Was Von Braun a “Creationist?”

In reliving the historic Apollo 11 moon landing this past week (see the PBS American Experience, Chasing the Moon film), it came to mind that the Apollo 11 team of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins would never have made it there, if it had not been for the rocketry skills of Wernher Von Braun. In his earlier years, Von Braun built rockets, for Adolph Hitler, that threatened the city of London, during the latter stages of World War 2.

A former Nazi, Wernher Von Braun came to the United States, to eventually gain the confidence of President John F. Kennedy, encouraging that the Americans could actually beat the Russians to the moon. Von Braun’s Saturn V rocket sent the astronauts to the moon, to make their historic, televised visit, on July 20, 1969.

Towards the last portion of his life, Von Braun revealed that he believed in God, and that God’s design could be seen in creation. So, it would appear that Wernher Von Braun was a “Creationist.” But what kind of “Creationist” was he? Was he a Young Earth Creationist? An Old Earth Creationist? Or an Evolutionary Creationist?

Many Christians are deeply divided on this issue.

Both the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis, make the claim that Von Braun was indeed a Young Earth Creationist.  Such sources contend that Von Braun criticized the teaching of evolution only in public schools. In defense of his view, Von Braun stated in a letter, that was read in a California court case, over Young Earth Creation being taught in schools:

for the amazing string of successes we had with our Apollo flights to the moon … was that we tried to never overlook anything. It is in that same sense of scientific honesty that I endorse the presentation of alternative theories for the origin of the universe, life and man in the science classroom. It would be an error to overlook the possibility that the universe was planned rather than happening by chance

It would appear, also, that Von Braun did write a forward to a book, endorsing Young Earth Creationism. But as a blogger for the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) reports, Von Braun later clarified the meaning of this letter:

“1. If fundamentalistic religion means belief that the book of Genesis gives a correct scientific account of how the world came into being; that 4004 BC is the date of the origin of the earth, and that all living things were “created” in their final form rather than developed through evolutionary, “survival-of-the-fittest” processes, then I am most emphatically not a believer in fundamental religion.
2. If, however, the question is whether behind the many random processes which are operating in nature, there is a “divine intent”, my answer is an equally emphatic “yes.” With this position I am only sharing and accepting the views expressed by giants of science such as Newton, Kepler, Faraday, Pascal[,] and Einstein.”

It would appear that the Young Earth Creationist claim, of Von Braun believing in an earth that is less that 6,000 years old, is complicated by Von Braun’s later clarification. He would more than likely be somewhere between an Old Earth Creationist and an Evolutionary Creationism.

Either way, Von Braun was clearly a “Creationist,” in the sense that he was a Christian. But the specific belief he held, as to the age of the earth, along with the related age of the universe, where the scientific consensus holds as being about 13.799 billion years old, and not 6,000 years old, according to Young Earth Creationists, appears to have been in some measure of flux, during his life.

But something tells me that the specific details of Von Braun’s beliefs, and their relationship with the beliefs of most scientists today, who hold to the scientific consensus, might not gain that much interest among many Christians today, at least, not as much as it should. Yet perhaps, it is better to focus on the fundamental belief that God created the universe, the “who” of Creation, and not get so hung up on the exact timing and mechanical detail as to how God created the universe.

I take to heart, that the inventor of the awe-inspiring, massive Saturn V rocket, that put a “man on the moon,” looked to the God of the Bible, for his own inspiration.


Apollo 11 : The Moon Landing Remembered

I was just a kid in elementary school, when Neil Armstrong uttered his famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

My parents had taken me down to Virginia Beach, for our annual, family summer beach trip. The old Halifax Hotel had but one “common room,” where the only television set was to be found, which sat off and idle most evenings.

But on that sweltering, Sunday summer evening, July 20, 1969, the room was packed. Everyone was huddled around the TV, watching this grainy, black-and-white image of an astronaut, over the crackly radio channel, transmitting nearly a quarter of a million miles away.

I wriggled up and found a spot on the floor, just feet away from the TV.  I was riveted.

To this very day, I get emotional just thinking about that night, as Walter Cronkite narrated those historical events, particularly the suspenseful moon landing, with its infamously mysterious “1202” alarm. Grateful for a safe landing, co-pilot Buzz Aldrin celebrated communion inside the lunar module, doing so privately.

My parents allowed me to stay up late to watch Armstrong step off the lunar lander ladder, amid the voices of adults all around me, chatting about how remarkable this event really was.

