Is Genesis History?

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.

A Disclaimer:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

A Preview:

From a technical standpoint, this movie is very high quality:  attractive, charming, appealing!  The trailer clearly shows this:

So, with all of that shown, and with all due respect paid:  This movie is all dressed up;  but with respect to the Bible, it goes to some very disappointing places.  Upon watching this movie numerous times, each time I became more thoroughly distressed than the time before with how easy it is for highly intelligent people to accept such a shallow view of the Bible as this movie does.  The movie is deeply disappointing in that respect, and the only way I want my kids to watch this movie, is if I’m with them to help point out why this is not on any level a worthy way to understand or apply the Bible.  I’m as serious about this as those who object to evolutionists teaching their kids.  The (ab)use of the Bible in this movie is consistently that bad.

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 Scholars

Two biblical scholars are interviewed in this movie.

1. The second (Dr. Douglas Petrovich) is near the end and is identified as an “Archaeologist”. He spent most of his time reviewing archaeological evidence relating to the Ancient Near East and making generalized comments about how Genesis may reflect the movements of peoples at the end of the third millennium BCE. His belief that he has discovered the “Tower of Babel” would be strongly criticized and denied by the bulk of biblical scholarship. This does not, of course, prove him wrong–only that he is presenting a highly controversial hypothesis. I would like to have heard more from him.

2. The first biblical scholar interviewed was Dr. Stephen Boyd. This interview was more disappointing. (a) I did not like 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.  (b) 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 about a “ball-shape” 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.”)

(c) Narrative and History: 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: actual or fictional events, stories of all kinds (like fables, legends, myths, etiologies, novels), sermons, speeches, Gospels, letters, treatises, and the list goes on.  Generally speaking, 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:

poetry vs. narrative
fiction vs. fact
story vs. history
lie vs. truth

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 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 be written in narrative form.  And “poetry” does not 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 those who originally heard and repeatedly retold the Genesis stories 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.

A major problem in this movie is that words like “history” and “science” are employed very loosely, mostly as they occur in popular speech, without any reference to their more studied usages.  The question that should be asked is not “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 that question is, reading our own agendas and worldviews into the past as if ancient peoples saw things like we do.  It is skirting the edges of hubris 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.”

(d) Torah: And finally, 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 stories in Genesis 1-2 function in establishing (i) a divine creator in the face of a polytheistic world, (ii) the basis for the Jewish calendar year, (iii) the origins of the marriage covenant—and (iv) 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.

1. 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.”

(a) 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.”

(b) Then we come to 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 notion that the Bible was written to provide keys for reconstructing the flood and other such events. 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.

2. 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 for the express purpose to show that God actually changed how physical laws work between various Epochs–with a result 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 “this is why the Bible was written, to tell us all of this” (these and similar explanations are offered multiple times)–well, I’m at a loss for how else to say this: this is all just silly, not to mention embarrassing.  Clearly, such things as this can easily be forced onto an ancient text, but Genesis itself has nothing to do with any of it.

3. And then, there is the wholly pretentious self-designation:  “The Historical Genesis Paradigm.” Throughout the movie, this title is contrasted with the “Conventional Paradigm” of modern science as though Genesis is written for the purpose of providing scientific principles that will thwart the excesses of modern conventional science. The apparent goal was to say it so often as to burn it indelibly into memory. For me it was like hearing someone scratch a blackboard over and over again, because Genesis does not present itself as a foil for anybody’s view of science. Genesis was not written to offer a historical paradigm in current-day usages of that term. It certainly does offer a God-focused preamble for the building a nation, but that is a bit different from wrestling with 21st century scientists over the speed of light. This unfortunate approach to Genesis might be science fiction, but it certainly is biblical fiction.  Claiming that Genesis itself, as an ancient document, has anything to do with any of this is absurd.

4. 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, believing (as Faulkner does from Genesis) that the earth is only about 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 grew out of a particular kind of approach to Genesis 1 and then which cites Genesis 1 for support (a bit circular), 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”?  Bingo! 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.  Faulkner mentions this as a general thing, and then leaves it. But it is not a general reference; it is pointing to the basis for the Jewish calendar: “For signs and festival-seasons and for days and years” is not a scientific or generalized explanation;  day 4 rather is explaining why Jews do certain things at certain times of the year. Why they keep the Law.  This is why there is no concern over “let there be light” on day 1 without a sun or the stars, because that is not the point. To an ancient hearer or reader, not only is God (and not any other so-called god) responsible for the water, sky, earth, and vegetation–all of which surrounds us–but also for the sun, moon, and stars which are for the express purpose of regulating the Jewish Calendar year–the keeping of the Law!.

This is important. According to Genesis 1, it is not that the Jewish calendar happens to use the sun, moon, and stars to mark time; it is rather that the sun, moon, and stars were made for the express purpose of regulating the Jewish Calendar! This is NOT a scientific explanation! However, since the Jewish calendar means virtually nothing to Christians today (who are embroiled in battles over “science and the Bible”), this “stuff” I have just mentioned here is not even considered as relevant for this creation story, and so it literally gets pushed off the table. But I ask: how fortuitous is it (do we think it is accidental?) that the 4th day is the exact middle of the 7 days? Or stated more plainly: this creation story (now firmly embedded in the Pentateuch) tells Jews why they are Jews instead of somebody else, and why they keep the Torah of God. It has nothing at all to say about the speed of light or evolution or any other such thing.

As I have said before, when looking at Genesis 1 as a whole, 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.  

My point is not that Philo is either right or wrong, but that it is not true that all Jews understood the Genesis creation stories literally–and none of them took them “historically” or “scientifically” the way we now use these words. This is not a recent objection.  [I have written about this already.  Go here and scroll down to heading “3. Ancient Interpreters and Diversity“]

5. 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 historicity of such things, when that is hardly the point.  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 as “Gospels” which by design and purpose tell the story of Jesus in particular ways and for particular purposes.  And there is more. But I will stop with examples from this group.

6. 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 for better understandings 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 the relationship he draws between history and meaning does not actually describe how people determine meaning. For example: do the parables of Jesus all have to be historical events before they have any meaning? The point is, meaning does not require something to be history in the sense this movie uses it. Clearly, the study of history is important. But 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;  [and] 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 all biblical scholars and theologians 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 long-held highly conservative belief that is asserted in this movie without any defense:  (i)  The biblical documents do not advocate such a view about themselves;  (ii) people cannot live their lives by such a principle;  (iii) it undercuts the “real-life” need for integrity among believers; and (iv) 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.)

