May 2015 Newsletter

In this Clergy Letter Project update, you’ll find the following five items:

  1. Evolution Weekend 2016: It’s Not Too Soon to Sign Up!;
  2. Astrobiology News for May 2015:   Celebrating the Hubble Space Telescope;
  3. Update on Reverend Tom Oord;
  4. Creationism in Louisiana, Again; and
  5. It’s Not Always Easy Being Progressive.

1. Evolution Weekend 2016: It’s Not Too Soon to Sign Up!

Yes, I understand that it might seem crazy to be discussing Evolution Weekend 2016 already, but it’s always nice to plan ahead. The dates for our 11th annual celebration will be 12 - 14 February 2016 and I hope many of you are ready to save that date on your calendars. If you’re ready to commit now, please let me know and I’ll add you to our early list of participants for 2016. By signing up now, you will be helping out enormously.

_____ YES, I plan to participate in Evolution Weekend 2016. Please add me to the list!

Your name:

Thanks very much for thinking well ahead.


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2. Astrobiology News for May 2015:   Celebrating the Hubble Space Telescope

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase discusses the amazing legacy of the Hubble Space Telescope.

In commemoration of the Hubble Space Telescope’s (HST) 25th anniversary last month, presented an article with the curious, but particularly apt, title, 25 Years of the Hubble Space Telescope: A Story of Redemption.(1) The HST has been a remarkably successful mission, with a long and rocky history. Those of you who remember HST’s launch in 1990 may also remember that the telescope had some early problems caused by a malfunction in the device that polished HST’s mirror, which resulted in an optical defect known as spherical aberration. What you may not know is that some of the astronomical viewing tools developed to correct HST’s vision problems were applied to imaging techniques for early detection of cancer in digital mammography.(2) The collaboration that led to this technology transfer came about serendipitously, since radiologists and astronomers rarely attend the same conferences! Despite its initial snags, the HST has been pivotal in developing ‘Big History’(3), telling the story of our cosmic origins from the birth of the Universe to the ongoing formation of stars and planets today.

As a young graduate student in the 1980s, it was my privilege to be part of the last class taught by Dr. Robert E. Williams at the University of Arizona. Dr. Williams is one of those unique counterexamples to the stereotype that the best researchers can’t teach well and vice versa. After 30+ years, I can still decipher the notes I took in Bob’s class, which is a remarkable testimony to his pedagogical talents! Bob is extraordinary in another respect - he chose to leave a secure, tenured position to explore new frontiers, as it were, including serving as the Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) from 1993-1998. Inspired by the first deep images taken after HST’s repair in 1993, which revealed many new galaxies, Bob used his Director’s Discretionary Time during the Christmas season in 1995 to ‘stare’ at a very empty, uninteresting patch of sky near the Big Dipper and collect faint light from that patch for about 10 days (analogous to a very long exposure). The result of that simple idea was the now-famous Hubble Deep Field, which reveals about 3,000 galaxies in a field of view roughly equal to the size of FDR’s eye on a dime held at arms length and projected onto the sky. If you have never seen this breathtaking image, or its successors, check it out on the HST site(4)!

The American Astronomical Society awarded Bob Williams the Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize for the Hubble Deep Field in 1998. The Tinsley Prize recognizes outstanding contributions to astronomical research resulting from exceptionally creative or innovative ideas. Bob’s simple idea helped fulfill one of the primary motivations for building the HST: to measure the size and age of the Universe, and test theories about its origin and evolution. The Hubble Deep Field and subsequent deep fields give us a fossil record of the history of the Universe. Some of the galaxies in these images are so distant that the light we see today originated less than a few billion years after the Big Bang. The operation of the HST is expected to continue through the end of this decade, providing overlap between HST and its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is scheduled to launch in 2018(5). JWST will extend HST’s legacy by using its infrared vision to peer even further back in time to see the first stars and galaxies forming out of the darkness in the early Universe. Imagine what mind-blowing discoveries might be in store for humanity over the next 25 years!

Until next month,


Grace Wolf-Chase, Ph.D. (



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3. Update on Reverend Tom Oord

In last month’s newsletter, I reported on the situation surrounding Clergy Project member Reverend Thomas Jay Oord. Tom is a tenured faculty member in the Department of Religion at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, ID. As I reported, he has apparently been fired for his evolutionary beliefs. According to a report published by Inside Higher Ed Tom’s position was eliminated because of his theological positions. As the article noted, Tom has written numerous books and articles which “examine the way Christians are able to embrace evolution while maintaining their faith.”

Since I shared that information with you, it’s worth noting that Dr. David Alexander, Northwest Nazarene’s president has opted to retire. Tom’s future is still in doubt, however. I encourage you to learn more about the situation by reading material posted on the “Support Tom Oord” Facebook page that has been established.


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4. Creationism in Louisiana, Again

Last month I mentioned that, for the fifth year in a row, a legislative attempt to repeal Louisiana’s pro-creationist “Science Education Act of 2008” failed. I also mentioned that Clergy Letter Project friend Zack Kopplin provided ample evidence that creationism was being taught in public school science classrooms in Louisiana because of the Science Education Act.

Well, the situation in Louisiana has become just a bit more bizarre! Thanks to Zack Kopplin, we can now see Louisiana State Senator Elbert Guillory explaining why he was going to vote against repealing the Act. He said, “There was a time, sir, when scientists thought that the world was flat. And if you get to the end of it, you’d fall off," Guillory said. "There was another time when scientists thought that the sun revolved around the world. And they always thought to ensure that anyone who disagreed with their science was a heretic. People were burned for not believing that the world was flat. People were really badly treated."

Yes, he actually said that scientists were burning people who disagreed with their hypotheses. Senator Guillory’s understanding of history is every bit as bad as his understanding of science.


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5. It’s Not Always Easy Being Progressive

Clergy Letter Project member Reverend David Felten and his colleagues at The Fountains, a United Methodist Church, in Fountain Hills, AZ have found themselves at the center of a very odd and disconcerting controversy. Eight churches in Fountain Hills have banded together to attack the beliefs of those worshiping at The Fountains, arguing that “progressive Christianity” is an insult to those who believe in “Biblical Christianity.” Rev. Felten has made it clear that the accusation that The Fountains is promoting an “unbiblical” perspective is ridiculous: “We offer an alternative to fundamentalist (or 'pop' or 'conservative' or 'evangelical') Christianity. The Fountains is totally committed to a biblical outlook; it’s just not a Fundamentalist outlook.”

John Shore writing in Patheos notes that ministers of the eight congregations have attacked Rev. Felten by calling him a “ tool of Satan, a hypocrite, an apostate and reprobate, and comparing what he preaches to Naziism.”

The good news in all of this is that 18 Arizona clergy members from the Presbyterian Church (USA) have drafted a letter condemning the attack. I’m proud to say that seven of the 18 ministers who signed the letter are members of The Clergy Letter Project. It’s great to see so many Clergy Letter Project members coming to the aid of another member.

Please take a look at the letter and if you know any of the clergy members who have signed it, reach out to them to ask them to join The Clergy Letter Project.      

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As always, I’d like to close this monthly newsletter by thanking all of you who have supported The Clergy Letter Project and our efforts to promote high quality science education and respect for religion. I’d also like to remind you to sign up now to participate in Evolution Weekend 2016 and to encourage some of your colleagues to do the same thing. Finally, if you know anyone who shares our goals, please pass along this newsletter. Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project