This testimony is adapted from a speech given on September 30, 2014 at “Celebrating Creation,” a BioLogos conference in New York City.
My short presentation tonight is titled, “A personal story from a Millennial.” Ironically, as I wrote this speech, an article popped up on my news feed by Relevant Magazine called, “15 books Every Christian Millennial Has Owned.” Initially, I was offended at being stereotyped, and then I read the article and realized I owned every single one of the books. Christian Millennials are a much more diverse bunch than we are given credit for, but I have found that there is a shocking amount of consistency in our experiences—especially among those who grew up in the golden years of conservative Evangelicalism. While my Millennial friends have landed all over the religious landscape, not one of them thinks that we can ever go back to the simpler world of VeggieTales Christianity. What we need is a way forward.
I say all this to frame my own story as a Millennial, because I hope my own journey can help others realize that the way forward for the evangelical church is not only possible but deeply exciting and interesting.
If asked to describe me, I’m sure my family and friends would first say that I am a questioner. From an early age, I interrogated my family about everything, and in particular, about God. As the oldest son of a pastor, faith was an inescapable part of my life. At age 6, a conversation with my mother about my great-grandmother’s death and eternal destiny led to my first invitation for Jesus to come into my heart (an act that was repeated at just about every church camp and youth conference after that). It didn’t take long before I starting asking questions about Genesis, creation, and Noah’s flood. My brain needed clear answers and tangible proof to validate and support my young faith. When I first encountered young-earth creationism, I immediately fell in love. Books by Ken Ham and others captured my wild imagination with tales of dinosaurs living with humans and the discovery of Noah’s ark in Turkey. I showed these books to my aunt, a biology teacher, who was alarmed and gave me books by old-earth creationist Hugh Ross instead. Hugh Ross became my new hero. I read everything he had ever written. While my brother had sports posters over his bed, I printed out Hugh Ross quotes on computer paper and scotch-taped them over my pillow. In middle school, I met Intelligent Design superhero Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, and it wasn’t long before I was inhaling Intelligent Design resources wherever I could find them.
The more I learned about creation and Genesis, the greater my dedication to the common cause of every creationist: defeating the evil empire of evolution. Evolution—that was a four-lettered word in my house. To my parents’ great credit, they fed me a constant stream of books on faith and science throughout my homeschooled childhood and encouraged me to freely ask questions, as long as evolution remained the enemy. I distinctly remember having a love/hate relationship with our frequent field trips to museums during my homeschooled years. I was fascinated by science and history, but I remember thinking, “all these displays would be much better if the secularists hadn’t added all this junk about evolution.” In high school, my attempts to convert my non-Christian friends frequently ended in stalemates over the evidence for evolution. Some of my friends were much more scientifically minded, and they pointed me to websites full of compelling evidence for evolution, which coincidentally were all run by atheists who ridiculed creationists and Genesis at every turn. As a good evangelical, I was prepared for the ridicule, but I had no idea that actual evidence existed for evolution. Everyone from Ken Ham to Hugh Ross to Michael Behe had taught me that evolution was a giant fraud built of hoaxes, presuppositions, and half-truths, but now it was my faith which felt like a hoax and a half-truth. I felt betrayed and enormously confused. For a while, I stopped believing in the God who apparently had lied to me through his Word. Eventually, some friends dragged me back to church, but I felt like my innocence had been lost.
After high school, I decided to attend an up-and-coming Christian school called The King’s College, which held classes in the basement of the Empire State Building (although it now meets closer to Wall Street). So it is deeply fitting that I am sharing this story here, because I met both of the two people who would most influence my journey less than a mile north and south of here. A couple blocks south is a place much like this one called the Union League Club, where an organization called Socrates in the City sometimes hosts lectures by influential Christians. On December 3, 2008, a world-class scientist named Dr. Francis Collins took the podium at one of these events. A year earlier, his book The Language of God had revolutionized the way I looked at faith and science. It was the first time in my entire life that I had heard a Bible-believing Christian say that evolution is supported by science, much less that he was OK with that. I jumped at the chance to see Dr. Collins in person, and I got a similar set of goosebumps listening to his explanation of how genetics points to the common descent of all life.