4. Summary

So then, is Genesis history?  This movie often asserts it, but does it not establish it. History is a very important consideration for studying the Bible, but not in the way this movie does it.  This movie is not really about history, because it never lays out a cogent definition of history or a method for determining it. Instead of that, the movie advances its own view of science by using Genesis as a prop or resource book to support it. It then contrasts “The Conventional Paradigm” (i.e., current-day science which explains the world in terms of millions of years) with a simplistic view of Genesis that would be better called “An Unconventional Paradigm”, or perhaps, “A Young Earth Paradigm.”  Very unfortunately, it often comes off as “A Third Grade Reading of Genesis Paradigm.” It constantly talks about Genesis as if this way of reading it is the only way to do it. The movie never defends that assumption or explains its methodology; nor does it share with its listeners that its approach is strongly contested by the majority of highly qualified readers.  At the very least, the alternative should have been responsibly set forth. This is a huge gaff.

[On this point, it is very interesting that a group that makes so much public noise about having high school science classes offer a creationist alternative to evolution, does not itself set forward any responsible recognition that other views of reading Genesis offer serious challenge to the approach adopted in this movie.]

In the end, the movie offers only two choices.  Genesis vs. anti-Genesis.  Which should Christians choose?  How could Christians reject Genesis?

Well I don’t reject Genesis.  But I do reject this movie’s presentation of that book, and I reject that the movie’s way of reading it is in concert with that ancient book’s own agendas.  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. This is a long-held but deeply flawed view, and I have addressed this at length elsewhere.

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.  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 its speakers, the Genesis movie abuses biblical texts in the service of its agenda. Its arguments about Genesis, although passionate and single-minded, are neither cogent nor persuasive.  This movie does, unfortunately, help to show that it is a mistake to use the Bible to establish scientific presuppositions, approaches, or methods, as if biblical texts 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 forced answers?  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 its documents each for what they claim to be on their own terms.  This is worth defending.

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 (with whom I am trying to be a fellow).  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.

“It Has No Handles”: How Do You See Yourself?

A verse I am drawn to in Isaiah 45 is verse 9.  The overall idea seems to be clear:  the clay should not try to tell the potter his job or sit in judgment about what he has produced.   (Anybody with kids understands this point.)   The context of Isaiah 40-54 helps here, where there is a constant refrain

“For I, I am God, and there is no other!  I am with you!  I have made all things, and I am doing a new thing! I will help you!

In chapter 45, maybe I like the fact that there is a kind of translation problem with verse 9c, not with the words, but that it is possibly an idiom, and so what does it mean?

The Hebrew is straightforward:  “What are you making?  It [or he] has no hands.”
The Greek Isaiah adds a phrase, and changes everything to “you”, but is no clearer:  ““What are you doing, since you are not working, nor do you have hands”?

The KJV and ASV are fairly literal:

KJV  Isaiah 45:9 Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands?

ASV  Isaiah 45:9 Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! a potsherd among the potsherds of the earth! Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands?

The NIV has the pot asking a question:

NIV  Isaiah 45:9 “Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?

The NET translates the idiom to “skill” and it makes perfect sense in context:

NET  Isaiah 45:9 One who argues with his creator is in grave danger, one who is like a mere shard among the other shards on the ground! The clay should not say to the potter, “What in the world are you doing? Your work lacks skill!”

I like the NET Bible on this.  However, for personal reasons, I also like the RSV, which I did not list above.

RSV  Isaiah 45:9 “Woe to him who strives with his Maker, an earthen vessel with the potter! Does the clay say to him who fashions it, `What are you making’? or `Your work has no handles’?

These are several different kinds of translations, and all are legitimate.  Slightly different, yet we get the point.

So why do I like the RSV?  Because it can be understood not only as criticism of God (“you did this wrong”), but a criticism of the self (“you made me wrong, and so your work is bad”).  “It has no handles.”  Here you are looking in the mirror and you know where all the flaws are:  Your bent nose, your lips too thick or thin, your teeth are not what they used to be, your receding hairline, midriff is too . . . well, you get it.  But worse, have you ever noticed how you can look in a mirror and see all of your internal flaws as well?  You are not this or that, not good enough, smart enough, focused enough, devoted enough. You look in the mirror and you say:  “It has no handles.”  (Ok, “love handles” maybe, but don’t ruin this;  stay with me here.)

Most of the time when we look at ourselves and say “It has no handles” we think we mean, “Look how I have let God (or others or both) down.”  But deep down we are criticizing God for not doing “enough” in my case to make me like I should be.

I think it is possible to get the point that “him” (45:9-10), the “rebels” (46:8), and “stubborn-hearted” (46:12) are God’s own people who are not looking in the right places.  But it is harder to see that in not looking in the right places, in not honoring God for his work in you, in looking down on yourself . . . it is like you spending a long time with great effort trying to prepare a great meal, or paint a special picture, or make a special item to give to someone, and when you do, the first thing the person says is, “Well . . . it has no handles, does it!”

“I am God, and there is no other” is what you should see when you look in a mirror.  God has given you life and opportunity.  And God is at work, right now, in you.  Handles and all.

Gary D. Collier

[All quotes are from BibleWorks 9]

 

A Friendly Open Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson
on Science, the Bible, & Creationism

Heavily revised Saturday, January 16, 2016

Dr. Tyson,

First of all, I’m a big fan of your work.  I enjoy watching, listening to, and considering everything I have found where you are speaking.  So I begin with a “thank you” and appreciation.

Along with that, I am not a scientist and will not attempt to speak as though I am one. I am, however, a trained and experienced biblical scholar, and I’m writing to ask you a favor.  It would be helpful if you would show more nuance and awareness when you speak out of your field of expertise about biblical texts.  Frankly, when you speak about the Bible, you don’t sound any different than many conservative Christians who speak about science.  I.e., you sound just as ignorant.

In a previous post (as well as another), I evaluated some features of a popular fundamentalist approach to “The Bible and Science” by many Christians today. My concern was not so much science, but how Christians of all stripes approach, understand, interpret, and present the Bible. Here, I want to sharpen that concern and speak directly to you, Dr. Tyson, a leading scientist who continually makes comments about the Bible as though you have some right to do so.  Certainly, I would like a reply, although I will not hold my breath that you will do so.  Even so, I will still ask a couple of questions as though as though you might.

