Assumptions Matter: A Review of 'Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics'

I met Jonathan Dudley through Twitter this June. He was starting his publicity run, and Spectrum was riding out some cyclical controversy about evolution, sexuality, education, and identity. Jonathan and I are both Gen X-Millennials who grew up in a traditional evangelical environment, and so I was interested in his contributions to these subjects. I was also curious about his educational path—Jonathan studied biology at a small evangelical college; bioethics at Duke’s seminary; and is now studying medicine at Johns Hopkins. Adventism has learned that youth who move through Christian or public higher education become more likely to leave the denomination as adults. I’ve seen that trend in the lives of my peers, felt a similar conflict myself, and wanted to read a non-Adventist perspective.

But Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics turned out not to be about Jonathan, our generation’s religious development, or young Christians’ efforts to integrate our religious cultures with our graduate learning. Instead, Jonathan takes a cool, analytical look at arguments advanced among evangelicals and promoted by them in the public sphere. He focuses on four controversies within American evangelicalism, traces the development of key arguments, and quotes from hundreds of sources to show that modern culture war antagonists have retro-fit biblical reasoning to their pre-existing assumptions.

Unpacking the “American Politics” of the title, Jonathan describes how leading public evangelicals built each issue into their post-Cold War narratives of “threats to America” and Western civilization (p. 91). We may never know if the link between religious dogma and cultural patriotism made lay Christians more reluctant to explore these issues independently. Researching any core belief is hard enough without having family, denominational, or cultural hostility in the background too. That said, Jonathan cites early Church sources to show that partisan rationales aren’t a new trend brought on by modern conservatives, relativism, or secularism. Apologists have always adapted their reasoning to match their assumptions, and “progressive” and “conservative” believers are equally prone to pick their cherries from the tree of scripture.

Adventist debates about the book’s four controversies—abortion, homosexuality, environmentalism, and evolution—now mimic the debates that other evangelical churches have had or are having. Our debates add the unique authorities of Ellen White and denominational statements, but they also lean on whatever logic is au fait in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. (For this reason, I’ve been monitoring the Adventist Review’s reprints of “cultural commentary” columns from the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary over the last three years). Historically, Adventist church administrators and evangelists have been far less dogmatic about abortion and environmentalism than other evangelicals: the last Adventist official statement on environmental stewardship was voted under Folkenberg in 1996, and the abortion guidelines apparently haven’t been updated since 1992. But even without denominational stridence, basic assumptions, rhetorical appeals, and favored authorities tend to be similar across these four subjects. Jonathan sums up this point in a section on Genesis, creationism, and evolution:

Like evangelicals who think the Bible says life begins at conception, like pro-family activists who believe excluding gays from marriage is ultimately defending the Bible, and even like progressives who think advocating “environmental stewardship” is a mere reflection of “the biblical view,” creationists are not ultimately defending the Bible. They are defending the very human set of assumptions, cultural values, and interests they bring to it. In the process, they both depart from the theological beliefs that guided past Christian interpretation of scripture and mask the assumptions that guide their own interpretation. (p. 132)

On noticing “internal tensions and inconsistencies” in some evangelical arguments, Jonathan was also able to perceive them in others. He went on to note patterns of thinking that maintained evangelical teachings and made it hard for the community to adapt even when adapting was appropriate. Adventists, Ellen White, and White-influenced polemicists like George McCready Price get a mention in the chapter on the rise of biblical literalism and the recent use of the bible as a historical and scientific text. I learned quite a bit from this chapter about 17th-19th century Christians and their shifting views of science and biblical interpretation. Some of their logic persists in our debates today.

Most Adventist quarrels boil down to members’ conflicting worldviews, hermeneutics, and approaches to authority. If you know someone’s favored biblical interpretation methods; view of the “proper” relationship between science and faith; beliefs about inspiration and revelation; and preferred doctrinal commentators, then you can plausibly predict their reasoning about these four issues as well as other Adventist specialties like Jesus’ incarnation nature and last-generation perfection.

Broken Words analyzes evangelical arguments from this perspective: assumptions govern conclusions, and not being able to recognize your own lenses will set you up to confuse your opinion with “What the Bible Really Says.” Despite how contentious these subjects can be, I appreciated something else about Broken Words: the author no longer identifies as evangelical and is not neutral on the four featured issues (he remains a Christian)—but he does not mock his upbringing or sincere evangelicals. In fact, he quotes a passage from Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine that Karen Armstrong also quoted in her recent book, The Bible: A Biography (2007):

Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all.

Given this appeal to love, I wondered how a staunch evangelical might interpret the book’s thesis and examples. Reactionary online reviews calling Jonathan an “infidel” and “in rebellion” are not surprising or encouraging. Are Adventists different?

—Keisha McKenzie is completing her doctoral dissertation in technical communication and rhetoric. 

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