‘Is Genesis History?’ Is Not Your Dad’s Creationist Documentary

‘Is Genesis History?’ Is Not Your Dad’s Creationist Documentary February 22, 2017

Is_Genesis_HistoryThe very word “creationism” elicits mockery, even from Christians. As a shorthand for “young-Earth” or “young-age creationism,” it’s become a key feature of fundamentalist stereotypes, usually dismissed with laughter rather than engaged. Those who reject the modern concept of deep time and believe (as most Christians prior to the last couple of centuries have) that the Earth and universe are mere millennia old are frequently compared with flat-earthers and labeled “science-deniers.”

But fellow Christians fond of dismissing young-age creationists should pause a moment and understand that this issue isn’t as one-sided as they imagine. They also need to admit that the often-deserved ridicule of creationism’s cornier corners has its own edge of dishonesty. It can be a cop-out that shields otherwise intellectually credible Christians from addressing the real and thorny problem of reconciling the Bible’s world-picture with that of secular history and science. And it is a problem.

Recently, my wife and I watched a new film that makes the case for young-age creationism in a way that will defy stereotypes and dismissal. “Is Genesis History?,” which is in theaters Thursday for one night, is not your dad’s creationist documentary. First of all, the production is whip-smart. As Doug Wilson notes, this was crucially important, because the high ridicule-potential of past creationist productions has made it easy for critics to avoid their arguments. This time, those arguments come through beautifully, and the scientific and philosophical rigor of this new brand of creationism will surprise many critics.

The 90-minute program is hosted by Del Tackett, well known by many for his role in “The Truth Project” and known by me and a lucky group of other young people as onetime professor at the Focus on the Family Institute. Directed by Thomas Purifoy, it features experts like Harvard-educated geologist Kurt Wise, biochemist Todd Wood, geologists Steven Austin and Andrew Snelling, microbiologist Kevin Anderson, taphonomist Arthur Chadwick, Astronomer Danny Faulkner, theologian George Grant, and others (you can find the full list of interviewees here).

The content is too broad to fully describe in one blog entry, but in brief, here’s what the documentary does:

