Ever had one of those conversations about Bible interpretation when somebody accuses someone else of not taking scripture seriously? Me neither.
While I wish that was the case, I am finding myself more and more in the middle of these literal vs. metaphorical vs. poetical saw-offs. It might be happening more often because I’ve been spending time investigating how certain controversial Bible bits have been interpreted over the ages. And then I use my outside voice to ponder my findings. That’s when the trouble starts.
For example, did you know that even before Jesus was born (2 centuries before) Hebrew scholars were already arguing about whether or not Adam was a real person? This isn’t a new battle. The only difference between the way ancient jewish scholars and many Christians debate this issue is that the old school experts never accused the other side of heresy. Nobody started collecting firewood and reached for the lighter fluid.
Torah (or Old Testament, to those of us familiar with everything after the book of Malachi) was pushed and prodded from opposing angles to discover how it best fit with real world knowledge. It was considered a part of practicing one’s faith, if you were a Hebrew theologian, to struggle with the text and try to make sense of it in light of the latest news on the street.
Now those old Hebrews might have had an easier time interpreting scripture than we do simply because they knew how to read and write old hebrew. If that seems like an unfair advantage it is. They could pick up on nuances of the writing as they processed the text.
To illustrate how this might have worked, I will nonchalantly drop a haiku right into the middle of this paragraph:
The reader searches
Grasping for poetic slant
And is moved by it
If you’re familiar with the 5-7-5 syllabic structure of this ancient Japanese art form you recognize it immediately. Now was that poetic or literal? And why am i suddenly in the mood for sushi? And once we start debating whether ‘moved’ refers to a physical act or an emotional one, the debate could really heat up. Did the reader, in attempting to ‘literally’ pick up a poem that is apparently leaning at a non-perpendicular angle, find himself in motion? Did said poem actually ambulate the reader’s body out of it’s pre-poetic space on the cartesian grid and place it down somewhere else? Perhaps somewhere better? Is ‘poetic slant’ a metaphor for “slippery slope”? And away we go. ( Note: if you were moved emotionally by that Haiku you need to get out more.)
Literal in this context IS poetic, which explains why, when i am accused of not reading Genesis chapter one literally, I have been known to reply with a whiny “What do you mean by the word literal?”
Literal simply means that the reader understands the text in the same way the original audience did. Of course it’s not as easy as picking up an English translation twenty five centuries later and reading it like you would People Magazine. This doesn’t mean I’ve figured Genesis out. What this does mean is that the conversation, no matter how much fun it is, shouldn’t result in anyone losing an eye.
I don’t think we show the proper respect for scripture or each other until we are prepared to do the homework. Torah For Dummies anyone?
I have been asked this question a few times and thought this would be the perfect time to lay my cards on the table. I didn’t start out to write this book. I intended to write a different book altogether. Just to be clear: I never intended to write THIS book!
My original goal was to investigate and report on the creation/evolution controversy, in an unbiased manner. I thought it would be fun to take a serious swipe at a few sacred lines in the sand, let go of a fistful of preconceptions, and give evolution a fair shake. As Stephen Covey said, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” That sounds fair. And besides, I thought it would be honourable to exhibit genuine kindness towards those Darwinist cranks before calling them out. I was honestly puzzled. What was it was that made evolutionary theory so compelling to the atheist hoards? “How do they sleep at night” I had written somewhere in the earliest hours of this journey.
How complicated could it be to wring some sense out of these arrogant godless geeks? How dangerous would it be to go for a spin in their imaginary universe, stop at the gift shop for Darwin bobble-head and get back to my normal Christian life? I told myself that with my newly acquired knowledge I would then be able to offer advice to others interested in defeating the most evil intellectual dung ever flung upon the masses.
“Keep it light” I repeated more than once. People get worked up over this stuff. Hey, I get worked up over this stuff!
But something strange occurred along the way. Something nervous and threatening and more ridiculous than I ever imagined could happen, happened. The mythical slippery slope that I had only hinted at when I first scribbled the title in a notebook began to writhe beneath my boots like a tiny, angry tectonic plate under the illusory bedrock of my tidy young-earth evangelical worldview. You have to believe me. I didn’t start out to write THIS book.
