Thursday, October 10, 2013

God, Billboards, and Missing Subjects

Answers in Genesis- Ken Ham- "To all our atheist friends: Thank God You're Wrong"


Last year and earlier this year some atheist groups used the commercial advertising space of billboards to promote their worldview and mock religion. As disappointing as it was to see atheists use rhetoric and ridicule rather than reason and evidence in these spaces, it was not as disappointing as the news that I saw reported this past Monday.

It came to my attention that Christian organization Answers in Genesis (AiG) has decided to respond to the atheists' billboards, in kind. I was hoping to see billboards with succinct versions of the traditional arguments or some scientific evidence or an invitation to discover a world full of meaning, purpose, and reason or just a penetrating question. However, my hopes were dashed when I heard that the text of the billboards would read "To our atheist friends: Thank God You're Wrong." No argument. No evidence. No invitation. No question. I didn't realize that "in kind" meant not just medium, but lack of substance and presence of condescension too.

However, discussing those issues would be rehashing much critique that has been leveled at Answers in Genesis' general strategies and tactics throughout the years by many theologians, pastors, philosophers, scientists, and bloggers (including myself here and here). Today I want to focus on the actual content of these billboards- specifically the text's ambiguity and the implications of the possible interpretations.

The Ever-Important Subject (Grammatically Speaking)

I really wish that AiG would have left the statement with simply "You're wrong," not "Thank God You're Wrong." The first is a complete sentence with a visible subject. The second (chosen by AiG) is missing the subject, so it leaves the reader to fill in the blank- which makes the statement ambiguous.

A few possibilities exist: "I", "we", or "you." Since AiG didn't include any of these, but still make the statement, one of them is implied. Depending on which one is read by the reader, the statement has different meanings. Unfortunately, they all have serious problems with Scripture, reason, and/or attitude. Let's begin by looking at the first option: "I."

I Thank God You're Wrong

AiG could be implying the pronoun "I." Which would make the text read "I thank God you're wrong." I want to examine that statement from a biblical perspective. It reminds me of Jesus' parable about the pharisee and the tax-collector who came to pray in the temple (Luke 18:9-14). If read with "I" as the subject, the statement is interpreted as, though AiG's staff are not in public praying "God, thank you that I'm not like the atheists," they are publicly making it known that they do.

Jesus told the parable to bring to light the posture of the heart of those who were confident of their own righteousness (v. 9). He made clear that the attitude with which the prayer was offered by the pharisee is what was to be questioned- as evidenced by the prayer. If a person is to read AiG's statement with "I" as the subject, it would be hard to not also understand that the attitude is what Jesus took time to specifically speak against.

We Thank God You're Wrong

This one takes the same posture as the previous option but encompasses many more people. If AiG is implying "we" as the subject, then we must ask, "Who's 'we'?" I certainly hope that AiG (if this is their implied subject) are not implying that they speak for other Christians beyond their own organization. Because of the Divine rebuke in Luke 18, I highly doubt that many Christians would want to be represented with such a statement.

You, Thank God You're Wrong

A third option that is available for the reader is the subject that is traditionally implied in commands: "you." Along with the audacity of such a command by a mere mortal, it simply makes no sense for the atheist. Again I appeal to scripture. In Isaiah 45 and 46, those who pray to and worship that which is not real (idols) are shown to be ridiculous (not to mention the implication of illogical). If an atheist does not believe that God exists (the meaning "a-theist"), why would they thank Him for anything? An atheist who reads the statement with "you" as the subject could easily point out that the supposed "God" of the Bible questioned Israel's sanity for praying to what doesn't exist, then ask, "Why would God want to be treated any differently?" The atheist could easily see the illogic of such a command and (continue to) dismiss Christians, in general, as being irrational and unreasonable.

In fact, David Silverman (president of the American Atheists) has already been quoted (by this CNN article) as seemingly reading the statement in this way and seeing the unreasonableness: "They might as well be saying 'Thank Zeus You're Wrong' or 'Thank Thor You're Wrong'."

In Summary

Since AiG did not include the subject, it leaves the message open for interpretation. Unfortunately, none of the options seem palatable, not only from the perspective of the atheist, but also the Christian. "I" reveals a dangerous attitude of the heart; "we" implicates other Christians in that same attitude; and "you" makes no sense. I don't want to speak for Ken Ham and his organization, so I will leave it to him to reveal which subject he meant to imply, then defend it. I'm really hoping that I've missed one possibility that will allow him to avoid these critiques and undermine Silverman's statement by implication.

What If...

If you are a fan of AiG, I commend you for making it this far. This critique is not easy to read, much less, accept. The ambiguity of the text is clearly a mistake on AiG's part. It needs to be fixed or altered for future campaigns or the rest of this one. However, here is your pay-off: There is a fourth option for interpreting the text that has nothing to do with subjects and everything to do with an everyday phrase: "Thank God...!" Most people will use this phrase in passing as an exclamation of relief about some discovery or event. It is quite common. I hear people use it all around me, and I find myself using it quite often. There is nothing out of the ordinary for someone to use this phrase (except for maybe an atheist). If we look at the text of the billboard from the perspective of everyday language and conversation, we should read a "Whew!" before the "Thank God..." part and a smiley at the end- it certainly would have helped the ambiguity for AiG to include these. It would also have been nice to see another line below the larger text with the invitation "Come see how!" In that presentation, AiG would have mixed friendly humor with a serious invite to examine the evidence. The condescension would be gone, and the illogic and hypocrisy would not even be implied.

Of course, if Ken Ham did intend for the text to be read with a subject, he needs to come clean and accept critique (and learn from it), and not just claim that he actually was joking and meant this fourth option (Proverbs 26:19 may be applicable here) to avoid critique. However, if this fourth option is what Ham intended, I wish to grant him the grace.

See my review of the 2014 debate between Answers in Genesis founder Ken Ham and Bill Nye.

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