In early 2017 (February 23), a new documentary film came out that asks: Is Genesis History? (Here is the main website.) The answer it gives is a resounding “yes!” Genesis, it says, was originally written as, and intended to be read as, history. Not only so, (although these words are not used in the film) Genesis is God’s preamble to all science of all time and must be the basis of it. Paleontologist Kurt Wise, in the film when speaking about scientific evidence for the Genesis flood, says it this way:
So you need to go to the Bible to find the necessary information to reconstruct [the flood]. And looking at it from the other way, if you start from the Bible, you only get the beginning of the story. God has given us the ability to read the rocks and fill in the rest of the story. To fully understand the flood, we start with the Bible. But then we go to the rocks: “Speak to the rocks and they shall tell what has happened in the past.”
To a whole lot of people, this sounds right. It sounds like a “high view of Scripture,” a turning of the world right side up. But it simply is not any of these. I’ll come back to this quote below. But here is a heads-up for this review:
This movie is an approach consumed with a particular set of well-meaning agendas that co-opts an ancient collection of sacred documents for the sake of those agendas quite separate from the original purposes, designs, or goals of those early documents.
- Since I’m not a scientist, I will not sit in judgment on the scientific pronouncements of this film. Actually, I rather enjoy watching scientists wrestle with one another over what is science fact, science theory, or science fiction. If you want to see a short (apparently Christian) critique to the science in this movie, see places like A Geological Response to the Movie “Is Genesis History?” where the movie is criticized for making “convoluted arguments and misrepresentations of the natural world.”
- Whatever the case with the science of the movie, and however interesting I find all of that, I’m going to come out of the closet and admit that I am by training, natural orientation, and practice a biblical scholar and teacher, and as such I will focus my entire attention, here, on how this movie (ab)uses the Bible to promote its agendas.
- I don’t personally know any of the people in the movie, nor do I intend anything unkind about any of them (all of whom I take as sincere and intelligent people). None of my comments is aimed at anyone’s character, and I have an appreciation for what they are trying to do.
From a technical standpoint, this movie is very high quality: attractive, charming, appealing! The trailer clearly shows this:
The fact that some people will yawn at my objection and respond: “Does it really make that much difference?” is exactly the problem. Who really cares whether we handle the biblical text with integrity when so many are fighting the monstrous battle of “evolutionists in our schools”? Well, I for one, do care. It is way past time that Christians are held responsible for how they use or abuse that Bible to prop up their agendas.
To respond to every instance of “biblical abuse” in this movie would take a book: so I will be quite selective.
1. The Biblical Scholar
First, I’ll start with the only biblical scholar to be interviewed, Dr. Stephen Boyd. (1) I did not like at all the way the movie introduced him; it allows one to think that he was likely a professor at, or some kind of representative of, Hebrew Union College (a highly respected school in Jewish and biblical studies). Not till near the end of the closing credits is that clarified—like the small print retraction buried deep in the back of the newspaper. (2) When, discussing Genesis 1, he says that the earth was created as “a water ball in space,” and he later uses the word “global.” Actually, that is an assumptive world-view foisted onto the text, since the Hebrew of Genesis makes no claim at all about a “ball” or “globe” shape of the earth, or for that matter that it is “in space.” If one complains that “it is common sense!” the reply is “to whom?” Would many hearers of a story like this 5,000 years ago (or 3,000 or 2,000 or 1,000 or even 500) have even thought of such things? (Yes, yes, at least a few Greeks from the 6th century BCE figured out the earth was round, but they are hardly “most people.”)