The other person who changed my life in college preached many Sunday evenings a little bit north of here at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, which met at Hunter College. His name is pastor Tim Keller. His boundary-defying, gospel-obsessed preaching rang like a bell in my heart. Just like Dr. Collins, Keller is in the business of breaking down the artificial boundaries that had forced so many young Christians like myself to choose between the trenches of the culture wars or else retreat into cynicism and agnosticism. Keller’s church was the first place where I felt completely safe to ask the hard questions that I had been holding my whole life, such as, why are the early chapters of Genesis so frustratingly hard to line up with modern science?
One Sunday morning, I sat with other college students in a Sunday School class at Keller’s church where the assistant pastor, a former science student, pointed out a very simple detail in Genesis 1: the days lined up. Days 1-3 were perfectly aligned with days 4-6 in the “realms” of nature that they described. The pastor concluded that there was more to Genesis than just scientific information, and maybe we need to look at the whole thing a bit differently.
This single discovery about Genesis changed everything. I wondered how, in my entire Genesis-obsessed childhood, I had never once been shown what now seemed to be completely obvious: that my modern scientific questions and the “answers” found in Genesis had very little to do with each other. It was as if the Bible had gotten away from me, and I chased after it with a new eagerness. I began to wonder, what else might I have missed in the Bible because I was too busy finding a punchline to defend my faith? I went to seminary to find out, and I was not disappointed. Three years later, I had completely re-discovered the Bible. It turns out that when you read the Bible without preconceived notions of what it is supposed to say, you encounter a startling coherency and richness that would not otherwise have been discovered. Last year, I graduated from Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, PA with a master of divinity degree and eagerly began looking for ways to share my discoveries about the Bible. At a former evangelical church I attended, I volunteered to teach a Sunday School class about Genesis and science. The leaders of the church made it clear that my views were an affront to biblical authority, and one elder openly questioned my salvation. I left bitter and cynical.
In February of this year, I was published in The Daily Beast writing about the infamous Ham/Nye showdown and arguing that the current debates over evolution are going nowhere because each side uses one-dimensional answers to three-dimensional questions. The article went viral and was shared over 40,000 times on social media. I got letters from people all over the country who were struggling with Genesis and evolution and looking for a better way. It was thrilling and inspiring to learn that there were so many others my age who shared my journey and my questions.
One question I got asked quite frequently is, “How do you reconcile acceptance of evolution with your evangelical background?” My answer is that I didn’t accept evolution as part of an exodus from Evangelicalism. In fact, I think my childhood in the evangelical church gave me the toolkit that led me to eventually accept the evidence for evolution, and marvel at the God who created it all.
See, I think Evangelicalism is a little bit like punk rock. My parents were part of a religious movement that sold the pews and the organ and set up folding chairs and acoustic guitars. They were constantly questioning tradition and trying to come up with new ways of being “authentic” in their faith. They believed that the radical life is the only one worth living. They hated it when God was put into a box. And most importantly, they passionately believed that the Lordship of Christ is meant to extend into every corner of public life.
This isn’t a perfect analogy, of course, and I’m probably the first person to ever compare James Dobson to Joey Ramone. But if there’s any Christian movement in the world well-equipped to undertake the messy work of breaking God out of the boxes we’ve put him in, Evangelicalism is the one to do it—even if it means breaking ourselves out of the boxes in the process. We’ve already got the crowbars.
And this is why I am so excited about the future, because even though Millennials like myself are interpreting and applying their faith commitments much differently than the generation before them, we are guided by the same convictions. We are lit by the same fire. All over the country, I see Millennials who are courageously stepping outside of the trenches of the culture wars and seeking a fuller Christian witness. As a Millennial myself, I am proud to be working with BioLogos on a better Christian witness in this new chapter of the Church’s history.