Same procedure as the previous two posts. My response is blocked and marked by “MSH”.


You do not become a hermeneutical rapist overnight. I didn’t just wake up one day and decide to write The Bible and Flying Saucers . Two important elements in my early life plowed the field—I started reading the Bible every day when I was in 8th grade. By the time I was in my junior year in high school, I had been through the Bible once, and started again. I came from a Christian home, both parents were Christians, my mother with a Baptist background, my father Presbyterian. My great grandfather on my mother’s side was a Baptist pastor.

The other element was that I was interested in science, as were my best friends. We talked about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the world of physics seemed to me to be a place where the mysteries of the universe could be found. For that reason, I planned to major in physics in college. But toward the end of my senior year in high school, many things happened that made me feel called to Christian ministry. I was a Presbyterian at the time, and began talking with my pastor about my future. At the same time, my father brought me some books from the local library dealing with flying saucers, books by Maj. Donald Keyhoe. I believed what Keyhoe wrote, but made no connection to my Christian faith.

MSH: Interesting biographical notes.

My view was, in the universe as large as ours, there were probably other advanced life forms.

MSH: Obviously, a common view with nothing empirical in its favor.  But that isn’t a sin, nor is it meant to be a criticism. It’s just the way it is. For my part, it would be cool if it turns out to be true (at least if it’s separable from the demonic realm and it if isn’t hostile).

I earned a scholarship in physics to Hartwick College, in Oneonta, New York. Some have asked me why I majored in physics if I was entering the ministry. The easy answer was I needed the money, and would lose my scholarship if I changed majors.

I entered Princeton Theological Seminary in 1960, and took the basics: Greek, Hebrew, Old and New Testament studies, theology, church history, preaching, pastoral care. My senior year I took an elective in church doctrine, dealing with the Creeds of the church. We had a small class, not more than eight students I think. The professor was one of the most respected not only in the seminary, but in my National Church.

MSH: This is all standard. But let’s be clear. To those unacquainted with seminary education, some comments are needed. First, and MDiv is a *first* theological degree. That is, it’s an introduction to biblical studies and theology. It’s not a scholarly degree. Barry would not disagree with this. Again, it is what it is.  In the old days (and 1960 may qualify) what we now call an MDiv (“Masters of Divinity”) was called a Bachelors of Divinity (it was a first degree). Since many people went to seminary after college, the named was changed–and, in most contexts, the work was bumped up a little to make it worthy of calling it a graduate degree. Still, it is a basic degree that most pastors get.  At most you take two years of Hebrew and two years of Greek–more if you take some electives.

One day his lecture went something like this. “The Bible was written in a pre-scientific culture.

MSH: I agree, as anyone who’s read the Naked Bible knows.

In biblical cosmology, there was a three decker universe: heaven above, earth in the middle, hell below. When the Copernican revolution came, that cosmology was destroyed.

MSH: This is a bit of a misnomer.  I think Barry’s professor didn’t think deeply enough about the issue, at least from this description. Yes, this cosmology was destroyed if one *presumed* that such a description was meant to tell us scientific fact — that is, if one were a wooden, unthinking literalist, failing to recognize that human beings have to use the vocabulary of human experience to describe the non-human and unexperiencible.  Sounds like Barry’s professor didn’t think that far.