I drifted off to sleep that night, dreaming about what it would be like to work for NASA.

Thousands of people, including scientists, engineers, you name it, all had bonded together, with a common mission, to get a man to the moon, and back to earth, safely. Personal interests were set aside, and even a few lives were lost in the process, in an effort to reach that lofty goal.

By the end of that vacation week, I took walks out on the beach at night, looking up at a nearly full moon, simply amazed that two human beings had walked on the surface of that glowing object, so far away. This was no sketchy propaganda project, filmed on some Arizona back lot. It was a thrilling moment in human history. I was hooked on science and technology from that moment on.

Little did I know, that after college, I would end up working as a government contractor at NASA, for about 15 years. Now, among a new generation of explorers, there is talk about going to Mars!…. Even an Arab Islamic nation wants to get to Mars, very soon!

.     .     .

All of us have moments like these, iconic moments that just stick in our memory, and inspire us.

What makes these moments even more profound, is when these moments get shared with others, even with others whom we barely know, or do not know at all. Some are electrifying and uplifting, like the Apollo 11 moon landing. Some are downright shocking and shattering, and lower our spirits.

For my parents’ generation, it was events like when it was announced that the Soviet satellite, Sputnik, had made it into space, in 1957, sparking the race to the moon (the Soviets almost scooped the American Apollo 11 mission, with their unmanned Luna 15).

My mother distinctively remembered where she was, the afternoon she heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot, in 1963. It was the grief of a nation.

I remember clearly where I was when the Challenger space shuttle blew up, in 1986. Then there was the moment when the First Gulf War started in 1991, when Revered Billy Graham prayed with President George H. W. Bush for wisdom, in the White House.

For younger generations, the most profound memory has been watching the second plane crash into the World Trade Center, on September 11, 2001.

Or a few years later, in 2008, it was the election of the first African American to the Presidency of the United States, breaking a color barrier. A year ago, it was when divers rescued a group of young soccer players, who got trapped in a cave in Thailand. The list could go on.

But perhaps, the Apollo 11 moon landing will stand out as the definitive moment of my lifetime. As U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said, “Apollo 11 is the only event of the 20th century that stands a chance of being widely remembered in the 30th century.

.     .     .

Just a quick lesson here: Iconic moments, like the 1969 moon landing, are opportunities for people to create a sense of common bond and unity, with a large number of other humans.

Moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt talks about the idea of the “hive hypothesis,” suggesting that normally, we as humans are primarily self-absorbed, like chimpanzees are, about 90% of the time. Scientific studies show that we are pretty much concerned with ourselves as individuals, doing our own thing, even if others are around us. However, about 10% of the time, humans seek to cohere with others, and cooperate in groups, creating a sense of unity, just as you find in a bee hive. It is those “10% moments” that make community life and family possible. The very individualization that drives us, like chimpanzees, is ironically transcended by these bee hive-type experiences.

We live in an era, in the era of social media, when such large scale, cooperative iconic moments, are becoming more elusive. The customized individualization of media sources, the 24-hour news cycle, and the explosion of information on the Internet, has made it more and more difficult to experience such collective experiences, of sharing iconic moments together, with masses of people.

Cultural commentators lament that we live in an age where people are greatly divided from one another. As Jake Meador, MereOrthodoxy blogger and author of the recent In Search of the Common Good (with a forward by Tim Keller) put it:

Our communities are disintegrating, as …the breakdown of the family leave(s) us anxious and alone—indeed, half of all Americans report daily feelings of loneliness. Our public discourse is polarized and hateful.

But this is where the Christian church can play a role, in healing the breaches that exist between people so divided… by conveying the Good News. The Apollo 11 moon landing may have been the most iconic moment in my life, that I shared with a great many of other people.  But for Christians, the greatest iconic moment of all human history is found in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As believers gather together, once a week (if not more), the most important thing we can do, is to continue to rehearse and tell the story of Calvary, and the Empty Tomb. The news of the Risen Christ, and the continual retelling of that story, over and over again, transformed the Roman Empire, within a mere three or four hundred years. We still recall this event of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, to conquer death and sin, every time we gather together to break bread, for the Lord’s Supper, 2,000 years later.

Then there is the entire task of following the Great Commission, that of following Jesus’ last instructions, to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:16-20). It is a common mission, shared by Christians, across many different denominations, that binds believers together, where personal interests are set aside, and even lives are lost in the process, martyrs for the faith.

