by Andrew Hanson
Sarah Andrews is a mystery writer and friend whose previous Em Hansen mystery novels have established her national reputation as a novelist, science writer and geologist. While Sarah was doing research for her new book, Rock Bottom, I received the following email. The concern she expressed along with my response may have influenced an important sub plot in the book. A brief outline follows:
The protagonist, Em Hansen, a newly married wife, is on a raft trip through the Grand Canyon with Fritz, her husband, and his son by his previous marriage, thirteen-year-old Brendon. Brendon has attended a fundamentalist Christian church since birth. He believes the Grand Canyon eroded during a universal flood 4,500 years ago. Em is a geologist and has very different ideas about how the Canyon was created. Em’s dilemma: how to answer Brendon’s questions about the Canyon’s sedimentary layers while honoring Brendon’s religious faith.
I highly recommend Rock Bottom. While there is occasional adult language, adults use the words, and I didn’t find any of the dialogue offensive. It is a book I will make available to my grandchildren when I hear them asking Brendon’s questions.
In addition to an intriguing mystery, the reader experiences the Grand Canyon through the eyes of a geologist. The Grand Canyon is an amazing place. This book does it justice.
Caption: Sarah Andrews, physically and spiritually refreshed at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
The following letter is published with the author’s permission:
The Grand Canyon mystery will probably interest you extra special. It was going to just be about the rocks, but after spending two days with the Outreach Coordinator at the canyon picking up on various details of natural history that the National Park wanted me to put into the mix, I asked if there was anything else that was on her mind personally. Very thoughtfully, she said that yes, she was troubled by some questions certain Park visitors kept asking. Specifically, these questions came from people who had taken raft trips down the river with a group that advertises “Christian” trips. Well, you know part of where this is going: This group instructs participants that the layers of rock are sediments that fell out of the waters of Noah’s Flood, and that the Canyon was carved as the waters receded. I was thinking that I had already said my piece on all of this, but then she said, “What really troubles me is that the people who come to me are frightened because they are told that Noah’s Flood proves that if you don’t believe exactly as they do, God will be angry and will kill you and send you to hell.”
I trust that this view of what this river trip group espouses is oversimplified, but I am hoping you can fill me in a bit on this. No, that’s not quite true; rather, I am hoping that no one has ever pushed the idea of a punishing God on you. I have heard my share of intellectual discussions about a hot-tempered God of the Old Testament, some at my mother’s knee, as she gave me her interpretation of Christ’s teachings. I took my mother’s explanations to mean that Christ was doing his best to clarify God’s message and help people understand that God wasn’t wrathful.
The idea of a punishing God makes no sense to me. My limited awareness of God has always been one of undiluted love, kindness, compassion, a perfection of balances. At my worst moments I once feared that God didn’t know I existed, but I quickly became aware that that worry had everything to do with my mindset and nothing to do with what was being transmitted. My experience thus is that hell is that place we create right here when we let fear and anger take root. We do evil if we try to split away from our fears and anger rather than own these difficult emotions and deal with them through constructive meekness. The “us vs. them” “you’re with us or against us” game looks to me like part of that splitting.
Enough of my rant here. I’m just wondering if this punitive God idea is common among literalist sects or is just this group that runs raft trips. Thanks, Andy!
With love, Sarah
I think I understand why many Christian fundamentalists are so fearful and unhappy. They have been told that they have to choose to believe either the story of the creation as found in Genesis (There are actually two radically different stories in the first two chapters, but that doesn’t seem to phase these religious know-nothing authorities.) or an evolutionary story that denies the existence of God. These are the only choices available, and denying the first will keep them out of Heaven and could land them in everlasting fire.
Fear can override reason in the general population in times of economic uncertainty, natural calamity, and/or war. This fear is intensified if fundamentalist leaders tell their followers that these events are God’s punishment for behavior that demonstrates unbelief.
Imagine trying to believe that the universe was created 6,000 years ago.
Imagine trying to believe that the Grand Canyon was created by a universal flood that covered the highest mountain 4500 years ago and all fauna, with the exception of life in the sea, are the descendants of creature pairs that only survived because of their ride in Noah’s ark that ended up on top of Mt. Ararat in Turkey.
Imagine trying to believe that personal unbelief delays the Second Coming of Jesus?
Imagine trying to believe that scientists are used by the Devil to destroy the faith of children.
I believe that the people asked to believe these things can’t do it by themselves. They have to chant the words of charismatic leaders, and can only drown their common sense in irrational groups that occasionally take float trips.
The life and teaching of Jesus is rarely mentioned. It’s what happened on the cross that’s important to these people. His death was required to pay the penalty for human sins that offended a legalistic and angry God, and only Jesus’ sacrificial death made it possible to save a human “elect” who worship God correctly.
Depending on the survey, 50-90% of educated young people from Christian homes apparently lack the required “imagination” and are currently not attending church. That trend will continue.
Love and best wishes, Andy
PS: Your view of God and Hell eloquently expresses my own.