Bryan College and the Grey Lady

Bryan College is in the news again. A recent New York Times article describes the hullabaloo over creationism and college creeds. But here’s the problem: journalist Alan Blinder seems all too willing to cast today’s struggles as only warmed-over reiterations of the 1925 Scopes trial. That doesn’t do justice to the history nor does it help today’s readers understand the kaleidoscopic world of evangelical higher education.

ILYBYGTH readers will remember that Bryan has been back-and-forth on the issue of Adam and Eve. The school has always been friendly to young-earth creationism. But President Stephen Livesay pushed through a clarification of the school’s traditional creed. From here on out, faculty members must affirm their belief in a literal, historic Adam and Eve. Most recently, the college has been sued by two faculty members who have refused to sign the clarified statement of faith.

I’m glad to see that journalist Alan Blinder has paid some attention to the controversy in the pages of the New York Times. But I can’t help but complain about Blinder’s framing of today’s story. For instance, Blinder calls today’s fight a “similar debate” to the 1925 Scopes trial. He says, “The continuing debate at Bryan College and beyond is a reminder of how divisive the issues of the Scopes trial still are…”

I’m not complaining because Blinder does not name the two professors who are actually suing Bryan—Stephen Barnett and Steven DeGeorge. I’m not complaining because Blinder focuses instead on Brian Eisenback, who had become controversial due to his evolutionary creationism.

No, I’m complaining because this sort of coverage implies that the issue at hand is the teaching of evolution or the teaching of creationism. I’m complaining because so many writers—not just Blinder—feel a need to call every new example of evolution/creation controversy “Scopes II” or something similar.

It would be entirely plausible, I think, for a casual reader to walk away from Blinder’s article thinking that Bryan College is becoming a religious school that teaches creationism, when it used to be a more secular school that taught evolution. It would also be plausible for readers to think that the issue at Bryan College today is the same issue that motivated the Scopes trial so many years ago. Both of these are woefully misleading implications.

First of all, Bryan College is now and has always been a friendly environment for young-earth creationism. Until recently, Bryan hosted the Center for Origins Research and Education. This center was lead in turn by prominent YEC intellectuals such as Kurt Wise and Todd Wood. Today’s controversy at Bryan College is decidedly not between a “creationist” mindset and a “secular” one. Today’s controversy is between a pluralist sort of big-tent creationism and a stricter young-earth-only vision. The school may be tightening its definition of acceptable sorts of creationism, but that is a very different thing than imposing creationism on a pluralist school.

Also, the controversy in 1925 was about whether or not evolution could be banned from public schools. As I argued in my 1920s book and in my upcoming Other School Reformers, due to such controversies, many conservative Christians founded schools like Bryan College. But today’s debate is vastly different. The debate today is over what sort of creationism counts as creationism at a private evangelical college.

Just because it brings journalists from New York down to Dayton again, there is no need to imply that this is somehow a return engagement for Clarence Darrow, H.L. Mencken, William Jennings Bryan, and John Scopes. What we’re seeing today is worlds apart from what Dayton saw in 1925.

 

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Required Reading: The Big Tent of Creationism

Creationism ruffles feathers.  As the belligerent atheist Richard Dawkins memorably quipped, those who do not believe in evolution must be “ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).”  There is comfort in Dawkins’ dismissal.  An insightful article in the most recent Christianity Today, however, probes deeper into the complexities of creationism.

I still remember my first introduction to the world of creation science.  I was a staunch outsider, having had little interaction with creationism until my mid-30s.  In graduate school, reading Ron Numbers’ The Creationists, I was astounded to learn that nearly 50% of American adults agree with a young-earth creationism, according to Gallup polls.  And one-quarter of those creationists have college degrees.

Much of my academic research has been devoted to puzzling out how such a thing is possible.  Since the 1920s (my Scopes book now available in paperback!), creationism has entrenched itself in schools, colleges, and alternative scientific organizations.  It has become a viable way for millions of Americans to understand the origins of life on Earth.

Glib dismissals like those of Richard Dawkins do not help us understand this cultural phenomenon.  What will help are thoughtful, sympathetic explorations like that of Tim Stafford in July’s Christianity Today.  In “A Tale of Two Scientists,” Stafford explores the lives and careers of two evangelical scientists, Darrell Falk and Todd Wood.  Falk is an evolutionary creationist, Wood a young-earth creationist.

Falk describes his falling away from his upbringing in the Nazarene Church.  As a graduate student, he had fallen in love with the beauty of genetics, and soon found himself estranged from the church.  When he watched his two daughters growing up, he knew he wanted to find them a church home like the one he had known.  He was worried about a cold reception from church members, but as a tenure-track scientist at Syracuse University, he looked for a church he could join.  At first, he was nervous.  As Stafford tells the story,

“Falk went alone, like a spy, into the church for a worship service.

“After the service, he found himself surrounded by friendly faces. They seemed delighted that he was a professor at Syracuse. Falk went home and told his wife, ‘We might have a church after all.’

“So it proved to be. Though the church certainly didn’t believe in evolution, and came to know that Falk did, they never bothered about it. ‘That church, God’s gift to us, built a bridge to us and welcomed us just as we were, gradual creation perspective and all.’ The pastor helped Falk as he found his way to a fuller, more robust faith, eventually asking him to teach a Sunday school class for young adults.”

Wood had a very different upbringing and career.  As he explains in the article, he never moved away from the assumption that the Bible’s description of a six-day creation tells the real story of the origins of life.  But that did not mean that he was somehow ignorant of evolution.  As Stafford writes,

“The first human genome sequence was published the year that Wood began graduate school, providing strong evidence for evolution. The DNA for chimps and humans was virtually the same. Traces of common origins were everywhere: Humans even possessed a broken version of the gene that lizards and birds use to produce eggs. Wood remained fully committed to a six-day creation—he says he never doubted it for a minute—because he saw no other way to read the Bible. But that didn’t keep him from recognizing that evolution had powerful attestation.”

The two men have very different ideas about the origins of life.  Yet they can both describe themselves as “creationists.”  And, unlike the harsh denunciations of critics like Dawkins, neither scientist is stupid, insane, or ignorant.  Rather, their relationships to mainstream science have been profoundly shaped by their religious beliefs.  This does not mean they have been brainwashed or indoctrinated.  Nor does it mean they are anti-science.  Rather, they came to very different conclusions about the need to reconcile science and religion, all within the big tent of creationism.

We do not have to agree with their conclusions in order to recognize the intellectual complexities of their positions.  If we hope to understand Fundamentalist America, it will help to dig deeper than Dawkins’ brand of simplistic denunciation.