Friday, April 1, 2011

Lewis Black on Creationism

Lewis Black explains why Christians get the “Old Testament” wrong. I explain how Black gets George W. Bush wrong—to some degree.

Here is another comedy clip, from Red, White, and Screwed, a video of Lewis Black in performance in Washington, D.C., in 2006. Once again, I have provided a transcript, so that those who like to remind themselves of the best bits, as I do, can have the words in print before them. And as in my previous posting of a clip of a comic in performance, of course, I advise all readers to watch the video before reading the transcript.

This performance took place during that dark age of recent American history known as the presidency of George W. Bush. The clip begins at a somewhat awkward point, in mid-sentence, omitting context that would allow the viewer to understand immediately what Black is talking about. I have therefore supplied, in the transcript that follows, the sentence and a half preceding the words with which the clip begins. (The complete version can be heard at 3:50 in this clip.)
I should have known earlier about President Bush, but I gave him some rope—a lot of rope, and then—he hung all of us with it. I should have known it when I heard him say, “When it comes to evolution, the jury is still out.” What jury, where? The Scopes trial is over.

I never thought that during the course of my life, a president would be elected who didn’t believe in evolution, or at least kind of in the ball park of it, or thought m-m-m-maybe it’s got some MERIT! But NO! He believes that the earth was created in seven days. Whew! Takes my breath away. And why does he believe that? Because he read it in the Old Testament, which is the book of my people—the Jewish people. And that book wasn’t good enough for you Christians, was it? You went, “No, we’ve got a better book, with a better character, you’re going to LOVE him!” And you called your book NEW, and said our book was OLD!

And yet every Sunday I turn on the television set, and there’s a priest or a pastor reading from my book, and interpreting it, and their interpretations, I have to tell you, are usually wrong. It’s not their fault, because it’s not their book. You never see a rabbi on the TV interpreting the New Testament, do you? If you want to truly understand the Old Testament, if there is something you don’t quite get, there are Jews who walk among you, and THEY—I promise you this—will take TIME out of their VERY JEWY, JEWY DAY, and interpret for you anything that you’re having trouble understanding. And we will do that, if, of course, the price is right.

Was the earth created in seven days? No. For those of you who believe it was, for you Christians, let me tell you that you do not understand the Jewish people. We Jews understand that it did not take place in seven days, and that’s because we know what we’re good at; and what we’re really good at is bullshit. This is a wonderful story that was told to the people in the desert in order to distract them from the fact that they did not have air conditioning. I would LOVE to have the FAITH to believe that it took place in seven days, but—I have thoughts. And that can really fuck up the faith thing. Just ask any Catholic priest.

And then, there are fossils. Whenever anybody tries to tell me that they believe it took place in seven days, I reach for a fossil and go, “Fossil!” And if they keep talking I throw it just over their head.

There are people who believe that dinosaurs and men lived together, that they roamed the earth at the same time. There are museums that children go to in which they build dioramas to show them this. And what this is, purely and simply, is a clinical psychotic reaction. They are crazy. They are stone cold fuck nuts. I can’t be kind about this, because these people are watching The Flintstones as if it were a documentary.
For me, the last paragraph, especially its last sentence, makes the whole speech worthwhile. But if the words preceding that line contain a serious error, does the worth of the speech as humor excuse it? I think not. Lewis Black is one of those comics whose performances largely owe their power to their truth. Of course, he often employs overstatement and fantasy, as around the middle of this excerpt; but he never, so far as I know, tries to pass them off as fact. So, as much as I relish making fun of the follies of Christian Biblical literalists and of former President Bush, I feel bound to correct Black’s lumping of the latter with the former.

