Friday, January 31, 2014


I signed up for a seminar at a Christian Conference. It was 2003 and my rear was ablaze in zeal for Truth. The seminar was entitled “Creation vs Evolution”. The guy poised to teach the class was young, but I excused this detail in my eagerness to gain by any and all means ammunition for my apologetic arsenal. Christians, as I was keen to point out, believe in a literal six day creation. If they don’t, then they aren’t.

Ten minutes into the talk my heart was pounding in rage. The kid was teaching not the science of creationism, but the necessity for those who hold my position to be at peace, to listen, and to remember the main thing had always been - and always would be - love. What an uninformed flake I thought to myself. Where’s the “vs”?

Humbly, after fifty minutes of making his case from the flipping gospel of all places, he allowed for a time of questions. My hand shot up through the ceiling tiles.

“Yes,” he pointed at me.

“Thanks. So, I get your point about love and all that. But how can you make so little of a thing Christ affirms?”

His face looked genuinely shocked. “What do you mean?”

“Well, Christ quotes from the first chapters of Genesis and says, ‘God made the earth in six days and rested on the seventh.’ So how can we just throw out, merely in light of other theories, what Jesus affirmed?” I was satisfied my tone and quote had showed the last fifty minutes to be the waste of time I knew it was.

“Jesus said that?” The guy was sincerely unaware. I was amazed. How do you get these speaking gigs?

“Yep. I’ll show you.” I sat down and began rifling through the crinkly thin pages of my New American Standard. Sensitive to the time we had, the young man moved on to other questions, inviting me to circle back when I found what I was after. He was genuinely interested in the implications of my point. But I never found the verse. Because it wasn’t there. Which says nothing about the heart of my point, but says everything about the spirit of those who cannot listen when defending their side is their goal. I was embarrassed, the room clearing as I continued checking the concordance and wishing someone would hurry up and invent Google and Smart Phones to see if Jesus ever said anything close enough for me to save face. It would be a couple years before I realized I had been sitting in the presence of a peace-maker, and had missed a wonderful, timely talk.

Some people believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis one. Some don’t. Neither position a better Christian makes. 

Christians follow Christ, not party-lines. 

And our ability to defend our position doesn’t make any point beyond “I can defend my position”, which is different than “I am right.” In one extreme Young Earth Creationists believe their view is the only one, and any view to the contrary was a lie, and perhaps conspiracy. I used to camp here. In the other extreme, physicists have everything reduced to predictable, lifeless formulas that make math god and a Creator God mere myth. Their work is invaluable, but their certainty is often simply more dogmatism.

Here’s my take.

I don’t look at Genesis one literally like I used to. I am generally persuaded that the Universe and Earth are older than many assume the Bible depicts. I am also persuaded that a strict literalist view of the text isn’t fair to the text. 

Some say in response to this, “I take Genesis exactly as it is. Word for word.” 

But this is the sort thinking that led me to back off the hardline stance; I tried literally reading it.

“Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation…Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds. And it was so.…" Genesis 1:11,12,24
Note the actual phrasing. Earth brings forth the vegetation. Earth brings forth the creatures. The earth seems to be the mechanism for making, if taken at face value. The response to this is generally something like, “That’s just a way of saying it.” Which is fine. But that admits and establishes we don’t take the words for themselves. We intuit that things are being said “in a way” to tell us things which aren't obvious from a literal reading. We bring that to the text. This one example isn’t the end all be all. It shows rather simply that probably no one embraces the text in the rigid literal sense many of us have been taught is requisite for the truly faithful. Being strict in our literalism isn’t fair to our own ability to appreciate the point behind the metaphor.

Other factors played a role in my backing off a young earth, literalist view. Such as the “firmament” or dome of water spoken of in Genesis one, upon which the starry host were attached. Or the stars themselves depicted as having been created for guiding earth travelers. Or the moon put forth as a light alongside the sun, rather than a reflector of the latter. But none of this rendered Genesis one obsolete, or even wrong. No more than a song about the rising or the setting sun is wrong because it supports an outmoded geo-centricity. That’s not the song’s point.

Where I used to get hung up is where some still do. “If you don’t take this literally, then on what grounds do we believe anything in the Bible?” I understand this. It isn’t a flippant exercise. But it also assumes that taking the scriptures seriously is equivalent to taking them literally, when we all know that we can’t always do that, and that that metric for taking them seriously isn’t articulated in the Bible itself.

