"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
With biologist Richard Dawkins leading the way, many scientists today are locked in an unending match of whack-a-mole with Christian creationists, who insist that God created heaven, earth and humanity in its present form, and with disciples of intelligent design who want to expel evolution from its scientific prominence in public schools. If you’ve been following the battle, you might be inclined to believe that Americans are faced with a choice between believing in God and scientific fact.
In his new book, “Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution,” Karl Giberson calls this a false choice. A professor of physics at Eastern Nazarene College, and director of the Forum on Faith and Science at Gordon College, Giberson believes in evolutionary theory as adamantly as he does in God. For Giberson, evolution and Christianity are not in competition but complement one another. Holding equal disdain for creationists who read the Bible literally and scientists who disregard God altogether, Giberson seeks a middle way, and attempts to resuscitate Darwin’s reputation as both a religious man and a scientist. In conversation, Giberson possesses a boundless inquisitiveness typical of many scientists, but also displays the wry wit of a seasoned polemicist. He seems to know how to counteract your best arguments before you have even made them.
Why does Darwin need to be saved?
He has been vilified in American evangelical culture and even more broadly than that. Yet his important contribution to science reaches into theology and religion, and so it’s important to rehabilitate him so that you can’t simply call something Darwinist and have people say, “Oooo, that smells bad.”
Why do misconceptions about Darwin persist?
Because in the latter part of the 20th century, evolution became identified with negative social agendas, and some very effective polemicists like Henry Morris and Ken Ham convinced people that evolution was responsible for the breakdown of the family and drug abuse and all manners of evil. Christians who tend to see satanic or sinister influences behind those things were only too ready to demonize Darwin and say he had an agenda to destroy their faith. In their eyes, Darwinism destroyed belief in God the creator.
Darwinism became associated with repugnant beliefs like Nazism and eugenics. But as you point out, evolution doesn’t make judgments, it merely describes.
Right. There’s an important distinction between a theory that tells us the way the world is and a theory that tells us the way it ought to be. In practice, however, we think we should behave by the way we think the world is. That’s why there’s such an intense debate about homosexuality. Conservatives don’t want homosexuality to be perceived as something natural because that would force them to reevaluate the way we treat it from a moral perspective. While it’s true that you can’t justify eugenics on the basis of Darwin’s observations, as soon as genetics was recognized to be as important as it is, people began to realize that genetics could be used to improve the species. This was kind of a natural extension but it’s certainly not implied in Darwin’s work.
Aren’t some people threatened by evolution because they can’t reconcile biblical literalism, or “young-earth” creationism, with the fact that the earth is not 10,000 years old but billions?
Yes, but young-earth theory is an interpretation of Genesis that requires that you bring a certain set of suspect assumptions to the text. The early chapters of Genesis do not read like history. They have a different sort of character to them. People who read Hebrew and understand the ancient Near Eastern worldview, and the cosmology that informed it, have given us ample reasons why you would not read Genesis that way, even if you weren’t worried about reconciling it with a billion-year-old planet.
Yet Americans do. One poll you cite shows that 51 percent of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form. You write that the strength of creationism in the U.S. “has more to do with American culture than biology or Christian theology.” What is it about our culture that has led to creationism’s popularity?
In short, intellectual laziness. We’re not prepared to do the hard work to make our culture more sophisticated. We don’t drill into our children in Sunday school or church the fact that ancient people thought differently about the world than we do. Even a modest amount of sophistication in biblical interpretation will show that the biblical authors, in both the Old Testament and New Testament, are not writing history.
In the Bible, you read the same events chronicled by different writers, and they put things in different orders or leave things out. If someone is really chronicling events, then events would be lined up in the right order. We know the Civil War comes after the American Revolution. But a biblical author, who thought for some reason that the American Revolution seemed more relevant, might reverse the order. It wouldn’t be because he was incompetent historically, it would be because he was presenting these events from an agenda that’s not that of a historian.
