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egalitarianism

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Gender, Fear, and Politic: “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. Le Guin

lhd-ursulakleguin

The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling… (1)

The Left Hand of Darkness has come to be considered one of the greatest works of science fiction. The book portrays the efforts of an ethnologist, Genly Ai, makes to try to unite the people of the planet of Winter with the Ekumen of Known Worlds. What happens in his efforts  will be explored thematically in what follows. There will be SPOILERS in what follows.

Gender

Le Guin has come to be known as a major innovator in science fiction by putting forth feminist ideas in the form of novels. In The Left Hand of Darkness, Winter is populated by humans who have genetically been modified to be essentially genderless. But it goes beyond that, because in each monthly cycle, people become either male or female during a time of fertility, and then become effectively “neuter” again.

The novel is oriented around questions of how this may affect perceptions of gender. It is largely narrated from the perspective of Genly, who himself has many assumptions about what men and women are like from his own gendered society. In reading Genly’s thoughts, the reader is exposed to notions of duality. At one point, Genly attempts to explain what a woman looks like and who a woman is in his own society to one of the inhabitants of Winter:

I suppose the most important thing… is whether one’s born male or female. In most societies it determines one’s expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners–almost everything… (252-253).

Ultimately, Genly admits defeat in attempting to explain what women are like. He says they are “more alien” to him than the aliens of Winter (253). But Genly, in his own mind, has much to think about women. He often thinks of women as submissive, foolish, and perhaps a little weak. They are tied down through childrearing while men are to be dominant in society. Genly’s own thoughts on the topic serve as a foil for the reader’s thoughts about gender. By placing the reader in Genly’s mind, and seeing the absurdity of his views of gender lined up against an effectively genderless (or potentially gendered?) society, one is forced to consider one’s own views of gender and the power structures which may accompany it.

Jarringly, the inhabitants of Winter are always referred to with male pronouns. The reason is explained at one point as having to assign the Gethenians (those inhabitants) some pronoun to use. But the fact is that the Gethenians may be both the mother of some children and the father of others due to the way their procreative cycle works. One is forced to wonder at the wisdom of using the male pronoun for such persons.

The implications of a sexless society (or again, potentially sexed?) are used as a way to view our own society. We are told to “Consider” various aspects of how reality might change if gender were not viewed as a way to predetermine power structures:

Consider: Anyone can turn his hand to anything… Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. (100)

We’ll consider the implications of this below, but for now it is merely important to see the dialogue happening within the story. What are your views of gender? How do they impact your view of the “other”?

Fear and Politic

Gender may be seen as one way of viewing the “Other,” but fear is a powerful tool, and it applies to any duality or disjunct which allows one to see strict delineation between self and other. In a discussion with one of the inhabitants of Winter on politics, Genly is asked if he knows what it is to be a patriot:

[Genly responded] “I don’t think I do. If by patriotism you don’t mean love of one’s homeland…”

[The Gethenian replied] “No, I don’t mean love… I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression. It grows in us, that fear. It grows in us year by year.” (20)

Once again we see the recurring theme that the “Other” is to be feared and fought against. Whether that “Other” is a gendered other or an alien or simply someone from a different country, The Left Hand of Darkness forces readers to consider their own fears. How might one’s own feelings about the “Other”s in their own society shape their interactions with them?

Truth

The line quoted at the beginning of this post is echoed throughout the book: truth is what we make of it. We may choose a reality. But Le Guin’s portrayal of truth goes beyond relativism. Instead, truth matters in the telling. “Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive” (1). Thus, lies may come across as true or believable due to how they’re told, and they may “become true.” Of course, this means not that reality itself changes, but rather that one’s interaction with truth or falsehood may itself determine one’s belief in either one.

Reflection

The Left Hand of Darkness is steeped in critical theory. Le Guin’s discussion of gender is perhaps the most obvious point of this: readers are forced to consider their own ways of thinking about male/female dichotomy through the eyes of a man who is struggling to force his categories onto beings which do not neatly fit into either bucket. Some may immediately critique Le Guin and suggest she is trying to blur gender lines and do away with any distinction between man and woman. That may well be what she was doing (I don’t know), but that should not prevent readers from acknowledging they have their own biases about what genders are or how male/female should act (or not?). The novel forces introspection and reflection.

