For the past six years, I’ve had the tremendous privilege of working with filmmakers Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross, of 137 Films. Their documentary, We Believe In Dinosaurs, explores how young-earth religious creationism has gained a shocking degree of strength and influence in Kentucky and the Bible Belt, specifically with the construction of the Ark Encounter theme park. It was my honor to appear with Clayton and Monica at the San Francisco premiere of the film on April 13.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as I sat waiting for the film to begin. It’s challenging to accurately portray the frustrating absurdities of creationism to an unfamiliar audience while still demonstrating just how attractive the movement can be to its adherents and to the larger Christian community. The film did both. Without giving anything away — the film has yet to be released beyond select festivals — I can say without reservation that I’m thrilled I chose to be a part of this project.
Seeing my own story writ large on screen brought back more than just memories. People who have become fluent in a second or third language have told me that they often still think in their first, even if they haven’t spoken it in years. Leaving young-earth creationism and its worldview had a similar effect on me.
In the documentary, I explain how young-earth apologists identify gaps in the public’s understanding of the universe and fill those gaps with concepts that sound scientific, but aren’t. As an evangelist for a young earth and fundamentalist doctrine, I learned to see everything around me as evidence. Endless layers of rock, exposed by roads cutting across the hills and valleys of central Kentucky, must have been deposited by a global flood forty centuries ago. An oak tree was more than just part of the landscape; its veined leaves and deep roots and chloroplasts and cells and DNA all screamed of an intelligent designer. Seeing people walking different breeds of dogs reminded me that even though God programmed canines with almost endless variation, dogs would never evolve into anything else. A crowded mall testified that all people are descended from Noah and his family. Every part of creation was included in the narrative of creationism.
This mandate to perceive the whole world through the lens of young-earth creationism could be exhausting at times, but it wasn’t without its rewards. It felt as if I could see the world in different colors than everyone else. I knew the real story, the hidden nuggets of truth behind everyday scenes. On the one hand, it was a big boost to my ego, something I definitely didn’t need. It did, however, give me something I still value today: an overwhelming fascination with learning everything I could about the world.
When I was finally able to accept the truth about the world — that creation is much bigger and older and more complex than I could have ever imagined — all of that had to change. I still had the same fascination with the world, but I was seeing so much more than ever before.
In order to fit billions of years of geologic history into a global deluge lasting just a few months, creationism has to compress the entire lifetime of our planet into the briefest of moments. It would be as if someone tried to claim that all the world’s wars since the discovery of the Americas happened in parallel, beginning and ending in less than half an hour. As a creationist, I saw every part of the world with that same transformation applied. Then, when I realized what I was missing, I could finally see depths where before I had only seen a muddied surface.
Creationism only works if you compress the entire lifetime of our planet into the briefest of periods. When those shackles break, the impact is astonishing.
It’s nearly impossible to fully describe. My world — a world I was well-acquainted with thanks to creationism — grew hundreds of millions of times larger in an instant. Everything that had once fit neatly into a small, careful, controlled framework exploded into a space billions of times larger. Everything I had once seen as simple evidence of recent creation and global catastrophe was now imbued with a dizzyingly complex and intricate history.
Everything I thought I knew about the world and the universe had turned out to be only the title and cover page of a story far deeper and grander than I ever knew. In an instant, I went from thinking I knew most of the history of creation to realizing breathlessly that the world contained far more knowledge than I could ever hope to learn in a dozen lifetimes.
For the first few months, I was wholly insufferable. I was rediscovering everything I had thought I knew. Everything that had formerly held only a single meaning now carried with it immeasurable mystery. An oak tree was no longer merely a reminder of a onetime miracle of design; it was now the testimony to innumerable generations of adaptation waiting to be discovered, each miraculous in its own way. All creatures were now interconnected, with every species around me heralding an unbroken tree of life stretching back for tens of millions of centuries. A spray of starlings wheeling in twilit formation echoed the thundering footsteps of the dinosaurs. Everything excited me.
Yet, even now, I still think in the language and framework of creationism.
When I read about a new discovery from an ancient civilization, my first instinct is to wonder what part of the Old Testament it fits into. Medical research that depends on evolution seems suspicious to me. Exposed rock layers on a cliff face or a roadside cut still represent a global, cataclysmic flood. When I look up at the night sky, I find myself musing on how God could have managed to make starlight traverse billions of lightyears in mere centuries.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Every time I catch myself thinking in creationism, I experience the same thrill at rediscovering how vast and beautiful the cosmos really is. My understanding of God became much bigger when I accepted the truth about the cosmos.
I no longer have to know all the answers; I don’t have to struggle to cram creation into a 6000-year-wide box. I’m not afraid of losing my whole worldview over a difficult question. I get to learn rather than having to endlessly debate. Every day is a brave new world.