More significantly, we have to understand that the worst possible reason to believe something is because the rest of our belief system falls apart if we don’t. This has the effect of making us believe things because we have to, rather than believing them because they’re true. A belief of necessity, but not necessarily of reality. I can’t stress this enough- if I have to believe something about someone, or something, because I’m scared of what will happen if I don’t believe it, I admit I am not interested in truth as much as I’m interested in glue. This way of believing things doesn’t open us to learning because our belief is already built on what’s predetermined as necessarily true. Any additions or subtractions bring disaster. This sort of calcified faith feels forced to be at war with science and others’ opinions out of its own survival. Not the sort of faith Jesus had in mind when he spoke of truth setting people free. 

Tim Keller said it well:

“I think Genesis 1 has the earmarks of poetry and is therefore a “song” about the wonder and meaning of God’s creation….There will always be debates about how to interpret some passages — including Genesis 1. But it is false logic to argue that if one part of Scripture can’t be taken literally then none of it can be. That isn’t true of any human communication." (Tim Keller, The Reason for God, page 94).

It’s fairly engrained in out collective mind that our interpretation of Genesis one is an either/or scenario. The upcoming, silly debate between Ken Hamm of Answers in Genesis and Bill Nye the Science Guy reinforces this false duality. There is no scenario where one side of that will win, because the truth isn't the goal. Once we understand our common goal is truth and unity, the divisive debating of the past becomes nonsense. None of this has never needed to be an argument anymore than enjoying a song like Freebird ever required a debate about bird origins and migratory instinct canceling out true freedom. 

If you choose based on the evidence to believe earth is thousands of years young and that Genesis, though ancient, is a fair telling of things, my challenge to you is to not put that conviction at the center. That would be idolatry. Leave yourself humbly open to new information, and never, like I did, conflate following Christ with fighting about things not ever listed scripturally in what it means to be Christians. And if you have chosen to look at the evidence and embrace an evolutionary view of things, be sure your position isn’t mere disassociation from your faith roots so your smart, cynical science friends will respect you. There’s belief and tribalism on both sides. Don’t throw out Genesis anymore than you'd throw out any other art which tells the truth.

There’s far more to this than I can post. Huge implications in the classroom, in churches, and in forums such as this are in my mind. There’s harm being done over this issue by both “sides”. Fear and defensiveness and line-drawing has that effect. A lasting effect, as I can feel tension even now as I admit my actual views, voices on either side of my brain wondering to me, “why do you deny the plain teaching of the Bible,” and “why do you present empirical facts of science as opinions one chooses?” I wish I could go back and thank that young guy for having the courage to talk about love in front of a room full of people like I was; who wanted armed more than taught. To win more than serve. I hope, no matter where we come out on this 1 chapter in the Bible out of 1,189 that we recognize Love isn't a flaky bait and switch, and is nothing like a distraction. It's the point.


jbeardsley said...

First of all - awesome, awesome post.

> Some say in response to this, “I take Genesis exactly as it is. Word for word.”
Your points, well made indeed, however don't even include the fact that 'word for word' is in fact a translation, and the words we read in English aren't necessarily the same words, meanings, or inflections of the original author. That statement also complete overlooks their context and worldview also. One of the most important things for me personally in my faith journey was a youtube video of a Scandanavian fellow explaining this, and that there was the possibility that the typical 'day' translation might actually be 'age' in the original Hebrew, which totally changes the concept of the literal 7-day creation. The point is - does it really matter to us as Christ followers, as God-believers, whether the Almighty executed his creation in 7 calendar days as we now know them? If your entire belief system hinges on that answer being an absolute, inflexible 'yes', then I have to really wonder what your belief system is all about in the first place.

Steve said...

Trying to avoid a tome. But your point is well taken. I didn't mention the assumptions at all. One thing that sounds like snark, but I think should give us all pause: the vast, VAST majority of folks who I've known who adhere to a strict "Bible says it, I believe it" literalism do not speak Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. What they take as perfect, they often don't realize requires unknown translators to be inspired in a way that makes the various translations and interpretations puzzling to say the least. But, we live in a world where a news pipeline can feed you their slant on politics, and we walk away feeling as if we understand the issue enough to argue about with others who get their feed from the other channel, so this arrangement seems reasonable.
What we must be careful about on the "other end of the spectrum" is not doing so much negating of others' certainty that we begin to revel in cynicism and nihilism. Making it either immovable concrete ("it's literally true!"), or meaninglessly abstract ("it's just another Mediterranean creation myth!") abuses the text. Like most things, we're called to the middle. See yesterday's "and".
Thanks Jeff.