Similarly, how does one’s view of the “Other”–whether made other by gender, country, kin, or belief–get shaped by one’s own presuppositions about what that “Other” should be? Here are dynamics of power, politic, and fear.

The Left Hand of Darkness is a highly reflective novel. By integrating literary criticism and critical theory into her fiction, Le Guin forces readers to examine their own views. Whether one agrees with the various aspects of feminist thought Le Guin includes in the work, one will consider these aspects with new light through the reading of the novel.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Source

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (New York: Ace, 2010). Originally published by Ace in 1969.

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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Really Recommended Posts 12/9/16- Jack Chick, Modesty, movies, and more!

snowl-owl-post-arpingstoneI’ve been feeling pretty gross this week, but thankfully had already scoured the internet for some good reads for you to peruse this weekend. Check them out, and be sure to let me know what you think. It’s a snowy owl edition because it’s actually feeling and looking a bit like winter now.

Jack Chick’s Vision of the World was a Fear-Filled Caricature– The passing of the famous (infamous?) writer of so many tracts presenting a vision of Christianity has led to various reflections. Here is one that I think is fairly accurate to what many experienced.

Christian Thinkers 101- A Crash Course on Justin Martyr– Justin Martyr is one of the earliest Christian apologists, but also remains vastly important reading.

Nietzche and the New Atheists– An interesting read about the intellectual background of some atheistic discussions now and the difficulty putting forward a philosophical vision of atheism as has occurred in the past.

Modesty and Respect for Women- Do they fit together in your worldview?– The “modesty movement” has taken hold of some forms of Christianity today. The debate over the meaning of modesty has led some to look to the Bible for answers, but they often provide over-simplified readings of the Bible that don’t actually match what it says.

John Ray in 1965: The Flood, Fossils, and Extinction– John Ray was one of the geologists who participated in the debate over whether fossils were vestiges of living things or whether they were simply tricks of the rock. Here’s an interesting look at some aspects of his life and work.

Really Recommended Posts 10/14/16- Apologetics, Egalitarianism, the Ark, and more!

postI must apologize for a long absence from Really Recommended Posts… posts. There’s no specific reason other than forgetfulness of a dad with a toddler. With no further adieu, we have:

5 False Assumptions about Egalitarians– Think you know what those who advocate for women’s equality in the church and home believe? Check your assumptions against this list! I know I made these assumptions about egalitarians before I became one, and I have experienced people assuming these about me repeatedly since then.

5 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Apologetics– Continuing on the “5’s” theme, here are 5 simple things to keep in mind regarding apologetics.

Ark Encounter Common Ancestors The Increasing Inclusiveness of Biblical Kinds– As Young Earth Creationists continue to try to fit all known animals on board the ark, the understanding of biblical “kinds” has changed. Here’s a post showing the great swathes of the animal kingdom included in these categories now.

The next two posts are different sides of the same issue. Jerry Walls has made an argument that he alleges shows Calvinism cannot be true. On the one hand, one answer has been offered that argues that Walls’ argument is mistaken. However, a more recent post argues that Walls’ argument is sound and Calvinism is false. Yet another more concise post argues that Wall’s argument is mistaken in specific premises. I’ve been following this debate with interest. I think it is worth viewing both sides’ points. What do you think?

Master of the Arts in Apologetics: World Religions– An intriguing, 100% online program for getting an MA in Apologetics with a special focus on world religions. We need more Christians out there not just learning apologetics related to atheism, but also on doing evangelism worldwide in a truly inter-religious atmosphere. Check out the program info here.

Book Review: “Eight Women of Faith” by Michael A.G. Haykin

8wf-haykinHaykin’s Eight Women of Faith sets out with an admirable goal: highlight the contributions of women at key points in church history. The women chosen each have biographical information reported alongside brief discussion of their primary contributions to theology. In this sense, the book achieves its goal.

