by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His seventh book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, has recently been published. And book #8, Dancing with Metaphors in the Pulpit, will appear in April.
(Disclaimer: The story of Kevin is a fictional story. No actual child was harmed in the writing of this essay. The churches mentioned are representatives of two different approaches to faith.)
This is the story of Kevin, a 10-year-old boy whose mother and father divorced. His mother was the organist at the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas while his father was a biology professor at the University of Texas, Austin, Texas.
Kevin’s parents had joint custody which included being at his dad’s every other weekend. The first Sunday of each month, Kevin attended Sunday School at FBC Dallas. His Sunday school teacher used materials from Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis. The second Sunday of each month, Kevin attended St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Austin, Texas. And this is how his life unfolded Sunday after Sunday with clashing world views.
At FBC Dallas, he imbibed a biblical literalism filled with the unusual interpretations of Ken Ham. At St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church he was introduced to biblical scholarship that applied a more nuanced approach to the often symbolic language of the Bible.
In his senior year of high school, he was studying Ken Ham’s book, The Lie: Evolution. Filled with cartoons, caricatures, and simplistic generalizations, the book offered an easy, accessible, and entertaining presentation of the evils of evolution. Cute characters standing on the Bible showed the importance of a biblical foundation for life. For instance, Ham illustrated the opening of chapter 8 of The Lie: Evolution with a drawing of bricks labeled “Abortion,” “Pornography,” “Homosexuals,” and “Lawlessness,” all resting on a foundation labeled “Evolution.” The chapter was titled, simply, “The Evils of Evolution.”
Ham’s creation account doesn’t attract followers by claiming literal truth. Nor does he intrigue people by saying evolution is not Christian. What attracts people is the populist message of evolution as an attack on the faith. The foundation of the belief is not faith but fear. Historians Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson point out in The Anointed:
Ham’s simple message resonates with fundamentalist Christians in America and around the world. Their faith is under attack by evolution. By undermining faith in God’s word, particularly Genesis, modern science is destroying the foundations of civil—meaning “Christian”—society. The result is widespread anarchy, immorality, and nihilism.
Meanwhile, at St. Martin’s Kevin was studying Claus Westermann’s classic commentary, Genesis 1-11.
The contrast between Ham and Westermann may be represented analogically as the great gulf that exists between the abode of Lazarus and the place of the rich man’s residence. In Luke’s words, “Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”
Imagine our fictional Kevin making the trek every weekend across the “great chasm” from the Land of Ham to the Kingdom of Westermann.
Claus Westermann’s commentary on Genesis can’t be easily reduced to a populist pulpit message. This remains a challenge for all academic publications. Theologians are academics at home in the university. They write primarily for other theologians.
Despite the almost insurmountable odds, I am determined to do the work of presenting the results of biblical and theological scholarship in the pulpit to lay persons attending churches.
The work of the preacher is to exposit Scripture and that is also the work of theologians. My initial task I have set for my own satisfaction is the comparison of the populist work of America’s most famous creationist, Ken Ham and the best Old Testament scholar of the 20th century, Claus Westermann. In an academic setting, Ham couldn’t be Westermann’s “hewer of wood” or “carrier of water.” In a local church Sunday school class or pulpit, Westermann’s 636-page commentary, Genesis 1 – 11 may not sustain enough interest to have people return for a second lecture or sermon.
Think of me as an assistant docent to the world of Genesis – coming alongside the primary guide, Claus Westermann, whose commentary on Genesis 1 – 11 is just the resource you didn’t know you needed. Until now.
Ham has created an imaginary world that has successfully convinced millions of Americans that his world is the real world. Yet Ham’s world tells us that the only part of science that we cannot trust is the fact of evolution. In all other areas, we have trusted science with our lives. Science has provided so many marvelous benefits. It has improved the quality of our lives and led to increased longevity. How is it even possible to maintain a complete dismissal of the science of evolution while embracing science is so many other areas?
