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“The Rocks Don’t Lie”: A Review

I recently finished reading a colleague’s book, The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood (W. W. Norton & Company, 2012). As Dave (David R. Montgomery) tells it, he started out to write a straightforward refutation of “Creationism” (i.e., “Young Earth Creationism” with the topography of the modern world shaped by Noah’s Flood). Through the reading of old books, he learned how stories of ancient floods shaped both scientific and religious views through history, coming away with “an appreciation for the rich and engaging interplay between biblical interpretation and the development of geology” (p. xiv). He also came to a different conclusion about the nature of faith (p. xii).



This book should be on the reading list of everyone interested in the interaction of science and religion, especially in the context of geology. You will find it well written by a world-class geologist and MacArthur Fellow. While I highly recommend the book, I disagree with Montgomery on a number of fundamental points.

I share the love of reading landscapes with David Montgomery. Without question, my best university class was a field physical geography class that I took from Harold “Duke” Winters at Michigan State University. We spent a quarter in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin looking at the deglaciation history of the upper Midwest. Winters would drop us at a site for the day, and we had to figure out what was significant about the site and how it helped us put together the story of the deglaciation history. We were graded on our observations, clarity of field notes, and how well we reconstructed the deglaciation history of the upper Midwest. This skill of reading landscapes has helped me understand what salmon habitat looked like prior to the arrival of Europeans, which is an essential step for me in understanding how to recover salmon populations. While I share Dave’s enthusiasm for reading landscapes, I must admit I am nowhere near as skilled as he is. To spend a day in the field with Dave Montgomery is an experience. To watch him discover clues and build a story is to observe a virtuoso.

Because I believe that the skills of observing the clues and building a story are the heart of good science, I also believe that good science is high art conducted by virtuosos. But that is not what we are told today. We are told that science is a method of testing hypotheses; that it is objective, and any practitioner will get the same results by following the method. We are told that by following this objective method, we get more certain results than we can through other endeavors, like the arts. In his book, Dave Montgomery seems to hold a view of science closer to science as a method rather than science as an art form. I hold the later view.

Similarly, I believe that interpreting the Bible—biblical exegesis—is high art. For over thirty years, I have had the pleasure of apprenticing biblical exegesis with a number of virtuosos in our community. Just as I am not a landscape-reading virtuoso, so I am not an exegesis virtuoso, but I enjoy the opportunity to watch them in action, and I appreciate their skill.

Through the last thirty years, I have come to see that doing science and doing biblical exegesis are similar processes; the subject matter is the primary difference. In doing science, we start with everything that we believe to be true (our pre-understanding). As we acquire new information, we incorporate it with our pre-understanding and refine our existing theories. There is fundamentally nothing different here from how we navigate our everyday lives. The difference is that virtuosos hone their skills into high art. However, sometimes new information comes along that cannot be made coherent with our existing theories and pre-understanding; it resists our attempts to incorporate it into our theories and pre-understanding. At this point, I would argue that integrity and pursuit of truth do not necessarily demand that we abandon our theories and pre-understanding that have served us well. (I disagree with philosopher of science Karl Popper on this point.) We would be wrong to jettison everything that we have built just because a piece of information is contrary to what we expect.

The best example of this I know comes from the experience of physicist D. C. Miller as reported by Michael Polanyi in his book, Personal Knowledge (p. 12-13). Over a period of twenty-four years, D. C. Miller and collaborators repeated the Michelson-Morley speed-of-light experiments many thousands of times with increasingly more sophisticated equipment. Miller presented his results in his presidential address to the American Physical Society in 1925. Never once did he get the results predicted by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Polanyi argues that the scientists were right to set the experiments aside, at least for a period of time, because there were many good reasons for retaining the theory; there must have been a source of error in the measurements. However, there does come a point where the information that will not fit the existing theory becomes the focus of the search for a new theory. The new theory then becomes part of our pre-understanding. The history of geology presented by David Montgomery represents just such an endeavor by geologists.

Just as when doing science, when doing biblical exegesis the individual starts with his pre-understanding. The exegete will interpret the text according to his pre-understanding as long as he is “tracking” with the text—that is, as long as the words and meaning flow coherently. A problem occurs when a word resists being understood in the flow and appears incoherent. At that point, the exegete will stop and try to understand the word within his existing pre-understanding and the flow of the ideas. If a sentence cannot be understood, then, like the Michelson-Morley example above, the exegete does not have to abandon his pre-understanding or theory of the flow of ideas; he can, with integrity, hold the section as a problem to be solved later. But just like the science example, sometimes the word or phrase requires a search for a whole new line of understanding. If the exegete accepts a new understanding, it not only affects the flow of the argument but also is incorporated into the exegete’s pre-understanding. (The Language of God: A Commonsense Approach to Understanding and Applying the Bible, a book by three of my Gutenberg colleagues, provides a good understanding of the role of pre-understanding in biblical exegesis.)

