A Friendly Open Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson
on Science, the Bible, & Creationism

Heavily revised Saturday, January 16, 2016

Dr. Tyson,

First of all, I’m a big fan of your work.  I enjoy watching, listening to, and considering everything I have found where you are speaking.  So I begin with a “thank you” and appreciation.

Along with that, I am not a scientist and will not attempt to speak as though I am one. I am, however, a trained and experienced biblical scholar, and I’m writing to ask you a favor.  It would be helpful if you would show more nuance and awareness when you speak out of your field of expertise about biblical texts.  Frankly, when you speak about the Bible, you don’t sound any different than many conservative Christians who speak about science.  I.e., you sound just as ignorant.

In a previous post (as well as another), I evaluated some features of a popular fundamentalist approach to “The Bible and Science” by many Christians today. My concern was not so much science, but how Christians of all stripes approach, understand, interpret, and present the Bible. Here, I want to sharpen that concern and speak directly to you, Dr. Tyson, a leading scientist who continually makes comments about the Bible as though you have some right to do so.  Certainly, I would like a reply, although I will not hold my breath that you will do so.  Even so, I will still ask a couple of questions as though as though you might.

Context:  Moyers and Tyson

First, for others reading this open letter, I need to provide some context, so I will slip into 3rd person here:  In January (2014), Bill Moyers interviewed the well-spoken and entertaining astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space and a research associate in the department of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. This popular speaker reprised the Nova series, Cosmos (of Carl Sagan fame), and has appeared on many platforms speaking for the advancement of science in education.

As an advocate of intelligent and responsible handling of the Bible, I want to go on record, first of all, that the interview with Bill Moyers was engaging and worthy of discussion. I would urge every Christian everywhere who is interested in this topic to watch this interview in its entirety, maybe multiple times. You might or might not agree, but that is not the point.  I personally consider this a much better approach than the two previous approaches I evaluated above in the third paragraph. What follows is actually three interviews combined into one, and is 71 minutes long. Here it is in its entirety:

My Questions

Now, Dr. Tyson, having encouraged this with enthusiasm, I’m about to ask you a few questions.  However, I want to state clearly that I long ago (in my late teens) disavowed any association with the “young earth creationist” positions (so, I am not at all defending that position), nor am I defending any other so-called “biblical-scientific explanation” of Genesis chapters 1-2. (I’ve already stated elsewhere that Genesis is not talking about that and also that Genesis 1 and 2 present two different stories of creation, which means that not even the original authors/compilers of Genesis were concerned about presenting “the one right scientific view of beginnings”). Furthermore, I did not arrive at my positions about Genesis because of any scientific arguments against fundamentalist views of it.  I arrived where I am because of literary and historical understandings of how ancient texts of all kinds work.

So, I am not challenging your science.  I am asking you, though, why you don’t take the same care in how you characterize ancient biblical texts?  Not as a “believer”;  that is not the point.  But simply as someone who understands and respects the value of reading ancient literature contextually in light of the genres and historical realities they attempt to address. 

So now, to my questions. And to do this, I will highlight only one portion of your comments from the video above (not at all implying that they should be taken out of the context of the larger speech). Here’s a short clip from the above presentation:

Here are my questions.

First, do you think it is just possible that you are doing the very thing with the Bible that you are asking Christians not to do with science?  You later say (after this clip), that the science classroom should deal with scientific issues. That if just fine. But in this clip, you are giving opinions about the nature, purpose, early understanding, and proper interpretation of a biblical story, as though you are a qualified interpreter of these ancient texts.   On the one hand, you forbid others to speak in your classroom, but now you are quite willing to speak in theirs.  I find this hypocritical.

