Many Baptists — including Jimmy Carter — fled or were forced out of the Southern Baptist Convention when the fundamentalist forces secured control in the 1980s. As one of those whom the Southern Baptist fundamentalists could not abide, Dr. Kennedy has been very interested in the Righting America project from its inception, especially as he has watched young earth creationism sweep through his former denomination.
At a cocktail party a Catholic theologian asked me, “How did you ever manage to escape your fundamentalist upbringing?” The question has been flung at me by friends and enemies alike over the years. I have never taken the time to give any kind of reasoned explanation, so I have decided to provide a snapshot of how I came to reject creationism, literalism, and fundamentalism.
I grew up in the culture of biblical literalism. But by the time I was twelve I knew there were problems. I asked my Sunday school teacher why there were two creation stories in the first two chapters of Genesis. She didn’t know and told me not be a smart aleck. Then I asked why God said “Let there be light,” but didn’t create the sun until the third day. My teacher told me that God was God and could make light come out of his eyes. Nice mythological touch.
Once I read Genesis 1 – 11 in its entirety, I realized the story of creation was lumped with an array of really strange stories. For example, after murdering his brother, Abel, Cain “settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” Then in the next verse, “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch.” Now, my Sunday school teachers taught me that there were originally two people on earth, Adam and Eve, who had two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel and then there were only three.
There is no literal way Cain could have found a wife because there were no wives to be had. Over the years, members of Baptist churches I served struggled with this story. Mostly they ignored it, but if one of the deacons got drunk on a Saturday night, and his usually repressed mind got loose, he would show up at the parsonage at 4:00am, ring the doorbell, and barge in the door asking me, “Rev., now tell me the truth. Where did Cain’s wife come from?”
[Note: If the drunk deacon had gone to the Creation Museum instead of Dr. Kennedy’s parsonage, he would have learned that Adam and Eve also had daughters, and thus Cain married his sister. As explained on a placard at the museum, “marriage ‘between close relatives was not a problem in early biblical history,’ as long as ‘it was one man for one woman (the biblical doctrine of marriage.)’” Righting, 176-177.]
My tattered ship of literalism shattered against the rocks of Genesis 6. There is not a stranger story in the Bible than the sons of God lusting after the daughters of men, and then coming down from heaven and mating with them. Then we read, “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days . . . These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.” Move over Iliad and Odyssey!
But next was the story of God being angry, angry enough to destroy the world by flood. The story – the ark, the animals, the flood — has never made any sense to me. The instructions about how many of each species was to enter the ark were confusing and contradictory. As soon as I learned that other cultures had flood stories, I consigned the biblical one to the pre-historical myth section of my mind.
Then there were the death records. Adam died when he was 800 years old. Methuselah died when he was 969 years old. A six-day creation or a 969 year-old person: this was not historical evidence.
And so it went, layer after layer of literalism, peeled away from my belief system. And all this time the literalists in my tribe – the Southern Baptists – were adding tortured layer after tortured layer of alleged proof for their manufactured system of literalism. Turns out creationism is a lie supported by multiple lies that are deeply rooted in a harsh rationalism and a deep commitment to a kind of theological positivism that went out of style a century ago but to this day props up the Southern Baptist kingdom.
And that is I how I abandoned fundamentalism and settled in the land of the Yankees. My Southern Baptist brethren would not abide my presence as an infidel, heathen, and heretic. Thanks be to God!
Rodney Kennedy has a Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University and 45 years of preaching experience. Among other publications, he is co-author of Will Campbell: Preacher of Reconciliation (Cascade, 2015) and co-editor of Baptists Gathering for the Work of Worship (Pickwick, 2013).