Pitching for a laugh and getting one
June 4, morning: Preached at Glen Mar United Methodist Church, Maryland, an hour out of Washington DC. Large, successful growing: ethos - pluralist. Its senior pastor, my old friend Andy Lunt (now Rev Dr, and it’s a real doctorate too, from England’s as opposed to America’s Oxford) doesn’t have much, make that any, time for creationism. More surprisingly, he says there’s no debate in the United Methodist Church as a whole, at least here on the east coast.
It was Pentecost and I’d already decided to take “Are you talking my language” as my theme when it occurred to me that this gave me a chance to try out an American congregation’s reaction to some creationist writing. The point I was illustrating was this: if we come at Scripture with preconceived agendas, knowing in advance what it “must” say, we will fail to hear what it actually is saying, and be unable to communicate with each other. Instead, we need openness to the Spirit’s guiding. Here’s my text, more or less as I delivered it. I pitched for some of the laughs, others came when I wasn’t expecting them.
My sermon text was overlong and I had to trim it to honour time, but it was very well received. I’d hate to think all those pleasant Americans were just being nice to me.
....let me illustrate my point about Christians failing to communicate in terms of a story from the Bible which takes me to my reasons for being in the US at this time. I am on sabbatical, and working on a project whose focus is the phenomenon of young earth creationism, which puzzles, intrigues and infuriates me in just about equal measure. (laughter) I want to contrast British and American perspectives on this.... My illustration is itself about language; it’s the story of how God asked Adam to give names to all the animals.
Question: given the number of animals there are, would he have had time to complete this task in a single day? For a writer like Hugh Ross, this seems unlikely – he would have to do it at a gabble, and besides some of the animals might have been difficult to track down, they’d have been shy and flown off again while he was thinking of a name. (laughter) So Hugh Ross reckons that Adam took his time over this; Ross wanting to make the point that when Genesis talks about the days of creation it does not necessarily mean day as in period of 24 hours. Ross is, I’m sorry to say this, an old-earther. He’s as Bible-believing as they come, or so he says, he certainly denies evolution as Bible believers do: but he is persuaded by evidence that suggests the earth is a lot more than 6,000 years old, so he goes down the line that the days of creation were actually more like hundreds of thousand of years long.
But for the young-earth scholar Jonathan Sarfati this is heresy. When Genesis talks about days it does mean days of 24 hour hours, and if the Bible says Adam named all the animals, from aardvarks to zebras in a day, then name them he did. How long would it have taken? Sarfati points out that Adam would not have needed to track all the animals down, God did that for him; that he would not have had to give names for the creeping things, insects or arachnids, because these are not mentioned, and fish don’t count. (laughter). He would have named only kinds, not species or varieties, and that leads Sarfati, making assumptions about how intelligent and linguistically skilled Adam was, to conclude that the task of naming the animals would have taken him four hours, allowing him a five minute break at the end of each hour. (huge laugh – that’s the one I wanted.)
My script now says: either this gets a laugh or it doesn’t. biggest laugh of the morning). If it does, say “I am glad that got a laugh”, if not “that would definitely have got a laugh in England, so the fact it didn’t get one here is telling me something”. (as you see, I’d built myself an exit strategy in case my dig at creationists prompted nothing but stony stares: but I didn’t need it..)
Notice two things here. First, Ross and Sarfati both have a prior agenda. For Ross the days of Genesis cannot be literal 24 hour days, so anything which the Bible says was done within in a day and which looks as if it might have taken longer, helps Ross’s cause. For Sarfati the days of Genesis must be literal 24 hour days, so any argument which seems to undermine that has to be dealt with somehow. Secondly, both men are assuming that it is OK to interpret Scripture in the light of modern knowledge about how many animals there actually are and a modern understanding of what language acquisition involves. The word for that is anachronism. It’s like: on the fourth day God created the stars. Some of them, we now know, are millions of light years away, so how come we can see them, if the world is only 6,000 years old? Creationists need to devise some cosmology to explain this; to me, it’s a question of saying – but whoever wrote Genesis didn’t know what a light year was, how big stars are, how far away they are, so it wasn’t an issue for him. Creationists say that the speed of light must have been a whole lot faster back then. (laughter).
If you don’t have those agendas, if you don’t burden yourself with assumptions, what you read in Genesis is a simple story with a challenging point. Men and women are given by God the freedom to shape their world by the use of language. Adam not only names but implicitly classifies, recognises differences and similarities. He sees a lion and gives it a name; then he sees a tiger maybe gives it a name that means “lion-like thing only with stripes”. (laughter) This is how we use language; to give order to our world. I once visited a school for the profoundly deaf, where children were taken from three up. Deaf children are always educationally disadvantaged at first for one obvious reason and for another one that wasn’t obvious to me, and I can still remember gulping as the head teacher told me this one: deaf children, he said, have to be taught that things have names. Once they’ve grasped that one, they can progress at the same rate as hearing children. If you forget everything else I say this morning, remember this. We use language to give things names: and by the names we choose, we shape the world. And it was God who gave and entrusted us with this awesome facility. That’s what Genesis is really saying.
Adam in his unfallen state did this without an agenda and with total clarity of perception. His world will have been perfectly ordered, conceptually speaking: this is what the story tells us. Contrast if you will the way we in our sinful state often order the world to reflect and reinforce an agenda which may be confused, riddled with hate, fear and aggression towards other world views and other kinds of people.
And when that happens, that’s when we stop talking each other’s language. We become imprisoned in our cultural fortresses and can only let each other know we are there by hurling miss – aisles, as I would say: mistles as you would! (laughter at the linguistic play, but appreciation of the theological point too)