(3) I actually did a double-take (stopping the recording and backing it up several times) when I heard the claim that since (and I quote):
the world’s greatest Hebraists all affirm that [Genesis 1] is a narrative . . . [then] here [in the book of Genesis] we have narrative to indicate that this is historical. [my bold, gdc]He is correct, of course, that Genesis is written in narrative form or style rather than poetic form or style. But as a highly trained biblical scholar, he knows better than to say the second half of that sentence: “we have narrative to indicate that this is historical.” Narrative form or style does not per se stand up and shout: “I am historical!” Lots of things can be in narrative form: true stories, false stories, novels, lies, directions, certain kinds of math problems, history, fiction, sermons, speeches, Gospels, letters, treatises, and the list goes on. Narrative form is simply a way of writing that is different from poetic form: but the form or style itself shows nothing about historicity. There is an entire field of study in literary and biblical studies called “narrative criticism” which focuses on how a writing is constructed with attention to plot, characterization, structure, dominant themes, point of view of the characters or speakers or narrator(s) in a text. And in fact, narrative criticism often goes out of its way to avoid questions of history or historicity because it does not use tools that evaluate such things.
The problem is, most people who are not in these fields of study don’t speak this language. Instead, in popular church culture today the questions most often boil down to (1) “did it happen or not?”–a demand made on a text that may not have been written to answer that question or demand; and to (2) a “pairing up“ of so-called bad and good categories. Just look below at the left column in contrast to the right:
Now read down the whole left column, and down the right column: look at what gets associated. This kind of simplistic categorization for evaluating literature almost always causes problems. These terms (and others like them) are now supercharged in current popular church conversations, so much so that it is nearly impossible to have intelligent conversation about them in some circles.
So then, “narrative” does not at all imply that something must be “historical”; nor does “story” (as in “nation building story” or “tell me the story of Jesus”) necessarily imply a lie. In fact, what we call “fiction” may actually be written in narrative form. And “poetry” does not at all mean that it must be referring to “fiction” or that it is somehow inferior. Many times it is just the opposite! All of these terms have technical definitions that go far beyond the shallow associations made in this movie. For example, just because other flood stories (which were written well before or during the time of Genesis) may have been written in epic poetry (as Dr. Boyd states) does not mean they were not believed as life-directing stories by the readers/hearers who received those stories or that literature. Also, Homer’s Odyssey is 5,000 lines of epic poetry; but that does not mean that those who heard the bards sing those lines did not believe them or order their lives by them. In fact, it was incredibly influential (very much like the Bible) for over a thousand years (and even to this day, in many ways; although, not quite the same as long ago).
The same is true of those who heard the stories of Genesis. Genesis helped to build a nation and countless individual lives. There is no evidence whatsoever that these people sat around their campfires debating “Now, did this happen exactly like it says? Are these stories really historical?” In fact, there is ample evidence that not everyone took the stories literally and that they read them for the life stories that they were intended to be. Just because we (people in churches today) have had it pounded into us that our desperate question “But, did it really happen?” is the one and only really big question of the universe–well, this only means that we have more problems as readers than we realize.
The problem in this movie is that words like “history” and “science” are being used very loosely—mostly as they occur in popular speech, without any reference at all to their more studied usages. The question is not at all “does narrative prove that something is history?” but rather,
does Genesis even claim to be either history or science
in the way we think of such things today?
Everyone reading this should be able to see how anachronistic (and ridiculous) that question is, reading our own agendas and worldviews into the past as if ancient peoples saw things like we do. It is nothing less than arrogance to think that our own concerns, sensitivities, and questions when reading ancient documents are the ones that really matter after all. The whole question of the concept of “history” in ancient historiography is a huge and longstanding discussion (this is hardly new!) And if nothing else, Christians today would do well to read even some basics on the matter. One might consult such resources as the 5 volume New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, or the somewhat more hefty 6 volume Anchor Bible Dictionary. However, be warned that these are not easy reading and are very fluent in the language of biblical scholarship. Just look up the word “History.”
And finally, (4) what is most surprising to me is that a Hebrew scholar does not insist on describing Genesis in its own terms and context: namely, as Torah, which means “instruction in the law,” most often embedded in collections of stories. E.g., how the creation accounts in Genesis 1-2 function in establishing (a) a divine creator in the face of a polytheistic world, (b) the basis for the Jewish calendar year, (c) the origins of the marriage covenant—and (d) so very much more. This should have been the starting place for “how do we read Genesis?” I offer no challenge to the competency of the scholar—he knows all of this stuff! But I do challenge the choice of presentation when asked: “What is Genesis 1 about? Walk us through this.”
