Evangelicalism, Religion, Science, Universities

Eclipses and Bible School

Friday, 14th July 2017

From July 14, 2017


This is a great WaPo site that looks at solar eclipses, past and present.

The 1979 eclipse went right over where I was in Saskatchewan. I was in an evangelical Bible College at the time (yes, I went to one of those for my first degree. We all started somewhere). I remember being in class when the eclipse happened. The instructor, Orville Swenson, kept us in the class with the blinds drawn the whole time. Maybe they were all under instruction to do so, worrying about our retinas. But I’ve always thought it was a great metaphor for those three years. A rare natural phenomenon outside, and we were prevented from seeing it. Maybe it was paternalistic concern for our safety. But it was clearly not seen as a teaching moment. And why would it be? The natural world was only interesting inasmuch as it was a sign of the handiwork of God, and we were already learning about God in a much better, more direct way in the classroom – from the Bible. So, no upside, and potential downsides, and the logic is complete.

I would have loved to have been outside. Hearing the animals (and we could hear them from inside the room) would have been fascinating. I would have loved to see the general effect on the world around.

It was perhaps appropriate that the class at the time that Swenson was teaching was on cults. He was a cults expert, or so he told us. It later became apparent that he had plagiarized most of the textbook he had written on the subject. But at the time, he was there to tell us all about the aberrant ways that people found to avoid God’s will and word. “Cult” had a specific meaning – deviation from the truth – not its sociological meaning. Eclipses were just another deviation, or at least a distraction.

The eclipse was also something that potentially could have been shared with everyone else. The college I was at was in a little town, which it had taken over decades before. The whole town was owned by the college. It was separate from the world, and at the time at least, very much saw itself that way. Trips to the nearest town were fairly rare. We were separate, physically, culturally, and intellectually. An eclipse, though, respected no boundaries. It would have been something everyone would have talked about. It would have been a point of commonality between us and the world. I have to think that that would have been another reason for keeping us inside with the blinds drawn. Too many points of commonality meant that the devil could start enticing us away, with the pleasures of the flesh, and we would lose focus on the truth as delivered by the Swensons of the world.

I have often said that in my first degree, I learned lots of answers but no questions. By the end of it, I knew that wasn’t the place for me. I think my father probably had hoped I would have been a pastor or missionary. I disappointed him, as I had before and would again. I remember someone saying that the disciplines you don’t want to go into, if you’re a good evangelical, are biology and philosophy. The first because, well, the whole evolution thing, and the second because it would cause you to question things. Didn’t Paul say something somewhere about philosophy being bad? That’s what people thought.

Well, I didn’t like to dissect things (that’s what I thought biology was about at the time), so I started reading philosophy. And I never stopped. I know that from the point of view of the Swensons, I’m a lost cause. My true character has shown itself. I’d rather look at the eclipses than find out how we’re right and everyone else is wrong.

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