Popular Mythconceptions

On the 200th anniversary of the births of both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, it is amazing to see how these two men have attained legendary, larger-than-life stature.  It is not that both men don’t deserve admiration, respect, and the attention they receive.  Lincoln and Darwin, each in his own way, changed the world.  But both men have ceased to be real three dimensional flesh-and-blood people, having become instead mythological caricatures.

abrahamlincoln3-500Many people hear about Lincoln and Darwin.  History classes in American schools provide a compelling story of the self-made man rising from humble roots to become the Great Emancipator.  Abraham Lincoln is a hero and the embodiment of what it means to be a “real” American.  He is consistently named one of the most respected and admired figures in history.  He is considered, slightly ahead of George Washington, the greatest president of the United States.  Interestingly, very few Americans have actually read any of Lincoln’s personal writing.  The Library of America offers two volumes of Lincoln’s Speeches and Writings (1832-1858 and 1859-1865).  Presented in this fashion, two things become immediately obvious.  First, the Lincoln we learned about in grammar school is very difficult to recognize in his writing.  Lincoln, in his own words, is a harsh, opinionated, impatient, basically racist man who constantly questions the decisions he makes and his right to make them.  Second, Lincoln’s thinking and worldview evolve over time, and the Lincoln who writes in the 1860’s is a very different Lincoln than the one writing before the Civil War.  The greatest lesson from these writings is that people can learn and grow and change — becoming better, indeed — in Lincoln’s case — becoming worthy of study through history.

darwinCharles Darwin suffers similarly but, in the United States today, in the opposite way.  Darwin is an incredibly controversial figure, primarily due to his “theory of evolution through natural selection,” in On the Origin of Species.    Almost everyone has an opinion about evolution, but it seems that the people who argue against it most passionately have never actually read Darwin.  Darwin’s writing is downright elegant (for a scientist, anyway) as he wrestles with what his thinking means.  He is very even-handed, and his insights are incredible.  Darwin saw things that many had seen before him, but he interpreted them in revolutionary and mind-blowing ways.  Science simply could not ignore Darwin, and the life sciences have never been the same since.  It is amazing that this gentle scientist has become the villain many Christians try to paint him today.

There is a lesson here: the vast majority of people who have strong feelings about Abe and Chuck would be amazed and confused were they to actually read what either man thought or said.  Neither man is any less remarkable nor worthy of study and praise, but both men deserve  to be truly known and not just remade to serve our modern day purposes.

And isn’t this a good lesson regarding the things we “know” about God, Jesus, the church, the Christian faith, the workings of the Holy Spirit, good, evil, heaven, hell, sin, forgiveness, grace, mercy, justice, and love?  So often, we pick and choose from bit and pieces delivered to us through the interpretations of men and women, many of whom haven’t spent much time reading the source material either.  Check it out at Gallup, Barna, Pew, or any of a dozen other polls — only about 1-in-5 Christians read the Bible on a regular basis, and the majority of those read predominantly from the New Testament, from favorite passages, and without the aid of scholarly or reference materials.  This doesn’t prevent them from having strong opinions, however.

Myths are powerful, and unquestioned myths can be dangerous.  They may actually limit our understanding and prevent us from grasping the complexities and challenges of the real world.  They can lead us to wrong conclusions, irrational opinions, or ignorant attitudes.  This is true of our Christian beliefs as well.  Basing our faith on myth, hearsay, and unexamined beliefs is dangerous.  Lincoln and Darwin offer a helpful reminder for Christians — learning more, searching original sources, studying what the scholars have to say, and employing good critical thinking skills won’t destroy the myth, but in fact will provide an even greater foundation upon which our understanding, admiration and respect can be built.  As it is true of historic figures like Darwin and Lincoln, it is no less true of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.

Categories: Critical Thinking

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1 reply

  1. I received an interesting response to this post, and I include just two quotes from an obviously unhappy UM pastor:

    “How dare you compare a heretic with one of the greatest men of all time. Simply sharing a birthday doesn’t mean they should be mentioned in the same breath. Lincoln was a great man, Darwin was a horrible, horrible little man.”

    “Lincoln lived by the truth, Darwin by lies. Lincoln sought to heal, while Darwin sought to injure and destroy.”

    I find it interesting how much passion both Lincoln and Darwin generate in our own time. I wrote back to this pastor and asked a very simple question: “Have YOU read the writings of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin?” My critic admitted, he has not….

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