2. The Scientists
Second, what about the scientists? When the scientists in this movie start quoting the Bible, it is obvious that they are completely out of their depth. For example, going back to the quote I opened with, I call up now the last two sentences: “To fully understand the flood, we start with the Bible. But then we go to the rocks: ‘Speak to the rocks and they shall tell what has happened in the past.'” Even granting that this very likable speaker speaks with exuberance and excitement (i.e., he is not making a legal statement), the notion that the biblical flood story cannot be “fully understood” on its own telling within the context of Genesis offers a strong hint about how the Bible will be used in this film: namely, as a resource book in which a few scientists can go rummaging through to find statements around which they can build theories, and then call them “God’s revelation of scientific facts.” And then that last sentence: “Speak to the rocks!” What is that? It looks like it is supposed to be a quote from the Bible (which it is not, not in any English translation); or perhaps it is supposed to imply a biblical concept–maybe it is a poetic burst of his general impression of what biblical texts say. I’m not sure. But whatever it is supposed to be, in the context it is used, it functions (that is, it plays the role in the sentence) as the punch line of the whole comment, implying that this is a Bible concept that supports his sentence. The problem is, there is no such concept in the Bible. All of the poetic texts in the Bible which exhort us to observe or take in the natural world, do so for the purpose of drawing out praise to God as creator. That is their purpose.
Let’s go deeper down this rabbit hole: To describe Genesis in terms of Epochs that range from 6 days long (!) to two or three thousand years long (and counting), or that Genesis was written to show that God actually changed how physical laws work between various Epochs, so that the speed of light changes, or that the dinosaurs had a wonderful purpose at creation, but that God then cursed them with big teeth, awful claws, and bad behavior, wiping them out in the flood—to say that any this is “what the Bible is telling us” (and they say those very words multiple times)—well, this is all just silly, not to mention embarrassing. Genesis has nothing to do with any of that.
And then, to come up with the wholly pretentious title: “The Historical Genesis Paradigm” (which this movie does from start to finish) as opposed to the “Conventional Paradigm” of modern science, as though Genesis is written for the purpose of one day revealing scientific principles that will thwart the excesses of modern conventional science—well, this also is not Genesis at all. This might be science fiction, but it certainly is biblical fiction. Claiming that Genesis has anything to do with any of this is absurd.
One of the most ghastly interpretations in the movie is of Genesis 1 by Astronomer Danny Faulkner, who appears to me to be a wonderfully delightful guy–again, very likable: somebody I’d like to have coffee with! That said, my hopes get dashed when he begins to describe the days of creation in terms of a time-lapsed movie (and so our movie helps out by presenting time-lapsed photography of plants growing–very nice pictures!) so that Genesis is said to show “collapsed time”, not only on day 3, but also day 4 in the creation of the stars. I.e., even though the galaxies are light years away, the light hit the earth immediately because Genesis says so. So the Andromeda galaxy is pointed out and explained to be the most distant object we can see with the naked eye: over 2,000,000 light years away. Which means it takes light that long to reach us. However, knowing as we do (from Genesis), that the earth is only 6,000 years old, Genesis also provides the key to understanding this dilemma. By extrapolating from the rapid growth of plants on day 3, Faulkner says:
Normal growth, abnormally fast. . . . Turning to day 4, not much information is given there, but I think God also rapidly made the stars and other astronomical bodies, and then in order for them to fulfill their function, to be seen, he had to rapidly bring forth that light just as he brought plants and matured them quickly, he had to bring that light here. I’m suggesting that when we actually look at these objects, the the Andromeda galaxy . . . we’re looking at light that actually left that object. So I think there is a rapid maturing that took place.