Context:  Moyers and Tyson

First, for others reading this open letter, I need to provide some context, so I will slip into 3rd person here:  In January (2014), Bill Moyers interviewed the well-spoken and entertaining astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space and a research associate in the department of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. This popular speaker reprised the Nova series, Cosmos (of Carl Sagan fame), and has appeared on many platforms speaking for the advancement of science in education.

As an advocate of intelligent and responsible handling of the Bible, I want to go on record, first of all, that the interview with Bill Moyers was engaging and worthy of discussion. I would urge every Christian everywhere who is interested in this topic to watch this interview in its entirety, maybe multiple times. You might or might not agree, but that is not the point.  I personally consider this a much better approach than the two previous approaches I evaluated above in the third paragraph. What follows is actually three interviews combined into one, and is 71 minutes long. Here it is in its entirety:

My Questions

Now, Dr. Tyson, having encouraged this with enthusiasm, I’m about to ask you a few questions.  However, I want to state clearly that I long ago (in my late teens) disavowed any association with the “young earth creationist” positions (so, I am not at all defending that position), nor am I defending any other so-called “biblical-scientific explanation” of Genesis chapters 1-2. (I’ve already stated elsewhere that Genesis is not talking about that and also that Genesis 1 and 2 present two different stories of creation, which means that not even the original authors/compilers of Genesis were concerned about presenting “the one right scientific view of beginnings”). Furthermore, I did not arrive at my positions about Genesis because of any scientific arguments against fundamentalist views of it.  I arrived where I am because of literary and historical understandings of how ancient texts of all kinds work.

So, I am not challenging your science.  I am asking you, though, why you don’t take the same care in how you characterize ancient biblical texts?  Not as a “believer”;  that is not the point.  But simply as someone who understands and respects the value of reading ancient literature contextually in light of the genres and historical realities they attempt to address. 

So now, to my questions. And to do this, I will highlight only one portion of your comments from the video above (not at all implying that they should be taken out of the context of the larger speech). Here’s a short clip from the above presentation:

Here are my questions.

First, do you think it is just possible that you are doing the very thing with the Bible that you are asking Christians not to do with science?  You later say (after this clip), that the science classroom should deal with scientific issues. That if just fine. But in this clip, you are giving opinions about the nature, purpose, early understanding, and proper interpretation of a biblical story, as though you are a qualified interpreter of these ancient texts.   On the one hand, you forbid others to speak in your classroom, but now you are quite willing to speak in theirs.  I find this hypocritical.

For example, when you say that not until science came along did Christians start reinterpreting the Bible as not being literal on the creation:   that is simply not correct. I’ve commented at length on this before, so I won’t repeat it here. Figurative and metaphorical interpretations of various parts of biblical literature are a part of the very fabric of that literature from its inception. There exist all kinds of figurative and theological applications of earlier biblical material even within the Bible. Even of the creation.  Using your criteria, if you want to speak about biblical texts, don’t you think you should do so with all proper regard for the contextual study of those texts, just as you are asking for the sake of the study of science?  I think this is a fair request.

Second, do you think perhaps you end up forcing a shallow and literalistic reading of the Bible as a straw man?  Whether you intend to or not, you are basically saying:  “Anybody reading this ancient story would say __X__.” I’ve heard biblical literalists say that kind of nonsense all my life, and it always irritates me.  So now, you’re doing the same thing.  Also, when you talk about the stars falling in Revelation you sound a great deal like biblical literalists (which atheistic scientists often do, since they are generally fighting a particular group or particular approach).  Rather than understanding the theological nature of apocalyptic literature, you have just adopted the approach of the literalists.   Actually, apocalyptic literature at its heart is less an attempt to describe the reality of nature than a use of the observable world to find meaning and hope in hopeless situations. You almost speak as if those poor dumb people writing the original material way back then had no deeper theological sensitivities or purpose than a spewing out of a shallow and mere literal view of the world.  The fact is, such texts were not written as scientific statements, and not even all of those readers took them literally  (e.g., Philo and Origen from my previous articles).

Is it possible that, just saying it the way you do shows that you don’t understand these texts and that you are unqualified to tell me how I would or should read them?  If it works that way for science, why not for biblical literature?

What about showing sensitivity and responsibility in handling ancient texts contextually according to their genre and nature—I’m sure you agree with this in principle. Biblical literalists are horribly guilty of this offense against their own literature; why must you fall into to the same trap? It does not serve anyone, let alone the discussion, if both sides of the debate are irresponsible with the “texts” to which they are referring.

I enjoy listening to you as a scientist, but as an interpreter of the Bible, you remind me of the ones you are fighting;  and I have no more interest in listening to you about the Bible that I do to Ken Ham (of the Creation Museum in Ohio) or any other fundamentalist “creation scientist” about either the Bible or science.  You both end up sounding the same.

Staying Religious

But finally, you make one comment at about the 45.55 mark:

If you’re going to stay religious at the end of the conversation, God has to be more to you than just where science has yet to tread.

Frankly, I want to say, with my teenage kids, “Well, duh!”  I’ve also heard a couple other of your speeches where you develop this “God of the gaps” stuff, and I just have to say that I have never believed that kind of nonsense my entire life, that “God is only God of things I can’t explain otherwise?”  Anybody who believes in God as an all powerful force believes in the God of everything, whether you think you can explain it or not.  This idea that God is somehow the God of the gaps, or the God of the ever-receding pocket at the edges of scientific ignorance is just silly.   As an illustration:  when I was growing up, just because I began to uncover the mysteries of how my dad operated, and I came to see him not as a worker of magic or with superhuman strength (which I saw as a child), but as one who loved me, this did not mean that my dad did not really exist or that the principles I was discovering were not reflective of his very character.  It just means that I understood more.

Certainly, I agree that if God is more than the edges of scientific ignorance, then he must truly be more.  In fact, God just might even be more than (and including) the sum total of scientific knowledge, despite its growing pockets of ignorance about God.  But when you or any other scientist starts claiming that “anything that we understand cannot be God,” that is beyond your ability to say.   God just might be more than what scientists are able to test, and more than some are willing to acknowledge.  In that case, one wonders whether such scientists have anything at all to say about God, or why they are even trying to.

