Anointed? … Evangelicals and Authority 1 (RJS)

Anointed? … Evangelicals and Authority 1 (RJS) November 3, 2011

I recently received, courtesy of the publisher, a copy of the new book The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age by Randall Stephens, an associate professor of history at Eastern Nazarene College and Karl Giberson, formerly a professor of Physics at Eastern Nazarene. Giberson has now moved on to concentrate on a number of writing projects. In this book Stephens and Giberson examine several different case studies from Ken Ham to Tim LaHaye to explore the manner in which “America’s populist ideals, anti-intellectualism, and religious free market, along with the concept of anointing – being chosen by God to speak for him like the biblical prophets” influence broad ranges of evangelical and fundamentalist beliefs.

If you have found Giberson edgy and rather hard to take at times you will again find Stephens and Giberson edgy and rather hard to take at times in this book. I won’t defend them, and I don’t always agree with them. But the book raises some important questions and takes a hard look at some of the approaches that evangelicals take to the acceptance and evaluation of authority. It is worth reading and worth interacting with.

The first chapter, The Answer Man, is even-handed and well done. In this chapter Stephens and Giberson look at the development of young earth creationism in the twentieth century, the role of Henry Morris, the career of Ken Ham, the rise of Answers in Genesis, and the popular evangelical approach to the question of science, evolution, and the interpretation of Genesis.

Why does Ken Ham have such a large impact and following?

What is his message and why is he accepted?

Although it is certainly true that belief in a young earth was the default position throughout much of Christian history, this was because there was no evidence to the contrary, not because a young earth was of any particular necessary theological significance. In the 1700’s, 1800’s and early 1900’s many Christians accepted the idea of an old earth with little difficulty. Day-age theories and gap theories were sufficient to reconcile the new developments in geology and paleontology with the text of Genesis. Young earth creationism invoking Flood Geology was introduced by George McCready Price, a Seventh Day Adventist committed to a young earth. Ronald Numbers tells this story quite well in his book The Creationists. George Marsden’s books on American fundamentalism and evangelicalism provide another good source. In 1960 John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris published The Genesis Flood, bringing Price’s flood geology into mainstream fundamentalism and evangelicalism.

Henry Morris, with a Ph.D. in hydraulic engineering and a faculty position at Virginia Tech brought a level of credibility to the question of Genesis, the flood, and flood geology. Morris took this seriously. He was convinced, as many are today, that his theory could be proven scientifically and he set out to establish a research institute, The Institute for Creation Research (ICR), to provide a sound scientific basis for his view of the flood and creation. Although this effort has been unsuccessful, and in my opinion was doomed from the start, it was a laudable goal. Given the strength of his convictions Morris set out to prove, or to develop the corps of trained workers who could provide the intellectual labor to prove, his hypothesis and demonstrate that science and a young earth interpretation of Genesis are mutually consistent.

Ken Ham is a more interesting case. He showcases the phenomenon that Stephens and Giberson set out to explore in their book. He is more successful than Morris, has a larger continuing impact, and took a very different approach. Ham was born, raised, and educated to teach school in Australia. He became convinced of the importance of young earth creationism (YEC) while teaching in Australia and came to the US in 1987 to spread the message.  Ham came from the Creation Science Foundation in Australia and took a position with ICR as something of a missionary of creationism. He was not really interested in scientific research. While Morris had a top down approach, Ken Ham has a bottom up approach. He became the personable populizer of the YEC position at ICR emphasizing the evils of evolution and cast this as a culture war.

Filled with cartoons, caricatures, and simplistic generalizations, the book [The Lie: Evolution] offered an easy accessible, and entertaining presentation of the evils of evolution. Cute characters standing on the Bible showed the importance of a biblical foundation for life. Ham’s rhetoric, both in person and in his writings, was militant: “There is a war going on in society – a very real battle. The war is Christianity versus humanism, but we must wake up to the fact that, at the foundational level, it’s really creation versus evolution. (p. 41)

In 1994 Ham left ICR with the blessing of Morris and started Answers in Genesis, setting up his headquarters in Boone county Kentucky. His success has been phenomenal and his influence huge. His goal to fan the flames of the culture war to drive Christians back to the bible and or to keep them there. Web traffic to the AiG website grew to 25000 a day in 2008 and a quarter of a million people visited his Creation Museum in the first six months  after it’s opening in 2007 (p. 44). Ham speaks frequently, appears on national news shows and was featured in a PBS series on evolution. He is a force to be reckoned with, a charismatic speaker with a populist message, and a firm warning and message from God. Many evangelicals and fundamentalists listen. His curriculum is used by home schools, Christian schools, and in many Sunday school classes for children, youth, and adults.

Ham’s simple message resonates with fundamentalist Christians in America and around the world. Their faith is under attack by evolution. By undermining faith in God’s word, particularly Genesis, modern science is destroying the foundations of civil – meaning “Christian” society. The result is widespread anarchy, immorality, and nihilism. (p. 45)

Ken Ham, with no scientific credentials, no credentials in biblical scholarship, no evidence, and no research program, has become the front person, the spokesman for a large segment of evangelicalism. He proves nothing, he asserts what he finds to be truth and tells a story to make it so. He is a charismatic speaker on a mission and has become for many the authority on the evil of evolution and the dishonesty of modern science. Ken Ham and his organization Answers in Genesis have become “powerful shapers of popular opinion in America’s vast evangelical subculture.

Ken Ham is an anointed and respected authority in much of American evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

One of the premises of Stephens and Giberson is that the broader evangelical culture has become enamored of the charismatic individual who can tell a good story, do it in a flashy and entertaining fashion, and has a message easily reduced to simple black and white points. Ken Ham is such an individual.

Why is Ken Ham believed?

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