Beowulf vs. the Tyrannosaurus Rex; or how young-earth creationism jumped the shark
When I was young, in middle school through high school, I was willing to defend young-earth, six-day creationism with a certain amount of zeal. I recall writing a paper, perhaps for a ninth grade class, arguing against an evolutionary interpretation of fossils using, believe it or not, Christian comic books for a source. As a college student, I attended both Moody Bible Institute and Bryan College, both institutions known for creationist beliefs. As a communications major at Moody and as an English major at Bryan, I wasn’t interested the creationism debate, which was an extension of not being interested in science in general. I suppose that this disinterest could have been taken as unwillingness to engage in the apologetics of creationism, but the arguments bored me. I did have science requirements to meet as a student at Bryan, where I did passably well in Consumer Chemistry and I squeaked a C- in Earth Science. I do remember going fossil hunting one day for Earth Science, and that was fun, but if we were given a creationist interpretation on what we had found, I don’t remember it at all. My memory may not match with what my fellow alumni would recall, but even though we were at Bryan, I don’t remember much discussion of creationism outside of a study of the Scopes Trial as a cultural event.
In the beginnings of graduate school, I took a while to get caught up with what was current in literary study. Deconstructionism and postmodernism had come into their own at the very time I was beginning my Ph.D. study. I was often frustrated with what seemed to be simplistic, academically immature responses to these theories, so that I began to say to trusted friends that too often, evangelicals had excellent answers to 60-year old questions. The problem for the evangelicals was that (and is that) no one was asking those questions anymore.
Those 60-year old questions, as far as I was concerned, included the question of origins. So what if you could prove that God created the world exactly as one kind of literal reading of Genesis 1 would suggest? We no longer live in an era in which there is only one god. There are plenty of people who believe that god created the universe, and many of them are not Christians. Thus, I concluded that the debate about origins was simply irrelevant.
I still believe the debate about origins is, primarily, culturally irrelevant. I bet that a survey of the US today would find that most people believe in some form of creationism, but amorphously—it hasn’t led them to a conclusion about Christ. But the origins debate has also become more polarized, between the new atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and the young-earth, six-day creationists, in particular Ken Ham and his Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.
The new atheists are not the cutting edge of current cultural thinking. They do have some influence, but largely with those still committed to the remnants of progressive modernism from the early to mid-twentieth century. Dawkins and his ilk are not only opposed to Christianity, though Christianity is their main target; they are also opposed to postmodernism. Some of the best responses to new atheism have, therefore, come from those professionally familiar with postmodernist thought. Want to read a good response to Dawkins and the new atheists? Consider reading Terry Eagleton and Marilynne Robinson, writers who understand what the current arguments are about.
The other extreme end of the argument can be represented by the Creation Museum. They believe that all of creation is approximately six thousand years old and that all of creation was all created in a week’s time. Lest my summary be thought to be distorting, do feel free to check for yourself: http://www.answersingenesis.org/about/faith.
While I do believe that God is the creator of the universe, and therefore of the earth, and of all life, as I’ve indicated earlier, this is no belief unique to the Christian faith. Yet I no longer believe in young-earth creationism, and it was my visit to the Creation Museum in 2007 which solidified my change of thinking. For the most part, I do not intend to discuss evolution. The problems with the creationism of the Creation Museum extend beyond a disagreement over biology. The museum is wrong on geology, astronomy, physics, natural history, and literary interpretation as well.
For example, back in August and September, astronomers identified a new (to us) supernova in the Pinwheel Galaxy which would be briefly visible here with the aid of a good pair of binoculars. The supernova is 21 million light years away. The location of the supernova can only be determined by the time the light has taken to travel from its location to us here on earth. Light travels 186,000 miles per second. If we calculate the number of seconds per year and multiply 186,000 miles to a yearly distance and then multiply that result by 21 million, that tells us something about where the supernova is: At least 123,179,616,000,000,000,000 miles away (give or take a few feet). Here’s the point: The supernova has to be no less than 21 million years old to be no less than that many miles away. The Creation Museum has an answer to the light speed problem (http://www.answersingenesis.org/assets/pdf/tj/v17n2_cosmology.pdf), mostly using references to other creationist journals. Their answer is that the speed of light used to be much, much faster and now it is slowing down.
However, the physicists who have won this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics have shown that the universe is both expanding and accelerating. If the speed of light has been slowing down (the creationist thesis) but the expansion of the universe has been accelerating (the Nobel physicists’ conclusion), then it would seem that the supernova would have to be 21 million light years away/old or further/older rather than 6000 years old or less. To believe the creationist version of what is going on, the light from the supernova would have to be simultaneously slowing down and catching up with our position in the universe. And the slowing down of the speed of light would have to occur at such a rate that what seems to be 21 million light years away is really no more than 6000 years old.
Suppose that were possible. Then what would we say about a galaxy which is 300 million light years away, as some galaxies have been calculated to be? The rate of deceleration of the light from the galaxy would have to be significantly greater still than the rate of deceleration of the light from the supernova 21 million lights years away.
Put simply, I don’t believe the young-earth creationist account for light years, which means that the supernova is both 21 million light years away and 21 million years old, the star from which the supernova formed would have been significantly older than 21 million years old (what is being dated, the supernova, is both an object and an event with its own time of origin), and the galaxy 300 million light years away is at least 300 million years old.
One creationist answer to all of this is that God created the universe with apparent age, so that the light from the galaxy 300 million light years away has always been “on” at earth or closely on its way. If so, if God created the universe in such a way that the evidence it provides runs contrary to the act that God performed, then I do not see how the creationist can fault physicists and other scientists for accepting the evidence as presented. It would seem to make God a deceiver to depend upon “creation with apparent age” or light already on its way as answers to the counter evidence the creation itself presents for billions of years of age.