For example, when you say that not until science came along did Christians start reinterpreting the Bible as not being literal on the creation:   that is simply not correct. I’ve commented at length on this before, so I won’t repeat it here. Figurative and metaphorical interpretations of various parts of biblical literature are a part of the very fabric of that literature from its inception. There exist all kinds of figurative and theological applications of earlier biblical material even within the Bible. Even of the creation.  Using your criteria, if you want to speak about biblical texts, don’t you think you should do so with all proper regard for the contextual study of those texts, just as you are asking for the sake of the study of science?  I think this is a fair request.

Second, do you think perhaps you end up forcing a shallow and literalistic reading of the Bible as a straw man?  Whether you intend to or not, you are basically saying:  “Anybody reading this ancient story would say __X__.” I’ve heard biblical literalists say that kind of nonsense all my life, and it always irritates me.  So now, you’re doing the same thing.  Also, when you talk about the stars falling in Revelation you sound a great deal like biblical literalists (which atheistic scientists often do, since they are generally fighting a particular group or particular approach).  Rather than understanding the theological nature of apocalyptic literature, you have just adopted the approach of the literalists.   Actually, apocalyptic literature at its heart is less an attempt to describe the reality of nature than a use of the observable world to find meaning and hope in hopeless situations. You almost speak as if those poor dumb people writing the original material way back then had no deeper theological sensitivities or purpose than a spewing out of a shallow and mere literal view of the world.  The fact is, such texts were not written as scientific statements, and not even all of those readers took them literally  (e.g., Philo and Origen from my previous articles).

Is it possible that, just saying it the way you do shows that you don’t understand these texts and that you are unqualified to tell me how I would or should read them?  If it works that way for science, why not for biblical literature?

What about showing sensitivity and responsibility in handling ancient texts contextually according to their genre and nature—I’m sure you agree with this in principle. Biblical literalists are horribly guilty of this offense against their own literature; why must you fall into to the same trap? It does not serve anyone, let alone the discussion, if both sides of the debate are irresponsible with the “texts” to which they are referring.

I enjoy listening to you as a scientist, but as an interpreter of the Bible, you remind me of the ones you are fighting;  and I have no more interest in listening to you about the Bible that I do to Ken Ham (of the Creation Museum in Ohio) or any other fundamentalist “creation scientist” about either the Bible or science.  You both end up sounding the same.

Staying Religious

But finally, you make one comment at about the 45.55 mark:

If you’re going to stay religious at the end of the conversation, God has to be more to you than just where science has yet to tread.

Frankly, I want to say, with my teenage kids, “Well, duh!”  I’ve also heard a couple other of your speeches where you develop this “God of the gaps” stuff, and I just have to say that I have never believed that kind of nonsense my entire life, that “God is only God of things I can’t explain otherwise?”  Anybody who believes in God as an all powerful force believes in the God of everything, whether you think you can explain it or not.  This idea that God is somehow the God of the gaps, or the God of the ever-receding pocket at the edges of scientific ignorance is just silly.   As an illustration:  when I was growing up, just because I began to uncover the mysteries of how my dad operated, and I came to see him not as a worker of magic or with superhuman strength (which I saw as a child), but as one who loved me, this did not mean that my dad did not really exist or that the principles I was discovering were not reflective of his very character.  It just means that I understood more.

Certainly, I agree that if God is more than the edges of scientific ignorance, then he must truly be more.  In fact, God just might even be more than (and including) the sum total of scientific knowledge, despite its growing pockets of ignorance about God.  But when you or any other scientist starts claiming that “anything that we understand cannot be God,” that is beyond your ability to say.   God just might be more than what scientists are able to test, and more than some are willing to acknowledge.  In that case, one wonders whether such scientists have anything at all to say about God, or why they are even trying to.

I actually do know why:  because you want a more responsible, rational, and intelligent conversation to take place for the benefit of the human race.  Well I, for one, agree.   So why don’t we encourage the elevation of the entire conversation:  responsible science, responsible handling of ancient texts, and a refusal to lump all scientists or all Christians together.