I actually do know why:  because you want a more responsible, rational, and intelligent conversation to take place for the benefit of the human race.  Well I, for one, agree.   So why don’t we encourage the elevation of the entire conversation:  responsible science, responsible handling of ancient texts, and a refusal to lump all scientists or all Christians together.

I very much liked the Moyers interview. I enjoy hearing qualified scientists speak on their field of expertise, just like I enjoy hearing qualified biblical scholars in theirs. I just wish it would result in a more responsible handling of biblical texts from both groups.

Respectfully,
Gary D. Collier

Did Jesus Die for Aliens, Too?

“Thus Bible-believing Christians don’t (or can’t) accept the belief there are aliens on other planets.”

Ken Ham, Creation Museum (email I received today)

I don’t know Ken Ham personally and would not make personal comments in any case.  My response, here, is purely about the position taken and the way it was presented.  And I couldn’t decide whether to speak softly, using the back door, or more directly.  So here goes.

The quote above, including the entire letter that was sent, is just embarrassing nonsense.  (I kinda decided against the back door).  What he believes about aliens, or what you believe, is a personal issue.  But look at the law that just got passed for all “Bible-believing Christians.”

. . . Christians don’t (or can’t) accept . . .

It is ludicrous and has nothing to do with Christianity or the Bible. Actually, all of the existing “Christian” Bibles (Protestant, Catholic, and more)  are collections of ancient documents which speak to an ancient faith:  a faith that is still valid and viable. It contains wisdom and direction and story and many other things.  But it is not a science book and Bible-believing Christians are free to think for themselves despite such narrow-minded pontifications.  Even on the off chance he meant that “some Christians feel compelled/are not personally able to accept,” it is horribly stated.

Believe in aliens, don’t believe.  Who cares!  But leave the Bible out of this conversation.  The Bible does not address this issue on any level.  This approach has skeptics howling.  And I don’t blame them.  It is nothing but farcical ignorance.

It sounds exactly like the end of the 19th century when preachers and some Greek teachers were claiming that NT Greek was “Holy Spirit” Greek, a special language made by God for writing the NT.  Uhh . . .  oh yes, well . . . then somebody found the Greek papyri proving conclusively that NT Greek was written in Koine (common) Greek, a form of Hellenistic Greek.  Imagine that.  Ancient Christian documents written in common, everyday language.

Truth is, I really like the following commercial.  It is not only a class act, it is far more truthful and appealing than anything (so far) that I’ve seen from the would-be spokesman for all of Christianity:

There is not one thing about this video that requires atheism (which is not mentioned until the final 2 seconds).  One could debate whether “knowledge” and “the power of  logic” are the pristine power for the salvation of the world that is rather naively presented.  Somehow, I think maybe love, and respect, and honor, and ethics, and morality, and guarded ambition, and intelligent conversation somehow belong in this mix:  but it is a 1 minute video and does a great job of stating itself.

As for me, I go one God further than either atheism or Hamite Christianity (which are curiously mirror images of each other).   I don’t rely on magic or mysticism or think that once we all get logical that our problems will all melt away.  And I sure don’t think that bending the Bible around to my beliefs is any more helpful than bending science, or logic, or knowledge around.   I don’t hide behind a made-up view of the Bible to protect me, and I absolutely don’t worry that some (Christians or Atheists) doubt me:  I just let ’em.  I think for myself while respecting the visions and strivings of many, many others in many, many disciplines.

All of this said, when the above video commercial is contrasted with the Ken Ham approach (which is then labeled “Bible-believing Christianity”), I’ll choose the video in a cold minute.

I’m a thinker, set free by Jesus Christ;  never was nor will be a descendant of Ham.

Gary D. Collier

[I repeat:  this is not a personal comment.  This is, however, a clear, focused, and intended rejection of the position that was offered.]

Heart Prints

The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming 400 page book:  Engaging Paul:  Shades of Conversation in 1Thessalonians.  Publication of this book is currently scheduled for sometime this fall (2014).  The book is a focused effort on whether it is possible to engage the apostle Paul (an author no longer living) in lively, personal conversation.  Much of academic literary criticism today denies that it is.  This book will challenge that notion.  The following excerpt is adapted from chapter 4:  “Text and Conversation.”

Heart-Prints and Texts

More than any other kinds of texts, ancient letters like 1Thessalonians are written by real authors to real people, and they are trying to re-present the heart of the author. In this sense, authors are alive in these kinds of texts—texts that are technically separate from them in a physically separate space, but nevertheless encoded with their own particular DNA. This is actually more than can be explained by a sign or a gap in a text or by any formula. It is not only the manner in which such basic things are strung together, it is also about tone of voice and tone of thought, where what academics call the “syntagmatic relations” of the elements are of such a manner, in connection with other things, that they form a fingerprint—or more rather a heart-print—of the author.

This is a crucial concept for decoding any type of personal message or conversation.

So for example, several hours ago, my wife called our home phone and left a voice message for me, which she spoke into a phone. The voice message was immediately transcribed into a written text and emailed to me. Here is the written message I received:

Hi Gary it is nine o’clock. I just left Walmart and I am on my way to Kroger’s to put some fuel in the car. Once I’m done doing that. I am headed home and I will need you to unload the car for me. So I love you and I just wanted to let you know where I’m at and what I’m doing. I love you sweetheart. Looking forward to seeing you. Bye.

A lengthy commentary on this personal note is quite possible, but the point here is about what happens in such a text as this.

Because readers have the freedom to do whatever they like, they could see the note through the eyes of oppression, as another woman who is required by her ogre husband to “report in” her every move. Or through oppressiveness, she could be seen as a bossy or manipulative person (“need you to unload the car—oh, and by the way, I love you!”). It could be read with an angry tone or a detached tone or through the eyes of suspicion over any particular thing. In any of these ways of reading, her expressions of love would be washed out, seen as either obligatory, or self-serving, or perhaps merely habitual (i.e., it is common to say such things, and so it doesn’t really carry any emotional force.)

Or here is another possibility. This is a note of pure love that contains numerous codes which reveal that the real issue on her mind is that she is intentionally trying to say “I love you, and I am safe, and I will be home soon to see you.”

It is just possible that this is not an isolated note, but actually is “nested” within a much larger continuing conversation. As such, this text uses the codes of the larger conversation as a way of encoding this particular text.

