The Bible Study

Posted on April 26, 2010

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When my brother-in-law Curtis asked me if I could fill-in on piano at his Baptist church one Sunday I gladly accepted. I’ve played in church since I was eleven years old, so that was nothing new. What I was most interested in was attending their Bible study before the church service. Curtis was studying hebrew, so I was interesting in discussing the very jewish Book of Hebrews with him and a new group of people from a different denominational background than myself.

When I arrived visibly more enthusiastic than many of the regulars, I learned that the pastor of the church was coming. I must admit to prejudging him for a moment based on my prior experiences with pastors, leaders, and church interns/trainees that “attended” Bible studies with me in high school and would tend to take over the discussion. I checked my skepticism and hoped for the best, feeling somewhat guilty for holding that suspicion in the first place.

Curtis began by reading the chapter in Hebrews where Melchizedek is mentioned. He is an interesting and mysterious figure, and I was glad to be focused on such a rich topic. When no one spoke up, I decided to take advantage of the hospitality they seemed to be extending to their guest and kicked off the conversation by pointing out that the passage in Hebrews seems to assume that the readers and writer know more about Melchizedek than can be found in the handful of verses in Genesis and Psalms that refer to him. I deferred to Curtis as the student of Hebrew culture and language, and he began to share about the process of midrash and other relevant context… for about a minute. That’s when the pastor stepped in to compare the book’s process of explaining Christ within a jewish context to explaining Creationism using nature. He told the group about a scientist that he had been “working on.” He explained that you have to win them over to creationism gradually.

This digression seemed odd to me on several levels. First of all, we weren’t talking about evolution. Then I was struck by the way he was explaining his lengthy process to try to win a scientist over to his belief that the world is very young and evolution is impossible. This was not the gospel, Christ and Him crucified, it was instead a model of natural history that he was trying to share. Throughout his retelling of their phone conversations it became clear that he believed that evolution and Christianity were completely incompatible, and that the scientist had to give up his scientific understanding to come to Christ. In my opinion, he set himself up for a more difficult battle than Paul faced on Mars Hill, and was unintentionally building a huge barricade around the message of salvation.

Around the third or fourth time that the pastor changed the subject from Hebrews to Creationism I noticed that the book he was tapping on to add impact to his key words was a Bible commentary by Alister McGrath*. As he was saying that people didn’t come from monkeys (a statement that betrays a lack of knowledge of biological evolution) he was tapping the name of a well-respected theologian and microbiologist who embraced Darwinian ideas on speciation and is neither an idiot nor an atheist.

This pastor claimed to have studied the issue, but he didn’t seem to realize that many people don’t fit into his two sided chart of Christian young-earth creationists and godless evolutionists. I was also kind of alarmed at the certainty and authority he seemed to put into his statements while lacking a basic understanding of what he was arguing against. This attitude unfortunately carried over to the following sermon at the church where he seriously misrepresented a bill being introduced in the House Of Representatives that he felt would have forced him as a pastor to register as a lobbyist. Again, this was out of his field of study and his presentation lacked accuracy, coherency, and relevance. He really didn’t get into speaking much about spiritual matters that day, so I can’t tell you whether or not he was more knowledgeable and rigorous on those issues, but I can say his credibility was seriously damaged to me. This is not simply because I disagreed with him on the age of the earth, it’s because he didn’t engage the real argument and didn’t seem to bother taking the time to come up with support for his views. I expect more from those who teach and hold positions of influence, and I think these tactics are harmful and embarrassing to Christians. This incident also highlights the lack of awareness on the issues in the origins debate and how the false dichotomy has continued to intensify.

As for that church, they have a new pastor now and I’ve heard that he is doing a fine job.

*Alister McGrath was the theologian featured in the movie “Expelled.” I recommend his book “The Dawkins Delusion?” for a thoughtful rebuttal of several of Dawkins’s attacks on faith, some of which he shared in the film. “Expelled” advocated teaching Intelligent Design in schools, but McGrath clearly does not support it. From his book: “The real problem here, however, is the forced relocation of God by doubtless well-intentioned Christian apologists into the hidden recessed of the universe, beyond evaluation or investigation. Now that’s a real concern. For this strategy is still used by the intelligent design movement-a movement, based primarily in North America, that argues for an “intelligent Designer” based on gaps in the scientific explanations, such as the “irreducible complexity” of the world. It is not an approach which I accept, either on scientific or theological grounds. In my view, those who adopt this approach make Christianity deeply -and needlessly- vulnerable to scientific progress.”
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