Home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial.
And the home of our dear friend Rachel Held Evans, best-selling author of Evolving in Monkey Town (now Faith Unraveled), A Year of Biblical Womanhood and the forthcoming Searching for Sunday.
If you follow Rachel's blog or Twitter account you'll have noted that Jana and I were in Dayton last week to visit Rachel and Dan and to take in the Tokens Show being held in the historic Rhea County Courthouse where the Scopes Trial was held.
The Tokens Show is a theologically-themed radio variety show, similar to A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor. Tokens is hosted by Lee Camp, author and theologian at Lipscomb University. Musically, the show is built around country, blue grass and gospel music. Comedy sketches focus on religious and Southern characters, our favorite being Brother Preacher. Theologically, the show is built around a theme woven together by music, comedy, Lee's narration and interviews with authors.
The Dayton show was built around the theme "Breaking Down False Dichotomies" with a focus on the tensions between science and religion, especially the debates about evolution. Using the famous Scopes Monkey Trial as the focal point the Dayton show was filmed in the Rhea County courthouse where the trial was held. The authors interviewed for the show were Rachel and Ed Larson, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion.
Getting to visit Rachel and attend this show (given its historical location and focus on the intersections of science and religion) was too good to pass up. So Jana and I drove to Dayton from Pennsylvania (where we've been visiting my family).
Also, the show was filmed and may appear on your local PBS station. I'll try to keep abreast of those details and let you know when the show is set to appear on TV.
After watching Inherit the Wind the night before to get into the mood, Jana and I arrived in Dayton early enough the day before the show to eat at Jacob Myers, recommended by Rachel. Jana and I had a delightful dinner on the balcony looking out over the river. The next morning Jana and I walked up and down the main street of downtown Dayton visiting the antique shops. Score! Jana found all sorts of things she had looking for all summer in antique and thrift shops. For my own part, I found a vintage suitcase that I'm going to start using on overnight speaking trips.
The show itself was awesome. Though it was a struggle for the tech people and the performers. The Rhea County courthouse, despite its historical stature, is still a working courthouse. And the day of the show the court was in session. The court was supposed to be out by noon but didn't end until two. That put all the Tokens people under the gun. Especially since this show was being filmed. And given that the show was being filmed some of the segments of the show had to be re-taped if something glitchy happened. That often disrupted the flow of the performers, who had to be repeatedly started and stopped by the film crew. But it all worked for me. You got to hear songs twice and it made the audience feel like we were participants working hard with the performers to get the show on film so that others could enjoy it later.
Enough about our visit. You're here for theological conversation. So, three theological reflections about the show.
The Tokens show in Dayton was an illustration of this divide and how within the ecumenical Churches of Christ the conversation is so much more vibrant, intellectual and interesting than what is happening in evangelicalism. True, there are difficult cross-pressures being negotiated between the work of our intellectuals and the university administrations who are trying make our schools attractive to evangelical families. So Kudos to Lipscomb and Lee for hosting the conversation about evolution and faith at the Dayton Tokens show. The show represented the best of the (ecumenical) Church of the Christ tradition.
Second, this conversation about faith and evolution is important as highlighted in Rachel's interview with Lee during the show. It goes to the show theme of "false dichotomies." Specifically, as Rachel recounts in her poignant memoir Evolving in Monkey Town, conservative, fundamentalist and evangelical churches are putting the best and brightest of each generation in an untenable position by claiming that you can't be a Christian while believing in evolution. So you have to choose: Creation or Evolution.
Listen, I know there are complex issues here and slippery slopes to avoid. But to allow zero middle ground here is crazy. There are many very smart and honest Christians who will be persuaded by the scientific evidence regarding the age of the earth and the evolution of the species. To force these Christians to make a choice or to simply force them out is not a good long-term strategy. The better way forward is to extend the right-hand of fellowship to everyone, agree to disagree, and keep the conversation energized. I don't mind sharp theological disagreement so long as we share the Eucharist as brothers and sisters afterwards.
My last theological reflection about false dichotomies related to the show has to do with Lee's conversation with Ed regarding the political and theological paradox that was William Jennings Bryan.
Our understanding of history often reduces to simplistic black and white narratives. And that's how we've come to understand the Scopes trial. Especially if you watch a film like Inherit the Wind. On the one side is William Jennings Bryan, religious fundamentalist defending a literal reading of the bible. On the other side is Clarance Darrow, courageous defender of intellectual liberty and free thinking. These two titans go head to head in the Scopes trial, in Darrow's famous cross-examination of Bryan about the bible, with Darrow the clear victor. Reason trumps religious fundamentalism!
(And yet, even in Inherit the Wind we see this sort of dichotomy undermined. My favorite scene in Inherit the Wind is the final one. The courtroom is empty, Darrow is alone and packing his briefcase. He picks up the bible in one hand and The Origin of Species in the other. Darrow weighs them back and forth, looking like he's pondering which one to take with him and which one to leave behind. In the end, with a smile, he tucks both the bible and The Origin under his arm and walks out of the courtroom. Darrow refuses to choose. Or, rather, he chooses both.)