So then, the comment about “need you to unload the car” arises from a desire (on my part, actually) that I always unload the car for her (not that she can’t or that I must, but that we help each other). The comment about “knowing where I’m at” has to do with safety and nothing more, and actually grows out of the result of past accidents and current unsafe snow-laden driving conditions. And as to whether her expressions of love are “common” or not, there is nothing common about these words which come from her. Actually, to read them apart from emotional fervor is to misread them. I know this by experience, and because I am a participant of the larger conversation. This note is a snapshot in time of that conversation, and there are numerous encoded items that point in that direction. I could go on with this for nearly every phrase in the text.

heartprints2Here is something else I know. The intention of my wife in sending this note is far more important and far more powerful than the bald signs in the note. In fact, no code or sign of any kind can fully capture this—the note a pale sign of the real heart that is the essence of the real message. So the intentions of my wife’s heart encode the note (and are encoded in the note). These become the urgent necessity in reading it. Not vice versa. This is the spirit or soul of a person; it cannot be fully captured or measured or encoded, only pointed to, hinted at, or reflected. Numerous codes in the text point to that soul, to what she was trying to communicate. My job in reading the note is to decode those intentions, not just the signs. In that sense, she—the real author—is alive in this text.

In these types of writings, instead of killing off the author, or separating her from the text, the real job of the reader is exactly the opposite: to (as much as possible) get out of the way and to allow the author to speak with her intentions intact.

Now the fact that she is empirically living and breathing means that I could confirm with her that she was indeed intentionally trying to put those feelings in her text—i.e., to have me feel those emotions from her. But there is no need for me to “confirm” that, it is so abundantly clear throughout the larger conversation, and even in this one note. Besides, in a very real sense, to seek confirmation might actually subvert the conversation, sending a possible message that her intentions are questioned or doubted. The fact is, while it is always possible to question someone’s motives or intentions, the very act of doing so can break or derail the conversation.

So whether this text is read today or a thousand years from now, this text will still have encoded within it all kinds of things about her and her intentions. The signs are snapshots of her ideas and wishes. The fact that it can be misread in all kinds of ways does not imply that her intentions are not encoded into the text, or that they do not matter, or even that they are unreachable. It is the pursuit of this intention that is all important: to hear what she was trying to say.

Here is a second example. When I read personal letters from my mother, who is no longer alive, but still in my memory, I can hear her voice. Unquestionably, this is greatly due to my reading the letter through my knowledge of her (my encyclopedia of information that I use when I read). But this is actually triggered by the way in which she has encoded the text: her manner of expressions, the selection of vocabulary, the way she approaches topics, the way in which she quotes, alludes to, or otherwise taps into things we have experienced together, and how she refers to any number of things. They might even include things that only she and I experienced together. These are all unique to her, a part of her that survives in her texts. These unique encodings allow me to decode the message properly—not just the message, but the author who actually wrote the message. And that is part of the intent that gets put into this kind of text—that I will be able to experience her heart.

When writing these kinds of texts, authors encode them with signs where the syntagmatic relations of those signs are representations of the ones doing the encoding. They are the fingerprints or heart-prints of intent, whether consciously or not. Whether these end up getting called a “model author or implied author” or something different altogether is frankly immaterial and immediately moves the attention away from where it belongs—it is still an encoding from a real author who has desire, will, ego, intentionality, and motive. And that is what gets burnt into the text.

YHWH Loves Me This I Know

Talking a bit autobiographically, here . . . I want to comment on how Christians read OT law and how this relates to contextual understanding when reading the ancient scriptures.  

So, I’ll begin with an illustration:  how I have tended to view the innumerable laws of the United States.  (This is not a political statement or anything like a sophisticated view of American law.  It is simpy an illustration.)

Throughout my life, I have seen both major and minor parts of federal, state, and local laws applied for both good and ill, and unfortunately as instruments of force and suppression.  I have been both grateful for “the rule of law” and deeply disappointed and disillusioned by the farce of a good deal of it.   But whatever I have seen of such laws, and however annoyed I have been by the “practice of law,” and whatever else I have thought about them, I have tended to see the ideal of American law through the lens of statements like this:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.-– etc.

And:  
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

And:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. . . . We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. . . . But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. . . . It is rather for us to . . . resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The point of this is that laws exist within larger contexts within which those laws are intended to be understood and applied. (Whether they actually are or not is another matter.)   And those contexts can affect the way the laws are evaluated, implemented, applied, and even discussed.  Naturally, this is much more involved than I have presented it.

So that is my illustration.  Now to the OT: 

As I was growing up, I was taught (not lightly) how the OT was legalism, death, and rigidity.  The OT was law, the NT was grace.   The OT was mainly do’s and don’ts.  But in the NT, Jesus “did away with the law.”  I was taught that people under the law were “checklist” people, ticking off their daily responsibilities without concern for things like faith, grace, love, justice, and the like. I was also taught that their sins were not really forgiven, but rolled forward to Christ.  We needed to read the OT because the NT said so, but it was in essence a dead book.

As I grew older, and as I started actually reading the OT for its own sake, I began to see that the people who had taught me such trivial nonsense about the OT and such absolute rubbish about it, were not evil people, but they were, nonetheless, seriously wrong, to the point of delusion.  They themselves had been taught this garbage and they were only trying to pass it along to me, dutifully and in love. Which they did.

As I continued reading for myself, I began to see how the wonder of God’s love and grace permeates the OT, and that the law its very “do and don’t” self is wrapped in that love, and grace, and care, and “tender mercy” (which I later would discover meant “covenant loyalty, love, and faithfulness”).  Certainly, the style of writing or the manner of presentation did not always sound like the warm caresses of my mom’s hand, but sometimes more like the footsteps of my angry dad—yet through it all, it became clear to me that (just as I knew that both my mom and dad loved me dearly) there was one underlying message from every part of every OT text if I actually would read them within their own contexts:

Yahweh loves me, this I know,
For the scriptures tell me so
Ten commandments, hand of God,
Desert water, budding rod,
Land of promise, stumbling stone,
Yahweh is our God alone!   (gdc)

I also began to see (more than I wanted) behind the curtain of the “wizards” of Sunday madness, that despite all of the hallowed talk to the contrary, that there are just as many do’s and don’ts in historic Christianity as there ever were in the OT.  In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, all we did was trade one law system for another, and we blamed it on the cross, and we called it “grace.”  