My disagreements with Dave Montgomery derive from our differing views on philosophy of science, biblical exegesis, and the nature of faith. As I read his book, Dave is more on the side of science being an objective method than I am. Also, he sees more differences between doing science and doing biblical exegesis than I do. He rejects the idea that science and exegesis are both high-art forms. For instance, he believes that the development of “scientific” or literary criticism with regards to biblical exegesis is a positive step, while I view it as a giant step backwards. I do not believe that skills can ever be reduced to methodologies in science or in exegesis.

I agree with Dave Montgomery that doing biblical exegesis is more difficult than doing geology. More of the questions in geology are probably answerable, although some obviously are not answerable at this point. I also agree that geologists had an easier time agreeing on the methods than have interpreters of the Bible. However, what is at stake in the study of geology and the study of the Bible is profoundly different. Little is at stake if my geological theory is wrong. At stake with regard to studying the Bible and understanding the biblical worldview are the most fundamentally important questions in a person’s life: life and death issues.

This brings me to another substantive disagreement that I have with Montgomery’s book. When I became a Christian in my thirties, I was confronted with the issues of how to interpret the Bible and what kind of authority it ought to play in my life. To help me answer those basic questions, I joined the Gutenberg community and was a student in the Biblical Exegesis Program. I became convinced that the method of how to interpret the Bible is similar to how we understand any form of communication. We are trying to ascertain what the author is trying to communicate. In order to do that, we need to try to recover as much of an author’s pre-understanding as possible. The more we share with or understand about an author, the greater likelihood that communication can succeed. Again, I see this endeavor as high art, whereas Dave does not.

As far as the authority of the Bible is concerned, it seems to me that to claim to be a Christian is to claim to accept the teachings of Jesus Christ. First and foremost, a Christian ought to acknowledge that Jesus is who He says He is. Second, when it comes to the authority of the Bible, a Christian should examine what kind of authority Jesus gives to the Bible. It seems to me that He grants the Bible absolute authority, accepting it as the word of God—that is, if a belief He holds does not agree with the biblical perspective, He will change his view. He accepts the Bible as the word of God. (This of course assumes that He has arrived at the right interpretation).

Lastly, Dave Montgomery argues for two different ways of viewing faith (p.248). One way of viewing faith is a trust in a method (like the scientific method); while the second way of viewing faith is trust in a particular idea, view, or conclusion (like scientific theories or religious ideas). In his view, faith and reason offer different lenses through which people seek to understand the world and our place in it (p. 256). I do not agree that these are two legitimate ways of viewing faith. In a recent Gutenberg College “News and Views” article (October 2013), philosopher Jack Crabtree made an important distinction between intellectual and religious commitment:

An intellectual commitment to a belief (or value) is a personal commitment that one makes to embrace that belief so long (and to the extent that) one is rationally and intellectually justified in doing so. A religious commitment is a personal commitment that one makes to hold and embrace that particular belief no matter what.

Jack then proceeded to argue that a believer in the teaching of Jesus Christ ought never to make a “religious commitment” to his belief. It seems to me that the second way of faith articulated by Dave Montgomery entails such a religious commitment. I do not agree that a definition of faith grounded in a religious commitment is ever justified in religion or in any other field of knowledge.

In summary, I highly recommend Dave’s book. However, that is not to say that I agree with everything in it.


Common Core and Uncommon Gutenberg

A bit of a storm is blowing—no longer brewing but now blowing—across the country about the top-down education program known as “Common Core” that originated with the federal Department of Education and is now being implemented all across the country. Things got particularly hot last Friday (11/15) when Secretary Arne Duncan tried to downplay opposition to Common Core and marginalize detractors by saying that “white suburban moms” whose kids can’t meet the program standards are the ones leading the charge in opposition.



That prompted one of those moms, Ali Gordon, to write an open letter which found its way into a Washington Post blog. Both Duncan’s comments and Gordon’s letter illustrate much that is wrong with a government regulated approach to education which has large monetary strings attached. It is those national regulations and the attached strings that we at Gutenberg College struggle with all the time. Our national accreditation brings those things into play, but to avoid additional strings, we don’t take any federal money at all for scholarships or for any other reason.

Secretary Duncan’s response to the firestorm sets the table nicely for what is at issue. He says, “I have not been shy in letting the country know the enormous value of the state-led movement to prepare young people for college and careers.” What happened to “parent-led” or “school-district-led” or even “citywide”? The further that any government-type program gets from the individual and the local level, the more problematic it can be, as a “one size fits all” approach forces countless numbers of sizes and types into the same small box.