I very much liked the Moyers interview. I enjoy hearing qualified scientists speak on their field of expertise, just like I enjoy hearing qualified biblical scholars in theirs. I just wish it would result in a more responsible handling of biblical texts from both groups.

Respectfully,
Gary D. Collier

Theological Tartar

This is more of a personal posting.  This morning I received an email from someone I’ve never met in reply to my recent post on aliens.  However, this letter then turns to a question of a more personal search for truth.  So, I want to share this letter verbatim without the name of the person who wrote it.  If he or she wishes to “own” the letter, that is up to that person.  The idea of “theological tartar” to describe traditional religious baggage will show up at the very end of my reply.

The Letter

—–Original Message—–
From:
Sent: Monday, August 4, 2014 10:01 AM
To: garydcollier@coffeewithpaul.com
Subject: RE: Did Jesus Die for Aliens, Too?

Good morning Gary,

Thanks so much for sharing this article. I have not seen the complete email from Mr. Ham. But I would venture to say that it possibly falls into the same category as many other so called Christian viewpoints (i.e. does more harm than good). It is very frustrating when someone tries to speak for all “Bible believing Christians”. Unfortunately it tends only to give more ammo against what I believe is the very logical argument for the truth of the Bible and the case for God & Jesus specifically. Once again, I appreciate you passing your thoughts along.

On a separate subject… I am curious where your thinking falls, with respect to many of the opinions of men such as Edward Fudge and Al Maxey? The more I read of their published writings (emails, etc..), the more I tend to lean towards their understanding and opinions on several subjects just as Hell, Grace, Diversity of the believers, etc…Unfortunately, the Independent Christian church where we attend, does not seem to have the same opinions on some of these subjects (Hell specifically). I was raised conservative church of Christ, and my spouse was raised southern Baptist. So we come from a very “works based”, law keeping, background. But once I started reading many of the writings of men such as Carl Ketcherside and Cecil Hook, I started questioning my stance on many topics.

All that said… I guess my main questions are… Do you have an opinion on these men and their writings? And, where do you worship (collectively) at on a regular basis?

Thanks so much for your time and help.

My reply:

Hi, I appreciate your email very much.

My background is also fairly conservative Church of Christ. My first college was Freed Hardeman, which was much more conservative then (late 60’s) than now. I’m actually very grateful for my conservative grounding even though my attitude, demeanor, and focus have changed quite a bit over the years. I am currently attending a local small community church (I live in a small town 50 miles west of Indianapolis), and the only Churches of Christ and Christian Churches are either hard line conservative and don’t want me there or too far for me to drive to economically. The funny thing is, the preacher of the church I attend is a young earther (!), but insists that I teach the Sunday school class and has me preach whenever he is away, and he never tries to put stipulations on anything I would say. I think he appreciates my focus on the scriptures, and certainly he is a good friend. Like any church this one has many good people of various backgrounds and leanings.

I consider Edward Fudge a personal friend, and also appreciate the work of such men as those you mention. I would not say I am a student of any of them (I’m simply not an avid reader of any of them, not that I’m opposed to them), but that is not due to any dissatisfaction so much as my attentions are simply in other places. I agree with Edward that traditional views of hell (prominent everywhere in evangelical circles) is overdone and problematic. I have actually never stated my own views on this topic anywhere, and will not do so here. But I will say that they (my views) are friendly to the efforts of Edward and others, even if they differ on some points as well.

What I love to this day about my upbringing is the emphasis I received on the love and respect for biblical text and about taking it above and beyond any attitude or teaching or tradition I have available to me. If I have a central “heartbeat,” this is it: the love and respect for the ancient scriptures above other forms of Christian focus. (Certainly, not in any Pharisaical sense.)  That is why in every single one of our Coffee With Paul activities (online or “live” or in writing) we emphasize responsible, contextual, and conversational readings of the scriptures. Now this sounds nice and friendly, but the truth is, when we actually do this, that kind of reading of the scriptures itself exposes all of the hardened tartar on our theological teeth.

