I’ve Seen a Thing or Two,
Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies

“We know a thing or two, because we’ve seen a thing or two.” This is the tag line of what I believe is one of the most effective marketing campaigns over the last year. A veteran State Farm representative always delivers the line after highlighting an interesting, almost unbelievable story of a mishap that State Farm has faithfully covered in the past.

“We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two,” is a tag line I can identify with after 42 years in youth ministry. Over four decades, there were times when I was convinced that I had seen it all only to be surprised, once again, by cultural shifts or movements which seemed newly birthed by the Holy Spirit. At these times, I knew I could resist or in humility be open to change. I’m still trying to learn that if you are not willing to change, you love yourself more than the truth. One thing I’m certain about is that there is never an arriving.

Life with Christ is always a journey requiring continual and relational discernment and openness to God’s future breaking in on us. Few would disagree that our current cultural realities are not fraught with confusing dissonance and stressful civil conflict. Yet, it is in the midst of this very cultural milieu that we must work out our faith, seek understanding, engage in serious theological reflection and passionately proclaim a hope-filled Gospel.

As a youth minister, I am extremely grateful for theological conversation partners and resources that help me navigate through what it means to practice youth ministry in our cultural context in a way that leads to Christian formation of young people. Andy Root’s book Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies: Youth Ministry in the Age of Science couldn’t be more timely or relevant.

In the genre of youth ministry books two of the following three things are normative. 1) A quirky, clever title that is culturally relevant. 2) Important content providing help in dealing with the emerging generation of young people. 3) A theologically robust, conversation-moving discourse that is really for the whole church, not just youth ministry.

While many youth workers are ok with two out of three ain’t bad, more and more of us are not. Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies is a theologically robust, conversation-moving book important for the whole church, not just youth ministry. And yet, I wonder, will Andy’s book be accessible to youth workers? After all, that is the targeted reader. I don’t wonder because I think youth workers aren’t intellectually curious or committed to the discipline of study. I wonder because too often the youth ministry environments in which we minister are pragmatically focused, program driven and action oriented, leaving little time for theological reflection and face to face encounter with the young people we minister with.

I’m concerned about the state of youth ministry and youth workers when we don’t give serious attention to books like Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies. While I’m proud that a book of this caliber is written for my vocation of youth ministry, I actually wish this book were titled, Ministry to Emerging Generations in a Scientific Age, or something like that so more people in ministry would read this important work, instead of just youth workers. And I’m concerned that a youth worker drawn to read it because of it’s catchy title might stop reading when the challenging content unfolds in the book.

This book is really critical for all youth workers to read, contemplate and learn. The issue of the relationship between science and faith is really important. We have been confronted by many studies revealing the perceived conflict between science and faith as a leading reason why many young people feel that the church has become increasingly irrelevant for them and the broader culture. When a church community articulates a narrative that either science or the bible is true but they can’t both be true, it leads to an unfortunate exit ramp for many. Too many young people have either been escorted out of the church community for their unwillingness to embrace a blind faith that contradicts with the way they view reality.

For many others the apparent conflict between science and faith, or the way they interpret the bible, results in a plan to avoid the subject and pretend a tension between science and faith doesn’t exist. This course leads to a faith that looks foolish to the broader culture for all the wrong reasons.

Too many young people have either been escorted out of the church community for their unwillingness to embrace a blind faith that contradicts with the way they view reality.

I am grateful that, Andy Root, whom I believe to be a world-class practical theologian and Christian thinker, has continued to write books and engage in theological reflection for youth ministry. Along with new theological work concerning faith formation in a scientific age, Root also strives to make it accessible and practical to youth workers by weaving a storyline of youth ministry life in between chapters on science and theology.

The narrative woven throughout the book focuses on Jared, a 12-year youth ministry veteran who is trying to determine if he is going to continue in youth ministry or move into a new role in the church.

Aly is a 24 year old, who Jared watched grow up in his church but who is now in a full blown crises of faith feeling that science is more reliable and logical than the idea of a God that we can’t see.

Martin is a current high school youth group kid who has a vivid imagination and believes that mass extinction is on the horizon because ecological science, evolution and The Walking Dead point to a coming apocalypse. He wonders if God will intervene.

Sasha is a middle school student who is super smart and wrestling with how to integrate faith and physics. Sasha doesn’t want to embrace a belief system so feeble that science has to be viewed as an enemy of faith.

Sarah is a youth worker from another church who is dealing with the issue of Science and Faith in a different manner than Jared, so we get to consider other youth ministry contexts.

Jared also has to deal with a host of parents who often have a quite different way of seeing the world than their child. Those of us who have been in youth ministry for any length of time know what it’s like to encounter an anxious parent. Anxious parents of the kids in our churches can range from the parent who hopes that you can help their kid through this stage of life without falling off the deep end to the parent whose anxiety leads them to blame the youth worker for all that is wrong in their world. Often this doesn’t go well and the horror stories youth workers tell are legendary.

Few issues, except maybe sexuality, can stir up a parent like science, especially if you find yourself in a church where creationism is a view held by many. Root’s book is more geared toward a post-liberal mainline and a progressive evangelical context. Should evangelical youth workers read Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies? YES! If you are in a typical evangelical church you might be trying to convince yourself, “The youth I work with aren’t asking these kinds of questions.” If you believe this, I think the reason why is that your youth for some reason have chosen not to raise these kinds of critical questions in the place where they should – your church. They may hold their questions because they know how politically incorrect it is in your church. And yet, few issues are more important for the Christian formation of young people than the relationship between science and faith, and science and the Bible.