Gordon, the accused “white suburban housewife,” starts off by observing that she does not fit the profile of an anti-government conspiracy theorist. Rather, she characterizes herself as a “Progressive, bleeding heart liberal” who voted twice for President Obama, contributed to and volunteered for his campaign, and took her family to D.C. to celebrate both of the President’s inaugurations. Now that’s commitment!

After listing many more of her “credentials” for having good reason to speak out against Common Core, including her election to her local school district board, Gordon makes her first point. Stating that she does not necessarily oppose over arching standards, she does object to them being handed down from above and adopted locally primarily because of the large amounts of money that are conditioned upon adoption. And she further objects to standards that don’t necessarily adapt well to students with particular needs and concerns, like her fifth-grade epileptic daughter.

Gordon goes on to state that she objects very strongly to standards which force development of curriculum that is not developmentally appropriate. Another Washington Post blog post on the subject of Common Core from January of this year contains this quote from a childhood educator at the University of Hawaii: “The people who wrote these standards do not appear to have any background in child development or early childhood education.” So unless all children are as precocious as were mine and all of yours, that means that the early standards are quite unreachable for many, perhaps most kids.

Then Gordon raises the issue of excessive standardized testing that eats up the time and resources that would be better used in actually teaching—to say nothing of the well known practice of “teaching to the test” that too narrowly focuses what goes on in a classroom. A focus primarily on testing and results will likely end with an atmosphere where students (with their individual personalities, learning styles, and needs) will get lost in the educational shuffle.

Next Gordon makes this very telling critique: “I’m also opposed to the 1%—Bill Gates, et al—imposing a business model mentality on public schools.” There is a tendency in our society today to try to reduce all activities and practices to exercises in technical expertise or in the implementation of successful business principles. While we at Gutenberg are neither Luddites nor Occupiers, we recognize some of the limitations and problems with an approach that doesn’t necessarily take into account the uniqueness of our ethos, our biblical convictions, and our individual students (who certainly don’t come out of a cookie-cutter mold). Even in our little corner of the educational world, we run into any number of strings, overt or not, attached to money that might come our way.

There’s more in Gordon’s letter. That woman is one momma bear that I wouldn’t want to mess with. She goes on to talk about a number of specific ways that Common Core is being implemented and is not working out in the state of New York. But I think you get the point.

This issue gives me the chance to talk about many of the things that I appreciate so much about Gutenberg. I can’t imagine a college or university in which the individual student gets more individual attention and interest. Soon after admission, the tutors and staff have begun to truly know and understand the individual student and are thus better positioned to be able to help the student get the most out of his or her education—academically but also philosophically, morally, and spiritually.

And seldom have I been around a group of people more committed to doing what they believe is right. They will not compromise their principles regardless of where that request for compromise is coming from—national standards for higher education, monied interests, theological arbiters, or any other source. They will gently and humbly pursue that which they believe to be the calling of God in the way that things are done at Gutenberg.

Those are the things that have elicited from me a love for and commitment to Gutenberg College.


Study Science at a Great Books College?

When I tell people that I am a tutor at Gutenberg College and explain that it is a four-year Great Books college, invariably they ask about job prospects for its graduates. Many people assume that a liberal arts education is outmoded; it is not considered suited to the modern job market. I do not agree. Below are three reasons why.

  1. A Gutenberg education is the best choice for an undergraduate education for some students in science. As an ecologist, I would argue that it is among the best choices for a scientist.
  2. A Gutenberg education is an excellent choice if a student wants to be a good citizen.
  3. A Gutenberg education focuses on the important questions of life.

A competent scientist must make important decisions about the nature of science and its methods. Without this background, the individual is a mere technician. Gutenberg students are trained to make such decisions because, throughout their four years, they participate in science seminars in which they read large selections from the major scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Darwin, and Leopold to understand not only their theories but also to see what they thought science was and how it is done.


Science at Gutenberg College

Examining major questions like “What is a meaningful life?” or “How important is a particular career choice to my life?” are more important than job training. The core of the Gutenberg project seeks to examine these questions.

And, focusing on job training does not adequately prepare a citizen to help continue the American experiment. The founding fathers saw clearly that a republic not grounded in virtue would not long endure. Gutenberg students have seen the role of virtue in the rise and fall of ancient Greece and Rome. They are well aware of the role of virtue and morality in culture and, most importantly, in their own lives as well.

[This edited excerpt is from “Why Should Anyone Interested in Science Come to Gutenberg College?” by Charley Dewberry. To read the original article, click here. More about Gutenberg College here. Or check us out on Facebook.]


