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Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir…
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Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir

by Matthew Chapman

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Matthew Chapman is the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin. He's also a screenwriter and director of some note — at least to his lights. He's also an avowed atheist who decided to investigate the site of the famous "monkey trial," the infamous battle between religion and science in Dayton, Tennessee immortalized in the wonderful film Inherit the Wind. The book becomes a combination historical narrative/ memoir/personal voyage. He explains his interest in the Scopes trial this way: After a bus driver explains he belongs to the Pentecostal Church, where people speak in tongues and "fall over backwards" — 'It's amazin,' I ain't never seen one git hurt' — using that as incontrovertible evidence of the existence of God, Chapman is compelled to observe that "It requires so little proof on the one hand and so much on the other. People will inform you that Jesus was born of an angel-impregnated virgin and walked on water 'because it's in the Bible,' but think nothing of telling you with a sniff of contempt that evolution is 'just a theory, ain't no proof.' The inherent unfairness of this double standard is one of the things that attracts me to the Scopes Trial."

There are books about the Scopes trial that provide much more detail of how George Rappleyea, a Dayton resident, wanted to take advantage of the controversy surrounding passage of the Tennessee law that forbade the teaching of evolution, by hosting a trial in Dayton, a town that had suffered a severe economic downturn after a local mine closed. Inherit the Wind provides a good feel for the climate (pun intended) of the trial and community, but simplifies tremendously. The defense and prosecution each had four to five lawyers and one of the famous speeches for the defense was actually given by Dudley Malone rather than by Charles Darrow, one of my heroes — but those are minor quibbles.

Chapman, an open-minded, good-humored fellow, recounts his delinquent childhood and his musings about life in general as he visits with the Bryan College professor who teaches "proof" of creation and with a local minister, attending his church. He confronts his preconceptions of the South, his "neurotic city-dweller" northernness — fearing the banjo-toting violent, redneck with the gun rack in the truck. What he finds most disturbing, however is the pervasive religiosity. "I feel adrift. It makes me uneasy. What I find disturbing is not so much the belief in God, but the habit of credulity which it engenders. If they can believe in God --who never shows his face — simply because it makes them feel good, what else might they be persuaded to believe in? What's the difference between religious evangelism and political propaganda? Might one prepare you for the other? Was it not credulity as much as 'evil' which made the attempted extermination of the Jews possible?

Chapman goes on a field trip with some of the Bryan College geology students to visit a cave that their professor explains has evidence of the creationist theory of creation. On the way back in the van, he engages in a discussion with the students about hell, and they reveal a certainty that those who do not accept Jesus as their personal savior will be consigned to an everlasting hell. "I'm not saying these kids are Nazis — I like them, in fact — but . . . believing in a literal hell, a burning lake, an inferno of unimaginable suffering, they accept with equanimity that seven-eighths of the world, including me, will end up in it. Forever. . . "Either they don't really believe this or in fact there is something Nazi-like about them: their Final Solution is one of extraordinary scope and brutality; a holocaust of souls which makes the Führer's merely physical extermination of the Jews seem positively amateur. 'Our Father' is far more ambitious: he's going for the eternal destruction of not just Jews, but Hindus, Homos, Muslims, Buddhists, Catholics, atheists, agnostics, and presumably Scientologists and others on the lunatic fringe. Seven-eighths of the people He creates, He then destroys. The only place you get worse odds is the abattoir. The girl I'm looking at as I'm thinking this is an accounting major. How on earth can she become an accountant? Then what? A mother? Little League? A nice home? One of those vans with a sliding door down the side? Knowing what she knows, how can she even contemplate this? How could you enjoy the comforts of a suburban life knowing that your God is going to flambé just about everyone you meet? But there she sits, as optimistic and contented as any teenager I ever met." ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
The author, a descendant of Charles Darwin, travels back to Dayton, Tennessee to visit the site of the now famous Scopes "monkey" trial. Overall a good story, but not as much about evolution as it is about the life of the author. ( )
  quantum_flapdoodle | Apr 13, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0312300786, Paperback)

It seems like the perfect premise--Charles Darwin's great-grandson travels by bus from New York City to Dayton, Tennessee, to witness a reenactment of the infamous 1925 Scopes trial and see how--or if--attitudes toward evolution have changed. Call it "The Voyage of the Greyhound," if you will. But it didn't work out that way.

Matthew Chapman set out to write such a book, but ended up penning this "accidental memoir." Trials of the Monkey is remarkably compelling, given that the narrative wanders back and forth in time, across continents, and all over the place thematically. Descriptions of Chapman's youthful desires, his mother's alcoholism, and the world of Hollywood screenwriting are interspersed with tales of riding along with a Dayton cop on a Friday night, spelunking with Christian students, even sipping moonshine from a jam jar in a restroom stall ("To my surprise, it's excellent").

Those seeking a detailed account of the trial may be disappointed, though Chapman does offer up evocative glimpses, such as prosecuting attorney William Jennings Bryan--renowned as an orator--quietly telling attorney for the defense Dudley Malone, "Dudley, that was the greatest speech I ever heard." The book is at its best, however, when Chapman reveals his own feelings, such as his realization that though he came in part to "poke fun at [the] hillbillies," everyone had been "just as nice as all get out" to him. The intervening 75 years since the trial may not have changed Dayton very much, but they have seen a widening of the division between creationists and evolutionists. "If something like the Scopes trial was staged now," Chapman notes, "people would be afraid for their lives." --Sunny Delaney

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:48:29 -0400)

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