In our CWP weekly “live” online Bible study classes,  we are just coming to the end of a summer-long study of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  And in that letter, Paul uses the ancient scriptures themselves to show that righteousness is not joined at the hip to the law, not dependent on it—that even the ancient scriptures show this;  that faith always was what God wanted, whether under the law or before it, and that while righteous living could describe people under the law, it was not because of that law, or any other law,  that they or anyone else could ever be righteous.  

It is easier to focus on the “do’s and don’ts” than the promises that attend them.

Gary

Parousia, Coming of Jesus, Day of the Lord, the Book of Revelation . . . etc., etc.

The CWP Inner Circle is a very exciting group of Bible students from around the US and Canada, as well as the rest of the world, that loves serious Bible study. It is an “open” group, meaning that it is possible in this group to have open conversation about a broad range of ideas without fear of getting ostracized for floating the idea.  However, rather than being an “anything goes” group, it is given to the up-close evaluation of ideas against the context of a serious study of the scriptures.

I taught biblical languages and literature in University and Seminary settings for years (from Fuller Seminary in California, to the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, and to Martin University in Indianapolis), and to be quite honest, this online group (The Inner Circle) of housewives, factory workers, professionals, retired people, lawyers, doctors, and preachers is as capable and engaging as any seminary class I’ve ever had, and at least as energetic, if not more.  It is a marvelous experience, surpassing any Bible class experience I’ve ever found in any church, since most people in a church don’t care about the Bible much anyway. 

For the past several months we have been looking at 1Thessalonians in detail:  English text and Greek text (for those who want that).  And during the last couple of weeks we have been talking about the different ways that many people understand the topics of the Parousia, Coming of Jesus, Day of the Lord, the Book of Revelation . . . etc., etc.

Now, if you’ve been around any time at all, you know that Christians are all over the map on these topics.  Not only do they vary widely, they come across as hating each other over these topics.  It is shameful, really how much bickering and controversy exists over such things.  Our group–made up of people from a variety of backgrounds and “persuasions” have taken a very different tack.  We decided to see if we could actually be Christians in the process of the pursuit of such ideas.

The diversity of thought of this group has been superseded only by the the charity of mind. And what I share now in the rest of this article is not only my opinion, it is my evangelistic urging on this topic. 

A Blur of “Right Ways”

There are some things we learn from our ancient and precious scriptures (which have been handed down to us) that are fairly straightforward.  E.g., God is love.  We exist in, with, and by love.  We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, to treat others as we want to be treated.  And more.

There are other things not quite so straightforward.  Historically, many Christians of many backgrounds want to find all the right answers.  Once found, since they are “right”, we then want to insist on them for all. 

On the study of “The Apocalypse of John” (the book of Revelation), 2000 years of Christian history has given us 4 or 5 major competing ways of approaching the book which end in vastly different results.  Such as . . .

  1. Literal
  2. Spiritual
  3. Past
  4. Futuristic
  5. Bla bla bla

And each of these has been split into multiple and competing groups (and they all argue with each other interminably).

Christians then see this and feel like they need to figure out “which one is right?”  As you know, I’m all for deep and detailed study.  The reason is, you get blessed along the way with many things you did not otherwise expect.  Growth is a marvelous thing!  I urge detailed study!

But on this topic, you don’t have to study this for years to figure out that just maybe there is no “one right” solution to “what exactly did/does/will Revelation mean.”   Once you see that all of these very bright people who love the Lord cannot even agree whether the stuff has already happened or not, or when, or how  . . . I just start laughing about it.  I think we’ve had enough history, now, to show us that we are not going to figure all of this out.  What makes us think that we are going to come up with the “one right answer” when nobody has been able to do that for thousands of years (or, more accurately, when so many competing and contradictory groups already have the one right answer, and they all so markedly disagree with each other)?

A Sharper Focus

I think all of the debate is useful and interesting and worth our time.   I also think that, kept in perspective, it can be useful to us.  But in the end, on the topic of the coming of Jesus, the Day of the Lord, the “end of time”, the real meaning of Revelation, and other such things, we should be asking an additional question that we sometimes just entirely overlook. 

  1. We are trained to ask:  “What is the correct answer here?  What did it really mean? Am I believing correctly?”  That can be Ok.  Absolutely, let’s ask these questions.
  2. But maybe we should ask these more often:  “How did this teaching function in the life of early Christians and churches?  Why was it taught, and what outcome was wanted?” 

I think this is especially helpful on the topic we are talking about for this reason:  Consider any approach to Revelation (etc) above—–Past, Present, Future:  all of them!—–and here is the end result: 

We win! So, live up to it!    

In every case in our ancient scriptures, when these things are discussed, they are always discussed as related to the context needed—to help people live and grow.  They are never discussed as individual pieces of a big puzzle, nor are they intended to be “partial revelations” of a larger whole.  They are discussions of the topic within contexts to encourage people to live lives for God.  And when you strip away the context and cram the various naked things into a single puzzle, they don’t exactly fit and they look a lot different.  Why can’t we be satisfied with leaving them where we found them:  in context!  Why do we need a so-called “big picture”? 

A Christmas tree might look beautiful in my home, but it looks a whole lot different (and much more inviting) on the mountainside next to the blue lake from which I cut it down.

I urge all to adopt an attitude of openness and diligence to the ideas of others–especially on this extremely broad-ranged topic.  But we do not need to get tripped up into thinking that these ideas, in the end, are the point of the texts we have.  Let me state it this way:  if you have believed all your life that the “end of time” means the stars literally must fall from the sky, and you die before that happens, what difference will it make?  And if you believe that the Parousia already happened in 70 AD, and he ends up coming tomorrow—are you going to argue about it?  The main question for every position that anyone is taking should be “what difference is this making for how I live now?” 

These are exciting topics—(I sincerely mean that).  I have my opinions about how to best approach all of the texts on this topic.  But the really exciting part is that we win.  And question I have to answer next is:  Since that is true, how do I live now?

Gary D. Collier
Coffee with Paul Classroom
http://www.coffeewithpaul.com

 

“What Do You Mean By Mission?”

I love it when somebody “calls me” on something I said.  It gives me a chance to say more about it. 

And I was.  Called on my usage of the word “mission.”   I used it in that little video I sent you to describe what we are hoping in and by the power of the Lord at CWP.  That video said something like “Bible study as a mission.”

