by William Trollinger
I grew up in an evangelical home in Denver – with a very pietistic mother – and attended an evangelical church and then an evangelical college (Bethel, in St. Paul, MN). And in home, church, and college there was one very consistent message: I needed to read the Bible and know the Bible and understand the Bible as the final authority. There were personal devotions centered around the Bible, Bible study groups, Bible classes in church and then in college.
Bible Bible Bible.
So is it just me, or is it the case that contemporary white evangelicals simply do not, in the end, care about the Bible as the Bible? Is it simply an object – even if held upside down (as we see here with Donald Trump) – that they can use to bash their enemies?
When Sue and I started our research on the Creation Museum we assumed that there would be lots of Bible on display at the museum. After all, the whole premise of the museum, the whole premise of young Earth creationism, is based on a literal reading of Genesis 1-11. More than this, Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis (AiG) repeatedly assert that the inerrant Bible is without error, factually accurate in all that it teaches (including what it says about history and science), and the final authority for Christians.
So it makes sense that we thought there would be lots of Bible at the museum. But we were wrong.
Oh, there are lots and lots of placards with tiny bits of biblical text, sometimes just a few words from a particular verse. Snippets.
But it’s worse than this, as there is
the inconsistent use of translations and the creative editing [of biblical text]; the lack of ellipses indicating where text has been removed from a passage; the failure to provide relevant context for the passages that are displayed. All of this seems oddly loose, given the Creation Museum’s stated commitment to biblical inerrancy and the very words of the Bible as “God-breathed” (Righting America 136-137).
At first blush this seems perplexing. And then it becomes blindingly obvious. For all their talk about the Bible as the final authority, the Creation Museum is not interested in the Bible qua Bible. Instead, the Creation Museum is interested in promoting a right-wing patriarchal young Earth creationism as the Truth. And if that means ignoring biblical text and cutting/manipulating biblical text and failing to contextualize biblical text, so be it. It is all in behalf of the Truth.
Ten years after its opening the Creation Museum got around to devoting a three-room exhibit to Jesus, or, to be accurate, a vengeful, superhero version of Jesus.
A new exhibit, but the same old Creation Museum approach to the Bible. I discussed various examples of this in an earlier post, but here I want to focus on what is perhaps the most egregious example of biblical manipulation in the entire museum.
On the “Teachings of Jesus” placard there is a section entitled “Rebukes,” which could easily be entitled “A Very Angry Jesus Condemns Again, and Again, and Again.” And here is one of those condemnations:
Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41).
Now, it is clear that the museum is hoping or expecting that the visitor reading this placard will supply the missing premise—that is, who the “cursed” are who deserve “everlasting fire.”
This is one of Aristotle’s crucial insights that we find in his treatise on rhetoric. And that is, the enthymeme, a rhetorical strategy that leaves out either a premise or a conclusion to an argument that, in doing so, involves the audience (because they supply the premise or conclusion) and makes them think that they (rather than the rhetorician) are constructing the argument.
Of course, given that many (most?) visitors to the Creation Museum are steeped in the culture war rhetoric of AiG and the Christian Right, it is obvious who they supply as the cursed: those who are LGBTQ, those who are pro-choice, those who seek the separation of church and state, those who hold evolution to be true, those who do not hold to biblical inerrancy and other fundamentalist doctrines.
In the world of AiG and the Christian Right, it’s obvious that these are the people whom Jesus is condemning to hell. In fact, it is easy to imagine that the folks running the Creation Museum expect that their visitors will assume something like this follows Jesus’ statement of condemnation:
“Because you are gay and lesbian, because you have had an abortion, because you are not obedient to your husband, because you do not want the Bible to be taught in your schools, because you do not believe the universe was created in 6 24-hour days, because you do not believe the Bible is factually accurate in all that it teaches: you shall go away into eternal punishment.”
Just a side note here. If Jesus had indeed said anything like this, AiG would unquestionably feature these verses everywhere – on T-shirts and coffee mugs, in ads on Tucker Carlson and Fox News, perhaps even on the exterior of the Creation Museum. That is to say, if Jesus had said something like this, these verses certainly would have been included on this placard.
But it turns out that Jesus did not say anything like this. Here are the five verses that follow Jesus’ statement of condemnation, the five verses that the Creation Museum chose to elide:
“For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25:42-46)
Not one word about doctrine, or sexuality. Not one word that can fit into a culture-war narrative. Instead, these words from Jesus are all about caring for “the least of these.” And judgment comes for those who don’t care for them.
I was an earnest evangelical adolescent. I read the Bible as I was told. And it was in reading the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 25 – among other passages in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament – that the nature of my faith changed. Dramatically.
That sort of transformation is precisely what the folks at AiG do not want. They are determined to do what they can to “lock down” a culture-war Christianity. And if this means cutting out or eliding or failing to contextualize passages from the Bible, that’s ok. It is a war.
So much for standing on biblical authority.