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Once More, With Feeling: Adam, Evolution and Evangelicals

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Evangelicals have been butting heads with evolution for 150 years. A lot is at stake.

If evolution is right about how humans came to be, then the biblical story of Adam and Eve isn't. If you believe, as evangelicals do, that God himself is responsible for what's in the Bible, you have a problem on your hands. Once you open the door to the possibility that God's version of human origins isn't what actually happened -- well, the dominoes start unraveling down the slippery slope. The next step is uncertainty, chaos and despair about one's personal faith.

That, more or less, is the evangelical log flume of fear, and I have seen it played out again and again.

In recent years, the matter has gotten far worse. Popular figures like Richard Dawkins have done an in-your-face-break-the-backboard-slam-dunk over the heads of defenders of the biblical story. They've taken great delight in making sure Main Street knows evolution is true, and therefore the Bible is "God's big book of bad ideas" (Bill Maher) and Christians are morons for taking it seriously. Evangelicals have been on high alert damage control mode.

Then you have the mapping of the human genome. It's a done deal: humans and primates are 90-something percent related genetically. The best explanation for it, geneticists tell us, is that humans evolved from primates. Since my greatest scientific achievement is doing puppet shows with dissected feral cats in high school biology, I feel I have no right to contest -- and I likely speak for many other evangelicals in that regard (sans puppet show). And it doesn't help things that an evangelical, Francis Collins, was the one who pointed all this out, got the Presidential Medal of Honor for it, and talked about it (twice) on "The Colbert Report."

If that wasn't enough, evolution is being used nowadays to explain all sorts of things about us humans -- including why we believe in God. If God is a product of evolution, like bipedalism and tool making, well, the jig's up (and not just for evangelicals).

Evolution is a threat, and many evangelicals are fighting to keep Adam in the family photo album. But in their rush to save Christianity, some evangelicals have been guilty of all sorts of strained, idiosyncratic or obscurantist tactics: massaging or distorting the data, manipulating the legal system, scaring their constituencies and strong-arming those of their own camp who raise questions.

These sorts of tactics get a lot of press, but behind them is a deeper problem -- a problem that gets close to the heart of evangelicalism itself and hampers any true dialogue.

It has to do with what evangelicals expect from the Bible.

Evangelicals look to the Bible to settle important questions of faith. So, faced with a potentially faith-crushing idea like evolution, evangelicals naturally ask right off the bat, "What does the Bible say about that?" And then informed by "what the Bible says," they are ready to make a "biblical" judgment.

This is fine in principle, but in the evolution debate this mindset is a problem: It assumes that the Adam and Eve story is about "human origins." It isn't. And as long as evangelicals continue to assume that it does, the conflict between the Bible and evolution is guaranteed.

Since the 19th century, through scads of archaeological discoveries from the ancient world of the Bible, biblical scholars have gotten a pretty good handle on what ancient creation stories were designed to do.

Ancient peoples assumed that somewhere in the distant past, near the beginning of time, the gods made the first humans from scratch -- an understandable conclusion to draw. They wrote stories about "the beginning," however, not to lecture their people on the abstract question "Where do humans come from?" They were storytellers, drawing on cultural traditions, writing about the religious -- and often political -- beliefs of the people of their own time.

Their creation stories were more like a warm-up to get to the main event: them. Their stories were all about who they were, where they came from, what their gods thought of them and, therefore, what made them better than other peoples.

Likewise, Israel's story was written to say something about their place in the world and the God they worshiped. To think that the Israelites, alone among all other ancient peoples, were interested in (or capable of) giving some definitive, quasi-scientific, account of human origins is an absurd logic. And to read the story of Adam and Eve as if it were set up to so such a thing is simply wrongheaded.

Reading the biblical story against its ancient backdrop is hardly a news flash, and most evangelical biblical scholars easily concede the point. But for some reason this piece of information has not filtered down to where it is needed most: into the mainstream evangelical consciousness. Once it does, evangelicals will see for themselves that dragging the Adam and Eve story into the evolution discussion is as misguided as using the stories of Israel's monarchy to rank the Republican presidential nominees.

Evangelicals tend to focus on how to protect the Bible against the attacks of evolution. The real challenge before them is to reorient their expectation of what the story of Adam and Eve is actually prepared to deliver.

These kinds of conversations are already happening, though too often quietly and behind closed doors. Evangelicals owe it to their children and their children's children to bring the discussion out into the open.