Many Christians insist the Bible is the literal word of God.
Yes, that’s widespread and again it’s because of a certain lack of sophistication from a literary point of view. Many people translate “the word of God” into the “words of God.” They don’t recognize that when you talk theologically about the Bible being the word of God, you mean that it contains an important message, that God is revealing himself through the history of Israel and Jesus Christ. New Testament theology gives us the “Word made flesh in Jesus.” But that phrase makes no sense if you’re talking about words and sentences. But it does make sense if you’re talking about some kind of revelation about the nature of God.
The Bible is correctly understood in Christianity as the Word of God. But it’s a distortion to say the Bible contains the words of God as if God had dictated these things. We need to grant that there are differences in the way that biblical authors talked about the world. We can’t just pull all of this into the 20th century as if it was just recently written down by God for our benefit.
Evolution is taught in American high schools and yet many still don’t believe in it. How can that be counteracted?
Well, if you could figure that one out, someone would be interviewing you, not you interviewing me. You’re absolutely right. That’s a challenging problem and it’s a problem that the Europeans are just shaking their heads over.
Why is that?
Because Europe doesn’t have a robust fundamentalist subculture like America has had since the early parts of the 20th century. American religion has been characterized by an entrepreneurial spirit. In Europe, many of the great religious traditions wasted away because they were supported by government. They didn’t need to be popular and have lots of people coming to worship on Sunday to continue. So they atrophied and people lost interest.
In America, without that kind of governmental support, religious leaders had to be entrepreneurial. So a charismatic evangelist can come up with a brand-new approach to faith and touch some chord contemporary with people’s needs. It’s why we see people like Rick Warren, a very popular guy who is revolutionizing the way a lot of evangelicals think about their faith. He’s obviously tapped into an anti-evolutionary fundamentalism and biblical literalism that people find important and like.
Biblical literalism is very simple. You read the Bible in English and you say to yourself that these are the things God wrote down through a secretary a long time ago, and all I need to do is read this in English and that’s all the work I have to do to understand it. Who wouldn’t want that to be the case? If you try to tell these people that they need some egghead scholar from Harvard, who can read Hebrew, to come in and help them with it, that seems offensive and alienating, and people aren’t attracted to that. So I think the ability of American religion to invent itself and to appeal to common denominators, sometimes the lowest denominator, has allowed these evangelical movements to flourish with their own agendas.
Discussing intelligent design, you write, “although I wish it were true, it must be rejected.” Why?
I don’t think the intelligent design movement does anything useful. Its poster children for God’s intervention are things like the clotting of blood or the propeller on the back of a bacterium. These aren’t interesting features of the world, and the fact that they seem complicated and hard to explain through evolution doesn’t suggest for one second that we ought to invoke the supernatural finger of God. I do think there are lots of things we don’t understand about the world and maybe the intelligent design movement is doing us a service by shining a bright light on those. But when all is said and done, I don’t think Christian theology wants to have a God who is one of several different factors in shaping natural history.
Do you think the intelligent-design movement demeans God?
Yes, it turns God into a kind of conjurer, one who comes in every now and then to do a trick in nature. How is this a helpful model for God?
You criticize creationism’s leading opponents like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould for treating evolution as religion. What’s your main point of contention with them?
I think there’s a reckless extrapolation from what we know about evolution to an all-encompassing materialism. Evolution has so much of its data missing in history that to look at the whole thing and say we know for sure that despite all the stuff we can’t find, and have never seen, has purely naturalistic causes — and we know this with such certainty that we insist the knowledgeable buy into this idea — goes way too far. It overlooks the reality of human experience, overlooks that religious experiences are very common and meaningful for a lot of people.
I’m not at all uncomfortable saying that religious experiences can be genuine. A lot of them are fraudulent and some of them are epileptic seizures or whatever. But I believe in God, I believe God is personal and that God exists and cares about the created order. I think it’s a very reasonable belief that God interacts with creation and that experiences people have of interacting with God are profound and deeply meaningful.