Why Young Christians are Leaving Church

David Kinnaman, President of the Barna Group wrote a book entitled, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church. The book was based on research pulled from eight national studies. According to the Barna Group, the national studies, included “…interviews with teenagers, young adults, parents, youth pastors, and senior pastors. The study of young adults focused on those who were regular churchgoers Christian church during their teen years and explored their reasons for disconnection from church life after age 15.”[1]

Kinnaman’s book focuses on six themes that he thinks most impacts the disengagement of late adolescents with their churches. I think four of the six themes are directly related to the content Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies deals with. They are:

Churches seem overprotective.

Kinnaman argues that the reality is that today’s adolescents and young adults have unparalleled exposure to worldviews. When a narrow-minded, overly contextualized and limited view of faith restricts their understanding of a broader world context this is deemed irrelevant and parochial by the emerging generation. While they feel disappointed with their churches, they often believe that God has a more gracious view of the world than their church. According to the research cited, “one-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said, Christians demonize everything outside of the church.”

Teens’ and twenty-somethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.

Young people want to engage in a faith that deals with real life issues. They are not afraid of issues that are not clearly black and white. They are drawn to a faith that encounters the other with love and inclusion. Many don’t feel that the Bible is hanging by a literal thread and therefore requires us to defensively ignore new information that is constantly emerging.

Churches come across as antagonistic to science.

From a summary of the findings of the Barna Study and the content of Kinnaman’s book  “a big reason young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is ‘Christians are too confident they know all the answers’ (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that ‘churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in’ (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that ’Christianity is anti-science’ (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have ‘been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.’ Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.”[2]

The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

For youth workers who have focused deeply on classic Christian formation of young people, we know that there is no strong faith without good doubt. Good doubt that is properly wrestled with is vital to the Christian life. There is so much fear in so a majority of our churches today that the idea of creating an environment that is a safe place for young people to express their doubts is very threatening to many church leaders, parents and grandparents. This unfortunately leads to an inability to walk with young people through their intellectual doubts and the struggles they are having trying to make meaning out of their lives and the reality they are experiencing.

Of course, the above statistics stated by Barna research could and should be challenged. And for every study that states that the conflict between science and faith leads to young people feeling disillusioned about the church or concluding that faith is irrelevant, there are opinions or studies stating the solution to fix the problem is to double down on discipleship in order to turn these trends around.

Our youth are asking lots of questions, important questions. They are not just looking for the answers but for those who will engage them in serious dialogue with a curiosity and wonder for this thing called life.

Root works hard in this book to present real youth ministry complexities in a scientific age. He engages in deep scholarship to present philosophical and theological dialogue with science.  He spends a lot of time carefully helping the reader understand that while many in our culture define science as “objective” and faith as “subjective” the reality is that both science and faith are socially constructed. Root knows that one of the most powerful statements in our culture is “Science says, …” The Social Practice of Scientism declares a position of “non-biased objectivity.” The Social Practice of conservative Evangelicalism declares a position of “Objective Truth.” A rigid social practice of Christianity smirks at the “objectivity of science” position and believes that the absolute truth of the bible always forces a checkmate on science. Root goes after both of these arrogant positions and invites us out of the battle between scientism and a faith built upon certitude.

The most wonderful part of Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies, however is the truly extraordinary section of the book where Root explores reasons the Scientific Revolution occurred in the Christian West and not in another part of world civilization. Root fleshes out the story of Athanasius dealing with the challenge of Arianism and the consequent development of the Nicene Creed describing Jesus Christ as “God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten and not made; of the very same nature of the Father, by Whom all things came into being, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.” The Nicene Creed is the most widely accepted orthodox Christian statement of faith, embraced by Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican and most forms of Protestantism.

Root takes considerable care to describe how the work of Athanasius, a Doctor of the Church, is picked up by the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil of Caesarea, his younger brother, Gregory of Nyssa, and their friend Gregory Nazianzus were able to profoundly and creatively work out the theological basis for the Nicene Creed, particularly how Jesus Christ could be fully human and fully divine. Root, building on the work of Scottish Theologian Thomas Torrance, fleshes out the brilliance of the Cappadocian fathers working out the hypostatic union, Trinity as the three in one and one in three, while showing how Jesus Christ could be fully human and fully divine of one substance (ousia) and being with the Father but differentiated by a being that is constituted relationally. This formula developed by the Cappadocian’s is beautiful, paradoxical and mysterious all at the same time. But Root shows how this kind of thinking, which shaped the imagination and mental constructs of the western mind, ultimately led to an epistemological framework that gave birth to the scientific revolution.

Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies is ultimately about faith, seeking understanding. A flourishing faith is one that passionately seeks deeper understanding. I don’t believe this book is just about helping young people find answers to their big questions and seek understanding for the formation of their faith. I want youth workers to read this book because I believe it will also expand their faith in the midst of this scientific world in which we live.

Our youth are asking lots of questions, important questions. They are not just looking for the answers but for those who will engage them in serious dialogue with a curiosity and wonder for this thing called life. Of course, not every conversation with young people will focus on the finely tuned universe or the big bang but when these conversations happen they are often seminal, epic, shaping the imagination and faith journey for a lifetime. Are you prepared for these moments?

[1] https://www.barna.com/research/six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church/ accessed November 26, 2017

[2] Ibid.

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM.

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