Based on this argument which both grew out of one kind of reading of Genesis 1, and then which cites Genesis 1 for support, I guess the speed of things on day 4 was a lot faster than day 3–it would have to be; furthermore on day 4, the speed would vary, I guess, from one star to another, depending on how far away the stars are from the earth–because the light from all the stars would presumably need to reach here at the same time–or at least within a 24 hour period–so they could be seen. I guess.
OR . . . maybe we could realize that this way of reading Genesis simply does not work! This is not why the book was written. What if Dr. Faulkner had stopped with “not much information is given there”? Maybe not much information is given because Genesis is not talking about this kind of stuff at all. Maybe the purpose of the sun, moon, and stars in Genesis 1 is to point out just what it says in v. 14: the Jewish calendar. “Signs and festival seasons and for days and years” is not a scientific explanation; day 4 rather is explaining why Jews do different things at certain times of the year. As I have said before, not even all ancient Jews or Christians took this literally: Philo argues against such a reading well before Paul wrote one word:
It is quite foolish to think that the whole world was created in six days or in a space of time at all.
[I have written about this already. Go here and scroll down to heading “3. Ancient Interpreters and Diversity“]
I could go on. Numerous times the Bible is quoted by reading texts completely out of context in the greater service of protecting ourselves from the evils of “the Conventional Paradigm.” 2Peter 3, for example, mentions creation and flood, and this is called upon by one of the scientists as chiding early readers who doubt the historicityof such things, when that is hardly the point at all. The Gospels are also dragged into this by asking why we see Genesis differently than we see the Gospels, since both are history? But actually, the same problem plagues us for reading the Gospels; Christians are notorious for insisting that the Gospels are modern “history” or “biography” or even “legal briefs” (forever like four witnesses on a witness stand describing a car wreck!), rather than Gospels that tell the story of Jesus in particular ways and for particular purposes. And there is more. But I will stop with examples from these well-meaning scientists.
NOTE: However, on the subject of scientists in this movie, it should be noted that Dr. Paul Nelson, one of the scientists quoted in the movie, wrote a piece in Evolution News and Science Today on the very day the movie came out: “New Film Is Genesis History? Presents a False Dichotomy: I Dissent from My Role in It.” He does not object for the reasons I am bringing up, but on philosophical grounds which he explains. And these are not the subject of my remarks here.
3. The Pastor
The final person interviewed is Dr. George Grant, listed as “Pastor.” And I hasten to add once again: this is not personal. I intend no slights on his character, no slurs of his training or his intelligence. I do not know the man. But I do know the position he presses. It is the same position I was taught in good conscience by my wonderful teachers (whom I still honor) from my childhood–a position that I have either greatly modified or abandoned on different levels, and that I encourage all others to rethink, modify, or abandon as well. There is so much wrong with what is stated in this section that it is not possible to quote or respond to it all. Again, I will be selective.
(a) Not distinguishing the difference between faith and history. By the time the movie reaches this spot, it assumes that its point has been proven beyond doubt. So now, the Adam and Eve story is asserted over and over again in the strongest language as “literal, historical, actual, real,” and other such terms. Think about this: here is a wonderful and highly significant story told in only one document with no corroborating evidence from outside this story (except later documents in the same collection which quote or allude to it hundreds of years later). Is that how we establish history? If so, then how about this:
In 1830, a twenty-four year old writes in narrative form (!) The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi. In that book, he tells of a vision he had on September 21, 1823 (when he was 17 years old) of an angel who told him about golden tablets buried in a hill near where he lived in what is now Wayne County, New York. He found the golden plates, translated them from a form of ancient Egyptian, and they are now the main contents of the Book of Mormon. The golden plates later miraculously disappeared.