Literature and Philosophy: Contrary or Complementary?

Literature and philosophy: their goals, methods, and pleasures seem so opposed. Literature tells fictions; philosophy dispels them. Literature loves beauty; philosophy loves truth. “There is an old quarrel,” wrote Plato in 380 B.C., “between philosophy and poetry.” However, even Plato was a master of literary philosophy. Such a marriage of literature and philosophy might give birth to an exceedingly rare experience: feeling ideas. Fyodor Dostoevsky and William Shakespeare achieved this marriage, and the results of their inquiries are not in wordy monologues but fulfilling narratives.


In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov pits his philosophical convictions against his own conscience. Guilt and law, Raskolnikov asserts, are both simply “prejudices” that society presses on individuals. Some men, supermen, rise above guilt and law and do what they please. Raskolnikov plans to confirm his philosophy by committing a murder. The murder is a consequence of his philosophical belief (“No superman is subject to guilt!”) and an attempt to prove himself a superman.

Likewise, Macbeth’s philosophical convictions push him toward life or death. The whole of Macbeth can be viewed as a debate over the nature of manhood: What is a man? How should a man act? Should sympathy curb a man’s ambition? When Macbeth has second thoughts about assassinating King Duncan, Lady Macbeth challenges him as failing in his manhood:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And [if you did it] you would
Be so much more the man.

Macbeth eventually concedes to Lady Macbeth’s vicious definition of manhood. Both Shakespeare and Dostoevsky shove these philosophical positions to their maximum conclusions.

At the end of the play, Macbeth is a monster. Yet we can still feel sympathy at his lament that life has become a meaningless cycle of days:

It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov carries his philosophy to its maximum conclusion. He murders the money-lender and her sister, then crabs into his psyche where guilt pursues him like a hunting hound. For a few days, he hides beneath his stony philosophy. But upon receiving a gentle letter from his mother, Raskolnikov begins to cry. One minute, lethal pride. The next minute, sympathy. Dostoevsky’s readers feel Raskolnikov’s philosophy yanking him back and forth.

Dostoevsky and Shakespeare’s achievement comes, in part, from never forcing their characters to be philosophical mouthpieces. Macbeth and Raskolnikov both become monsters, but they do not cease to be human. These characters resist simplistic philosophizing because, no matter their beliefs, they remain a baffling salad of impulses. They are, in short, us.

Neither Shakespeare’s and Dostoevsky’s characters nor their conclusions are tidy. They wrote narratives, after all, not philosophies. Yet both litterateurs endorse philosophy as a lamplight to understanding. Their marriage of literature and philosophy helped make them masters of both. Their works, like any healthy marriage, use the strengths of each to bolster the weaknesses of the other.


[This edited excerpt is from “War between the Bookshelves” by Tim McIntosh. To read the original article, click here. More about Gutenberg College here. Or check us out on Facebook.]


Totally Free At A High Cost

Common sense would seem to tell us that a thing cannot be both costly and free at the same time. If I must pay a high price for something, then it is not free; if it is free, then I am not required to pay for it. This commonsensical observation, however, leads to a theological puzzle: do the promises of the gospel come to us for free or at great cost? The Bible uses both kinds of language. Costly and free—the gospel is both.

Salvation is totally free in one sense and highly costly in another, and we must understand both senses in order to understand the Christian life. Salvation is free in that we can do nothing—we can pay nothing—to earn our acceptance from God. We are evil, but God accepts us anyway, without reservation. We are guilty before the court of God’s justice, yet He frees us from paying what we owe. God is not waiting to accept us until we meet some standard; we do not meet the standard, and yet He blesses us now. If we do not understand how freely and graciously God is acting toward us, then we can fall into self-righteousness and/or despair: self-righteousness because we have forgotten that we do not deserve God’s kindness; despair because we have forgotten how freely willing God is to overlook our guilt.

Yet, salvation is also costly, and we must understand that as well. By its very nature, to believe the gospel is a huge shift in our lives. To believe that Jesus died for our sins costs us our self-satisfied belief that we are good people. To believe that God is willing to forgive us costs us our bitter unwillingness to forgive others. To believe that the true riches are found in the kingdom of God costs us our delusion that money matters. To ask Jesus to be on our side may cost us the approval of others. If our faith is genuine, then it cannot help but confront us with some hard truths and hard choices. This confrontation is not optional; what Jesus offers is not what the world offers, and to have them both is impossible. To deny this is to distort our picture of faith itself.

[This edited excerpt is from “Costly and Free” by Ron Julian. To read the original article, click here. More about Gutenberg College here. Or check us out on Facebook.]


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