Again, I thank you for your letter, and I hope I have addressed your questions.

Many blessings,

Gary

______________________

Gary D. Collier
CWP Classroom
http://CoffeeWithPaul.com

PROBE—–Conversation with the Bible

There are many ways or “systems” to help you read the Bible.  All can be useful if you actually use them.  Too often, Bible readers just skim the top and do what they’ve always done.

If you want to read through the Bible in a year or six months or three weeks, you can find schedules to do that. Far too often these have you jumping hopscotch style all over the place.  Frankly, this is madness.  In the long run, it destroys any contextual awareness of the documents being read.   There is nothing wrong with reading the Bible in a year;  but if that’s what you want to do, respect the documents as you read:  read them contextually, beginning to end, without jumping around.

A More Excellent Way

To be a good Bible reader, you don’t have to read the whole Bible every year. In fact, most of the time, it is better to slow down and focus on particular documents for that year—–to read deeply, carefully, and closely.

PROBE is an excellent way to do this.  It takes the best of the Bible reading concerns and puts them into an easy to remember, step-by-step (5 steps) approach so that you don’t forget anything.  It simply encourages good reading habits.  PROBE is an acronym (see below).

I’ll use an example to illustrate.  Jude is an excellent letter to practice PROBE.  Each day you read with a different agenda in mind:

Step 1: Monday:  Pre-read and Preview the text, surveying it.

You skim through it, trying to pick up some highlights.  You take a few notes.  And you pray about it all, of course (as with every reading).

Step 2: Tuesday:  Read and Recap the text in your own words:  just you and this text.

a. You read the whole text through, beginning to end.  As much as possible, in one sitting.  (For Jude, this is easy.)  This is where you read the text multiple times and in multiple translations.  At this point, you ALWAYS stay within this one document, not allowing your reading of it to be contaminated by other texts or ideas.

b. When you finish reading, you recap.  By recap I mean you actually try to provide a “summary” in your own words of what this text says.

Step 3: Wednesday:  Observe the text:  Turn your reading into a conversation with the author.

a. Taking notes, Asking questions, Challenging the Author, Going back and re-reading the text to find answers.

b. You might do word studies here, using resources like Young’s Analytical Concordance, or better, Bible Software (like BibleWorks, Logos, or Lumina) to help you examine the text. (Just stay away from commentaries.  That’s next step.)

c. Also, how is this text related to other texts outside of this one?  If it quotes other texts, read those too.  Not just single verses, but whole contexts.

Step 4:  Thursday:  Brainstorm:  Now, and only now, you’re ready to talk to others.

This is where you invite others to the table: Bible commentators, encyclopedias, and dictionaries;  or friends, or a preacher or teacher.  Just don’t start here! (That is one of the biggest mistakes Bible readers make, starting here.)   Now that you’ve done your own reading work, you can converse with others.   Only now, you invite them as conversation partners.

Step 5:  Friday:  Engage:  Here you focus on “what difference all of this makes for my life!”

What can I do today that will put into practice what I have learned from this document.

This might take hours, days, or weeks to do this.  And Jude is a very good document to practice this with because it is so short.  Even so, this is appropriate for every document (book, letter, Psalm, etc.) of the Bible.

Not New

This PROBE idea is not a new thing:  it is actually the best of Bible reading practices brought into one place—an easy, step-by-step approach that helps you cover all the bases in the most helpful order.  It is reading with a goal in mind:  to put into practice what you read in conversation.

Here is again. . .PROBE_2014_07-30

Conversational Bible Study–A Personal Journey

Behind Coffee With Paul stands the notion of conversational Bible study.

There is nothing mystical or metaphysical about this.  It is just different from what most people do, and it takes a bit of getting used to.  It is all about good Bible study habits.  However, it is approached in a very personal way.  So, this is not weird or some “new alien system” to be forced on Bible study. It is rather good, solid Bible study practice from a perspective of a “live conversation.”  In this post, I want to explore the origins of this concept just a bit in my own transformation.