That story is believed by millions of people (in 2012, there were an estimated 14.8 million members of the Latter Day Saints, many of whom take it literally). Is that story history? How do you know? If you say, “Well the first is in the Bible, so it is history!” An LDS group might respond, “Yes, and the second is in the Book of Mormon! So it too is history!” The question is “how is history established?” If all it takes is for people who believe it to proclaim it as “history,” then “Adam and Eve” and “the Golden Plates” stand on equal footing. Just maybe that is not the best way to evaluate the two stories.
[And yes, I am quite aware that “inspiration” is the final trump card used to claim that the Bible is history in the sense used by this movie. See below under “Unstated Assumption of this Movie.”]
(b) “Double-talk” on the importance of history; and asserting that “meaning” cannot exist without history as assumed in this video: In his words:
You cut things off from history, and you lose sight of the meaning of all of it. . . .
By double-talk, I don’t imply intentional deception. Certainly, the study of history and historiography (i.e., how sources and events are evaluated and established as history) is an important field of study. And this is why this movie fails so colossally, because it “talks up” history, and then shows no interest in establishing a valid method for deciding history–it just asserts its own agendas as proving history. And as to meaning: if meaning is confined only to one view of what history is, the human race is in deep trouble! This is too much to discuss here, but his statement is not how people actually determine meaning. Furthermore, it is and has always been a serious mistake for Christians to base the validity of Christianity on their own particular view of how history must work.
(c) Easily dismissing the motivation of “the theologians”: This is a serious problem in all kinds of debates: turning the “other sides” into straw men and simply dismissing them. In his words:
We are constantly exhorted to not see [Genesis as history]. . . .The culture around us; from theologians–modern theologians who are trying to somehow in their minds fit the truths of scripture with the so-called discoveries of science, which if you know anything about the history of science, you know it is an incredibly unreliable path! So we are constantly bombarded with this message that we have to adjust our view. . . . We’ve been sold a bill of goods [that seeing Genesis as history is not important]. When you somehow make those chapters a different category altogether, and non-historical, what are you doing to all of the rest of the Bible?
Seriously? The history of science shows an unreliable path? And the history of religion shows us what? Is this the pot calling the kettle black? First of all, if one learns how to read ancient documents in the context they were written, it frees those documents up from the straitjackets of such statements as just made above. Second, the “bill of goods” is the very statement made. And third, I don’t speak for all theologians; but this kind of dismissal of position based on an attributed motive (a supposed moral and ethical weakness due to the lure of cultural assimilation) comes off as a shell game maneuver. It distracts one from the real reasons (a) why the majority of main stream and even evangelical theologians and biblical scholars have taken the paths they have taken: because they have been led there by the evidence in front of them; and (b) why they reject the above perspective: because it simply won’t hold up under scrutiny.
(d) “All or Nothing:” Not understanding the principle of “the Gospel in jars of clay.” The very notion that the Bible is “either all or nothing” is a nonsensical concoction: (a) The Bible does not advocate such a view about itself (actually, the Bible has no view of “itself” at all); (b) nobody lives by such a view; (c) it undercuts the “real-life” need for integrity among believers; and (d) it plays right into the hands of atheistic arguments. It also overlooks directly stated principles (by Paul for example) for the spirit and against the letter (2Corinthians 3), and especially in 2Cor 4:7:
But in jars of baked clay we have this treasure,
it is God’s and not ours, this power beyond measure.
The perfect Gospel of God in imperfect shells: the imperfect shells are not confined to human beings. (This is fully developed in chapter 6: “Jars of Clay and Inspiration,” in Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration.)
So then, is Genesis history? Absolutely not in the way this movie uses that term. History is a very important consideration for studying the Bible, but not in the way this movie does it. This movie contrasts “The Conventional Paradigm” (i.e., science which explains the world in terms of millions of years) with a simplistic view of Genesis that should be outright rejected by all Christians. They should call their approach “The Unconventional Paradigm” (at the very least); or perhaps, “A Young Earth Paradigm.” More descriptive, perhaps, is “A Third-Grade Reading of Genesis Paradigm.” But instead they claim Genesis for themselves and they read it in a way that flies in the face of all other understandings of that book by highly qualified readers. This is huge mistake.