In a recent blog, by Baylor scholar Alan Jacobs, Jacobs recalls from Larry Hurtado’s book, Destroyer of the Gods, that:

 

  • In 40 A.D. there were about a thousand Christians
  • In 100 A.D. no more than ten thousand
  • In 200 A.D. around two hundred thousand
  • In 300 A.D. around six million

 

That tremendous growth in the early church happened before the Emperor Constantine issued his Edict of Milan , despite a few periods of state-sanctioned persecution of believers. That news about Jesus continues to transform our world today, day in and day out, as millions of Christians seek to continue fulfilling that Great Commission.

In an age where it feels like the world is becoming unglued at the seams, and the Christian church appears not to be doing that much better, we would do well to continually go back and recall that iconic moment of the Risen Christ, greeting those women, outside of the tomb, where the stone was rolled way.

The moon landing of Apollo 11 was an event of worldwide importance, as television viewers all over the globe were glued to watching the drama of a few men, and a small spacecraft, unfold. But it was a secular event, nonetheless.

The story of the Risen Christ tells a different type of story, transcending the boundary between natural and supernatural, that seems almost impenetrable in our secular world today. There is a lesson to be learned here, from Apollo 11, that invites Christians to ponder our faith more deeply.


Are You a “Lukewarm” Christian?

I could subtitle this blogpost as “further adventures in misreading the Bible.”

Today’s concept of being “lukewarm” originated in the Bible, but it has permeated nearly all of contemporary culture. For example, football players are scolded by their coaches for having lukewarm enthusiasm for their team. “Step it up, folks, or get off the team!!” It is a well-worn word picture, warning against half-heartedness.

Unfortunately, to be lukewarm has taken on a meaning that has been completely ripped out of its original, biblical context. A standard definition of lukewarm has come to mean “neither cold nor hot; tepid,” but there is a figurative meaning that can be traced back to the period of the Reformation, in the 16th century, to describe a person, or their actions, as “lacking in zeal.”

The ancient city of Laodicea, an early church city site, mentioned in the Book of Revelation.
(Credit: Rjdeadly – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19781425)

In evangelical church culture, this has meant that a lukewarm Christian is someone who is neither hot; as in, “on fire for the Lord,” nor cold; as in “a nominal Christian,” or not even a Christian at all, one who is cold-hearted in their faith. Rather, such a lukewarm person is rather tepid in their faith, someone who says that they believe in Jesus, but that they are simply going through the motions of being Christian, with nothing truly heartfelt inside of them.

Being “hot” for the Lord is good. Being “cold” for the Lord is bad. Nevertheless, either being “hot” or “cold” is preferable to being lukewarm.

While this rebuke against lukewarm faith is surely correct, it completely misses the original context for where it is expressed in the Bible. In the early chapters of the Book of Revelation, Jesus issues a rebuke for each of the seven churches, being addressed in the text, with a particularly notable admonition towards the church in Laodicea:

“(v.14-16) And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.

“‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth……(v.19) Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent (Revelation 3:14-16, 19)

The city of Laodicea, located near the modern city of Denizili, Turkey, was situated just a few miles from the neighboring cities of Hierapolis and Colossae (think, the Book of Colossians), during the New Testament period, of the 1st century C.E.  All three cities were known for the spring waters that flowed near and through them. Hierapolis was known for its hot springs, which were useful for medicinal purposes. Colossae was known for its cold springs, which were useful for drinking and refreshment purposes.

Laodicea, on the other hand, was known for its tepid, lukewarm water springs, which were completely useless. Visitors to Laodicea, in the New Testament era, were known to taste the water of Laodicea, only to spit it out, because it was so yucky. As a result, an intricate piping system was built to supply Laodicea with useful water, from the two other nearby cities, or other acceptable water sources. You can still visit the ruins of this ancient plumbing system today.

Original clay pipes in Laodicea, dating to the New Testament period, that were used to transport hot springs water from nearby Hierapolis, as Laodicea had no useful water supply of its own. (credit: ProudlyPetites travel blog)

Unfortunately, Bible interpreters of the 16th century Europe were unaware of this archaeological, historical context, for Laodicea. Presumably, Bible interpreters grabbed onto Jesus’ exhortation to be “zealous,” in the nearby verse, Revelation 3:19, and concluded that Jesus was primarily concerned about the temperature of the faith, of the believers in Laodicea.  In other words, it is better to be “on fire for the Lord,” or to be spiritually dead, instead of being lukewarm.