But you reject the idea that God tinkers and has his hand in day-to-day processes, so how do nature and God interact?
That’s the tough question. You should rewind the tape and erase the question because I don’t really have a good answer. What I would say, however, is when you know a lot about how something works, it’s reasonable to rule out certain things and say, well, I don’t think it could be this or that. When you know almost nothing about how something works, you need to be more humble. We don’t know how we interact with the world. Somehow you got it into your head that you were going to call and talk to me about this book. Some kind of vague intention, purposeful agenda emerged in your mind, and it got translated into a whole set of actions, and now we’re talking on the phone. We don’t understand that.
Consciousness is a very deep mystery. All of our models say consciousness shouldn’t be possible, that it should just be atoms and molecules in your brain randomly doing things. Nothing that we’ve developed for a model of how human intentionality works makes sense of our own experience of the world. But here we are, doing things in the world. Somehow a conscious-like starting point for human actions emerges and we are able to execute things in the world and change physical reality. Now, we know this happens, this isn’t a mystical theory, you can see this happening every day.
How do we know there isn’t some similar mechanism by which God interacts with the world, that God can be understood as a spirit, that God is more like consciousness than a material object? If we have an all-encompassing, pervasive personal being that has created the entire universe, and is coupled to that universe in some way, it just seems to me that the notion of God acting through the world without violating its laws is no more mysterious than us acting through that same world. So I’d say to Dawkins, until you explain to me how human beings interact with the world, don’t tell me that God couldn’t interact with the world in the same way we do.
But haven’t scientists shown that human consciousness is a relatively recent phenomenon?
Wouldn’t that suggest that if God was involved in evolution that he had to tinker and give us consciousness?
No, because, here’s another mystery: Consciousness emerges in the development of an embryo. We have a fertilized egg and there’s no consciousness there, and it’s not that consciousness is present but is really small, it just isn’t there. And then, some months later, a baby is born, and child psychologists debate about exactly when self-awareness occurs, but at some point before the age of 3, you’ve got a conscious human being.
Now, God doesn’t have to step in to make consciousness occur, but something that we don’t understand at all is occurring. I don’t think it’s supernatural. I think that someday we may understand this. There’s something going on that when the neuronal networks reach a certain level of complexity, something appears that maybe is brand-new and that is consciousness. But that’s just a guess about how we’ll eventually be talking about that phenomenon.
You criticize the creationists for questioning the gaps in the fossil record and call it a “fool’s errand” because over time, scientists usually find evidence that fills these gaps in. But aren’t you engaging in the same sort of intellectual maneuver, by saying that because there are some aspects of nature and evolution that we don’t understand, therefore God exists?
Right. That’s an extremely fair criticism. And if I was debating an I.D. person, they’d get lots of applause for putting me down with that statement. You’re absolutely right. But I think the difference is that we need to know more than we know to make certain claims. And I would claim that what we know historically about the closing of these gaps suggests that we are always going to be able to close them. That we have gaps now in our understanding of how the blood clotting mechanism arose doesn’t puzzle me at all. I just say, OK, there’s more work to do.
When we finally understand how human intentionality works, I don’t think it represents a dead end. We know that all of this discussion about how God might interact with the world is driven by metaphors and extrapolating our own human experience, and trying to find analogies that are always imperfect. I think we will never have some sort of model that says, “OK, here’s how God gets his agenda across in the natural order. Here’s how the will of God gets realized in nature — we won’t ever have that. But we might have insights into possibilities about how we could think about that. These insights will be rich enough that they will accommodate religious experience and some of the things that have long been a part of religion.
Do you think life can only have meaning and purpose with God?