One difficulty with the book is the lack of critical historical perspective. For example, Jane Austen is gently chastised for her aversion to evangelicalism(Kindle location 1994ff), while then being recruited for the same evangelical cause (Location 2005, 2064). But to see evangelicalism of today as the same as evangelicalism in Austen’s own time (the late 18th and early 19th centuries) does little justice to the development of what has been called “evangelical” over that time into today. This is perhaps the most glaring example in the book, but time and again similar oversight of historical perspective is demonstrated.

Another negative is that Haykin’s work is clearly written with a very specific doctrinal agenda in mind that undercuts the book’s value outside of the circle of those with whom he agrees. For example, he spends no small amount of time promoting the Calvinist view of the Lord’s Supper, attempting to cling both to a literal and figurative meaning of Christ’s words (see especially the excursus in the chapter on Anne Dutton starting around Kindle Location 903). Later, a lengthy section of the chapter on Ann Judson is dedicated to highlighting Judson’s autobiographical account of her change from pedobaptism (infant baptism) to a more Baptist position. Very few arguments are offered in favor of the latter position, other than highlighting that Judson herself believed the arguments for the it were stronger than for infant baptism. This is not a deep theological work, but this section again shows no interaction with opposing views and so provides those who come from a different background little reason to read or enjoy the book.

Perhaps the greatest problem with the book is the irony of continually attempting to silence women’s voices in a book that is, on the surface, about calling attention to them. This begins on the very first page of the Forword, as Karen Swallow Prior writes, “Both within the church and outside it, we too have treated in a similar fashion the biblical admonition against women preaching: we focus on the single thing that is off-limits and thereby fail to see the abundant opportunities and roles God has clearly offered…” (Kindle location 59-64). Of course, this biblical admonition is not cited–and could not be, for there is no Bible verse that says women cannot preach (it is instead an inference from a number of verses that are often misread)–but beyond that, the point is that the book highlights the silence of women throughout.

In the chapter on Anne Dutton, for example, we see that Dutton argued for the validity of her theological writings, so long as they were not read in churches or used in public worship but rather read privately (Kindle loc 825-834). But of course the line drawn in the sand here between private and public use is not drawn in the Bible but in human tradition. Moreover, the prior alleged admonition against women preaching comes from verses that, if read literally as must be the case for restring women in the ministry, also would prevent women from speaking at all in church, yet one of the women highlighted is Anne Steele, a prolific hymn writer.

All of this is to say that the book has a very limited appeal. Only those from the very specific perspective of Reformed Baptists will be able to see their perspective put forward without critique. This is not necessarily a bad thing, for the publisher, Crossway, continues to publish Reformed Baptist books. It’s not a bad thing to have books that appeal to your own readers. The problem is that anyone outside of that perspective has no reason to read the book. Their views are not presented well if they are presented at all, and there is an almost self-congratulatory feel to the way specific doctrines are presented. Moreover, the lack of historical perspective gives the book a simplistic feel that grants readers only the most surface-level understanding of the issues at hand.

The best that can be said for Eight Women of Faith is that it at least acknowledges that women have made significant contributions to the Christian faith. It just doesn’t acknowledge all of women’s contributions, and continues to limit women.

The Good

+Highlights importance of women in church history

The Bad

-Unbalanced perspective
-Uncritical look at historical development of theology
-Undermines women’s voices while ostensibly uplifting them
-Limited appeal beyond denominational lines

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the publisher for review. I was not obligated to provide any specific kind of feedback whatsoever. 

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

Eclectic Theist– Check out my other blog for my writings on science fiction, history, fantasy movies, and more!

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Really Recommended Posts 8/19/16- singing the Psalms, the Ontological Argument, and more!

snowl-owl-post-arpingstoneHello friends! Another week has passed and it’s time to kick back on Friday and relax with some Really Recommended Posts that I’ve collected for your perusal. This edition is a snowy owl edition for two reasons. 1) New Harry Potter Book (check out my post on it here); 2) hopefully it will bring in colder weather. By the way, if you ever have suggestions for future Really Recommended Posts, let me know!

