense, because the only thing that really exists is the stable, immutable, and timeless mind of God. God does not evolve and neither do his precepts.

It is ironic that Amerian fundamentalists took the opposite epistemological route – they sided with Thomas Reid’s common sense realism over Berkeley’s and Hume’s idealism – but only to come to the same conclusion, i.e., that what we have are timeless truths drawn straight from the unchanging mind of God. Those truths are just located in a biblical story. But if we are willing to take the text “naturally” – as Ken Ham would put it, which means without the clouding lens of evolutionary thinking – then we can see what God really wants us to know. We can access the mind of God and thus cut through all of history’s subjectivizing contingencies and muddying complexities.

When we come to Bill and Sue’s paper on “Patriarchal Creationism” this effort to escape history becomes quite blatant. The shift in the evangelical argument for patriarch – from looking at the Fall as the source of patriarchal inequality to looking at patriarchy as inherent in the Trinity (Jesus is subordinate to the Father and the Spirit is subordinate to both) – is an explicit example of the attempt “to lock things down” for all time and for all places. This is how AiG – and most of the evangelical world – understands divine authority. We have it; it’s just a matter of listening to it. One of the more fascinating things I’ve found when talking with my evangelical friends and family about male headship is that evangelical women tend to hold the position more strongly than evangelical men. God said it; we obey it.

At the end of their paper Bill and Sue wonder how people who claim to be the “real guardians of true Christian doctrine” could so readily embrace what has historically been understood as Trinitarian heresy. A key reason, I think is because the creeds themselves are seen as historical – and thus human – constructions. Simply put, history just does not really matter. What matters is God and what God says. So, yes, Eve is “stripped of all moral agency whatsoever,” but that state of being is actually the ideal state. Ideally, whatever moral agency we have will evaporate. We will become like God – timeless, changeless, perfected. Outside of history.