I think it’s very dangerous to try and argue that. I have children and raising them has been one of the most inspiring and purpose-filled parts of my life. Yet it doesn’t seem helpful to say that seems meaningful and not meaningless because God made child-rearing purposeful. I found it purposeful to learn how to do a Willie Mays basket catch when I was in high school. I got very good at it and loved doing it. But certainly, God didn’t make that a part of the natural order. So I think there’s loads of ways to get purpose because purpose ultimately is a psychological state of mind. And certainly people like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould aren’t walking around glum all the time, saying, “Oh, life has no purpose, I think I’ll just kill myself.” They are very energetic people who love life and do lots of fun things. I don’t think Christians are wise to say we’ve got the corner on purpose.
You also criticize creationists because they ignore the fact that there is so much bad design in nature and so much barbarity and cruelty apparent throughout all life forms. You write that our spine was intended for a four-legged creation and yet we walk upright. So if creationists are wrong, as a Christian, how do you account for bad design and the evil in nature?
I think that we need to understand bad design and evil things in nature in the same way that we understand bad choices and evil actions on the part of humans in nature. It’s been a part of the Judeo-Christian understanding of creation that when God created the world it was somehow separate from God. People debate about what that means and how great the separation is, but in articulations that I find most congenial, that entails God giving some freedom to the world. We have a free will to choose good or choose evil.
One of the points of the Garden of Eden story is that Adam and Eve got this idyllic situation and all they need to do is make a set of simple choices that are right and avoid one kind of no-brainer that is wrong. And what do they do? They choose the wrong thing. It’s a mysterious, incomprehensible act. Why would you do that? Why would you screw up such a situation? If anybody today was on a marvelous Caribbean island with a beautiful woman and you’re told that all you’ve got to do is not eat those fruits, you’d say, “OK, fine with me.” It defies comprehension that Adam and Eve freely chose the wrong thing.
This is a story that I understand as mythology and not history. It’s a deep truth about the significance of freedom and how irrational freedom can ultimately be. In the same way that we can choose to do things that make no sense, we can build things that are evil. We can make gas chambers or we can build hospitals. So if nature is free, what is nature going to do? Nature can create a creature with a spine like ours that walks upright. Nature can create a booby that has webbed feet. Nature can create the Ichneumonidae wasp that bothered Darwin so much. [The wasp hatches eggs inside a living caterpillar, allowing baby wasps to devour the caterpillar from the inside out.]
But nature can also create the delightful goldfinch that comes to my feeder every day and the cardinal and the deer that I see. There’s so many things that nature has done that are marvelous. We have great achievements, symphonies and great art, and we have gas chambers and weapons of mass destruction. So I think nature is free in that way.
But if nature has free will, does it necessarily have a place for God?
God doesn’t need to have a place within nature as one of the creatures within nature, and that’s one of the objections to intelligent design. It brings God into nature as this auxiliary engineer to tweak things every once and a while. But the center of the doctrine of creation has never been that God makes stuff like an engineer or a carpenter. The central idea has been that God is responsible for the fact that creation simply exists. The words being and ontology are thrown around a lot in this context. God sustains the universe. God holds it continuously in existence. And that’s the centerpiece — not that God originated it once upon a time, either 10,000 or 10 billion years ago. Or that God tinkers in it constantly but that God holds it steadily in existence. In that sense, yes, the natural order does need God in order to continue to exist. But the events, as they unfold, don’t have to have God tinkering and puttering like a weekend gardener.
But you can see why people like Dawkins and Dennett say that science seems to be functioning perfectly well on its own and we don’t need to fall back on an explanation of God?
Yes, absolutely. And that has never been the way that people come to God. The number of people who embrace religious belief because they find it at the end of a long argument is very small. People come to religious faith in a variety of ways, but that’s almost the last one on the list. People are far more likely to have certain experiences that overwhelm them and don’t seem like conclusions of rational arguments, but seem like a kind of momentary contact with something genuinely transcendent. You say there’s something more to the world than the atoms and molecules. Out of that experience comes a religious commitment. And that has characterized human experience forever.
Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.More Vincent Rossmeier.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)