The Ontological Argument– check out this page and video from William Lane Craig at Reasonable Faith that gives the basics of the ontological argument. Be sure to also check out my own posts on the topic.

Response to Peter Jones on “Conservative Moms” and “Stunted Masculinity”– Here’s a thoughtful response to a surprising accusation from a pastor who argues for men leading in the home. His argument is basically that, despite doing everything right, “conservative moms” are the ones responsible for “stunted masculinity” that comes from their male children.

“You Lift My Head” based on Psalm 3– A frankly beautiful song that is based on a Psalm. Overview Bible is also going through all the Psalms to try to make a hymnbook that includes every single one. Check it out and follow this excellent site.

A 60,000 Year Varve Record from Japan Refutes the Young-Earth Interpretation of Earth’s History– Did you know that varves, tree rings, and radiocarbon dating align on coming up with dates? It’s awfully hard to just dismiss this kind of interwoven evidence. How could they line up if they are are faulty ways to date the age of the Earth?

Really Recommended Posts 7/29/16- Open Theism, Jason Bourne, and more!

postHello dear readers! Thanks for stopping in! Check out the latest round of “Really Recommended Posts,” brought to you by me! This week we have posts that argue against open theism–do the arguments work, though?, the Bourne movies, Mary and women in the church, objective truth for kids, and young earth creationism and geology of Egypt. As always, let me know what you think, and be sure to let the authors know as well!

The Open Future Precludes Present Motion– Alexander Pruss, one of the most interesting philosophers to follow, in my opinion, presents here an argument that open theism entails premises which mean present motion is impossible. I commented on the post arguing that most open theists allow for certain parts of the future to be knowable; just not those impacted by free will. I haven’t seen that comment pop up yet. Pruss followed with a post about how open theism eliminates the possibility to speak truthfully that is an even more intriguing argument. What do you think?

Surveillance and Revelation in the Bourne Movies– The Jason Bourne movies have much going on in them to reflect upon from a Christian perspective. Here’s a post exploring some of these dimensions.

Mary’s Truth– Women were the first evangelists. Mary was one of these first evangelists. We ought not to strip away the legacy such women left behind.

Truth in a Box– How might you discuss objective truth with kids? Here’s a way to use a concrete example to introduce the notion of truth no matter what anyone thinks about it.

Squeezing the Lost Grand Canyon of Egypt into the Young Earth Paradigm: An Impossible* Task– How do young earth creationists account for things like a canyon as large as the Grand Canyon that has been completely covered with sediment since its formation? Check out this post to see how YEC fails to account for certain physical realities.

 

Really Recommended Posts 6/10/16- Patrick Stewart, evidence for God, and more!

A picture of a goldfinch I took. All rights reserved.

A picture of a goldfinch I took. All rights reserved.

Thanks for coming by and checking out this week’s “Really Recommended Posts!” This time around, we have a look at what we should expect in evidence for God’s existence, a response to the “9 Marks of Complementarianism,” Patrick Stewart on domestic violence, the “hyperbole” argument regarding the Canaanites, and Aquinas’s metaphysics and arguments for God. Let me know what you think in the comments!

A Look at God’s Existence: Evidence We Want vs. Evidence We Should Expect– We often ear or read about there not being enough evidence for God. How much of that is set up by expectations about what kind of evidence God should provide?

Kevin DeYoung’s 9 Marks of Complementarianism– Recently, Kevin DeYoung posted about what ought to be the 9 marks of complementarianism. Scot McKnight offered a response to these marks from a different perspective.

Patrick Stewart on what he is most proud of– Patrick Stewart is perhaps best known for playing Captain Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation. A fan at a recent conference asked him what he was most proud of outside of acting, and his response was powerful- working against domestic violence. This is a beautiful video worth watching. Ignore the clickbait title (which I amended here).

Misunderstanding the Canaanite Hyperbole Argument– Clay Jones, a professor at Biola University, notes that there are several misconceptions about what exactly is answered regarding the argument that the “genocide” of the Canaanites is hyperbolic.

Four Causes and Five Ways– Edward Feser outlines a brief look at Aquinas’s metaphysics and its link to his Five Ways (six arguments).

Book Review: “Representing Christ: A Vision for the Priesthood of All Believers” by Uche Anizor and Hank Voss

rcvpab-anivossThe doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” is one that is easily misunderstood but joyfully affirmed by a number of Christian groups across denominational lines. Uche Anizor and Hank Voss’ book, Representing Christ: A Priesthood of All Believers is an attempt to hash out the particulars of this challenging, freeing doctrine.

The authors note the potential pitfalls of the doctrine while also showing the ways that the notion of the priesthood of all believers can be applied to many different situations. After some excellent introductory remarks–including a look at how priesthood is viewed in different theological traditions–they dive into chapters on the Scriptural basis for the doctrine, Martin Luther’s contribution to recovering the doctrine, the Trinity and our priesthood, the practices of the priesthood of all, and the overall implications and applications of the doctrine.

The doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” has long been credited to Martin Luther, though he did not use the specific phrase and some Luther scholars (cited by Anizor and Voss) dispute that this doctrine can be derived from his writings. Despite these apparent challenges, the authors demonstrate not only the roots of the teaching in Luther’s writings, but also the fruit that such a doctrine bore for him. As a Lutheran myself, it was refreshing to see Luther’s contribution highlighted rather than ignored. Indeed, Luther’s notion of the functions of the believer–preaching and teaching the word, baptizing, administering the Lord’s Supper, binding and loosing sins, prayer, sacrifice, judging doctrine–is used as a basis for the ongoing discussion.

These 7 points are developed later in the book and serve as a great, applicable portion of the book. The authors rightly note the importance for the church of both baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and do so in ways that show how their importance comes in part from the way they create a fellowship of believers. The other aspects of this priesthood of all believers are equally insightful. Something like “binding and loosing sins” may seem quite abstract, but Anizor and Voss manage to make such a notion relevant and practical.

Highlighting the life of the Trinity and Christ’s role as great high priest was another strong point of the book. However, in this section there was a continued emphasis on the notion that it is “especially appropriate” to worship the Father in the name of Jesus by the power of the Spirit (100, cited below).  Now I’ll not dispute that this is indeed one way that we ought to direct worship- praise to the Father in the name of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. But the authors belabored this point so much that I wondered why this was the case. After all, they clear agree that it is appropriate to worship the Son and the Spirit. If that is the case, then what basis is there for the claim of “especial” appropriateness regarding worship of the Father? We need to be careful in Trinitarian doctrine to not establish a hierarchy within the Trinity, and indeed the ancient Athanasian Creed states, “And in the Trinity none is before or after another; none is greater or less than another, but all three Persons are co-eternal together and co-equal. So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshiped.” This creedal statement which has historically been defining for the whole Christian church makes it clear that all three persons are to be worshiped in unity, and although the formula Anizor and Voss put forward is Trinitarian, I wonder why the emphasis is on worship being directed to the Father. No person of the Trinity is more worthy of worship than any either, and our worship ought to be directed towards the Triune God, not “especially” towards one person.

One aspect missing from the discussion in the book is the notion of both men and women in this role as priests. Indeed, the point where this could have most easily been highlighted is in the Garden of Eden, where Voss and Anizor note the way the Garden of Eden is like a type of temple (28) and Adam is a kind of priest-king in the Garden (26ff). Someone is notably absent in this discussion: Eve. Eve was placed alongside Adam in Eden and also given the charge to have dominion over it; why should she be excluded from the discussion of priestly act in the Garden? It seems it would have been quite appropriate to include such a discussion here, and I wonder whether the lack of her inclusion is an attempt to restrict the priesthood of all believers after all. There remain many church bodies who exclude women from the role of representing Christ, and often this teaching is reinforced by keeping some parts of Scripture silent on the topic. In Representing Christ, we see no explicit mention of Eve as serving alongside Adam in these functions, despite reference to sections in which she appears. The priesthood of all believers is an explosive doctrine that frees both men and women, and to ignore this aspect of the doctrine does it disservice.

Representing Christ is an important look at a doctrine that is too often misunderstood or abused. The priesthood of all believers is a freeing doctrine, but not one that throws any kind of order in the church out the window. The authors do a fair job of pointing this out, but I cannot help but wonder why they didn’t go even farther and show how this priesthood of believers can free not only “us” in the general sense, but also, to take from a well-informed author, show that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, no male and female, for we are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28).

The Good

+Highlights importance of Luther’s contributions
+Provides Scriptural basis for the doctrine
+Gives practical examples for applying content

The Bad

-Where’s Eve?
-Avoids some of the apparent implications of the doctrine regarding women
-Awkward wording of some Trinitarian discussion

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of this book for review by the publisher. I was not obligated to provide any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

Source

Uche Anizor and Hank Voss, Representing Christ: A Vision for the Priesthood of All Believers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2016).

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

Eclectic Theist– Check out my other blog for my writings on science fiction, history, fantasy movies, and more!

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Really Recommended Posts 5/6/16- creationism and the Grand Canyon, Deborah, and more!

Deborah judging in Israel

Deborah judging in Israel

It’s another week and I’m here to bring you some more great reading for your weekend. Be sure to let the authors know what you think, and let me know here as well. Topics for this week include the Grand Canyon and the biblical Flood, Deborah as leader, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and more!

Deborah and the “no available men” argument– A refutation of the notion that Deborah was only chosen to lead Israel because there were “no available men” who could or would do so. Unfortunately, this argument is fairly common among those who do not wish to affirm the Bible’s teaching on women’s equal leadership.

The Grand Canyon’s Magnificent Witness to Earth’s History– Often, young earth creationists argue that the Grand Canyon can only be explained (or at least is better explained) by the biblical Flood as a global flood. A new book is challenging that perception. Check out this post to learn more.

7 Things to Know about Jehovah’s Witnesses– It is important to understand others’ beliefs. Here is a post outlining 7 points of belief for Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Calamity (The Reckoners)– Superheroes and villains face off with those who seek vengeance against those villains who destroyed their world. Check out this look at worldview issues in Brandon Sanderson’s latest Young Adult novel, Calamity. Also check out my own reflection on the book.

 

“Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier – Creationism, women, and paleontology

rc-chevalierRemarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier is a historical fiction novel based on the lives of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, early fossil hunters in England. It raises an astonishing number of worldview questions related to women, paleontology, and creationism, and we will here discuss just a few of these issues. There will be SPOILERS in what follows, but it is history!

Paleontology, Creationism, and Controversy

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Remarkable Creatures is its survey of the controversies surrounding the discovery of fossils that challenged reigning scientific and religious paradigms. One of the greatest challenges was to come to believe that extinction had occurred. Think about it: if all you ever knew was the living beings around you, what possible reason would there be for thinking that those beings could die out, such that none were left anywhere? Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot’s finds of creatures like icthyosaurus challenged even the greatest thinkers of the time to come up with new paradigms for fitting these creatures–which didn’t exist anywhere on earth at their time–into reality.

For a time, it was thought that the bones of icthyosaurus were just those of a crocodile. But then Mary Anning discovered a complete fossil that included huge eyes (eyes that even had bones in them!). This forced people to the realization that these truly were novel creatures.

It’s a fascinating thing to think about, because the problem wasn’t just that it forced them to come up with a new concept–extinction. It also led to theological crises. After all, why would God create creatures that would all die out? One pastor in the book was particularly disturbed by this notion. He argues with Elizabeth Philpot: “All that you see about you is as God set it out in the beginning. He did not create beasts and then get rid of them. That would suggest He had made a mistake, and of course God is all knowing and incapable of error…” (144, citation from large print edition [only one they had at the library]). Philpot then comes back, noting that rock formations change and that if creation is supposed to be without change, how could rock fall or change a cliff face? The pastor ultimately comes back by saying that “God placed the fossils there when He created the rocks, to test our faith…” (145). Chevalier cleverly puts an answer in Philpot’s head: “It is my faith in you [the pastor as interpreter of Scripture] that is being tested, I thought” (145). The pastor, it should be noted, was also using, as was commonplace, Bishop Ussher’s chronology of the world, which put the date of creation “on the night preceding the 23rd of October 4004 B.C.” (144). Philpot wryly remarks- “I had always wondered at his precision.”

