Originally Posted at The Religion Beat, November 30th, 2009
A Crisp Wednesday Afternoon on Campus
University students and free things apparently go hand-in-hand. Pizza is best. Or any kind of food really. But books, especially controversial ones, are guaranteed to attract a crowd. It was just this thinking that enticed throngs of students last week outside the University of Toronto’s Sid Smith Hall (and other campuses across North America).
– Would you like a free 150th anniversary copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species?”
— Indeed, I would.
And indeed I did. My research examines the ways which contemporary Christians interact with texts and the creation of textual identity. While I’m specifically interested in the ways which Christians interact with and evaluate texts from antiquity (those deemed both canonical and non-canonical), I see this specific use of the Origin of Species as an interesting case study through which we can begin to analyse interpretive communities and their understanding of authoritative knowledge.
The Controversy: Ray Comfort’s Online Fame
There have been a plethora of online commentaries, internet blogs posts, and facebook groups featuring the Comfort edition of Origin of Species that highlight the irony and insolence of the Comfort introduction and, of course, point to the fact that this “abridged” version of the text leaves out the four key evidence-for-evolution chapters, aligns Darwin’s theory with Nazi party rhetoric, and condemns other faiths. Those who have not had the opportunity to read up on the controversy can take a look at recent posts at Religion Dispatches, or on the blog of Butler University religion professor James F. McGrath. Also of interest is the counter-site created by the National Centre for Science Education with its pithy title, Don’t Diss Darwin which provides flyers and bookmarks for those who would like to launch a counter counter-Darwin campaign. Those who would like to hear it from the horse’s mouth itself (that is, from Comfort) can watch the well-circulated ‘Atheist Nightmare’ youtube video that earned Comfort the moniker ‘Banana Man’.
Bibles, Sound-bites and Bananas as Objects
In the era of thirty-second sound-bites, Comfort’s over-the-top approach is not surprising, and anyone familiar with Christian evangelism knows that the practice of distribution of texts (bibles and tracts) runs deep in American history.
Indeed, many argue along with Paul C. Gutjahr that it is the bible, over and above geography, political leadership (as in the monarchy), or language, that has served as a cornerstone in the formation of American collective identity. Along the same lines, historian David Paul Nord traces the history of the distribution of biblical texts and tracts (often freely distributed) in antebellum America. Nord reveals that the distribution of texts by various missionary outposts was supported by the both the conviction of sola scriptura, as well as a home-grown emphasis on the democratisation of knowledge which asserted that each individual had the agency and capacity to form a correct opinion once presented with sufficient (in this case biblical) evidence.
More recently the involvement of Christians in the marketing, promotion and distribution of block-buster films and books (most notably Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ and the popular Left Behind series) reveals that the market for biblically-themed narratives hold high currency for evangelists who recognise that the bible itself has become a hard sell.
For religious scholars studying evangelistic practices the bible as a text must be considered along-side the bible as object. To quote again from Gutjahr:
One of the most fascinating aspects of the study of the Bible in the United States is how important the material character of the book is in complementing its contents. There are times when a Bible’s packaging is as important to its cultural use as are the words it contains. Often Americans “read” a Bible before they look at its words. The material nature of Bibles can send messages by being displayed on a parlor table, resting on a pulpit, or being used to swear in an incoming president.
For Gutjahr, the role of the bible and its interpretation, publication and distribution accompanies an examination of the message and the medium of other sacred texts in America (e.g., Joseph Smith’s, Book of Mormon; Mary Baker Eddy’s, Science and Health; L. Ron Hubbard’s, Dianetics, as well as the Bhagavad Gita and the Qur’an).
To this list one could add various texts such as the Origin of Species or the works of Richard Dawkins that have become increasingly important to devotees of the so-called New Atheist Movement. In fact, on online atheist discussion boards, the Origin of Species is often suggested as an alternate text for those who are required to swear an oath in court. Like Gutjahr’s assessment of the bible, Darwin’s text is “read” as part of a larger conversation and narrative which originates in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial that dealt with issues surrounding access to education, Christian identity markers and interactions between religious and legal institutions.
The Interpretive Function of the Text
It should not surprise us that the use of a non-Christian text (along with movies, tracts and even blogs) to promote proselytization is an attractive one. What is of interest and demands both scholarly study and popular discussion is the means through which the Origin of Species (albeit in an altered, abridged format) becomes (presumably unintentionally) aligned with sacred texts and made authoritative through this process of distribution. I suspect that Comfort is banking on the fact that while (much like the bible), many people talk about the Origin of Species, very few actually take the time to read it closely. His introduction is clear, plainly written in a large font which stands in sharp contrast to the small font and Victorian style-writing of the rest of the book.
For those who might not even read Comfort’s introduction, the book jacket very clearly refers to evolutionary theory as part of an unfinished investigation which “a wealth of scientific discoveries since 1971” has dismissed.
Indeed as scholars of interpretive communities will tell us, one of the best ways to refute opponents is to draw them into one’s own discourse and translate their terms as unfinished revelation. Comfort does this by suggesting that Darwin’s theory is no longer viable from within the scientific community itself and then offers his reader an alternative worldview which the reader can immediately act upon by praying the sinner’s prayer.
A Working Model
But isn’t this what religion has always done?
Professor Jim Linville reporting on the (somewhat related) Conservative Bible Project points out:
Religions are always innovating, changing and evolving (I just had to get that word in!). Humans create them, consume then and then fiddle with them to make them better suited to their changing needs. Yet, religions are often portrayed as as [sic] timeless. A novelty quickly becomes the way one has always done things. Innovate like hell and do it conservatively.
As an example, Linville points to the suspected ‘deuteronomistic redaction’ of the biblical book of Jeremiah, in which a community with affinity for the book of Deuteronomy reworked certain passages so as to align them more closely with its terms and ideologies.
Similar examples include the gospel writers of Matthew and Luke and their adaptations of the gospel of Mark, the Q-source and other now-lost sources. In fact the author of Luke tells Theophilus that:
I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write and orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. (Luke 1:3-4, NRSV).
This suggests that some of sources available to Theophilus are disorderly, problematic or just plain wrong. While it seems unlikely that Luke would have appended his interpretation directly to these “incorrect” accounts (the way that Comfort has done with the Origin of Species), nevertheless, the practices are not dissimilar. Theophilus is presumably aware of alternative versions of the gospel’s narrative and is maybe even relieved to have a text that more clearly aligns with his own religious and ideological sensitivities. Our modern preferences concerning knowledge and ideology leave us horrified by Comfort’s project, but we cannot deny that his is a venture rooted in ancient practices which, over time, (as in the case of the Gospel of Luke) are permitted to stand (by both devotees and scholars) as the normative version of the text.
What remains of interest is the use of Darwin’s text as a dismissed object with which to promote Christianity. I am suggesting that what it appears that Comfort is doing is simultaneously attributing an authoritative (sacred) status to the Origin of Species as an object while also dismissing its worth as an authoritative (scientific) work as a text. I would be interested if readers of The Religion Beat can identify this practice in other contemporary religious (and non-religious) forms and practices.
Paul C. Gutjahr (2001). “The State of the Discipline: Sacred Texts in the United States,” Book History 4: 335-370.
David Paul Nord (2004). Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America. Toronto: Oxford University Press.