While Ham attacks biology, geology, and physics, he always ends up at the beginning: a reliance on a literal Bible. The theory of literal truth dismantles Ham’s world because there has never been a literal Bible. This means there have never been a literal creation story.
The Story of Primeval Events in the Pentateuch and Its Prehistory
Westermann says, “The biblical story of the primeval events hands down what has been said about the beginnings of the world and of humanity in an unbroken line from antiquity to modern times.” Westermann argues that that the creation accounts have had an uninterrupted audience “from the time when the Yahwist planned his work in the 10th – 9th century B.C.”
Here is our first point of contrast. Biblical scholarship dates the Genesis accounts in the 10th – 9th century B.C. In other words, the narrative doesn’t originate with an eyewitness to the creation. Ham’s clumsy literalism falls into disarray when we consider that the story of creation was written long after the events of creation happened. The writer/editors of Genesis 1 – 2 are looking back at the beginning and imagining what it was like. Genesis 1 is no more a story of a literal creation than James Weldon Johnson’s poem, “The Creation.”
Judaism and Christianity have always celebrated creation. Westermann testifies,
There has been no break in that line of tradition which stretches back to the early stages of the Old Testament. The Christian Churches continue in their formal worship to acknowledge their belief in God, the creator of heaven and earth, and every attempt to detach faith in the creator from faith in Christ has miscarried.
A Christian rising in Sunday worship to affirm faith in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth doesn’t require Ham’s literalism.
The Poem of Creation
A creation poem imagining the beginning is not the same age as creation. The two events – creation and the story of creation – are separated by millions of years. Westermann says, “The Christian faith does not take its stand on an event at the beginning, but on an event in the ‘middle of time’; but because it looks to the whole, it must speak of the beginning.”
Ham’s literalism also struggles to deal with creation sources. The Yahwistic and Priestly syntheses of the Old Testament both begin with an account of creation. There’s no reason for faith to be thrown for a loop by the awareness that there are multiple creation stories with the main two identified by the name used by the writer for God. One uses Yahweh, the other Elohim. Faith doesn’t fall apart at the seams at the acceptance of this scholarly discovery.
A pre-Christian tradition lies behind the Christian confession of faith in God the creator; traditions which preceded Israel and from outside Israel also impact what Israel has to say about God the creator, Yahweh, the God of Israel.
The Hymn of Creation
The creation story of Genesis 1 – 2 is a hymn not a science theory. Westermann calls attention to hymns of praise which lift up God’s activity in creation. Hymns are not interested in chronological sequence or historical succession or even the age of the earth.
Even though Genesis 1 begins “In the beginning,” it is not the beginning of creation, time or even the book of Genesis itself. Genesis 1 – 11 is a distinct unity, a separate element from the Pentateuch. Westermann says, “It is …. A relatively self-contained unity, and not primarily a part of Genesis. It is a relatively late component.”
Genesis 1 – 11 looks to the universal; it includes all humanity; and primeval time, in which all takes place, cannot be fixed on the calendar. The attempt to fix an exact date for the first day of creation is an exercise in fiction. Such a date is as meaningless as all the dates Hal Lindsay has selected as the day of the Rapture.
As Westermann suggests,
The real question is this: Why has Israel’s confession of the god who rescued Israel from Egypt been extended back into the primeval events? And why did Israel speak of its rescuer as the creator of heaven and earth in a way which has so many points of contact with what the surrounding world said of its gods in the same context?
The writer of Israel goes back to the story of beginning to show that the God who called Abram and delivered Israel from Egyptian slavery is precisely the one true God of the universe. In short, God is God and we are not.
Genesis 1 – 11 answers a basic theological question which arises from Israel’s confession of Yahweh as the rescuer. This requires Genesis 1 – 11 to be exegeted around the relationship of the biblical story of primeval events to the tradition of the primeval happening in the history of humankind. I don’t see the point of attempting the impossible task of dating the first day of creation as a fundament of faith.
Ken Ham’s work is superfluous except for the money that he raises selling tickets to the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter.