Prelude to Catastrophe: Why this book is so needed today
When I was 16 years old, I encountered the first book I ever read about geology. It was the first step of many toward a doctorate in the discipline. To this day, I can still praise Steven Austin’s Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe as a simple primer on the processes by which sedimentary rocks form. His explanations of features like cross bedding, faulting, erosion, and layering were clear, accessible, and generally accurate. Yet Austin’s book did not gain popularity for accomplishing what any introductory textbook already had. His provocative message was that the Grand Canyon was laced with fingerprints of a recent global catastrophe, as described in chapters 6-9 of the Book of Genesis.
At the time, I had budding interests in theology and biblical studies. I also excelled in science and math, even if geology were new to me. Thus I was the ideal target audience for Dr. Steven Austin, who showcased a talent for drafting plausible sounding arguments, catered to those seeking to provide a defense for the hope within them. Immediately, I was drawn to the claim that we could see and touch and feel God’s written history by examining the rocks beneath us. I was drawn to the prospect of joining the minority voice in geology that would overturn the current paradigm. Perhaps this attraction seems naïve to you, but it is a powerful force. It is the reason that all cultural movements find a level of success.
With the help of organizations like ICR, Dr. Austin gained prominent authority within Evangelical circles. Millions were persuaded that the iconic Grand Canyon bore the marks of a young Earth, and the creationist movement had effectively hijacked one of geology’s best teaching tools. Everyone wanted to know the story of the canyon’s formation, but the putative controversy now clouded public discourse. If geologists couldn’t agree on the origins of their most famous textbook example, why concede the ostensibly unbiblical position that Earth’s surface evolved slowly over 4.5 billion years?
Seeds of doubt were sown again in 2003 with the publication of Tom Vail’s Grand Canyon: A Different View, which for a time occupied shelf space in the bookstore of the Grand Canyon Visitor’s Center. The book added little to Dr. Austin’s proposal, though arguably it was better illustrated and more accessible to the lay reader. Apart from the overlap in content, these books shared the same strategy: convince the audience that there is a legitimate controversy with respect to Earth history by presenting a plausible, alternative hypothesis.
It mattered little that neither book impacted academia and research, except to raise a few professorial eyebrows (much like an article from The Onion on your Facebook feed). Though several Earth scientists spent the effort to criticize the creationist works, most deemed them safe to ignore. Unfortunately, the silence of professional geologists went unheard, because Young-Earth Creationists (YEC) continued to cite both books in support of their strict reading of Genesis. With the appearance of scientific debate, sides could be taken on the basis of worldview—not evidence.
Thus while actual researchers considered the hypotheses of ‘Flood Geology’ too absurd even to engage, churches around the world embraced the YEC paradigm as both biblically and scientifically sound. Knowing that at least some credentialed geologists held to a young Earth was sufficient to bring intellectual comfort to that position. Consequently, the community of Christ fell further into disrepute among those knowledgeable of the natural sciences. So long as the church perceived geology as a battle of worldviews, their plight would continue to the detriment of the Gospel.
If only one could demonstrate exhaustively that Flood Geology never was a valid option, whether biblically or scientifically, then perhaps we could recover the Bible’s literary artistry, which long fell victim to a cookie-cutter hermeneutic. Perhaps we could recover geology as a tool for exploring this Earth, and the Grand Canyon as a testament to its great antiquity. Needless to say, that is precisely what this book accomplishes and why it couldn’t come at a better time.
Fellowship of the Canyon: thirteen minds are better than one!
The 239-page book is divided into twenty chapters, with contributions from eleven authors and two designers. Being the product of broad collaboration significantly increases the value and utility of the book. Each of the authors (most of whom are professed Christians) possesses a unique talent and field of expertise. Still, there is an elegant harmony between voices from one chapter to the next, making the book a comfortable read. From an editorial point of view, this is a fantastic achievement.
If you are already familiar with critiques of YEC and ‘Flood Geology’, then you will likely recognize some of the authors of this book. I am honored to have been personally acquainted with several during my years of blogging, and I can testify both to their expertise in and passion for the Earth sciences, as well as their faith. But you don’t have to take my word for it, because these authors already have a proven track record in previous publications (books/articles), personal blogs, and even ministry outreach. My apologies for excluding some, but I do want to highlight a few examples:
- Carol Hill, author of six books (including the widely used Cave Minerals of the World), several peer-reviewed journal articles (including a vital constraint on the age of Grand Canyon formation), and several articles in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (PSCF).
- Tim Helble, whom I’ve referenced on this blog, has critically examined the ability of Flood Geology to explain the deposition of the Coconino Sandstone in a PSCF article.
- Gregg Davidson, Ken Wolgemuth, and Joel Duff of Solid Rock Lectures. All three have written articles for PSCF and/or Biologos, while Dr. Duff is the author of the blog Naturalis Historia, which I’ve utilized countless times here. Dr. Davidson is also the author of the book When Faith and Science Collide: A Biblical Approach to Evaluating Evolution and the Age of the Earth.
- Ralph Stearley, co-author of The Bible, Rocks, and Time, one of the best and most comprehensive works on the intersection of geology and Christian faith.
- Wayne Ranney, author of multiple books on the landscapes of the American Southwest, including the masterfully written ‘scientific mystery novel’ Carving Grand Canyon, which is available in the Grand Canyon bookstore.
Pictures, pictures, everywhere!
Every page of this book is adorned with stunning color photography and helpful figures, which immediately stand out when you open it. Thumbing through the pages, I am confident you’ll find that the pictures alone make the book worth the purchase. Without reading a single word, one can journey through the canyon’s history and present landscape, while encountering geological marvels and mysteries from around the world. It is a book that should spend little time on the shelf, because it can be read like an atlas that is better left open on the coffee table.
I cannot fathom how much work was invested into collecting these hundreds of illustrations (let alone managing the copyrights). All I can say is that it was worth the effort, and it is the first thing you will appreciate about the book.
What is ‘Flood Geology’? (Chapters 1–4)
The opening chapters concisely and respectfully summarize the history of the YEC paradigm, which is useful whether you have long been interested in the creationist movement or have just stumbled upon the claim that the Grand Canyon was formed in the wake of Noah’s flood. While recognizing the severe scientific shortcomings of Flood geology, the book elucidates why that view is so popular and still persuasive today.
Additionally, the first chapters detail the role of the story of Noah’s flood in formulating early geological thought, which is relevant to understanding how scientific disciplines progress in general. Near the dawn of the Renaissance, natural scientists interpreted the rocks in the context of the only insights into ancient history to which they had access, which included the biblical account of a global catastrophe. It was not naïve on their part to do so. Rather, it prompted a series of speculations and hypotheses that could be tested by collecting specimens, creating physical models, and mapping out Earth’s complex surface.
As geology emerged as a recognizable discipline, Noah’s flood became ever more irrelevant to explaining Earth history. However, this shift did not result from an abandonment of Christian faith, but was driven thereby. The desire to understand the history of God’s creation could not be divorced from a commitment to reason and wisdom. Therefore, a faithful reading of the rocks, so to speak, revealed to us the great antiquity of our planet, whose dynamic story will never get boring.
By the end of Chapter 4, you should discover why Flood Geology is not a competing hypothesis with mainstream scientific thought. Presenting the “two views” model is a key strategy of YEC, again because it encourages the lay audience to choose sides on the basis of theological presupposition, rather than biblical or scientific evidence. Moreover, you will discover that YEC is not clearly supported by textual evidence from the Book of Genesis. This factor is vital to understanding the creationist controversy, especially if you don’t consider the Bible to be divinely inspired. The modern division of thought is not a simple case of “what the Bible says” versus “what science says”; the fork in the road begins with the basic methodologies applied both to biblical and scientific study.
“I’m not much of a geology buff—is this book for me?”
Yes. This book is written to be accessible, whatever your scientific background. These authors have years of experience as communicators and teachers, and their talents are abundantly showcased here. On the other hand, I still learned something from each chapter, even though I have more than a decade of formal academic training in geology. I cannot praise this book more highly for capturing the interest of a very wide target audience.
Still, if you don’t consider yourself to be well-versed in geology prior to reading this book, then you will be upon completion. Chapters 5–19 are brilliantly organized to cover general topics in geology (such as sedimentation, tectonic deformation, radiometric dating, and paleontology), providing the necessary information to understand those chapters devoted specifically to the Grand Canyon.
Having taught geology at a university level, I sincerely believe that this book alone could prepare one to pass exams in most introductory courses. Obviously, I mean this as a compliment, not a recommendation! But the fact that it is as informative as many textbooks, without actually reading like one, is a huge incentive. I am still shocked that the hardcover sells for under $30 USD.
“I don’t consider myself to be a Christian / religious—should I pass?”
The primary target audience is those within the church, who have been encouraged that being a Christian requires one to accept the tenets of Young-Earth Creationism. It presents a powerful case that YEC is both scientifically and biblically unreasonable. However, the main focus of the book is still the development of geologic thought and how its many subdisciplines have unveiled the history of the Grand Canyon. Unless you have zero interest in the natural sciences, you will likely not be disappointed.
Even if you are not part of the Christian church, the prevalence of YEC is still relevant to you. It bears on how our communities will invest in education and research, versus (for example) tax breaks for a Noah’s Ark-based theme park, whose stated mission is to persuade visitors of the errors of modern geology/biology through a nuanced form of “evangelism”. Most importantly, this book will teach you how to engage those caught up in the creationist movement in a manner that is respectful and informed. Proof without persuasion has no public benefit.
Final thoughts and recommendation
I am pleased to say that Grand Canyon: Monument to an Ancient Earth is now the comprehensive answer to the claims of Flood Geology, especially with respect to our beloved natural wonder. Its critique of Young-Earth Creationism is so thorough and well argued, that the notion of “two views” completely evaporates. We know the Earth is ancient; the only question is how best to utilize that knowledge.
So follow the link above and order a copy for yourself and—of course—for your YEC friends. You can’t ask for a better deal!