I have been trained in (and have taught for years) numerous highly technical biblical studies research and study skills.  And I appreciate all of them.  I am not here to denigrate them on any level or to report that I encountered a bright light that showed me the folly of academic study.  Quite the contrary.  For me, the academic studies were a great source of light and they remain so. In fact, one of my goals is to help all kinds of people to be able to tap into such things, even if they themselves are not scholars and don’t want to be.

And yet, a key for me was when I started viewing even my academic study time as a live conversation with the ancient author (no matter who the author was).  At that point, as far as reading the Bible is concerned, several things started happening. 

  1. The most noticeable thing was that the distance between the Bible and me began to melt away.  Despite that many people think “academic approaches” to the Bible are the great Satan of the church, the problem is not academics.  The problem was mere perspective in the use of such sound study tools.
  2. So, as I came closer, I then began see that I was not having just one conversation (just “my God and I,” you know, of pop-Christian lore);  I was rather in a room where God wanted me to personally meet some people like myself.  They were so important to him, that he wanted me to meet each one of them, one at a time.  But this next thing bowled me over—he also wanted them to meet me!  The idea that God loved me as much as Paul, and that he wanted the two of us to meet, was an exhilarating thing for me.    
  3. And so once I met Paul and Matthew and John and the others (and all that goes with that)—all individually—and once I began to listen to each one on his own, carefully and in private, I could see why they sometimes did not get along so well.  (And they did not!  They did not always see eye to eye, and that does not come out simply in a story where Paul tattles on Peter.)  But then I began to see that the more I depreciated their differences, and the more I closed my eyes to them and stopped up my ears, the more I washed out what distinguished them from each other, the more I felt like I had to “make them all say the same thing” even when they did not, and also the more I treated them as if they did not themselves really do anything, it was only God doing it (and so he could only speak with one voice)—the more I did those things, the more I was not listening to any of them, and the more I was, in actuality, depreciating God himself, robbing him of his ability to say to them:  “well done, you are a good and faithful servant.”  Not listening to the variety of voices means I was not listening to God.  I was, instead, listening to other more contemporary voices.
  4. And then my kids came along.  Nine of them altogether—hers, mine, and ours—and I saw so very clearly that trying to treat them “all the same” was not only a dumb idea but impossible, because they were all so very different.  Actually, if I were to have tried to pass a rule that in every situation every child gets equal say, that I would have diminished every child in untold ways.  Actually what was needed were many private conversations in which one child is allowed to express himself or herself.  Only then are group conversations able to work.
  5. And so I began to see that these multiple conversations I was having with the various biblical authors could not be—must not be—regulated or forced to conform either to what another one said, and especially not to standard church or pop-Christian doctrine—not ever. The authors must always be allowed to speak for themselves, despite what (at least some of not many of) the late-great-planet-preachers were saying every Sunday. 
  6. Now of course, it is true that group conversations can be useful and beneficial.  It can be a good thing to compare what these authors might say to each other.  But never until they have been allowed to fully express themselves first and until we are prepared to respect their individual integrity.  Of course, this is hardly the path most taken.  For what is almost universally taught is to drag them all onto the witness stand and make them speak in language that is foreign to them, answering questions they did not address, and then to add up what we make them say into a new and unnatural conglomeration, and then to force that horrific new hodgepodge onto the whole, so that whatever one says, they all must mean.  This is truly the ultimate disrespect we pay to biblical authors—when we make them all say the same things in the service of what we already believe.
  7. I came to see that conversations had to be real and genuine, and that I had to be willing to allow them to say what was on their minds.  

And in doing all of this, something marvelous happens:  the pressure to make everything “fit” vanishes into thin air. For me, this was transformational, and this is why I wrote Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration:  Faith in Pursuit of Conversation——to say that Christians don’t have to close their eyes when reading the scriptures.

