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.

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

Theological Tartar

This is more of a personal posting.  This morning I received an email from someone I’ve never met in reply to my recent post on aliens.  However, this letter then turns to a question of a more personal search for truth.  So, I want to share this letter verbatim without the name of the person who wrote it.  If he or she wishes to “own” the letter, that is up to that person.  The idea of “theological tartar” to describe traditional religious baggage will show up at the very end of my reply.

The Letter

—–Original Message—–
From:
Sent: Monday, August 4, 2014 10:01 AM
To: garydcollier@coffeewithpaul.com
Subject: RE: Did Jesus Die for Aliens, Too?

Good morning Gary,

Thanks so much for sharing this article. I have not seen the complete email from Mr. Ham. But I would venture to say that it possibly falls into the same category as many other so called Christian viewpoints (i.e. does more harm than good). It is very frustrating when someone tries to speak for all “Bible believing Christians”. Unfortunately it tends only to give more ammo against what I believe is the very logical argument for the truth of the Bible and the case for God & Jesus specifically. Once again, I appreciate you passing your thoughts along.

On a separate subject… I am curious where your thinking falls, with respect to many of the opinions of men such as Edward Fudge and Al Maxey? The more I read of their published writings (emails, etc..), the more I tend to lean towards their understanding and opinions on several subjects just as Hell, Grace, Diversity of the believers, etc…Unfortunately, the Independent Christian church where we attend, does not seem to have the same opinions on some of these subjects (Hell specifically). I was raised conservative church of Christ, and my spouse was raised southern Baptist. So we come from a very “works based”, law keeping, background. But once I started reading many of the writings of men such as Carl Ketcherside and Cecil Hook, I started questioning my stance on many topics.

All that said… I guess my main questions are… Do you have an opinion on these men and their writings? And, where do you worship (collectively) at on a regular basis?

Thanks so much for your time and help.

My reply:

Hi, I appreciate your email very much.

My background is also fairly conservative Church of Christ. My first college was Freed Hardeman, which was much more conservative then (late 60’s) than now. I’m actually very grateful for my conservative grounding even though my attitude, demeanor, and focus have changed quite a bit over the years. I am currently attending a local small community church (I live in a small town 50 miles west of Indianapolis), and the only Churches of Christ and Christian Churches are either hard line conservative and don’t want me there or too far for me to drive to economically. The funny thing is, the preacher of the church I attend is a young earther (!), but insists that I teach the Sunday school class and has me preach whenever he is away, and he never tries to put stipulations on anything I would say. I think he appreciates my focus on the scriptures, and certainly he is a good friend. Like any church this one has many good people of various backgrounds and leanings.

I consider Edward Fudge a personal friend, and also appreciate the work of such men as those you mention. I would not say I am a student of any of them (I’m simply not an avid reader of any of them, not that I’m opposed to them), but that is not due to any dissatisfaction so much as my attentions are simply in other places. I agree with Edward that traditional views of hell (prominent everywhere in evangelical circles) is overdone and problematic. I have actually never stated my own views on this topic anywhere, and will not do so here. But I will say that they (my views) are friendly to the efforts of Edward and others, even if they differ on some points as well.

What I love to this day about my upbringing is the emphasis I received on the love and respect for biblical text and about taking it above and beyond any attitude or teaching or tradition I have available to me. If I have a central “heartbeat,” this is it: the love and respect for the ancient scriptures above other forms of Christian focus. (Certainly, not in any Pharisaical sense.)  That is why in every single one of our Coffee With Paul activities (online or “live” or in writing) we emphasize responsible, contextual, and conversational readings of the scriptures. Now this sounds nice and friendly, but the truth is, when we actually do this, that kind of reading of the scriptures itself exposes all of the hardened tartar on our theological teeth.

Again, I thank you for your letter, and I hope I have addressed your questions.

Many blessings,

Gary

______________________

Gary D. Collier
CWP Classroom
http://CoffeeWithPaul.com

PROBE—–Conversation with the Bible

There are many ways or “systems” to help you read the Bible.  All can be useful if you actually use them.  Too often, Bible readers just skim the top and do what they’ve always done.