Barring these preconditions, the answer is NO, the cosmology wasn’t destroyed. It wasn’t destroyed any more than the idea of heaven or hell is destroyed if those “places” only amount to some extra-dimensional experience. That is, my failure to correctly describe heaven or hell doesn’t lead to the conclusion there is no such thing. It means I did a crappy job of describing it. Same for the biblical authors. The descriptions they give such things, like where God lives (the top of the three-tiered cosmology – “up there”) or where the unrighteous dead *stay* (Sheol – the lowest part of the three tiers – “down there”) are born out of the vocabulary at their disposal. Frankly God knows such things are beyond human expression. It would be shame if Barry’s professor didn’t explain this, but used the incongruity to destroy faith. I don’t know that he did, but I’ve read enough to know it happens and it’s intentional. God works with what’s at his disposal. He didn’t bother telling the people he moved to write Scripture the real scientific answers to how he did what he did. It wasn’t necessary.  If he did it today–come here and tell Stephen Hawking how he did what he did–it would be a colossal waste of God’s time. Hawking would simply be too stupid.  The ancients used the language they did because they had to — it was what they believed, usually on the basis of experience. Take “afterlife talk” for example. They (and we still do it too) used geographical terms to talk about the afterlife. They used directional vocabulary (up, down, below the earth, etc.) and locational vocabulary (e.g., “in Sheol” – either the grave or sounding like some literal place you could visit).  Heaven and hell do not have longitude and latitude. But it’s a mistake to conclude that human language failures mean the ideas are not real.  That’s a non-sequitur. Same thing for the round, flat earth of the Bible, with the solid dome over it. God didn’t care to make those ancients who wrote things down in what would become the Bible astrophysicists before he used them. It would have been pointless.

If heaven is no longer ‘up,’ then what? No one today believes in the Ascension [of Christ] do they? And if he has not ascended, where is his body? We may only suppose that his bones lie buried somewhere in the Middle East.”

MSH: Again, this is epistemological garbage. The professor was not parsing things for his students; he was seeding doubt for his own end.  Like philosophers who are committed to the historic Christian faith haven;t analyzed this stuff out the wazoo. Give me a break.

No one in the class spoke an objection to this. But I think these words had more affect on my faith future than any other words spoken in any class. I could not get them out of my mind. At first glance, this seemed to be theological heresy—it is. But at the same time, my scientific side could not deny the point the professor was making. Modern science has in many ways made the Bible unbelievable for many people.

MSH: This is unfortunate and quite understandable. The professor wasn’t giving you ways to think better about data, Barry, he wanted you to doubt — and that’s where it ended. If he wanted more, he would have given you more.

There have been two ways for the modern church to cope with this believability problem. The first is the liberal way, the way of my Professor: if something is scientifically impossible, don’t believe it, even if it is in the Bible. But treat it as mythology, then you can talk about it in symbolic terms, and some people will not even know the rules have changed.

And the conservative way. Declare that the Bible is infallible, everything in it is literally true. If science and the Bible conflict, forget science. This pretty well explains the split between conservative and liberal Protestantism. My Presbyterian Church (USA) is known by conservatives to be fairly liberal, and thus we find when Guy Malone is describing who I am, he says I am a “Presbyterian (cough, cough) minister.” I should perhaps not risk doing the hermeneutics of Malone’s ‘cough, cough,’ lest I commit further hermeneutical rape. But my sense is the ‘cough’ is not a sign of praise of my church. Why settle for condemning me when you can condemn my whole denomination? Whatever the sins of my church may be, it has given me the freedom to explore my UFO theology.

MSH: There are more than two ways. You’ve succumbed to the either-or fallacy here. The third way is the way of honesty and letting the Bible be what it claims to be, and not more.  I’ve sketched it above. The Bible was written by people with a pre-scientific worldview. God knew that. And yet God chose to come to those people at that time and place, with that primitive worldview, and use them to write and transmit information (the Bible). The Bible never claims to be a science book. It actually never claims to be a history or religion book either. It is a book selectively tailored to very specific and limited ends–the story of God’s intention for humankind, the ruination of that plan, and its reclamation, centered on Christ. Along the way the people who wrote it used the literary norms of the day–the Bible conforms in every way to literary conventions of the time period in things like genre, literary forms, grammar, etc. It is a very human book put together under very divine providential oversight.  It never claims that a round flat earth with a dome is truth that is binding on us.  Some of its writers simply presume it because that’s what they are.  God didn’t make them super-humans to avoid such things.  I could go on and on here, as this is one of the things that I think the conservative church gets very wrong.  But your professor got it very wrong, too. He didn’t just let it be what it was.  He took what it was and judged it by considerations (20th century scientific knowledge) that were well beyond its writer, its intention, and God’s interest level.  And you bought it.  But I can hardly blame you for the choice.  I blame your professor for poor thinking and / or evil intent.