Now, Tresa was not confrontational at all, but eager in wanting to know:  She wrote simply, responding to the 1 minute video:

Wow! I can’t wait — I do have a question — define ‘mission’.  We at [name of college] Athletics are starting (restarting/improving) on our spiritual emphasis in athletics and our student-athletes – the background for my question — your definition could help me help the student-athlete. Missions is an area we are improving/introducing to the student-athlete – local and abroad.  Sounds like exciting times to come– I look forward to finishing the 40 Things and other plans you are working on.

I gave our friend Tresa (whom I don’t know except through this online Bible study) a short reply, but here is a more thorough one in the form of a focused Bible study. I thought that you might appreciate this as well.

Defined

Missions can be defined in a variety of ways, but for our purposes at CWP, we are focusing on the classical meaning of the Greek word apostolos—-and this will serve many audiences and situations.  Many Christians only see in this term the transliteration “apostle,” and they immediately go to the 12 apostles, or even to some modern day uses among some Christian groups of the word “apostle” as a kind of office or position of respect and rank.

But in ancient classical Greek, OT Greek, and at least Paul, the word “apostle” meant an envoy, an emissary, something or someone sent on behalf of another. 

This is especially seen by Paul in 1 Thessalonians (where the CWP Inner Circle will be focusing for about 30 weeks).  In 2:7, he refers to himself and his party as “chosen envoys, sent out by Christ himself” – or more literally as, Christou apostoloi “apostles of Christ.”  The word “Christ” is placed in emphatic position. 

Sailing ships . . . and Kings!

The word apostolos has been the subject of detailed discussion, both for its origins and usage within and outside the NT (see detailed list in BDAG 122; TDNT I:398-447).  I do not translate merely, “apostles of Christ,” because the word “apostle” is so well-known in English (through the NT), that it carries its own special baggage which may hinder readers from seeing the deeper significance of the word as used by Paul in reference to himself.  At issue, here, is how Paul views himself.  Keeping in mind that 1 Thessalonians is likely the first of all documents written that we now have in the NT, we are better to understand that the word apostolos (“one who has been sent on a mission”) would have been understood on the Gentile frontier, not merely through the oral teaching handed down by and about Jesus’ closest followers, but also (1)  in terms of the common usages of the noun-verb word-group, and (2) also in terms of those usages in reference to prophets in the (OT) Scriptures. 

As to the common usage of the word:  The noun apostolos in early Greek (pre- NT) had reference to a naval expedition, ship, or commission, including a letter of authorization for the purpose of sailing ships.  It was only occasionally used of people dispatched for specific purposes such as an ambassador, messenger, or delegate of the King.  Even so, the verb apostello (“to send”) was widely used in Greek documents related to persons of importance in administration and service.  This verb is also used extensively in the Greek OT (LXX) specifically for prophets, and this was certainly one influence of early Christian usage. 

For example, various forms of the verb apostello were key terms describing the call and work of OT prophets, as the following quotes show:

Of the Prophet Moses:

  • “And now, come, I will send (aposteilo) you to Pharaoh” (Ex 3:10)
  • “And here is the sign that I am sending you out (exapostello) (Ex 3:12) (see also for Moses Ex 3:13, 14, 15; 4:28; 7:16; Deut 34:11)

Of Other Prophets:

  • “Whom shall I send? (aposteilo);  “Send me!” (aposteilon me) (Isa 6:8)
  • “I am sending you out (exapostello) to the house of Israel” (Ezek 2:3)
  • “Behold, I am sending out (exapostello) my messenger” (Mal 3:1)
  • “Behold, I am sending out (exapostello) to you Elijah the Tishbite before the great and glorious day of KURIOS comes.” (Mal 4:5 [3:22 LXX])
  • Moses and other prophets are actually called apostles in later writings (see DPL 763a for discussion and references). 
  • The prophet Jeremiah is particularly significant in this respect.  His call by God (Jer 1:4-12) is very significant for understanding Paul in 1 Thessalonians: 

And the Word of the Lord (logos kuriou) came to me saying
Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.
And before you were born, I set you apart (hagiaka – from hagiazo).I destined you as a prophet to the Gentiles (nations)
(propheten eis ethne tetheika se)
And I said, “Oh lord KURIOS (ho despota kurie).  I don’t know how to speak (lalein), I am just a young man.  And KURIOS said to me, “Don’t be saying, ‘I’m just a young man, because to every place that I send you out (exaposteilo), you shall go;  and whatever I command you, you will speak it (laleseis). Do not be afraid to face them because I am with you to rescue you, says KURIOS.

Of Paul as a Prophet:

This call is, of course, reminiscent in several respects of Moses’ call in Exodus (see references above), but also of Paul’s description of his own ministry among the Thessalonians (this will especially be important in Gal 1:15-17).  Whatever the explanation for the adoption of the noun-form, apostolos, Paul now uses this term for his own mandate and mission by God.  He identifies himself as a special envoy of God sent out for a particular purpose of proclaiming the Saving Message of God.  (Now how many applications can you think of for this!) In this respect, he sees himself as no different from the prophets of Scripture who were described using the same terms, having essentially the same kind of call and mission, and facing the same kinds of opponents and struggles.  He will also claim to have the same kinds of abilities and responsibilities in receiving and delivering the Word of the Lord.  (See 1:6-7; 3:3b-4; 4:15-17; 5:19-22)

Of Us:

So, when I speak of “Bible study as mission” I consider us a ship on an expedition, like people with the charge of speaking on behalf of God and helping others do the same.  I realize that “mission” is often used to refer merely to the establishment of churches and the like.  But that is a too narrow usage of the concept.  Helping people to read the Bible responsibly, contextually, and conversationally is a mission worth exuberant embrace in the larger mission of the proclamation of the Gospel. 

So now I ask you . . . what is your mission?

“I Seem to Be Struggling with Bible Study”

Just today I received a public comment about the Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration book that deserves more than a “comment” status.  It is from Lynette—someone I’ve never met.  I have come to know her, though, through this Bible study program.  She has an eagerness that is contagious, and an openness and transparency that is commendable. I’m sharing this because I think some others might identify with her.