In the end, the movie offers only two choices. These choices seem clear enough: Genesis vs. anti-Genesis. Which should a Christian choose? How in the name of all that is holy can a Christian reject Genesis?
Well I don’t reject Genesis. But I do reject this movie’s presentation of that book, and I absolutely reject that their way of reading Genesis is a sensible reading. In fact, in this movie, the sacred texts themselves are badly handled in a grand confusion over the purposes of those ancient texts.
The Unstated Assumption of the Movie
Actually, what is underneath all of this type of reading is a particular view of inspiration of the Bible that thinks of itself as “the one and only biblical view of inspiration,” when actually it is just one not-very-well-thought-out-opinion about the subject. Essentially, it demands that the Bible must be read “literally” (which means, “the way this movie reads it”), and it argues or assumes that God has encoded the Bible with correct views on every subject in the world—science, medicine, you name it—because if there is the tiniest thing discovered as incorrect in the Bible then all of it goes into the trash.
The end result is that (very unfortunately) this movie often comes off as if a deviant form of the original Planet of the Apes (1968) where the apes are explaining how science and the sacred scrolls fit perfectly together. Yes, I know how offensive this could or will be taken, and that some will decide (no matter what I say) that I’m bashing or mocking otherwise good people. But that is not my point at all. I simply offer this, as a warning that all people who read the Bible, with all good motives, can be just as manipulative of it as these in this clip:
No matter how sincere the Genesis movie appears to be, and no matter how strongly it promotes its point of view, the speakers in the Genesis movie use the Bible in a way that I find to be abusive, and not at all in a way that I find to be cogent or that best explains the mass of information in and about the Bible that we have in front of us. It is a mistake to use the Bible to establish scientific presuppositions, approaches, or methods, as if it were written for that purpose. I simply can not with integrity adopt or recommend the positions this movie assumes, models, and promotes about the Bible.
But . . . . did it happen?
And so now at the end of all of this, some will still want to know: “Did the events in Genesis really happen this way?” Well . . . whether I say “ yes” or “no”, you won’t believe me or like my answer. So let me ask you: That portrait of you on the wall with your family. Is that how you really look? You didn’t have your hair styled or put on makeup? You didn’t get a tan or buy new clothes or spruce up for the picture? Did you hold your stomach in and sit tall? Is this really the historical you? Or are you presenting the best you, that you want others to see?
Yes, this is relevant. Is it just possible that by judging everything through an impossible question–“Is Genesis History?”– that we set ourselves up for ridiculous answers and then for failure? Personally, for me, the Bible is the most important collection of documents ever brought together in one volume. Because of that, I want to respect it for what it claims to be on its own terms. This is worth fighting for.
I hope you have noticed that I have been much “harder” on the “Bible people” (who should know better, and with whom I consider myself a fellow) in this piece than on the scientists. I am not anti-scientist. So please allow me to ask you a serious question. How do you feel when you see well-meaning Christians who do not have your training in science, your understanding of your field of study, your appreciation and awareness of the debates and intricacies of your field, or your experience, and they begin to demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of the scientific issues you know so very well, and then they proceed to misinform others about those very things? Would you simply pat them on the back and tell them to keep talking? Or would you try to encourage them to do some due diligence in that field before speaking out in some authoritative manner?
Whatever your answer, you know what I’m talking about. So I urge this message: you have a lot to offer us! Please don’t fall into the trap presented in this movie. Zeal for the truth is terrific. But please treat the craft of understanding ancient sacred literature with as much respect as you did when learning the craft of your science. Anybody can quote a Bible text. But reading the Bible responsibly and contextually, especially in any professional space, takes as much work and care as it does to learn science. So just as you rightly want people to speak intelligently about science, please learn something about the nature of ancient peoples and texts before you begin too easily appropriating and twisting those texts for current agendas; because all that does is pull the rug out from everybody and makes monkeys of us all.