I had a crisis of faith. I wondered what I could say at funerals. Should I go on talking about the resurrection of Jesus, and our promised resurrection, as if our church leaders still believed this? Or fake it? Or should I say, “We used to believe in life after death, but that is gone now. Still, we can be thankful for the life of our dearly departed. Too bad. End of story.”

MSH: This must have been tough; shame again on your professor.

Thomas G. Long is professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. He recently published an article in the liberal Protestant magazine The Christian Century. In the article he laments how shallow modern funerals are, because we have lost belief in life after death. “If Christian funerals today are impoverished, we must look primarily to the church’s own history and not look with scorn at the funeral director. The fact is that many educated Christians in the late 19th century, the forebears of today’s white suburban Protestants, lost their eschatological nerve and their vibrant faith in the afterlife, and we are the theological and liturgical heirs. “ (“The Good Funeral,” October 6, 2009, p. 22)

The crisis Long describes was a burning one for me in 1963, as I was graduating from Princeton Seminary. From my point of view, Christianity will die unless its eschatology is believable. (My church at the national level had 4 million members in 1983, and has about 2 million now.) My fears became more public in the “Honest to God and Death of God” theology that broke into public consciousness beginning with the publication of Bishop John A. T. Robinson’s Honest to God in 1963. (Bishop John Shelby Spong, author of books such as Why Christianity Must Change or Die , 1998, has helped push the Robinson tradition of unbelief to a higher level.)

MSH: For the record, Spong is one of the sloppiest thinkers I’ve ever read. He is high priest of things like the either-or fallacy.

These issues would be the focus of the first chapter of my book, The Bible and Flying Saucers , when it was published in 1968. Notice this: if you are part of a church in which the hermeneutical rules are “everything in the Bible is true, no matter what science says,” then the death of God theology is not an issue.

MSH:  The issue is misframed here (again, I blame Barry’s teachers, not Barry). It’s not “everything in the Bible is true, no matter what science says”; rather, it’s “general revelation [creation / science] is truth from God and so is special revelation [the Bible]; therefore, both must be true; God knew the writers of Scripture didn’t know squat about science, but he let them use the language of appearance and experience to make theological points; he didn’t care about producing a science book.

Let’s put this another way.  Barry, can you show me some passage of Scripture that sets forth a scientific proposition that is claimed as scientific fact?  The only one I can think of is “God is the creator” (stated scientifically, this would be something like “all creation came not from itself or from nothing, but had an cause external to itself.”  Now, you (and many readers) might think of certain verses in Genesis 1-2, but this omits several considerations.  Most important, what is the purpose of Genesis 1-2? Is it to give us science?  I say no, and I’m far from alone here in the conservative Christian community. I say, it is to establish who is the creator and who is really God.  Genesis 1-2 follows a number of literary norms shared by the ancient near east that tell us there is a literary/theological agenda — not a science agenda. The latest worthwhile treatment of this issue was just published this year by a friend of mine, John Walton: The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.

But being a church that is a joke in the eyes of science becomes the issue (see Gary Bates, Alien Intrusion: UFOs and the Evolution Connection ). Intelligent Design advocates such as Phillip Johnson, William Dembski, and Michael Behe, do not want to ignore science, like Gary Bates, but do not want to give up on the Bible either.

In light of my faith crisis, I decided that I needed to do graduate study in the relation between science and religion, and for a number of reasons elected to go to the University of Edinburgh, Scotland to do this. Two theological professors were known for their work in the area of science and religion, Prof. John McIntyre, and Prof. T.F. Torrance, whose son Iain Torrance, is now President of Princeton Seminary. I went to Edinburgh with the intention of exploring the issues of “eschatology, time and space,” I would attempt to understand how modern cosmology destroyed biblical eschatology.

