Science in Review: Aviaries Are Frightening in the Dark

Cartoon illustrating the relationship between sparrows, T. rex, and the stegasaurus

Randall Munroe illustrates the relationship between birds and dinosaurs as only he can. (Source: xkcd 1211)

I’ve been to Jurassic Park. I don’t mean I’ve seen the movie; I mean that I have been to a place where you can see living dinosaurs in simulated habitats. The sign outside says National Aviary, but that’s just to keep the crowds to a manageable size. Birds are the closest living relatives to Tyrannosaurus rex, and you can even think of them as the dinosaurs that survived extinction by going small.

The notion that birds and dinosaurs are related is only meaningful within a framework of common descent. Otherwise, the similarities are nothing more than that. Thanks to Tom Ingebritsen’s recently concluded series, we’ve seen that accepting the proposition of common descent needn’t require abandoning a Biblically informed faith. So that makes me wonder, what lessons can we learn from evolutionary science? If it is a reliable model of the means by which God created the world, then perhaps God did so partly to illustrate principles that would be beneficial for us to emulate.

Does going small to survive justify the Protestant reformation movements? The Roman Catholic Church of 1517 was certainly large, and, relative to the desires of the reformers, slow to change. Since then, we’ve seen a proliferation of diverse denominations, reaching niches that Rome couldn’t or hadn’t at that time. But I’m not entirely sure the comparison is fair. There is something to be said for a universal, catholic church as a mark of the unifying love that was meant to be what made Christians distinct in the world. While there were already several distinct Christian traditions with a claim to being that unified body by 1517, that isn’t itself a justification for creating more. And the Roman Catholic Church has changed since those days, with Pope Francis currently serving as a model of its potential for progressivism.

I have fewer reservations identifying the shift away from the Latin Vulgate, which overlapped with those reformation movements, as a positive development. I’m not a textual scholar; I can’t offer any particular objections to the translation. But I am glad to have the opportunity to read the Bible in English. There is a real power to engaging with the word of God in one’s native language. The vernacular translations of the 16th century had a profound effect on Europe then, and ongoing translation efforts in unreached language groups are transformative today.

If the lesson of the birds is to be small, how does that apply to a particular Bible translation? When a single translation is dominant, it becomes very easy to convince oneself that it is definitive. If there are any difficulties in the translation, it is hard to see them without a point of comparison. Creating additional translations diminishes the prominence of the first, but adds flexibility, which is what the birds gained by going small.

A diverse set of translations can inform and support each other. Some languages can express certain concepts more readily than others. I just learned about the German word Kummerspeck, rendered literally in English as grief bacon or grief fat, which means excessive weight gain from emotional eating. Having to express to truths of Scripture in all of these languages helps us to come to terms with what they actually mean, and keep us from becoming too beholden to the cultural assumptions encoded in a language.

That’s a nice story about diversity and birds and Bible translations, but is this really an idea God wishes for us to learn? As I read the Bible, it is. From the very beginning, when God wants to send Adam some help, he doesn’t replicate but also diversifies. Men and women having to work together cannot help but appreciate that there is something “other” about those with whom they serve. The Mosaic law contains regulations for treating aliens living among Israelites justly and compassionately. The vision of heaven in Revelation is one including representatives of every tribe and nation. It appears to me that God intends for us to communicate together and work together in his kingdom, not in spite of our differences but through them.

And the whole story of the Bible is about God’s efforts to communicate with humans. We are all more different from God than we are from each other. And yet God did not think it impossible that he could understand us. His plan involved becoming one of us, so that he could sympathize with us in every way, and so that we could know him more fully. If God’s Word could become incarnate as a man, is it unreasonable to think that his word can tolerate inscription in English (or Latin or Mandarin, etc.)?

Map of the Land of Oz, showing where the various people groups live

Do we need to invent maps to group people by the way their minds are organized rather than the language they speak? (Public domain)

So what other niches does God’s word not presently occupy? We can track the geographic progress of language translation efforts via maps. But what about groups that don’t show up on any map? People with whom we share a vocabulary, but not exactly the same set of concepts — how do we make sure they have heard the Gospel in a way they can understand?

Two groups are of particular concern to me. The first is the scientifically inclined. Its been oft discussed how the way in which some Christians talk about creation is off putting for them. But I think it goes much further than that. The way in which we talk about faith, about God’s sovereignty, about our concept of ourselves — these all sound so foreign to many that they might as well be in Latin. Are there other ways to talk about these ideas that are more comprehensible to the scientifically inclined without losing fidelity?

And then I think about people like my son who has Asperger’s syndrome. Changes and transitions are difficult for all of us, but I understand they are particularly challenging for those on the autism spectrum. As a result, the idea of salvation and going to heaven held little appeal to my son for a long time; it was a scary idea rather than a hopeful one. Even an unexpected trip to the library could be stressful for him, and the library is his home away from home. More recently, I’ve been pondering the implications of the observation that those on the autism spectrum do not form autobiographical memories as readily as others. In particular, what does that mean for the Christian tradition of emphasizing personal testimony?

These are just two examples; I’m sure there are dozens of others. What groups do you see that need a conceptual Biblical translation? How do you think we should go about crafting those translations so that we remain faithful to the original? How can we be prepared to diminish our own nonessential ideas about the Bible so that the core of the Gospel can expand its reach and God can be magnified?

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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