However, a look at the original, historical context for this passage of the Bible, brings out the appropriate clarity, regarding what Jesus’ warning to the church of Laodicea, really meant. Being “hot” is indeed useful. Being “cold” is also useful as well. Being lukewarm is not. Jesus’ teaching here is that we are to have a faith that is useful to God, and His purposes…. not a useless faith.

The spiritual temperature of a person’s faith is still important, though. Being “sold-out for Jesus” is good teaching indeed.

But it is just not what Jesus is getting after in this particular passage.

As verse 19 indicates, the passage is intended to stir the heart of the believer to accept God’s patient discipline, in their practice of faith. It was never intended as a means of threatening punishment. Rather, this passage was meant to encourage the believer to accept the Lord’s loving discipline, and respond with zeal to become more useful.

Be “hot” for the Lord, or be “cold” for the Lord. YES! Both of these are good, useful things. Being lukewarm is not.

Being “hot’ for the Lord, is to be zealous for the Lord. But being “cold” for the Lord, is to be zealous for the Lord also, strangely enough, when you read this Bible passage, in its historical context.

Nevertheless, the word lukewarm has taken on a life of its own, detached from its original context, having been embedded in the consciousness of Christians for about 500 years now, and still going strong. Some habits with how we use words prove hard to break.

It is true that such insight into the original meaning of the passage can not be gained simply by reading the text in isolation, in the privacy of one’s home. A visit to this part of modern Turkey, where Laodicea is located, would quickly impress a Christian with the real meaning of the text. But not everyone has the luxury to hop on a plane, and learn this lesson for themselves. For the rest of us, the help provided by sound, biblical scholarship can give us the insight we need to understand God’s Word more effectively.

In other words, reading the Bible as sola scriptura, “Scripture alone,” is not the same thing as reading the Bible as scriptura nuda, “Scripture naked.”  Thankfully, there are capable, faithful scholars of the Bible, who can open up our understanding, even for passages that have been taken out of context for centuries. There is a genuine place for historical scholarship that can help us to more faithfully and accurately interpret the Bible that we are reading.

Note: Peter Liethart quotes another New Testament scholar, Craig Koester, who suggests that the notion of “usefulness” of water, in Laodicea, was more specifically related to the practice of hospitality. Koester’s work indicates that when guests came to visit homes in Laodicea, Laodiceans may have used either cold water, to help chill (or supply) cold drinks, or warm water, to mix with wine, in order to warm up those type of beverages. Either way, the tepid water naturally found in Laodicea was not a useful beverage to anyone. So, the piped-in water was much preferred, whether it be hold or cold.  This is a slightly different take, than what I presented above, but the principle remains similar: cold water is a good thing, not a bad thing!!

 


David Barton’s “Creative” Re-Interpretation of the Founding Fathers

I had a great Fourth of July weekend. How about you?

On the 4th itself, I spent a great afternoon with Christian friends, complete with hotdogs, hamburgers, corn hole games, and watermelon seed spitting contests, and we even gathered for a moment of prayer, with a young man, who is serving his first year as a United States Marine, defending a country that we Americans love so dear. The fireworks got rained out, but that was okay. It was a great day to remember the freedoms that all Americans share. At the top of the list, as a Christian, I am most grateful to live in a country that values the freedom of religion, that allows me to worship freely, and celebrate the life we believers have in Christ, without fear of government interference or reprisals. Amen!

It is a freedom that Americans, of all worldview backgrounds, should never take for granted. I do wonder if it was as hot as it was back in the summer of 1776, when the Founding Fathers met together, as compared to the Virginia heat of the past weekend!

So, I was intrigued to learn that David Barton, of Wallbuilders, a popular Christian speaker, who goes around to various churches, to talk about America’s Founding Fathers, was recently interviewed by popular conservative talk show host, Ben Shapiro.

Let me say something right up front about David Barton. I admire his enthusiasm for American history and his concerns about how so many people have forgotten about the Christian roots of American society. He is an excellent communicator, and I do hope that his excitement in learning about history will become contagious, for the next generation.

Barton has had a number of critics on the secular left. Books with titles like The Godless Constitution have prompted many to dismiss the Christian heritage of the United States, and in many ways, David Barton has been right to try to correct that misunderstanding of history.