Back to the paradox of Bryan. Why was Bryan in Dayton crusading against evolution? The issue for Bryan wasn't really about a literal interpretation of the bible, the concern of so many evangelicals today. The important issue for Bryan was the moral direction of American society.
Specifically, as both Lee and Ed pointed out, in the wake of the bloodshed of World War I Bryan felt that evolution undermined both Christianity and democracy, replacing each with a "might makes right" ethic, where Nietzschean "supermen" would justify their domination of the weak with an appeal to "the survival of the fittest." And Bryan had a point here. As Lee mentioned during the show, Hitler's Mein Kampf was published on July 18, 1925 while the Scopes trial was taking place in Dayton.
Relatedly, at the time of the Scopes trial Bryan was a vocal critic of American imperialism and militarism. Which is interesting. Today, how many evangelical Christians who reject evolution are also sharp critics of American imperialism and militarism? Not many. Which goes to the paradox of Bryan and how he is a lesson for our own time.
Specifically, if I had to choose I'd be happy to trade evangelicals a belief in evolution for a vigorous prophetic witness against American imperialism and militarism. I'd happily shift to a belief in a literal seven day creation if evangelicals collectively raged and protested against foreign wars, drone strikes and imperialistic policies.
Biblical literalism isn't the boogie man here, it's Empire.
Add to this the fact that Bryan was also an outspoken critic of capitalism and a defender of labor. Bryan argued for an income tax in which the rich pay more than the poor along with the creation of the U.S. Department of Labor. How many evangelicals today align with those sorts of policies? Bryan was also a supporter of the woman's suffrage movement.
My point here that Bryan doesn't fit into the "fundamentalist" box we've created for him. It's another example of the false dichotomies we are living with. William Jennings Bryan was a religious fundamentalist who was also a social progressive.
Which makes you wonder, maybe we need more William Jennings Bryans in the world rather than fewer of them. Because the modern heirs of William Jennings Bryan--Bryan, the defender of labor and critic of American imperialism and militarism--look little like their ancestor.
And let me end with this, how in thinking about Bryan during the show, maybe for the first time, I started to re-think my easy endorsement of evolution.
An answer Ed gave to Lee about Bryan prompted this reflection. Specifically, how did Bryan's religious conservative fuel is social progressivism?
According to Ed it was Bryan's belief in the Imago Dei, that we are all created in the image of God. That belief--that all humans have divine dignity and worth--fueled Bryan's work for women's suffrage and his defense of the working man in the face of capitalistic exploitation. Belief in the Imago Dei also drove Bryan's criticisms of imperialism and militarism.
And this was also why Bryan was so alarmed about evolution. According to Bryan, evolution undermined the Imago Dei, leaving behind a social-Darwinian ethic of survival of the fittest--Hitler's vision where the weak, deformed, defective, handicapped and retarded would be removed from society. A world where the strong could dominate the weak.
Where is human dignity to be grounded if Darwin was right?
Secular humanists, of course, have a suite of responses to Bryan's worry. Bryan's concern, that evolution would unmoor ethics, has often been refuted.
And yet, many intellectuals have noted a curious gap in arguments like those offered by the New Atheists. Specifically, people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens seem to simply assume a foundation of liberal democracy without pondering very much where that foundation comes from or the basis for its warrants. Why should we assume that liberal democracy or the values of humanism will be the necessary and "natural" default of human society or the telos of human development? Why isn't tyranny or social-Darwinism, with the strong dominating over the weak, a perfectly legitimate and warranted alternative? Why shouldn't the victors get to write history and say what is right vs. wrong?
Such questions have led thinkers like Nicholas Wolterstorff in his book Justice: Rights and Wrongs to argue that an account of universal human rights can only be made coherent within a religious framework, similar to the Christian confession regarding the Imago Dei at work in the thought of William Jennings Bryan.
Let me be clear, I am not well-versed enough in the debates regarding ethical foundations to say if such arguments are correct, but I do think that, at the end of the day, a universal commitment to human flourishing and/or rights can only be grounded in an account that takes the value, dignity and worth of every human person as sacred and inviolable. Which makes human dignity, for the purposes of ethical and political reflection, confessional and metaphysical in nature. Or axiomatic--an irreducible given--if you are looking for a less religious word.
Which is to say that belief in universal human dignity is religious in nature. Human dignity is not a matter of science, data or evidence. It is something that we confess. It is simply something we believe in. The most important thing, in fact, that we can believe in.
As Thomas Merton said, "guard the image of man for it is the image of God."
Which is to say, while I accept the scientific account of evolution the ghost of William Jennings Bryan began to haunt me in the middle of the Tokens show.
I accept evolution. But I also believe in the Imago Dei. And those two things, upon reflection, aren't so easily or simply reconciled...
But late in the day Jana found me the perfect gift. It was a vintage cast iron monkey bank (pictured here). I'll be taking it home and proudly displaying it on my office desk.
What a wonderful memento to remind us of the day we visited Rachel and went to the Tokens Show, sitting in the very same courtroom where William Jennings Bryan and Clarance Darrow faced off in 1925.
The day we visited and evolved in Monkey Town.