If you want to read through the Bible in a year or six months or three weeks, you can find schedules to do that. Far too often these have you jumping hopscotch style all over the place.  Frankly, this is madness.  In the long run, it destroys any contextual awareness of the documents being read.   There is nothing wrong with reading the Bible in a year;  but if that’s what you want to do, respect the documents as you read:  read them contextually, beginning to end, without jumping around.

A More Excellent Way

To be a good Bible reader, you don’t have to read the whole Bible every year. In fact, most of the time, it is better to slow down and focus on particular documents for that year—–to read deeply, carefully, and closely.

PROBE is an excellent way to do this.  It takes the best of the Bible reading concerns and puts them into an easy to remember, step-by-step (5 steps) approach so that you don’t forget anything.  It simply encourages good reading habits.  PROBE is an acronym (see below).

I’ll use an example to illustrate.  Jude is an excellent letter to practice PROBE.  Each day you read with a different agenda in mind:

Step 1: Monday:  Pre-read and Preview the text, surveying it.

You skim through it, trying to pick up some highlights.  You take a few notes.  And you pray about it all, of course (as with every reading).

Step 2: Tuesday:  Read and Recap the text in your own words:  just you and this text.

a. You read the whole text through, beginning to end.  As much as possible, in one sitting.  (For Jude, this is easy.)  This is where you read the text multiple times and in multiple translations.  At this point, you ALWAYS stay within this one document, not allowing your reading of it to be contaminated by other texts or ideas.

b. When you finish reading, you recap.  By recap I mean you actually try to provide a “summary” in your own words of what this text says.

Step 3: Wednesday:  Observe the text:  Turn your reading into a conversation with the author.

a. Taking notes, Asking questions, Challenging the Author, Going back and re-reading the text to find answers.

b. You might do word studies here, using resources like Young’s Analytical Concordance, or better, Bible Software (like BibleWorks, Logos, or Lumina) to help you examine the text. (Just stay away from commentaries.  That’s next step.)

c. Also, how is this text related to other texts outside of this one?  If it quotes other texts, read those too.  Not just single verses, but whole contexts.

Step 4:  Thursday:  Brainstorm:  Now, and only now, you’re ready to talk to others.

This is where you invite others to the table: Bible commentators, encyclopedias, and dictionaries;  or friends, or a preacher or teacher.  Just don’t start here! (That is one of the biggest mistakes Bible readers make, starting here.)   Now that you’ve done your own reading work, you can converse with others.   Only now, you invite them as conversation partners.

Step 5:  Friday:  Engage:  Here you focus on “what difference all of this makes for my life!”

What can I do today that will put into practice what I have learned from this document.

This might take hours, days, or weeks to do this.  And Jude is a very good document to practice this with because it is so short.  Even so, this is appropriate for every document (book, letter, Psalm, etc.) of the Bible.

Not New

This PROBE idea is not a new thing:  it is actually the best of Bible reading practices brought into one place—an easy, step-by-step approach that helps you cover all the bases in the most helpful order.  It is reading with a goal in mind:  to put into practice what you read in conversation.

Here is again. . .PROBE_2014_07-30

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.

Conversational Bible Study–A Personal Journey

Behind Coffee With Paul stands the notion of conversational Bible study.

There is nothing mystical or metaphysical about this.  It is just different from what most people do, and it takes a bit of getting used to.  It is all about good Bible study habits.  However, it is approached in a very personal way.  So, this is not weird or some “new alien system” to be forced on Bible study. It is rather good, solid Bible study practice from a perspective of a “live conversation.”  In this post, I want to explore the origins of this concept just a bit in my own transformation.

I have been trained in (and have taught for years) numerous highly technical biblical studies research and study skills.  And I appreciate all of them.  I am not here to denigrate them on any level or to report that I encountered a bright light that showed me the folly of academic study.  Quite the contrary.  For me, the academic studies were a great source of light and they remain so. In fact, one of my goals is to help all kinds of people to be able to tap into such things, even if they themselves are not scholars and don’t want to be.

And yet, a key for me was when I started viewing even my academic study time as a live conversation with the ancient author (no matter who the author was).  At that point, as far as reading the Bible is concerned, several things started happening. 

