08 May 2010

In case you think it's just me...

I despise creationism. I really do. The reason is that it causes brain rot, and deeply undermines the cause of increasing scientific literacy - a project which I and many others regard as critical to the survival of our species (this serious enough for yiz yet?!?). You may think that just because I'm a Christian Atheist, I want to use creationism as a club to batter the theists over the head with. Far from it - I can do that with the resurrection, but the resurrection is not a threat to science education. Many very sensible and competent people believe in the resurrection, and it does not threaten the scientific enterprise. So the debate there is one about history, and we can have a much more convivial discussion without falling out.

Creationism is different. Most Christian Theists have realised for years that Genesis is not a history or science book. It does not tell us how the world came to be as it is. Most of the stories, from Adam and Eve to Noah and Jacob and Joseph, are legend. Even at the time of Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages, it was clear that Genesis was not "true" in a scientific or historical sense. Nowadays we have a very clear scientific paradigm about how the universe, the Earth and humanity came to be, and it is a *long* story, spanning billions, not thousands, of years.
Yet creationism flourishes in some dingy corners of the evangelical Protestant sector in Northern Ireland. Books by the likes of Ken Ham and Stephen Meyer are prominently placed in the Faith Mission bookshop and at meetings. I even ran across them in the Christian Union at QUB when I was a student many years ago. [Please note: I have no problem with most people who consider themselves "creationists" - in the majority of cases this is purely out of ignorance of both science, the bible, and ancient history, and they are simply accepting what they have been told by some idiot that they don't *realise* is an idiot.]

However, some Theists are fighting back, which is really welcome. The Rev Ron Eldson is a Church of Ireland minister, and has written a very good piece called "Rescuing Genesis from the Creationists" [Link here]. I think he is wrong in his assessment of Richard Dawkins (whom I admire a great deal, and secretly I think Ron does too) and the other "New Atheists", but this paper is an excellent response to the sort of cabbage peddled by the "Intelligent Design" movement, fronted by the creationist organisation "The Discovery Institute" of Seattle. Most of the main churches in Northern Ireland accept that evolution is correct (I have contacted the 4 main churches, and not one of them supports a creationist or "Intelligent Design" position).

I would seriously urge my Christian Theist friends to read Ron's article - even if they don't agree with everything on my blog (horrors!), they will find his paper sensible, articulate and well-informed. Unlike the creationist nonsense that claims that Adam and Eve really existed, or that the Earth is a few thousand years old. Ron is a good man and a fantastic advocate for science within Christian circles.

Happy reading!

04 May 2010

Review: Philip Pullman: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

I had planned to post a review of "Should Christians Embrace Evolution?" by now (the answer, according to the authors of that piece, is a resounding "no", and I will have more to say about their arguments, and why I think Christians should embrace a lot more than evolution, later). However, when I ordered SCEE on Amazon, I also made an impulse buy of Philip Pullman's latest novel "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ", which has grabbed every moment that I had set aside as reading time, and more besides. Therefore, the review spot has been temporarily usurped, and I shall have to return to SCEE at a later point.

But not to worry - we do have bigger fish to fry, and the fish don't come much bigger than Pullman. He is already an author of serious distinction: The "His Dark Materials" trilogy being his best-known work. Although pitched primarily at children, they have a universal appeal, raising parallels with J.K. Rowling. However, while Rowling's art (arguably) lies in creating enthralling and captivating stories and scenarios, both familiar and alien, Pullman's genius lies in blurring the boundaries of fiction and reality, and dragging the reader into an alternate reality that may not be all that alternate after all.

And in "Scoundrel", he does not disappoint. This is easily the most intelligent, entertaining and thought-provoking novel I have read in the last five years. It re-tells the familiar story of Jesus Christ, but with the complication of splitting the "Jesus" and the "Christ" into two separate brothers, each with an agenda, and each with his own distinctive role in the drama that unfolds. In parts it is unsettlingly close to the gospels; many Christians will recognise the stories that they have known since Sunday School. Occasionally it is *too* close, almost justifying a literal acceptance of the gospel texts, where scholarship suggests that an embellishment is more likely. But Pullman is not doing this from ignorance or superficiality - it is part of the device.

As we follow the lives of Jesus and his brother Christ, we see that "truth irradiates history" - history does not always run as it should; the historical story is not always the bearer of timeless truth, so from time to time history needs a nudge in the right direction to make sure that the truth gets through. This is Christ's job in the book - to prevent the "facts" getting in the way of the "truth". But in reality, Christ is not a scoundrel as such, but then neither is Jesus purely a good man. The book's title is cunningly deceptive. Christ is doing what he thinks is right; Jesus is doing what he believes. In some ways, Christ is more analytical and thoughtful than Jesus - he has an eye to the consequences. Jesus is trusting, and has a clear notion of the "Kingdom of God", but despite his efforts, that Kingdom, and his God, appear very distant. Christ, under the control of a mysterious stranger with designs of his own, has to touch up the unfolding events to ensure that what becomes known of Jesus is on-message, even if actuality is otherwise.

Biblical literalists will have a fit with this book; they will dismiss it outright. Liberal Christians will smile and nod and be dismissive. Historians will recognise that Pullman is pushing the boat way out, and I'm sure the "Da Vinci Code" squad will set out to rebut its narrative. All of which completely miss the point. Pullman shows us how stories can form. Sometimes there is outside agency - the story *must* be told in a certain way. In other cases, stories simply emerge from a cultural milieu - certain narratives appeal to people at certain times. Memes can go viral. Do any stories relate "the truth" - is there even a truth to grasp? Those of us who care about history will argue that historical facts need to be true; if an event is claimed as historical, that means that it actually happened in a time and place. We would reject the post-modern inanity that reduces history merely to a cognitive device or pseudo-narrative. Sure, we may not *know* what happened in the past to a huge degree of precision, but *something* happened, and history (we like to think) represents our best guess as to that truth.

"Scoundrel" makes us think of these issues, as well as giving a fresh perspective on the Jesus myth that is familiar to all Christians. For the Christian Atheist (of whom there are many), it can feel like a justification of their position. God may not exist, but there is something more wonderful - the world itself. As part of that world, we adopt certain responsibilities and attitudes. Woven through the novel is a powerful indictment of organised religion - a theme that is actually visible in the gospels themselves (most notably in the sublime parable of The Good Samaritan).

I don't wish to spoil Pullman's re-telling. If you are a Christian, whether theist or atheist, you simply must read this book. If you are not a Christian, you too need to read this book, and use it to challenge your world-view, both of religion and of history.