However, David Barton has proven to be a controversial figure. In 2012, Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies was pulled from publication, by his Christian publisher, due to criticism from other evangelical Christian historians and other leading scholars, regarding certain misrepresentations of history. As Jay Richards put it, Barton’s books and videos are full of “embarrassing factual errors, suspiciously selective quotes, and highly misleading claims.”  The Museum of the Bible has had to correct years of misinformation propagated by David Barton, surrounding the so-called Aitken Bible. David Barton has issued confusing statements about whether or not Mormons can hold orthodox beliefs about Christianity, prompting a Christian radio outlet to cancel Barton’s radio show in 2011. In 2016, David Barton made the claim that he had an “earned doctorate,” only to retract that claim a day later, when he was challenged by at least one other scholar, with an earned PhD.

Nevertheless, David Barton must have some type of teflon coating, as he still manages to bounce back from the controversies. He was able to find another Christian publisher to republish his book on Jefferson. Popular Christian actor Kirk Cameron made a movie that featured an interview with David Barton, without addressing any controversy. Even one of my (otherwise) favorite Christian authors, Eric Metaxas, featured David Barton in a book Metaxas wrote, a few years ago, without mentioning Barton’s troubles.

Like Lazarus, David Barton manages to rise again.

It is enough to drive conscientious, but otherwise less entertaining, evangelical Christian historians and scholars bananas. Because David Barton has no doctoral training in history, he is not part of any peer-reviewing, scholarly community, that can double-check his work. Why Christian leaders still promote Barton, while simultaneously failing to encourage him to submit to peer-review, and thereby correct some of his errors, is baffling.

I actually enjoyed meeting David Barton, when he came to my church to speak, about 14 years ago. We had a pleasant conversation, and I got the sense that he is a sincere man, with a desire to serve God and honor our nation’s Christian heritage. But two weeks of fact checking his presentation, and finding glaring errors, made me rather leery of what he is doing. I just wish he would fess up to making such mistakes and correct them, instead of dismissing all of his critics as secular, left-leaning liberals.

This is hard to quantify. But if I had to ballpark it, roughly about 80% of what David Barton says is reliable. The other 20% is pure bunk.  The Gospel Coalition has a very helpful blog post covering some of David Barton’s problems in detail, with a fantastic interview with prominent evangelical historians, George Marsden and Mark Noll, to help set the record straight, regarding The Search for Christian America.

The strange thing about this is that most Christians would never knowingly tolerate reading or listening to someone, who got 4 out of 5 things right. Christians are supposed to be people committed to the TRUTH, more than anything else. Right? How would you know what 80% to trust, and what 20% to distrust? But hey, that is apparently the world we live in today.

So, in the interest of setting the record straight yet again, here are some reflections on Ben Shapiro’s interview with David Barton: first, from Warren Throckmorton, the author of Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President, and then secondly, a running commentary of the Shapiro interview by Messiah College historian, John Fea, the author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? Revised Edition: A Historical Introduction.

Last count, there were over 120,000 views of David Barton on Shapiro’s show on YouTube. So, we somehow have to get the word out to at least 120,000 people that maybe there is more to the stories that David Barton is telling.


Concluding Thought on Owen Barfield’s History in English Words

I have to return Owen Barfield’s History in English Words to the InterLibrary Loan, so I am putting in a quick, final comment here.

Owen Barfield was one of C. S. Lewis’ most influential friends, and exceptionally brilliant. J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of Middle Earth, was profoundly influenced as well by Barfield.

Barfield was most definitely quirky, theologically. But it really is amazing how Barfield was able to put together the philological insights he had in this relatively short book.

I am ultimately a “Bible guy” on the “God Squad,” as some people think of me. But I am just fascinated by how Christians, and my fellow evangelicals, in particular, get stuck on the meanings of words, as they make their way from the pages of the Sacred Text, through voices of preachers in the pulpit, to the average Christian, who is trying to figure out what the Bible is all about. Even more fascinating is how various interpretations of the Bible, that are hinged upon key words, get morphed over time, without people completely realizing it. Barfield is a great companion here, to work these thoughts out, in this introduction to his thought, History in English Words.

The standard recommendation for studying Barfield is generally to start with History in English Words, then move on to read Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning, and then finally tackle his Saving the Appearances: A Study of Idolatry. Not sure when I will be able to get to these.

In the meantime, back to C.S. Lewis (later this summer??)…..


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