In the end, allowing these authors to say what they say is a show of respect, not only to them, but to God who wants you to meet them, each one individually. 

 

Stress, Horoscopes, and the Evils of Bible Reading

Just yesterday I had a conversation with a young woman about the fact that she was a Gemini, and she was explaining to me what all of that meant for how she dealt with the stresses of  life day to day.  This was a not a “die-hard” astrologer, or someone that anyone would consider to be avid about such things, it was just a low-key conversation.  And it caught my attention because I noticed that the way she described using a horoscope was strangely like the way people often read the Bible.   

Now I’m not concerned, here, about the evils of horoscopes.  I’m talking, instead, about the evils of Bible reading. 

In the CWP Inner Circle Bible study program, we are today nearly half-way through our study of 123John and I have a number of things swimming around in my head about life, stress, frustration, time, Bible study, and the “who cares” of it all. 

We all know that stress is nothing new.  However, when we are in the middle of increasingly stressful jobs or family situations or eerie economic times or upsetting social and political unrest or personal burnout or failing personal health (or all of it at once), all we really want to do is find a solution for it all, a way through it or out of it.  Over time, not a whole lot else matters. 

 So, in the face of such things, what difference does focused Bible study make?  Who cares about “contextual” anything?  Who has time for extended jaunts into the black forest of overdone detail?  I mean, what difference does it make whether 1John was written to people being influenced by Gnostic-like thinking?  Who cares if some of them were buying into a philosophy that said Jesus didn’t really come in the flesh, or that he didn’t really die, or that sin is nothing to be concerned about;  a teaching that focused, instead, on highly spiritual principles like “the more we know of the secret mysteries of God, the more we live in the light, and the less all the physical or religious stuff matters”?  So what?

Hmm.  You know, come to think of it, this might even appeal to us!  If we are so overwhelmed at work or by health or with family that we can’t see our a way out of the current mess (or dilemma or whatever we call it), we might be subtly, if not incredibly, open to a mysterious secret of God rushing in from out of nowhere to “get us out of this mess.”  Of course, we don’t call this “salvation” or “forgiveness” or any other overly religious sounding word—we already know we’ve “been saved,” so that’s not the issue;  what we need is real here-and-now deliverance from what is right in front of us.  We want out!

So, with that very real concern weighing over us, pushing our heads down so that we can’t see two feet in front of us, when we as harried bearers of the name of Christ do read a Bible text, we read it eagerly, selfishly, demandingly, having no time for any original intent or contextual consideration, but requiring instead an immediate pay off—“How will this help me now?”  And if we can’t see it immediately, if we don’t feel the weight lessen right now, then we just don’t have time for it.

I don’t intend to say this gently.  This kind of mindless, spineless reading of the Bible is its own proof of why contextual, responsible Bible study is needed, especially by the people who just don’t have time for it.  This in no way de-contextualizes your own pain or horrid circumstances;  it does not deny the reality of suffering or frustration or anger or even abuse by others.  In fact, it does just the opposite.  It honors and respects your pain and it says this:

If you want to deal with the realities of the things overwhelming you, if you really want a way out, you must face it contextually in your own life (i.e., directly, squarely, completely), and not just hurriedly, demandingly, and selfishly, with wishful thinking.  When you read the Bible only for fast, unconsidered answers, you are not looking for God or for what he has to say;  you are looking for a favorable horoscope—–or perhaps for a genie.

If you really want help from the Bible, you should understand this point:  just as your life has a context with many ebbs and flows and complexities, so does the Bible.  Don’t expect cheap, off the top, “magical” approaches to the Bible to offer lasting aid for your real-life situations.  Instead, engaging in sustained, careful, contextual readings of the Bible will help to arm you for all kinds of situations you might face.  

If you want your daily horoscope, read the newspaper—–and don’t expect much.  But when you pick up your Bible, come ready for a real conversation.