Flanking Strategy

Michael Metzger

Flanking strategy…
Darwin might be 2009’s debate du jour. This year is the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of the Species and there will be plenty of Christians attacking Darwin. What if we instead adopted a flanking strategy, just as Darwin did after he published Origin? He explained familiar experiences, but I bet we could outflank him by better explaining everyday phenomena – like music, murder, and shopping.

The dossier on Darwin is familiar. He was born the son of Robert Darwin, an avowed atheist who sent young Charles off to Cambridge to study, of all things, theology. It didn’t stick and Charles accepted an invitation to be the official naturalist on a voyage around the world on H.M.S. Beagle. The five-year voyage furthered Darwin’s ideas about evolution, and over the course of the next decade, he completed his book, in 1859.

But Darwin knew that people would object to being descendent from apes. So he wrote books on botany and music, according to neurologist Oliver Sacks. “Darwin regarded his botany books as being a flank movement on the enemy, people were charmed by natural selection in the garden, because it was no threat to their identity.”1 Darwin further enchanted readers with his idea that music played an evolutionary role in not only aiding survival, but courtship – a notion Darwin published twelve years after Origin in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex.

Darwin enchanted by explaining everyday experiences such as music, according to one of his contemporaries, Alfred Russel Wallace. The aim was to explain daily phenomena and exclude Christianity. After he read Origin and Descent, Wallace wrote, “Thus all is explained… All these phenomena are entirely out of place in a theory of special creation.”2 The Bible and special creation, in other words, couldn’t explain music and everyday experiences as well as Darwinism. The debate was over.

For over a century, Christians have tried to revive the debate by going directly after Darwinism. Yet there is little to no evidence that we’re winning this contest. In fact, one cultural analyst notes that the history of the conservative faith traditions over the last 125 years has been one of declining influence, including the debate on Darwinism. Look no further than the most recent edition of the Economist.

In the latest Economist, there’s an extended discussion on the origins of music, shopping, and murder. “Until 1859, human nature was the province of God. It was Charles Darwin’s famous book that brought it into the realm of scientific discourse, and it is Darwinism that ultimately explains all three.”3 This statement makes it sound obvious that Darwinism has become a fact of our collective life, and if we are to believe the Economist, the only legitimate question is how we are to live with it. Of course, many Christians don’t believe the debate is over, but instead of debating Darwinism, why not adopt a flanking strategy and reframe the debate? Why don’t we explain music, murder, and shopping better than Darwinism? Take music, for example.

According to the Judeo-Christian faith, every person on the planet is uniquely hard-wired to have dominion – to organize and enhance creation. On summer mornings, we enjoy what Adam and Eve enjoyed their first morning. “Morning has broken, like the first morning,” wrote English poet Eleanor Farjeon. “Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird. Praise for the singing, praise for the morning…” Adam and Eve heard the songs of birds, the wind in the trees, and the bubbling of water brooks. They instinctively began to organize and enhance them. That’s music, organized sounds. Our faith explains why music is a diverse yet universal experience.

It also explains murder and shopping. The Bible allows for killing in strict circumstances (as in the military) but says “Thou shalt not murder ,” a different Hebrew word in Exodus 20:13. Since everyone is hard-wired to have dominion, we have developed this distinction into complex, legal codes. Our faith explains why we prohibit murder. The Bible also says God created every person on the planet to consume… “I give you every seed-bearing plant… every tree that has fruit… the beasts… and all the birds… and all the creatures… everything… for food” (Gen. 1:29-30). Since everyone is hard-wired to have dominion, we have organized and enhanced consuming into consumerism. Our faith explains shopping. I’m not saying Christians get it right all the time, but the Judeo-Christian faith can at least account for why we love music, hate murder, and go shopping.

No one knows for certain whether Darwinism will be 2009’s debate du jour. But you will hear a lot about Darwin. In a world of increasing religious and ideological polarity, why don’t we steal a page from Darwin and outflank Darwinism, explaining life better than other ideological systems? People tend to embrace whatever best explains their experiences – exactly why C.S. Lewis embraced Christianity. “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”4 If we tell a better story about music, murder, and shopping, we could do an end run around Darwinism and reframe the debate, beginning in 2009.

1 Judith H. Dobrynski, “A Still Restless Mind at Age 75,” Wall Street Journal, September 24, 2008, D9.
2 Alfred Russel Wallace, in a book review titled “Another Substitute for Darwinism” of the anonymously published work Nature’s Method in the Evolution of Life printed in the Nature issue of October 4, 1894.
3 “Of Music, murder, and shopping,” Economist (January 2, 2009), p. 18.
4 C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” The Weight of Glory and other Addresses (New York: Harper Collins publishers, 1980), p. 140.


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  1. Keep it up,mike. As a young man I studied biology in a Christian college and lost my faith because I could no longer reconcile what I was being taught with the Bible. What a difference it would have made for me if what I knew of the Bible had been used to explain what I was learning in the classroom. In his grace God rescued me from the dark night of the soul that my rejection of what I knew of God brought to my life. An approach similar to the “flanking strategy” could have saved me from much pain.

  2. Hi Mike:
    Another good one. This is what I try to do with happiness in the book Reordered Love: explain happiness in a better, biblical way, a cultural apologetic at the end of the day. David N

  3. Dizzy Dean said it ain’t braggin’ if you can do it. David Naugle’s book, Reordered Love, is excellent. David won’t brag on it, so I will.

    – Mike

  4. Sorry, Brody – missed your comment. Quickly, get your hands dirty before you open your yap. I’ll talk about this next week. Second, most Christians lack street cred. We’re not climbing the ladder of culture-shaping institutions. We bark outside at the windows of leading institutions. If you doubt the power of institutions, watch the ups and downs the auto industry. This institution might be floundering, but it also prevents – along with overlapping institutions of suppliers, streets, gas stations, mechanics, city planners, and zoning laws – any meaningful chance for alternative transportation options to gain a toehold for at least twenty years. Maybe more. We outflank by gaining credibility in culture-shaping institutions along with making more attractive products, if you will.

  5. Wow – I had no idea Darwin went to such great lengths on behalf of his first book. I wonder whether his desired end was to make his theory of science palatable or to shore up support for his own way of seeing things?

  6. This is interesting — but wouldn’t it be better if we just acknowledge that Darwin was basically right, and that this is compatible with, rather than inconsistent with, the explanation that we are how we are because God created us this way? Why do we have to “outflank”? The reason Christians are losing the “war” against the theory of common descent is that the “war” is misplaced and common descent is true. If all truth is God’s truth, we should not be fighting this war.

    As to the Economist article, you’re right to point this out as evidence of scientism. However, saying we’re “uniquely hard-wired to have dominion” doesn’t “outflank” anything — it just begs the question what “hard-wired” means and what processes God might have used to accomplish this “hard wiring.” It seems perfectly consistent to me to suggest that God used some process of evolution in order to accomplish this hard wiring.

    BTW, I’m pretty sure the historical account here — that Darwin’s explicit purpose was to refute Christianity — is simply wrong. Darwin lost his faith not primarily because of his theory of common descent, but because of the death of his young daughter.

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