Another idea that was prominent at the time was the notion of anatomical laws or conformity with Aristotle’s Great Chain of Being. According to these ideas, there is a kind of hierarchy of being that puts humans at the top (usually) with other creatures in stages below that. It is not evolution, for it predates that idea. Instead, it is a way of ordering those creatures which exist now according to some principles. Mary Anning’s finding of a plesiosaur challenged this chain of being by violating the ways that creatures were supposed to appear or exist.

Late in the book, Elizabeth Philpot is finally questioned on what she thinks about the fossils and God. She is pleased to finally be asked:

I am comfortable with reading the Bible figuratively rather than literally. For instance, I think the six days in Genesis are not literal days, but different periods of creation, so that it took many thousands–or hundreds of thousands of years–to create. It does not demean God; it simply gives Him more time to build this extraordinary world. (391, again note reference from large print edition)

Although this is a work of historical fiction, these debates continue into today. Some groups still use Bishop Ussher’s chronology to date the age of the earth. Although few would argue that there are no extinct creatures, new forms of the same arguments have led to the young earth creationist movement, in which people argue that the Bible requires us to believe that all the creatures that are extinct were alive at the same time as humans. I have personally had conversations with young earth creationists who say that fossils are one way God tests our faith (I know of no young earth organization who would use this argument, thankfully). Scientific findings continue to challenge entrenched religious beliefs.

One is perhaps left to wonder, like Philpot’s thoughts, on how some people get so much precision. The Bible nowhere puts a date on creation. Nor does the Bible demand that all creatures that have ever lived were allowed at the same time. Yet these beliefs persist, and many Christians insist that if one does not hold to them, they are not true Christians, or are perhaps abandoning Scripture. As in Mary Anning’s time, we still have much work to do. We cannot let our external paradigms (things like Aristotle’s Great Chain of Being, or perhaps more germane, our own assumptions about how texts ought to be read “literally” and what the word “literal” means) determine how God is allowed to act or what God may communicate to us.

Women

The book does a good job portraying the way the contributions of women were ignored or even stolen. Mary Anning was an expert fossil hunter–self taught. Yet time and again, men used her expertise to find their fossils and then take credit for the finds. Although her contributions were acknowledged later, her life of poverty is a sad testimony to the way that unequal treatment of women can so easily be perpetuated. The book portrays this unequal treatment in many ways. First, there is the exclusion of both Philpot and Anning from societies of geologists (this was before paleontology was a separate field of study from geology). Second, social norms provide for a simple way to create inequality. When one sex is given the benefit of the doubt (men, in this case) while the other is considered permanently damaged even by gossip about impropriety (women), restraints upon the social movement and capacity of the latter follow by necessity. Third, the contributions of women were ignored.

Unfortunately, parallels to each of these scenarios continue today. Women are excluded from certain groups or positions (such as those who keep women from becoming pastors), thus creating spiritual inequality. Conventions of purity culture, for example, treat women as “impure” or “damaged goods,” putting the onus on young women to abstain while simultaneously removing blame from young men. The power of imagery–objectification of women–continues to impact both women and men in negative ways. We can learn from Remarkable Creatures that much progress has been made, but it also points us in the direction of more work to be done.

Conclusion

Remarkable Creatures is a fascinating read. Although it is dry at times, it provides much insight into a number of discoveries that changed the world. It highlights the careers of two women who contributed much to paleontology in its formative stages. Perhaps most importantly, it challenges us to keep improving, to keep thinking, and to keep observing God’s remarkable world.

Source

Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable Creatures (New York: Penguin, 2010).

Links

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Popular Books– Read through my other posts on popular books–science fiction, fantasy, and more! (Scroll down for more.)

Mary Anning: Plesiosaurs, Pterosaurs, and The Age of Reptiles– A post that highlights the contributions Mary Anning made to the paleontology. It particularly focuses on how these discoveries pre-dated Darwin.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

 

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