Here’s what she wrote (the bold sections were made bold by me):

Let me just say for someone that was raised in the church, I still feel very “new” to all of this. I love the church that I’ve found, my children love it and the pastor and his family are amazing! I however still seem to be struggling with bible study and I have absolutely no idea why. I did read the book, and I got really confused, and scared-no idea why. I gave it to my pastor, he is almost done with it and we will be getting together to discuss and I’m very much looking forward to it. I honestly wouldn’t even stress about those that are being so negative, they are that way only because they don’t know and they are lacking in faith, I don’t know, I don’t understand; however, I have faith and something tells me that what you are saying makes sense! So keep going! I will figure it out I promise, some days I’m just slow out of the gates! As I read the book, at times I did seem to feel like I was understanding, and then the next day I was lost (could be the fibro fog thing honestly) I enjoyed every minute of it, the amount of passion you put into your work does not go unnoticed! I look forward to learning more! I know that I don’t know that Bible as well as I would like, and I crave the knowledge it has to offer and look forward to learning and sharing everything that I can.

I want to thank L. for being so up-front and honest!  Struggling is not a sin;   it is rather a sign of a spirit that wants to know and grow.  It does not mean she will end up agreeing with me.  It means she is thinking.  

L’s admission of being confused and scared will be enough for some to say,”See, look what you are doing to people of faith!”  (I’ve already heard it.)  My reply is simple: Educating people of faith is not something I’m ashamed of.  I would think that being people of faith means that we are also people concerned about truth. And being concerned about truth, we are not afraid to be challenged, or to think seriously about the book we call the most important book in the history of the world.

I am right now having another conversation with a friend about this book:  he is attempting to help me see weaknesses in my argument.   I am grateful for his energy.  I will not quote him directly, but he says (in effect) that the inerrancy of the original autographs is obviously a construct that we have come up with, not specifically stated in the Bible;  but that it is a reasonable construct (he affirms).

When I heard this, I was genuinely nonplussed.  I said in response:

This is almost funny.  Here I am trying to say, ‘Let’s be biblical in our views of the Bible,’  and you are saying that the Bible is not sufficient for that!  Who has the higher view of the Bible?

We are not content with what the Bible does and does not specifically claim.  It is not enough for us.  We have to “fill in the blanks.” We have to sugar-coat it and theologize about it and make up things about it that it does not claim for itself.  Then we teach it to all of our people.  We even require it!  And then we get mad when somebody blows the whistle on us for doing it.

Let us put it this way:  If faith is based on fantasy, or has to be propped up by it, then how is this not another Santa Claus story?

Challenging current theories about the Bible is not the same as attacking the Bible.  Asking people to think about what they believe is not an act of faithlessness.  It is rather not only an act of faith, but an obligation of faith.

I want to thank Lynette for being brave enough to state the truth.  And it is to her, and and any who may feel like her, that I close this piece with what I consider to be a statement of resounding faith and love for the ancient scriptures.  It actually is found in the CWP statement of faith:  it was written before the book was written, and it remains unchanged to this day.  Here is but a piece of it:

This is a faith-based academic effort asserting that the canon of the ancient scriptures is an act of faith in search of a conversation with God. As such, it deserves our very best efforts as we engage both heart (the discipline of faith) and mind (the discipline of academic rigor) in pursuit of a conversation with God.  Not only should the canon be offered words of great respect (as it often is), but it should be pursued with responsibility and integrity (which it often is not). It is not enough that Christians claim a “high view of the scriptures” or “academic excellence,” they must act upon such things or the claims mean nothing. We approach the ancient scriptures energetically.  They are not, however, the object of our worship, but witnesses to the Lord who is. 

Gary D. Collier

 

 

 

Just What Am I Trying to Prove?

If you really want to know the deep dark secret is of “what I’m trying to prove,” I’m gonna tell you.  In this post.  So get your cameras ready.

There is no question about it:  most people who sign up for my “40 Things” Bible class start wondering where in the world I’m going after about lesson 3.  I raise the question of “What is a canon?”  and I eventually get to the question, “Just whose idea is canon?”  People who start out excited, sometimes get scared, or angry, or concerned–and they quit. And they don’t ever get to the really good stuff–which is after lesson 10.  But 1-10 is foundational and must be covered—–up front.  I hide nothing from you.

Nobody wants to be misled.  I don’t, and I know you don’t.  That is why learning to search, to question, to evaluate, and to face tough topics is such an important thing for Christians to do. And that is why I put the controversial stuff right up front.  If you’re willing to think with me, we might just all learn something together.

But when somebody joins this group and writes to me demanding to know the gritty details of just what I’m up to, what church I go to, what I really believe:  I won’t tell them anything. I’ve already been more transparent on my websites about such things than anybody reading the websites.  Some people want to know ahead of time whether I pass inspection.  So let’s answer that:  if you have to ask, then I likely don’t.  So, you can either leave—or you could just listen for a while and evaluate what is being said.

That’s something that many Christians are not very good at:  evaluating ideas on the basis of the worth of the ideas.

I have been asked what new church I’m trying to start?  What crazy cult do I hail from or am I instigating?  One person said “I thought you were a crazy atheist just trying to get attention.”  Well, I hate to disappoint, but I don’t make or drink  Kool Aid—in fact, I don’t even drink coffee!  (which is actually funny).  I have no interest whatsoever in starting a new church.  That would be like having another kid to raise–and after nine of those I’m quite happy not to do that any more.  (I love all my kids!  And I don’t want any more.)

So what is the secret that I’m hiding?  What am I not telling you?

The truth is–and I hope you’re ready for this–the honest truth is . . . I just want to help people study the Bible better.  I’m not so much after what you believe, that is between you and God.  I’m more concerned to challenge you about how you get there (present tense).  Are you going to a church?  Good.  Keep going!  I’m not in competition with any church, any school, any website, or any group that meets anywhere.  I simply want to help people around the world study the Bible better!   That’s my dirty little secret!  (Isn’t that scary?)  As a matter of fact, I’m not only not a threat to anyone, I’m trying to be a “conversation partner” to any serious searcher.

And by the way, if you read my book (Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration) I am NOT attacking the Bible!  If that is what you think, you are not really reading it!  I definitely do challenge what a lot of people think about the Bible, but that is a far cry from attacking the Bible!  As a matter of fact, I am (and my book is) a strong advocate of the inspiration of the ancient scriptures.  Although I refuse to blame God for any particular Christian canon (and I believe that you should refuse to do that too), I strongly advocate that God can work through any of those Christian canons to the glory of Jesus as Lord.  And that (Jesus as KURIOS:  LORD) is the central issue.

Ok, now you know my secret.  I believe that Jesus is LORD.  It once was a mystery, hidden.  But now you know.

Gary