Righting America

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Useful Fictions | Righting America

by Jason Hentschel

Jason A. Hentschel has a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Dayton. 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 forthcoming from Oxford University Press (2016-17).

In defending the faith, does it really matter if you are not telling the truth?

In an earlier post,  “Post-Truth at the Creation Museum,” we learned that Ken Ham’s New Year’s Day blog entry is accompanied by a tableau of Martin Luther’s famous nailing of his Ninety-five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg. Except it’s not actually the Ninety-five Theses but a fictional quote from a character named Fritz in a nineteenth-century novel.

With good reason, the earlier post suggests that “this seems pretty deceptive.” Surely that’s a possibility, but I wonder if the fault might actually be something much less devious, albeit all the more frustrating. Evangelical apologetics has tended, especially in its immensely popular evidentialist variety (think of Josh McDowell’s classic Evidence that Demands a Verdict or Lee Strobel’s bestselling Case for Christ series or David Limbaugh’s 2014 cookie-cutter rehash, Jesus on Trial), to benefit from sloppy, often secondhand, historical work and an understandably eager and susceptible audience.

The story of James Bartley, once believed to have survived being swallowed by a whale, is paradigmatic. Seemingly ever since the tale broke in 1891, conservative Christian commentators began touting it as ripest proof of the Bible’s own Jonah story. As it turns out, Bartley’s experience, like Ken Ham’s Luther, was a fake, though it took nearly a century to discover as much. The real story, however, is the work it did for evangelical apologetics and the battle against challenges to the Bible’s historicity. Messiah College’s Edward Davis, who did the hard work of tracking down the real source of the Bartley legend, could have been describing the evangelical apologetic drive in general when he explained the attraction and resiliency of such fictions: “More than anything else,” those feeling beleaguered in their faith want “to give people reasons to believe, to strengthen their faith in the gospel by strengthening their faith in the literal words of the Bible, to debunk the claims of atheistic scientists and apostate theologians.”

We all like winning arguments, especially in support of our most cherished beliefs, but sometimes ideology and partisanship have a tendency to baptize otherwise shoddy research and weak, one-sided argumentation. Amateur historian David Barton, president of Wallbuilders.org and frequent guest of conservative pundit Glenn Beck, is famous in evangelical circles for offering the Founding Fathers’ earnest evangelicalism as propaganda for 21st-century conservative politics. His 2012 book, The Jefferson Lies, which addresses the same apologetic concerns, has the notorious distinction, however, of being labeled the “Least Credible History Book in Print.” So poor is Barton’s research and his conclusions so stretched that quite a few conservative Christian scholars, who in other respects might have agreed with him on significant social and political concerns, called Barton out for consistently putting the ideological cart before the factual horse.

At a time when the President-elect has a well-documented history of offering outright conjecture as authoritative fact – to the welcoming applause of millions – it is probably no surprise that we find this loosey-goosey approach showing up in the Creation Museum and other laboratories of evangelical apologetics. The thing is, it’s a real question whether or not such intellectual sloppiness, if pointed out, will have any serious deleterious effect or even if honest rebuttals will be welcomed, much less granted.

Why? The answer may be as simple as this: People want it to be true. The Bartley legend garnered little skepticism from conservative Christians locked as they were in a battle with a heterodox historical criticism. They wanted, even needed Bartley’s story to be true because they wanted Jonah’s to be true, too – as shown by their continued insistence that such fishy experiences, if not exactly Bartley’s, must be possible. Ken Ham’s readers likewise want (need?) Luther to have offered a defense of the Young Earth Creationist project because it’s a project that furthers some of their most cherished religious beliefs and cultural concerns. Indeed, it matters little if Luther actually said the exact words given on Ham’s tableau; they are something he would have said, given the same circumstances in which we live today.

All of this helps make sense of what apologetic projects like the Creation Museum actually do for evangelicals who presumably already accept the message being sold. That is, apologetics offers them the assurance that what they know to be true is really true. To be sure, the museum masterfully builds upon this apologetic assurance for running its culture war. Indeed, in the end, it appears that it might just be the culture war itself that subtly keeps Answers in Genesis’ apologetics afloat, which leads one to think that, in the war on evolution and secularism, evangelicals, for all their insistence upon upholding objective and absolute truth, look strangely like political pragmatists: whatever works to advance the cause.

Even if it is only a useful fiction.