Here is a portionÃ‚Â fromÃ‚Â John Wilson’s review of Randy Balmer’s THY KINGDOM COME: HOW THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT DISTORTS THE FAITH AND THREATENS AMERICA–AN EVANGELICAL’S LAMENT (go here). Balmer follows the familiar pattern of someone who started out going to conservative Christian schools, did well, went on to high-profile secular schools, retained the vestiges of his faith but takes as his greatest pleasure in life knowing that he is so sophisticated that none of his secular colleagues will ever call him to account for the offense of the Gospel. By the way, if you are curious about my sartorial habits, you can look at the debate here. The Dembski-Silver debate was discussed on this blog here.
What really disappointed me about Balmer’s book was the absence of the depth, the nuance, the texture, the alertness to human complexity that made his portrait of the aging Jimmy Swaggart so powerful. Consider, for example, the chapter in Thy Kingdom Come entitled “Creationism by Design,” which includes Balmer’s account of a debate between William Dembski, one of the leading figures in the Intelligent Design movement, and the distinguished molecular biologist Lee Silver. Here is how Balmer introduces Dembski:
- Wearing a dark suit slightly too large for his lanky frame, Dembski had the mien of an assistant vice president at a local bank or of someone who has just been dispatched to notify the next of kin. The moderator introduced him as having an unspecified affiliation with Baylor University, but that was somewhat misleading, and Dembski made no effort to correct the impression that he was a member of the faculty at Baylor.
Balmer then pulls back from the narrative of the debate for two long paragraphs filling in the history of Dembski’s stormy time at BaylorÃ¢â‚¬â€the upshot of which is that, on the account Balmer himself provides, it is difficult to imagine what Dembski was supposed to do to “correct” the moderator’s introduction. Like this imputation of deceit, Balmer’s physical description of Dembski suggests that he is stacking the deck, but perhaps that is exactly how Dembski appeared to him that night, and he is thereby fleshing the scene out.
There is nothing comparable in Balmer’s treatment of Silver. What did he resemble that night? What was he wearing? We don’t knowÃ¢â‚¬â€though Balmer does tell us at one point that Silver “reclined in his chair and flashed a confident smile.” And while Balmer rightly steps back and provides extensive context for Dembski, with Silver he limits himself to a respectful summary of what the molecular biologist said in the debate.
How different this chapter would have been if Balmer had fleshed Silver out, had gone behind the scenes as he does with Dembski, had given us some impression of the man, had referred to Silver’s 1997 book Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World. For Silver, as well as being a scientist honored by his peers and a skillful writer, is a man who is by turns condescending toward and openly contemptuous of Christians while making claims for science that even many of his fellow scientists would reject as hubristic. (Silver also ridicules many of the environmentalist convictions that Balmer holds dear.) I’d urge readers of Thy Kingdom Come to check out Remaking Eden and Silver’s new book, published this spring by Ecco Press, Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life, wherein SilverÃ¢â‚¬â€in the course of his magisterial account of “Science, Faith, and Religion”Ã¢â‚¬â€explains that
- Members of many religious groups are content to be left alone to practice their faith within their own communities. They are not particularly concerned about the attitudes or practices of others in the society at large who do not hold their beliefs. American Christian evangelicals, however, are different. They believe that God in the form of Jesus Christ will grant them an eternal afterlife only if they work sufficiently hard to persuade non-Christians to become evangelicals themselves.
Well, actually, noÃ¢â‚¬â€that’s not what evangelicals believe about salvation, is it? In the footnote that follows this claim, Silver refers the reader to a lecture by Mark Noll, available on the web (which, as his own summary makes clear, Silver has misunderstood), and to a Wikipedia entry.
Had some of this background been sketched, instead of a cartoonish set-piece in which the doofus Dembski comes up against the suave confidence and sweet reason of Silver, we would have seen a complex conflict. By all means look at Intelligent Design with a critical eye. But don’t stop there.