Scopes Trial play at SBU is opportunity to teach truth
Don HinklePathway Editor
October 12, 2004
At first glance, we would be hard-pressed to find one Missouri Baptist conservative in this state who would be pleased about a theatrical production at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar that questions the truthfulness of the Book of Genesis and ridicules orthodox Christianity.
But a second look might reveal something else, that dismay does not have to be — and I suspect in this instance should not be — the reaction to the Oct. 7-9 performances of Jerome Lawrence’s and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind by the SBU theatre department.
Inherit the Wind, which opened on Broadway in 1955 and was later made into a movie, has long been argued as an accurate portrayal of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial by liberal academics and the media. Nothing could be further from the truth, yet it remains a staple among community and school theatrical groups.
Inherit the Wind has been widely used through the years in public schools to teach students about the 1920s. In 1994, the National Center for History in Schools published instructional standards recommending Inherit the Wind as way to show students the arguments offered in the trial in support of Darwinian evolution versus the Genesis account of creation.
Supporters in the academy continue to use it as an example of how academic freedom can be threatened by religion, while their liberal theologian allies hail it as an expose‘ revealing the ignorant and narrow-minded dogmatism of Fundamentalism. Conservative critics call Inherit the Wind a fabrication of the actual trial that is nothing more than secular propaganda in which Christianity was manipulated by a skilled, but unprincipled lawyer representing an anti-theistic scientific establishment (I agree with the latter).
The actual trial, instigated by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), was held in the tiny southeast Tennessee town of Dayton. It challenged a state law banning the teaching of human evolution in public schools. Some have gone as far as to call it the “trial of the century,” in part because of the colorful characters involved; among them science teacher and evolution advocate John Scopes and famed attorneys Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan.
The trial as portrayed in Inherit the Wind has been largely discredited in its account of what truly transpired. Edward J. Larson, a history and law professor at the University of Georgia in Athens, for example, wrote a superb book that debunks the historical accuracy of Inherit the Wind and offers a compelling argument in support of conservative critics. Larson’s Summer of the Gods was named one of the 10 best books of 1998 by Christianity Today and I highly recommend it.
In his critique Larson points out:
• Inherit the Wind was written as a warning against the growing McCarthyism of the 1950s, yet it is passed-off as something that portrays the way things were in the 1920s. The play’s characters who support biblical creationism (McCarthyites) are nothing like the defenders of creationism at the actual trial. Larson points out that McCarthyites destroyed careers. Conversely Bryan, who defended the Bible in the trial, offered to pay the $100 fine that was imposed on Scopes.
• The play exaggerates Bryan’s demeanor on the witness stand. At one point Bryan’s character cries to his wife at the conclusion of his testimony, “Mother, they’re laughing at me! I can’t stand it when they laugh at me.” Larson notes that constitutional scholar Gerald Gunther was outraged after seeing the play on Broadway and later wrote: “ … for the first time, I walked out of a play in disgust. I ended up actually sympathizing with Bryan, even though I was and continue to be opposed to his ideas in the case, simply because the playwrights had drawn the character in such comic strip terms.”
• Darrow’s character in Inherit the Wind remains a self-proclaimed agnostic, but loses his crusading materialism so evident at the real trial.
Larson offers many more examples that I cannot share here because of space limitations, but I think one can get the picture.
So what are Missouri Baptists to make of such a play being presented at one of its institutions?
I think two things.
First, it is a good thing for the SBU community to be exposed to Inherit the Wind, not for the way it ridicules biblical creationism, but so people can see the bogus, manipulative tools the secularists will use to advance their views. It is important for young people to understand both sides of an argument equally. To oppose the showing of this play would only legitimize the liberal charge that conservatives restrict academic freedom when, in fact, just the opposite is true. One cannot dis-mantle a liberal argument unless one first understands it.
Second, the play should challenge faculty and students to examine the true Scopes trial and understand its significance today as the schism among American secularists/humanists – with their theologically liberal allies – and theologically conservative Christians widens, particularly on issues like homosexual marriage, abortion and separation of church and state.
Ironically the production of Inherit the Wind at SBU comes just a few weeks following the opening of the Darrell R. Strait Center for the Integration of Science and Christian Faith. This is an historic moment in Missouri Baptist life and at SBU. For the first time a member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities is offering degree programs in which students will study the history and philosophy of science, biblical hermeneutics and the integration of science and the Christian faith – all while working from the authority of Scripture and the assertion that Christianity is true.
Let us pray for Pat Taylor, SBU president, and Gary Gray, dean of the Strait Center, as they provide the leadership on this much-needed endeavor. May the Strait Center produce a new generation of champions for Christ who will bring a Christian worldview to bear on every facet of life – especially when people begin to monkey around with “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”