Let us be clear that Black’s mention of the then-president at the beginning of the excerpt is mainly a transitional device, reflecting what he was saying just beforehand. He was talking about politics; now he wants to talk about the interpretation of Jewish scriptures by Christians, especially by those Christians who are Biblical literalists. Nonetheless, the excerpt begins with a misrepresentation of what President Bush, or rather, as he was at the time of uttering the words, presidential candidate Bush, said and meant. The utterance that Lewis Black approximately quotes was reported as follows in an article in The New York Times in October of 2000:
“From Scripture you can gain a lot of strength and solace and learn life’s lessons. That’s what I believe, and I don’t necessarily believe every single word is literally true. I think that, for example, on the issue of evolution, the verdict is still out on how God created the earth. . . . I don’t use the Bible as necessarily a way to predict the findings of science.” 1
Black’s version incorporates a correction, probably made unwittingly, of the future president’s characteristic confusion of idiom. Bush seems to have conflated the idiomatic phrases “the jury is still out” and “a verdict has not yet been reached” into the mixed-up phrase “the verdict is still out.” This detail does not, however, affect the substance of the words quoted.

What does affect the substance is the remainder of the quotation, which makes Bush out to be less clearly on the side of Biblical literalism than Black would put him. In fact, it puts him on the other side entirely. Then-candidate Bush says explicitly that he does not take the Bible to be literally true in every particular, especially as an anticipation of “the findings of science.” He praises the Bible as a source of “strength and solace” and instruction in “life’s lessons,” and contrasts this with regarding it as a source of scientific knowledge.

One might go further in trying to separate Bush from Biblical literalists and creationists. For Bush does not exactly say that the jury (or the “verdict”) is still out on evolution itself but on “how God created the earth.” One might suggest that the “verdict” that he means is a theological conclusion on how God makes things happen from behind the scenes rather than a scientific one on how the earth and the living things on it came into being.

This, however, is exceedingly unlikely. Creationists have a notorious tendency to conflate questions of the origin of species with questions of the origin of the life, of the earth, and of the universe as a whole: “theory of evolution,” in their usage, often stands for all of these things. The construction of the quoted sentence shows the same confusion, or at least indicates that Bush is only concerned with the theory of evolution so far as it conflicts with the Biblical account of how the earth and what lives on it came into being. It is plainly on this conflict that he takes the jury to be “still out.” Finally, his words to a group of reporters five years later leave no room for doubt as to where he thought that there was room for doubt:
During a press conference with a group of Texas reporters on August 1, 2005, President George W. Bush responded to a question about teaching “intelligent design” in the public schools. The reporter referred to “what seems to be a growing debate over evolution versus ‘intelligent design’” and asked, “What are your personal views on that, and do you think both should be taught in public schools?” In response, Bush referred to his days as governor of Texas, when “I said that, first of all, that decision should be made to local school districts, but I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught . . . so people can understand what the debate is about.” . . . Pressing the issue, the reporter asked, “So the answer accepts the validity of ‘intelligent design’ as an alternative to evolution?” Bush avoided a direct answer, construing the question instead as a fairness issue: “You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes.”2
President Bush makes clear on this occasion that in his view the supposed “debate” concerning the theory of evolution and the so-called theory of intelligent design belongs within the curricula of public schools. It has to be presumed that he means that it belongs within the curricula of science classes, and therefore that he considers it to be a debate within science rather than a debate about science.

In sum, what George W. Bush said publicly does not indicate that he believes, following the Bible, that the earth was created in six days. In fact, it indicates clearly that he is not a Biblical literalist at all, and that he does not think that the Bible should be used as a basis for drawing conclusions in matters of science. However, his utterances also make clear that he considers the theory of evolution—meaning, in this instance, the whole enterprise of explaining speciation by reference to natural causes—to be a matter on which no scientific verdict has been reached.


1 Laurie Goodman, “The 2000 Campaign: Matters of Faith; Bush Uses Religion as Personal and Political Guide,” New York Times, October 22, 2000. Bold type added. A scan of the pertinent passage as it appeared in print can be seen here.

2 Glenn Branch, “President Bush Addresses ‘Intelligent Design,’” Reports of the National Center for Science Education, 25 (2005): 13–14. For equivalent reportage see Peter Baker and Peter Slevin, “Bush Remarks On ‘Intelligent Design’ Theory Fuel Debate,” Washington Post, August 3, 2005, or Elisabeth Bumiller, “Bush Remarks Roil Debate on Teaching of Evolution,” New York Times, August 3, 2005.

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