But this book is better. Better by far because, as many before me have learned through experience, once you dare pry open the lid of an unfamiliar can, the worms, undoubtedly, get agitated. For the first time in my life of faith, I was forced to deal with critters I had no experience with. Slippery concepts like interpretive bias and theological uncertainty. Doubt. Ideas that had been ignored, left in the dark, undisturbed by the light of inquisition were set free to slither and writhe on the laboratory table as soon as the lid of permission was peeled back.
It was science. And worship.
This book is better than the book I started out to write because the writing of it changed me. My hope is it will change you.
As a long time believer in the historicity of the Bible, I have spent years trying to shoehorn all of human existence (what we know from anthropology, geology, paleontology etc.,) into the Old Testament writings. As a result, my perception of our history, if you were to chart it on a 3 dimensional grid, looked something like a funnel.
But there’s a serious problem with the funnel. As we travel backwards in time, from our present vantage point in the twenty-first century, the diameter of the funnel keeps getting smaller. Eventually we reach a point in time with barely enough space to squeeze a couple of naked humans through from the other side. It’s a classic case of there not being enough gas in the time machine to get us where we need to go (or come from). It’s a “Not-enough-time” machine.
While this funnel managed to keep all my young-earth ducks in a 6000 year old row, it left very little real estate to house the collective findings of those experts in the archaeology department not constrained by a ‘literal’ Biblical timeline. My funnel vision simply didn’t allow for any other players on the human stage beyond those mentioned in Genesis. The wrong answer would be to ignore all those museum warehouses jacked full of evidence that tells a wider, longer story than does Genesis. Stories that involve people that looked sort of like me, with out-of-control body hair, bad teeth and a meager collection of rustic tools. Wait a minute – that is me!
With all this evidence practically demanding that the so-called Bible literalists redraw the chronological map, the challenge is ominous. What do we do with over 7,000 years of Chinese history, for example? There is only so much room in that funnel to cram in all those Dynasties (be careful not to crush the terracotta warriors.) All those Emperors must fit in sometime after Noah and just before egg rolls hit prime time in the seventies. And if we decide that universal flooding is the only way of staying true to the text, what do we do with the Babylonian flood myth, already on library bookshelves centuries before the Hebrew scribes had sharpened their quills. Or what about the evidence of early man in the south of France. Who knew those Neanderthals were such discriminating vacationers. Their 30,000 year expiry date, if you don’t count the neanderthal DNA in 20% of the current population (judge not lest you be judged), surely won’t fit into the funnel.
Bottom line is, the funnel, that many of us have adopted as the Biblical way, the literal shape of all of human history just doesn’t work in the real world. While the funnel may be an accurate description of Judeo-Christian chronology backwards into the mists of Hebrew antiquity, it isn’t the whole picture. The fourth chapter of Genesis hints at this. After murdering his brother, Cain was worried that he would become a victim out of revenge. He was marked to dissuade any strangers who confronted him from pulling the trigger. Cain then proceeded to build a city. Tell me who, apart from the People’s Republic of China, builds cities for inhabitants that don’t exist?
Forget the funnel. It’s time we start celebrating the cylinder. Using a cylinder (or silo) as our template, the historical sciences can now extend back in time at full bandwidth. Native north Americans, for example, don’t have to make their way to the great plains via the Ark. Pre-adamites, as they’ve been referred to since Galileo’s day, don’t need to be wished away or written out of the story because we are afraid of the date on their drivers licences. Our Nordic ancestors are now free to meander on the shores of the North Atlantic (meanderthals?) while to south and east, the Israelites argue about how to cross the Jordan without losing their Crocs in the mud.
The greatest upside to viewing history as a cylinder is that we don’t have to toss our Biblical funnel into the ditch. The funnel fits securely inside The cylinder. No need argue over timelines we could never dismantle in a million years.
The funnel is amazing for what it is: the absolutely true story of Yahweh attempting to communicate with “those ones”. And as the science community does what it does best, and continues to uncover more evidence every day, the diameter of the cylinder only increases. Our understanding of ancient civilizations becomes clearer. And the funnel people never have to worry about losing their place in the story line.
That’s why they’re called chosen.
When I first began to investigate the reasons behind my perspective as a Biblical creationist, it never occurred to me that I’d ever be anything else. But somewhere along the way, I lost the fear of adding some new tags to my personal profile.
Like a vegan getting over their paralyzing fear of beef bullion, I became less freaked out by the ramifications of an origins story that made room for Darwin’s idea. Eventually “less freaked out” evolved into “entirely fascinated” and I found myself caught up in a creation story that danced with new plot twists. Deep time, natural selection, and even a collection of new characters – neighbours of Adam and Eve hinted at in those early chapters of Genesis – made the story so much richer and, dare I say it, more believable than those six cartoonish 24 hour days I had learned about in Sunday School since I was a scrawny preachers kid.
