I was in third grade when I first encountered the tension between science and a literal reading of the Bible. I never thought I’d grow up to be a paleontologist as many children do, but I had spent enough time learning about the dinosaurs to be fascinated by them. My Girl Scout troop even spent the night at a natural history museum, in the shadows of the fossils and skeletons.
Around the same time, I got my first real Bible, complete with verse and chapter numbers instead of the children’s story Bible. I was reading Genesis 1 in my Sunday school class when I stumbled upon the realization that creation took place in seven days, and yet the dinosaurs died millions years before humans lived. I didn’t ask anyone a question about it, but I mentally fit the two stories together by assuming that a “day” was just a literary device used in the storytelling and not a 24-hour cycle. Easy, simple, and logical to my 8-year-old brain.
All of a sudden, adolescents are confronted with a scientific explanation of the beginning of the world and need to reconcile it with the stories and beliefs they’d grown up with.
In ninth grade, when I learned about evolution in my freshman biology class, I disagreed with every word. Whether I’d already heard from other Christians that evolution was inherently wrong, evil, or bad, or whether I was merely feeling antagonistic toward my science teacher, I refused to study or learn any more than necessary about evolutionary theory. In my mind, it was diametrically opposed to the Christian faith. Instead of questioning and trying to learn more about a new and challenging concept, I read books by Christian apologists that laid out the reasons evolution was false.
My own views on creation, biblical literalism, and interpretation evolved over the years after several college classes on biblical interpretation. My gradual acceptance of the Big Bang theory, evolution, and other theories about the origin of the world did not have to be incompatible with Scripture if I held to the fact that God was the ultimate Creator. Perhaps because I have not done my due diligence on all the intricacies of scientific theories, I have been content to hold this stance—I may not understand the way the world was formed, and no one may ever know exactly, but I am comfortable with the mystery and believe that God is the Creator and was in control of that process.
Dinosaurs in the Bible?
As a youth pastor, I held an annual “Stump the Pastor” night with one of my youth groups. The real intention was to make sure the youth had a chance to interact with the senior pastor, but hopefully they could learn something as well. Our senior pastor would gamely sit in the middle of a circle as youth—mostly middle-school-aged— posed any questions they wanted. Often, these were written in advance, placed in a box, previewed by the pastor in order to prepare, and then drawn randomly from the box on the night of the event.
Every year, without fail, there were multiple questions about the existence of dinosaurs and the timing of the creation story. Many years, there was also a question about evolution and its role in creation. The pastor, being from a Presbyterian background, would work to explain how metaphor might work, how oral tradition influenced the writing of Genesis, or point to 2 Peter 3:8 (“But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day”). Very rarely would the students receive a definite, black-and-white answer, but more often an answer that encapsulated the questions and mystery around creation.
Tension of Adolescence
In both my own life and in the lives of many teenagers, the tension between scientific theories learned in school and biblical stories learned at church comes to a head during adolescence. Early adolescence—the junior high or middle school ages—is often pointed to as a time of extreme transition. The onset of puberty is creating new physical and hormonal changes in young people. The American school system is designed so that many youth are changing schools from the familiar elementary school to the larger, more complex middle school, at the height of these developmental changes.
Meanwhile, developmental psychologists posit that the young adolescent’s brain is undergoing significant changes in understanding and how it views the world. Specifically, Jean Piaget’s developmental theory described adolescence as a time of moving from the “concrete operational stage” to the “formal operational stage.” In a short summary, the brain of an adolescent is rewiring itself and moving from concrete and tangible thinking to understanding abstract and hypothetical concepts.
Other theorists over the years have used Piaget’s framework and expanded it to other stage theories of development. James Fowler, building on both Erik Erikson’s identity development and Piaget’s cognitive development, set out a theory of faith development which defines faith as the way humans make meaning in their worlds.
Fowler identifies a total of six stages of possible faith development over the course of a lifetime, with many adolescents being between stages two and four. Stage two, which Fowler associates with late childhood, is the Mythical-Literal faith, which is characterized by stories. Children are able to understand and connect with the grand stories of their faith, but also understand these stories and symbols as more concrete and literal, rather than metaphorical. This stage of faith, which often corresponds with Piaget’s concrete stage, demonstrates why many children’s Sunday school curricula focus on the biblical stories, rather than Paul’s writings or the poetic books of the Bible. For the 8-year-old Kristin, this meant subsuming dinosaurs into the grand narrative of creation that I had learned for many years.
As children move into adolescence, many of them move into Fowler’s stage three, named Synthetic-Conventional. At this stage, a young person’s social circles have grown to include different groups, and they are often encountering diverse sets of beliefs, which have to be reconciled in some way. People in this stage often give authority to “experts” or groups who represent their belief.
Necessity of Ambiguity
Many of the youth at my church had grown up in the church, familiar with the story of creation as told in Genesis, but had never questioned the mechanics of creation. All of a sudden, they’d been confronted with a scientific explanation of the beginning of the world as told to them by experts (teachers), and needed to reconcile it with the stories and beliefs they’d grown up with. The pastor served as the expert of Christianity, who could explain the truth to them.
Our pastor’s ambiguity in his answers offered both opportunity and challenge to the youth. Many of them asked their questions with the hope that they would get a definite, black-and-white answer from an expert that they could cling to. The danger in this kind of exact clarity is that it would not allow for other questions to develop. By answering questions with some ambiguity, the pastor demonstrated that our church was a safe place for questions, doubt, and mystery.
Before anyone challenges me on this ambiguity and calls me a heretic, it’s worth taking a look at Jesus’ teaching. When we examine the interactions Jesus had with disciples, followers, and religious leaders, we see the same kinds of ambiguity that pointed his followers toward the journey of exploration. Pharisees, scribes, ordinary folks, came to Jesus with questions: Should I be married? Should we pay taxes? Should we stone this woman? And Jesus answered these and more with questions and ambiguity. Following Jesus could not then, and cannot now, be defined by explicitly outlined doctrines and authoritative statements about behavior. Instead, following Jesus is defined by loving God wholeheartedly and loving neighbors as ourselves, even as we struggle through our doubts, our questions, and the ambiguity together.
Kristin Franke serves as the Director of Youth Ministry at National Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C. Prior to this, she provided student staff support to the IYM while completing her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary in May 2015. The author of the IYM blog series, “Sports on Sundays,” Kristin she plays and coaches Ultimate Frisbee. Her passion for youth ministry began during her five-year tenure as the youth director at Union Church in Hong Kong prior to seminary.