Speaking for myself, by the way, it does not diminish my sense of awe of divine creation at all to think that I can go outside on any given clear night and see something which has existed for 21 million years.
Another central claim of the Creation Museum is that dinosaurs existed at the time of Adam and Eve’s creation, from 6000 years ago towards our time (http://creationmuseum.org/). Yes, as the museum’s information will acknowledge, dinosaurs are extinct, but they became extinct after Noah’s flood and within the time of recorded history.
There is a degree of ludicrousness that makes it hard to respond seriously to where the Creation Museum and its sponsoring organization say that history has recorded dinosaurs, but, according to them, ancient stories of dragons are really stories of encounters with dinosaurs: http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/am/v6/n4/dragon-legends. Let me point out, as I discuss the problems with this association of dinosaurs with dragons, that I have not found adequate academic research on the subject of dragons as such. I would suspect, without firm evidence, that ancient people may indeed have encountered fossils and remains of dinosaurs, and from seeing such remains created legends of the dragons of their cultures. Dragons are indeed widespread in ancient cultural records.
But the wide range of references to dragons is not quite the same thing as a depth of cultural references to dragons. There are plenty of dragons available in Chinese culture today, but you will not find any Chinese person acknowledging their existence as living creatures. Suppose you were to use a concordance and look up all biblical references to “dragons” and “leviathan.” In the King James Bible, there are 34 references to dragons, most of them in the Psalms and prophetical books, and 4 references to leviathan. Most of the references treat dragons and leviathans as sea creatures, and most are in passages in which the references are symbolic or metaphorical. There are enough references to be interesting for a focus of study, but where are the references in Genesis through Nehemiah? A sprinkling, but none asserting the presence of an actual creature. Given the range of types of dinosaurs we know to have existed, where are they in the historical passages of the Bible? If tyrannosaurs, brontosauruses, and triceratopses were roaming around at the time when the Israelites were settling Canaan, wouldn’t we have even one record of it within the Bible?
Wouldn’t you post a status update on your Facebook page if you had seen a living triceratops today? Or at least a pterodactyl? Were these creatures so common during the time of the Hebrew judges that they never once thought to mention them? We can read about the birds and the sheep and the cattle the ancient Hebrews had, and I would think any ancient shepherd would have had a story to tell if any carnivorous dinosaur, or dragon, were in the neighborhood of his flocks. Or, for that matter, any brontosaurus in the area of a grain field.
Look again at the link I’ve posted above. Among the legends the museum references for evidence is the story of Beowulf. Take a moment and google “Beowulf” and “dinosaur” and look through the results. There is now a creationist interpretation of Beowulf, that it is non-fiction, presenting a concluding account of Beowulf battling a dragon-dinosaur.
While literary scholars do not have a single interpretation of Beowulf’s battle with the dragon, no scholars, including Christians like J.R.R.Tolkien, have ever read that battle as a record of an actual event. The story of Beowulf originates in Scandinavia. There are no other texts about Beowulf, but the oldest text refers to Scandinavian kings who did live in the sixth century. Scholars believe that the story developed through oral transmission through several centuries. The single existing manuscript of the story, which is currently on display in the British Library, was written in the tenth or eleventh century in Old English by a person whose people migrated to England from Scandinavia. The writer is known today as the Beowulf poet because his name is impossible to identify. We can tell that the writer was a Christian, and his stance is that he is recording a story important to the culture, but which he regards as pagan in its origin and untrue in its details.
And yet, despite the point of view of the Christian who has given us the story, some creationists are willing to overlook the Beowulf poet’s stated explanations for telling the story in order to use it to say that men had encountered dinosaurs as late as 600 A.D. Again, if so, where are the other dinosaurs? How can there be one record of a dinosaur from that time period and pretty much scant records all over Europe in all the decades and centuries from the time of Christ until a millennium later at the poem’s writing. There are legends of dragons, but not enough to account for a number and variety of dinosaurs.
The fundamental theological problem with the Creation Museum is that it paradoxically undercuts the authority of the Bible it purports to uphold. Here’s how: it begins with assumptions that in order for the Bible to be true, certain implications based upon their reading of the Bible must also be true. For their reading of the Bible to be true, dinosaurs must have existed at the time of Genesis (though there is not one word about dinosaurs, or dragons, in Genesis). For dinosaurs to have existed in Genesis, we have to believe that dragons are dinosaurs and are creatures people encountered up until the early European Renaissance. (Some young earth creationists, including those of the Creation Museum, support a record as late as 1496.) Eventually, the assumptions have no foundation in either the Bible or in science or even in scholarly literary analysis. But this superstructure of assumptions has become, for many creationists, of equal authority to the Biblical text itself.
Some young earth creationists will assert that what they are defending is the tradition of Biblical interpretation and authority dating back to the beginnings of time. But readers can find historically important Christians living centuries before the nineteenth century who did not read the first chapter of Genesis as the young earth creationists do. I’ll mention one.
Saint Augustine, from a short book entitled The Literal Meaning of Genesis:
In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.
The point of that for today is that if we can believe that God created the universe without subscribing to young earth creationism, we would be wise to do so. In his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, Galileo asserted that when science seems to be in dispute with the Bible, the Bible is not wrong, the science is not wrong, but the interpretation of the Bible is wrong. I’ll conclude here with recommending a recent book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by John Walton (InterVarsity Press, 2009). It offers an literalist interpretation of Genesis 1 which is amenable to the current status of science and which is consistent with the beliefs of the ancient Hebrews which produced Genesis 1.