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Riding the rapids

"Riding the rapids" Continued...

Issue: "Rocks in their heads?," Sept. 11, 2010

Secular "neocatastrophists" are anti-uniformitarian: They see super-tsunamis or their equivalent abruptly transforming the lay of the land in radical ways. If radical changes are possible within relatively short periods of time, then ecosystems and geological strata can be born again. If not, the uniformitarian faith-that mountains can only be thrown in the sea over tens of millions of years-is true.

Carving the Canyon does not pledge allegiance to either camp, but Ranney speculates about the role of multiple floods. He also writes, "Imagine the view from the rim at the moment when a lava dam catastrophically failed and a tremendous outburst flood roared through the Grand Canyon with rubble-filled water 600 feet deep." He sees the limits of uniformitarian explanations.

We entered the Colorado River at Lee's Ferry, Ariz. We 28 argonauts on two rubber rafts headed gently down the stream for 11 miles as canyon walls began to loom above us. Then we hit Soap Creed Rapid with its 16-foot drop and felt for the first time 46-degree water surging over us. "Hold onto the ropes," came the cry of river veteran Tom Vail. Then came other rapids with evocative names and drops of 9-12 feet: Sheer Wall, Horse Rock, North Canyon . . .

Between rapids Siebsma talked with me in one of his 20-30 languages: Happily, he chose English. Even though the Hebrew word yom usually in the Bible means "day," it can in some contexts mean a long period of time, but Siebsma is a young-earther because he believes the sentence construction in chapter 1 of Genesis (numerical modifiers, "evening and morning," etc.) requires "day" to be 24 hours or so, with light and darkness alternating.

We camped by a rapid on the sand of Shinumo Wash so we could be lulled to sleep by the sound of rushing waters. I woke up during the night and counted 250 stars overhead before falling back to sleep. The next morning at Nautiloid Canyon we peered at the fossil remains of nautiloids, 18-inch-long squid-like creatures with tapered external shells. Fossilization normally occurs when subjects are buried catastrophically and thus protected from decay; it would seem that the layer of the canyon walls containing these nautiloids had to be laid down quickly, and not-as uniformitarians say-at the bottom of a placid sea. (Exceptions occur when organisms become frozen or desiccated.)

We had a lot of time on Day 2 to talk, as the rapids were so easy that I wondered out loud why the injunction to hold onto ropes frequently came. ("Wait until Lava Falls," came the reply.) We discussed the "unconformities," contact points between different layers of rock: If one was put down millions of years after another, why are there no signs of physical or chemical erosion between the layers?

Day 3 brought major rapids: Hance (with a 30-foot drop in a half-mile), Sockdolager (my favorite name), Grapevine, and Horn Creek. I sat at the prow, held onto the ropes, and enjoyed incoming water that was over my head at times-but we didn't capsize. Between rapids British theologian Greg Haslam talked about the importance of seeing early Genesis as history. He argued that non-literal interpretations of Genesis mythologize the first three chapters and run into the stone wall of Romans 5:12-21, but that's not all: Jesus and the New Testament writers cited the first 11 chapters of Genesis 107 times, and if they were naïve . . .

And there was evening and there was morning. The fourth day brought more great rapids-Horn Creek, Granite, Hermit, Crystal-with ratings from 7 to 10 on the Grand Canyon's 1-10 scale. Blacktail Canyon brought a great view of the Great Unconformity, the contact point between the Canyon's bottom formations (largely granite) and the first sedimentary layer, which uniformitarians say was laid down nearly a billion years later.

Geologist Snelling disagrees. He talked about rock layers traced across continents, with physical features in those strata indicating they were deposited rapidly. He spoke of fast-moving water transporting sediment over long distances. He noted that rocks do not normally bend-because they are hard and brittle, they break-but pointed out rock layers that were bent without fracturing, indicating their rapid deposit and folding while still wet and pliable, before final hardening.

Day 5 brought more rapids, although not the big one: "Wait for Lava Falls." We discussed whether biblical interpretation can ever legitimately change because of scientific discoveries. We all knew of one time when it did. Many Christian leaders prior to Galileo were geocentric, thinking (as some passages from the Bible might suggest, and as Aristotle stipulated) that the sun moves around the earth, which was thought to stand still. Galileo's discoveries pointed to heliocentrism, with the earth revolving around the sun. That was an unusual situation where the Bible was unclear and the science became clear.

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