Before graduating from Princeton, I happened to run into the professor who had started my faith crisis, right on the steps of Hodge Hall, my dormitory. He asked what I was doing after graduation, and I told him. (I did not tell him his class led to my faith crisis.) His response to my plan was to say that there were no seminaries in the United States dealing with the issues of science and religion. Science and religion were now totally separate disciplines.

MSH: He wasn’t too bright, was he?

I went to Edinburgh anyway, and eventually produced the dissertation, Eschatological Implications of the Understanding of Time and Space in the Thought of Isaac Newton. The dissertation was well received by Professors McIntyre and Torrance, as well as my outside reader from Cambridge University, and I graduated with my Ph.D. in 1966.

MSH: Sounds quite interesting.

During the fall of 1965 I began exploring connections between UFOs and the Bible. This was not part of my Ph.D. work, but certainly did relate to issues of time and space. I wondered if there might be some connection between biblical angels and UFOs. I reread Exodus, and concluded that the pillar of cloud and fire (Ex. 13:21,22) seemed very much to fit the description of modern UFOs,

MSH: Here’s where we part company. It sounds nothing like UFOs.

and also it moved ahead of the Jewish people like a UFO might. This idea hit me with great emotional power, I thought I should explore writing a book about this. But I made a prayer deal with God: I would finish my Ph.D. dissertation first, then go home and work on a UFO book. After returning to the United States, I wrote The Bible and Flying Saucers in the basement of my in-law’s home while seeking a church call during the summer and fall of 1966. I put the manuscript in the mail to a publisher about February 1, 1967, the book was rejected several times before being accepted by J. B. Lippincott. I began work as an assistant pastor at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Endwell, New York, on February 6, 1967, and was ordained March 5, 1967. Before taking the Endwell position, I explained my UFO research to the senior pastor, Rev. George Rynick, and he was very supportive of my project, and helped the church understand my work. I eventually became senior pastor of Northminster. I was known in the community as the “UFO nut” for a while, but by and large, except for conservative Protestant pastors, it was felt that even if what I was working on turned out not to be true, it was an area I had a right to explore, and an area that needed exploring. I find that attitude still prevails in my church, though I am now retired. And as readers of the Strong Delusion web site know, many conservative Christians still do not like me. (Heiser, Malone, Bates)

MSH: I never said I didn’t like you, Barry.  I just don’t like your hermeneutic. I’m a text-geek. There is nothing in the text of the exodus event that sounds like a flying saucer. A bright light? That’s your hermeneutical link here?  Good grief. Think about how weak that is. It is truly awful as an interpretive guidepost.

Frankly, on the personal side, reading this makes me sympathetic to you, to your struggle. I wish you’d had better thinkers guiding you on the way. Also on a personal note, I don’t appreciate your assumption that I am somehow part of the Strong Delusion website. I’d never heard of it until your post.  I don’t affiliate with anyone in the “Christian UFO community” for the same reasons I don’t affiliate with a Christian denomination. I don’t care about theological filters. I don’t care about creeds. I don’t care about evangelical sub-cultures. I care about the biblical text as it’s given to us. Some of my thoughts would be quite consistent with Gary Bates or Guy Malone. Others would not (and they’d tell you this). I’m a biblical scholar, and so I look at certain things very differently than “normal” Christians. Some things that look simple to them don’t look simple to me at all. But that’s okay.

In 1972 Walter Andrus Jr. invited me to become a consultant in theology to MUFON. Members of MUFON believed UFOs were real, and that our government was involved in a cover-up. Many people who believed UFOs were real read my book, and found both my biblical analysis, and my scientific point of view, plausible. But this plausibility did not extend to Conservative Christians. I published many articles in the MUFON UFO Journal , as well as speaking at many symposiums, and was well received by this scientific community. MUFON was willing to give me a voice which the church would not.

MSH: None of these approving voices could possibly have been very familiar with exegesis. Give me a name that endorsed it who is a biblical text scholar.  Or perhaps the book was reviewed in a biblical studies journal? I doubt it. And this is not to say that you aren’t telling us the truth here. I’m sure you are. It’s just to say I’m not impressed with any of these endorsements.

That’s it for now.