Review: Beyond the Firmament
Work under Review
We all know the story already. Evangelical Protestant Christians, by sizable majorities, reject biological evolution and embrace a view that is crudely described as "creationism." Whole ministries and "institutes" work tirelessly to discredit evolutionary science, churning out propaganda that ranges from the sublimely mistaken to the ridiculously dishonest. Evangelicals are repeatedly offered the choice between evolution and creation, beset by creationist apologetics on one hand and atheistic triumphalism on the other, both well-girded for culture war. When the characters move out of range of parody, it is almost funny, but war is hell, and this is war.
Now suppose you are a reader of RNCSE, and you want to be a hero, to rescue an evangelical friend from this grim battlefield and its damaging crossfire. What now? There is the science education approach: help your friend understand basic geology and evolutionary biology, so that he or she can get past the nonsense dispensed by the folk science networks. That is important work, and your rescue attempt might fail without it. But it is likely that a given evangelical’s biggest hurdle is not ignorance of genetics and biogeography, or even enthusiasm for incredulity-based design arguments, but the sense that evolutionary accounts of natural history are theological poison. The barrier is the Bible, specifically the creation accounts in Genesis, and standard evangelical approaches to understanding them.
Many would have you believe that this task is impossible, that in fact the evangelical understanding of Genesis is clearly at odds with an ancient biosphere characterized by common ancestry and that your evangelical friend must either continue to take fire from scientific naturalism or repent of his evangelical ways and embrace a view of Genesis that is "figurative" or "non-literal" or something like that. Gordon J Glover, in his superb book Beyond the Firmament, would beg to differ.
And who is this Gordon Glover? Well, he is not a creationist (though he used to be), he is not an academic scholar, and he is not a wuss. He is a former Navy deep-sea diver and engineer, and he is a hard-nosed evangelical Christian. (He even looks like an evangelical. ) He reads a lot and thinks a lot, but he is not a pointy-headed academic, and that (along with a keen wit and a generous sense of humor) is one of his clearest assets. Because in all likelihood, your struggling evangelical friend needs fellow evangelicals, whom he can trust, to help him get out of the crossfire — the theologians and the scientists might have to come later. Beyond the Firmament represents an opportunity for your friend to sit down with someone who gets it, who knows what is at stake and why everyone is so worried, and who sees the way forward.
So is this one of those lame attempts at concordism, where the author pounds the square pegs of Genesis into the round holes of natural history? Hardly; indeed, Glover is deliciously scornful of such exercises, in sections of the book that should make most readers laugh out loud. (On the claims of one prominent Christian apologist regarding biblical support for an expanding universe:"I’m sure this news comes as a big relief to those whose faith was hanging on whether or not the cosmic expansion taught by the Bible was in agreement with the latest CMBR data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe" [p 136]. ) No, Glover’s project is more ambitious than that.
The heart of Glover’s book, it seems to me, is chapter 3, "The context of creation." Glover summarizes the ancient Near Eastern origin of the Genesis creation accounts, demonstrating that the narratives are, cosmologically speaking, adopted completely from the creation myths of the time. The differences are profound, but they are entirely theological. Cosmologically, according to Glover, Genesis clearly indicates that the earth is "a great big table sitting over a watery abyss and lying under a solid firmament" (p 63). He explains that this cosmology was nothing special in its time. That firmament, which was always understood to be a solid dome of some kind, akin to a giant planetarium, is what he calls "the smoking gun, " the clear link between the biblical creation account and its pagan counterparts. Reflecting on this relationship, Glover makes this observation:
Rather than seize the opportunity to overturn the commonly held view of the universe which was riddled with theological and cosmological error, God seems to hijack the popular cosmogony and use it as a vehicle to set the theological record straight, leaving the cosmological record intact. (p 63)
The move that Glover makes in this section is one that I and many other evangelicals believe to be central to any honest approach to Genesis. While affirming the Bible to be infallible, and even inerrant, he is flatly stating that the cosmology of Genesis is wrong. Not just "figurative, " but wrong. (Glover then concludes that the cosmological narrative, because it is plainly inaccurate, cannot be intended to provide an accurate description of the physical universe. ) This is a serious step for any evangelical, and Glover’s handling of the section is masterful. It could get your friend out of harm’s way.
With similar clarity and wry humor, he covers basic scientific principles (emphasizing uniformity), and nicely discusses areas of modern science (the age of the cosmos and the earth, and common descent) of concern to evangelicals. His comments on miracles, intervention, and the sovereignty of God should be helpful to many confused Christians. The book is full of brilliant metaphors and timely jokes, and it’s fun to read.
Beyond the Firmament is clearly written for evangelical Christians, and many of its rough spots arise from this somewhat narrow focus. Science is repeatedly referred to as a "mission field, " and many of Glover’s complaints about "creation science" deal with the barriers it erects between scientists and (evangelical) Christian faith. Some of the best jokes (if you raise questions about the "waters above the sky-dome" you’re likely to "end up at the top of somebody’s prayer list" [p 63]) are aimed specifically at evangelicals. Many themes that some readers will find obvious or simplistic are revisited a little too often. Glover’s jaunty, conversational style will help many readers, but the footnotes are barely adequate and there is no index. A section on materialism and morality struck me as simplistic and unnecessary.
But many of these weaknesses are indications that the book is a perfect tool for its intended purpose: a serious examination of creation and science, for serious evangelical laypersons who sense that Christian folk science is (and has ever been) a failure. It might just save your friend’s faith, and win a friend for science in the process.
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Stephen Matheson is Associate Professor of Biology at Calvin College (and Steve #763 in NCSE’s Project Steve). He blogs on issues of science and Christian faith at sfmatheson.blogspot.com