  • Makes the case that Genesis and the whole Bible requires a recent creation. Admittedly, this won’t interest many viewers who don’t already accept the authority and inspiration of Scripture, but since most of the audience will probably be religious, this is important. Christians today who’re eager to maintain intellectual credibility tend to airlift a couple of Genesis’ foundational doctrines (like a literal Adam) out of the text and pretend that all of the rest can easily be reinterpreted in harmony with modern earth science without the slightest damage to the overall story of the Bible. Up-and-coming Orthodox-creationist spitfire Seraphim Hamilton has written exhaustively at his blog on why this isn’t the case. Pay special attention to this entry on why a historical understanding of Genesis 1-11 is critical to the rest of the Bible. Andrew Snelling makes a similar case here.
  • Clarifies what “science” can and can’t do. Science in modern parlance is frequently anthropomorphized. When we say that “science tells us something,” what we really mean is that a certain set of academics with a certain set of presuppositions and easy access to publishing have mostly agreed on an interpretation of the raw evidence. Science doesn’t “tell us” anything. And in the context of origins, science isn’t even a distinct discipline. Rather, it is a branch of history, which itself has two definitions. There is the actual history that took place in time and space and left behind marks and scratches in rocks, and there is the discipline of studying those marks and scratches to try and work out what made them. Historical science is merely a naturalistic approach to studying and discovering what happened in history. And it’s intimately based on a philosophy about how the natural world works. Gradualism, the idea that geologic and planetary processes happen slowly, and uniformitarianism, the idea that present processes can be extrapolated into the deep past to reliably yield data about earth history, underpin this branch of what we call science. Without them, it falls apart.
  • Argues for catastrophism and flood geology. “Is Genesis History?” opens with a vignette of Mount St. Helens-related geology that we know for a fact was created mere decades ago, in the space of a few days. Dr. Tackett then points out that this geology mirrors the Grand Canyon and other features of the North American continent traditionally attributed to millions of years of gradual processes. He then argues that Genesis chapter 6 is the key to harmonizing Genesis chapter 1 with earth history. Was the landscape we now see throughout the world the result of a little water over a lot of time, or a lot of water over a little time? Young-age creationism relies on this alternative interpretation of the geologic record as mostly the result of the global Flood of Noah’s day. Proponents interpret all strata from the Proterozoic through the Mesozoic (traditionally 2.5 billion through roughly 65 million years ago) as the product of several years’ sedimentary deposition during and immediately following this biblical event around 4,500 years ago. (Cenozoic fossils, according to most young-age creationists, represents regional floods and other catastrophes since Noah’s time.) Geologists like Snelling and Wise make impressive cases for why many of Earth’s geologic features are best explained by a recent mega-catastrophe, not by slow processes. The film even offers examples of recently-formed rocks yielding vastly inflated and disparate ages when subjected to standard radiometric dating techniques. In other words, knowing the history of the rocks is at least as important as knowing how to count the decomposition of radioactive isotopes.
  • Explains the creationist “orchard of life” view of zoology, compared with the Darwinian “tree of life” model. The experts interviewed in this program embrace the newish idea current among creationist writers that a great deal of microevolution has taken place since the Flood, and rapid speciation within created kinds (or “baramins) accounts for much of the animal diversity we see in the world today. Todd Wood argues that the modern taxonomic level of family, rather than genus or species, best represents the original kinds created by God. For example, felines such as lions, leopards, tigers, and house cats all probably share a common ancestor, as do canines like wolves, foxes and pugs, lamniform sharks like the great white and the megalodon, and all falconidae birds. The various fossilized iterations of humankind probably fall within the genus, Homo, since our family includes chimpanzees (these classifications are somewhat arbitrary). In other words, today’s creationists strongly endorse a form of evolution–one characterized by rapid diversification within biological limits determined by initial genetic potential. Black and white moths, finches with different beak sized, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria are no problem. What they deny is the kind of evolution that creates new information, new kinds, and transitions from one distinct form of life to another.
  • Shows how traditional evolutionary science has failed to make sense of the fossil record. These creationist scientists contend that what appears in Earth’s sedimentary layers (as opposed to what’s depicted in tidy columns in textbooks), doesn’t support Darwinian evolution. Organisms do not neatly transition from one to another. Rather, life is almost uniformly preserved in “snapshots” which turn out to be complete and predictable forms of animal and plant life. The great scandal of the fossil record is that almost no defensible “transitional forms” or “missing links” have come to light, despite a century and-a-half of searching. What we have, instead, are complete and beautifully-preserved ecosystems which appear, disappear, and are replaced by different ecosystems–usually from higher elevations. Creationist geologists propose a theory of ecological zones successively buried by tidal Flood waters as the best explanation for the erosion-free layer-upon-layer we actually find in most of the fossil record.

There is a great deal more content in this documentary, including conversations with a Hebraist and a theologian on why the “days” of Genesis 1 and the events of Genesis 1-3 should be taken historically, as well as a segment on astronomy and the reputed problem of starlight and time for young-age creationists.

But let me emphasize this: whether you agree with the arguments in this introductory tour or not, you will not be able to simply ridicule or dismiss them. The lineup of experts are impressively-credentialed, albeit on the fringe of modern science, and they deserve to be seriously engaged, not laughed out of the room. Few of them are new to this. Most already have bodies of rigorous work that demand an answer, not a closed mind.

And as a young-age creationist myself (oops, I’m out of the closet!) I appreciate the genuine humility and conciliatory spirit of each interviewee. This film refuses to trade on hyperbole or evangelical fan-service, and no one overstates the case for a young Earth. All admit that this is a scientific movement in its infancy, and countless problems remain to be solved. This is no minor tweak they’re proposing. If young-age creationists are right, we face nothing less than a massive, multi-generational mistake near the heart of science. And I hardly need to confess that they–we–have our work cut out for us. The reception will not be friendly. But I’m grateful to the makers of this film for showing that it’s possible to adopt a distinctly and fully biblical story of the world without becoming a knuckle-dragging obscurantist. This debate hinges on first principles that are seldom discussed. Thinking more clearly about these and being prepared to justify and defend them is good for everyone, whether your Earth is old or young.

Image: Compass Cinema

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