Thursday, January 16, 2003

“Genesis and Dinosaurs”

My neighbor Lester was over in Burlington, Kentucky, this weekend, volunteering at Answers in Genesis’s creation museum and education center. I was eager to hear what progress they’re making. They believe that God created the universe in six days only 6,000 years ago, that pairs of dinosaurs were on Noah’s Ark, and that dinosaurs were probably around at the time of Jesus. According to a 1997 Gallup Poll, 47% of Americans believe in a literal reading of Genesis, so there’s a choir out there waiting to hear them preach.

“How’s the project coming along, Lester?” I asked.

“Just super!” he reported. “The 54-foot-long model of a sea bass that visitors will be able to walk through is all set up. And so is the 14-by-26-foot model of a human cell. And the seventy or so dinosaur models are all in place.”

“Help me out here, Lester,” I said. “What exactly do dinosaurs have to do with the Bible?”

“Everything,” he said. If God created all animals on the sixth day, then dinosaurs existed at the same time as every other creature. They were walking the earth the same time as all the Old Testament figures, probably up through the time of Jesus himself.”

“Gee,” I mused. “You’d think that if a 10,000 pound Tyrannosaurus rex were rambling around at the same time as King David, say, or Abraham, or Isaac, or Jeremiah, or any of those guys, somebody would have mentioned it.”

“The Bible isn’t exhaustive in the way it treats anything,” he said with exasperation. “There are obviously thousands of species—animals, trees, birds, insects—that didn’t happen to be included in the Biblical narratives.”

“Well, I can see how you could leave out a wood duck or a pintail, say, or maybe a chipmunk or a spittlebug, but some things are just hard to ignore. Don’t you think that a giant flesh-eating reptile twenty feet tall, with a four-foot skull, armed with daggerlike teeth half a foot long, would catch your attention? And maybe complicate your life a little? Or even a vegetarian like Diplodocus or Brachiosaurus? I mean, Diplodocus grew to be almost ninety feet long. Of course, it only weighed about twenty-five tons, which is light compared with Brachiosaurus’s fifty tons, but still, if one crossed your path, you’d think you might get excited enough to mention it.”

“They may have been so common that they weren’t worth mentioning,” he suggested.

“I can see how that could happen,” I agreed. “But sheep and goats and lambs and lions get mentioned frequently, and they were probably more common than dinosaurs. Although I wouldn’t think sheep and goats would stay all that common if there were many carnivorous dinosaurs around.”

“It may have been a matter of geography,” he suggested. “Dinosaurs may not have been in that particular region at that time.”

“I can see that,” I reflected. “It would be like polar bears. Or kangaroos. They weren’t in the Middle East, so they’re not mentioned in the Bible. So how did Noah gather all those species? Did he go to Australia for the dingoes and kangaroos and kiwis, to the Arctic for polar bears and seals and Arctic wolves, to North America for bison, to South America for anacondas, and to Asia for snow leopards? How long would you say it would take to gather a pair of every species that ever lived, haul them back home, and load them on a boat? Suppose my three sons and I set out to do that—and our job would be easier because a lot of species are extinct now. How long would that take? I mean, realistically, how many species could you travel with and feed at one time?”

Lester flushed. “ It probably went faster in those days,” he mumbled.

“That’s what I can’t figure. They did everything on foot. No trucks, no trains, no planes to speed up the gathering. Can you imagine being the son who gets the job of bringing in a pair of Allosaurus or Triceratops?”

“It was no doubt a difficult task,” he admitted.

“And how big was that ark?” I went on. “When you consider that some of these individuals weighed 100,000 pounds apiece, and then figure the food you’d have to lay in for them, it’d take a heck of a vessel to accommodate the lot. Plus they all ate different kinds of food, so you’d have to gather that from everywhere too.”

“The dimensions are given in cubits,” he said. “I’m not sure how long a cubit is.”

“Well, it varied,” I said, “depending on how long it was from somebody’s elbow to the tip of his middle finger, but eighteen inches is a good ballpark figure.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “However big it was, it was big enough.”

“Say, did you read in the Parkersburg paper about that Marietta College professor who found those dinosaur droppings at a dig in Utah?” I asked. “The first specimen was about ten feet long! The main mass was five feet long, and then there was another five feet of ‘dribble.’”

“What’s your point?” he asked.

“Nothing, really. I was just thinking how much work it was to take care of a few dairy cattle when we had a farm over in Gilmer County. Not just the feeding and milking, but mucking out the barn. Can you imagine cleaning up after a hundred thousand or so species on a boat?”

“You seem inclined to linger over details.”

“Somebody once said, ‘God is in the details,’ Lester,” I remarked. “By the way, Dr. Stone figured that the coprolite he found was shat about 150 million years ago.”

“Evidently he’s not a biblical scientist,” said Lester. “He appears to be unaware of the reliable, absolutely authoritative history that Genesis presents.”

“There does seem to be a bit of a gap between your version of dinosaurs and his, doesn’t there? You believe the oldest dinosaurs lived no more than 6,000 years ago, and he says his specimen came from a dinosaur 150 million years ago.”

“Ace,” he said, “if you can’t trust the Bible on biology and paleontology, how can you trust it on morality and salvation?”

Lester is not only a neighbor, but a friend and a thoroughly decent human being. His question came from the foundation of his faith, and I wanted to treat it carefully. For him, every word in the Bible is literal, historical, God-given truth, and thus cannot be wrong.

“Lester,” I began, “you read the Bible a lot more than I do, and you know that it contains passages that are self-contradictory and genealogies that vary from one place to another. If the Bible were literally, word-for-word true, those kinds of things couldn’t happen.”

He just looked at me, evidently concerned that my eternal soul was sliding down a greased pole to perdition.

“Think of all the ways people try to convey truths so profound that they are ultimately inexpressible,” I continued. “Through myth, through symbols, through visions. The imagination isn’t a lesser creature than the cold historical eye. You’re taking a work that combines a variety of literary forms—myth, song, chronicle, prayer, and vision literature—and assuming that it’s all historical narrative. That’s absurd! You can have your moral and religious truth while being open to whatever science learns about the universe!”

He turned a cold historical eye on me. “Ace,” he said, “I’ll pray for you. You read a myth for me.”

© Tony Russell, 2003

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