And then one day it hit me: I am not a creationist anymore. It wasn’t that I had simply added a secret potion of scientific coherence to my creationist soup. It wasn’t because I had turned my back on Scripture. And it definitely wasn’t because i ceased believing in God or his plan to redeem a broken planet by invading it in human form. I had simply stopped believing in an interpretation of Genesis that refused to take into account everything we now know about cosmology, the human genome, geology, the fossil record, human and animal dispersion patterns across the globe and on and on and on.
Now I know what some of you may be thinking. And I forgive you.
I know firsthand what it feels like to hear a fellow believer endorse an evolutionary worldview. You may have asked yourself why I even pretend to be a Christian anymore. I’ve been there. I’ve seen the panic in the faces of fellow Christians. I recognize those wild eyes. I’ve seen them in my own mirror. I used to think C.S. Lewis was a fabulous example of an edgy, deep thinking Christ follower until I landed on the page where he gushed about the wonders of evolution. I spent the next three weeks speculating on the details of his secret drug habit. What exactly was he putting in that pipe of his? At that point in my journey I had no room for faith in the Biblical record AND the evolutionary framework.
Some of my friends have taken my about face on origins as a sign that I have dropped my faith for a more media friendly “Orthodox-ish” (tastes great – less filling) variation on true Christian belief. Others are quite convinced that I have “caved” to the pressures of those left wing secularists who are trying to steal our kids out from under our 6,000 year old noses.
However just because I’m not a creationist anymore doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped believing in the Creator. That would be like saying that because I’m allergic to peanut butter I am also obligated to refute the existence of peanuts!
It’s taken me some time to get comfortable in these new theological duds, but i can finally say with full confidence that I am SBNC – Spiritual But Not Creationist. Yes, I am a spiritual person, and a christian, more convinced than ever before that God is in control of this entire crazy 14 billion year old ride. Along the way, I simply lost the ability to believe that everything we see before us was created in six twenty-four days less about 6,000 years ago. What I gained was a brand spanking new, hyper-sized sense of wonder in a God that chooses to live with us, in us, in spite of the fact it took several hundred million years before we were mature enough to even recognize him.
Hello. My name is Calvin Wray and I’m a recovering creationist.
I remember the day a coworker accused me of being the oddest christian he’d ever met because I was “constantly thinking”. I accepted the complement as shallow praise. I was considered an odd duck because i suggested that Christians could defend both faith AND science with full conviction.
Apparently this makes me unusual. Rumour has it that Christians are not supposed to take up the cause of these two mortal enemies. I am allowed to defend the faith, give reasons for my belief in Jesus and the God of the Bible OR i am free to speak for science. But not both.
According to the people who claim to make up the rules, you can’t pull on both ends of the rope at the same time. My question is this: who decided that faith and science are tugging in different directions?
Well, okay, evangelicals have done a pretty good job of that. So have the zealots on the naturalist side of the table. Some would suggest I can only speak on behalf of the religious right, because they’re my peeps. Or used to be. Or still might be if it doesn’t go to a vote. And yes, a quick perusal of my job history would show no signs of scientific proficiency. This much is true: if i am the guy speaking on behalf of science then there are bigger problems around here than me. I don’t actually do science. I can only spell paleontologist when i have a running start. I have no idea why Krazy glue stays gloopy in the tube and somehow melds with the DNA in my fingers once it hits oxygen.
But i don’t disbelieve that science works. Knowing that something is true and knowing exactly how it’s true are two different things. I don’t know exactly how a 727 manages to lift off the ground at the end of the runway. Yet my inability to explain the theory of flight hasn’t stopped me from paying my money and strapping myself, my wife and my kids in for a flight now and then. I’m okay with science because i understand it’s place in my world.
However, my confidence in scientific achievement doesn’t preclude me from articulating my belief in a loving God. A God that created a universe where evil must exist in order for love to be possible. A created order where death occurs as part of life and where Jesus, who understood the mystery, said that “unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground and dies it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears fruit.” Yes,he was referring to his own death but he was also giving a refresher course in simple agriculture. Stuff dies and stuff lives. That’s the way the gluten free cookie crumbles in our jar!