  1. The most noticeable thing was that the distance between the Bible and me began to melt away.  Despite that many people think “academic approaches” to the Bible are the great Satan of the church, the problem is not academics.  The problem was mere perspective in the use of such sound study tools.
  2. So, as I came closer, I then began see that I was not having just one conversation (just “my God and I,” you know, of pop-Christian lore);  I was rather in a room where God wanted me to personally meet some people like myself.  They were so important to him, that he wanted me to meet each one of them, one at a time.  But this next thing bowled me over—he also wanted them to meet me!  The idea that God loved me as much as Paul, and that he wanted the two of us to meet, was an exhilarating thing for me.    
  3. And so once I met Paul and Matthew and John and the others (and all that goes with that)—all individually—and once I began to listen to each one on his own, carefully and in private, I could see why they sometimes did not get along so well.  (And they did not!  They did not always see eye to eye, and that does not come out simply in a story where Paul tattles on Peter.)  But then I began to see that the more I depreciated their differences, and the more I closed my eyes to them and stopped up my ears, the more I washed out what distinguished them from each other, the more I felt like I had to “make them all say the same thing” even when they did not, and also the more I treated them as if they did not themselves really do anything, it was only God doing it (and so he could only speak with one voice)—the more I did those things, the more I was not listening to any of them, and the more I was, in actuality, depreciating God himself, robbing him of his ability to say to them:  “well done, you are a good and faithful servant.”  Not listening to the variety of voices means I was not listening to God.  I was, instead, listening to other more contemporary voices.
  4. And then my kids came along.  Nine of them altogether—hers, mine, and ours—and I saw so very clearly that trying to treat them “all the same” was not only a dumb idea but impossible, because they were all so very different.  Actually, if I were to have tried to pass a rule that in every situation every child gets equal say, that I would have diminished every child in untold ways.  Actually what was needed were many private conversations in which one child is allowed to express himself or herself.  Only then are group conversations able to work.
  5. And so I began to see that these multiple conversations I was having with the various biblical authors could not be—must not be—regulated or forced to conform either to what another one said, and especially not to standard church or pop-Christian doctrine—not ever. The authors must always be allowed to speak for themselves, despite what (at least some of not many of) the late-great-planet-preachers were saying every Sunday. 
  6. Now of course, it is true that group conversations can be useful and beneficial.  It can be a good thing to compare what these authors might say to each other.  But never until they have been allowed to fully express themselves first and until we are prepared to respect their individual integrity.  Of course, this is hardly the path most taken.  For what is almost universally taught is to drag them all onto the witness stand and make them speak in language that is foreign to them, answering questions they did not address, and then to add up what we make them say into a new and unnatural conglomeration, and then to force that horrific new hodgepodge onto the whole, so that whatever one says, they all must mean.  This is truly the ultimate disrespect we pay to biblical authors—when we make them all say the same things in the service of what we already believe.
  7. I came to see that conversations had to be real and genuine, and that I had to be willing to allow them to say what was on their minds.  

And in doing all of this, something marvelous happens:  the pressure to make everything “fit” vanishes into thin air. For me, this was transformational, and this is why I wrote Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration:  Faith in Pursuit of Conversation——to say that Christians don’t have to close their eyes when reading the scriptures.

In the end, allowing these authors to say what they say is a show of respect, not only to them, but to God who wants you to meet them, each one individually. 

 

Stress, Horoscopes, and the Evils of Bible Reading

Just yesterday I had a conversation with a young woman about the fact that she was a Gemini, and she was explaining to me what all of that meant for how she dealt with the stresses of  life day to day.  This was a not a “die-hard” astrologer, or someone that anyone would consider to be avid about such things, it was just a low-key conversation.  And it caught my attention because I noticed that the way she described using a horoscope was strangely like the way people often read the Bible.   

Now I’m not concerned, here, about the evils of horoscopes.  I’m talking, instead, about the evils of Bible reading. 

In the CWP Inner Circle Bible study program, we are today nearly half-way through our study of 123John and I have a number of things swimming around in my head about life, stress, frustration, time, Bible study, and the “who cares” of it all. 

We all know that stress is nothing new.  However, when we are in the middle of increasingly stressful jobs or family situations or eerie economic times or upsetting social and political unrest or personal burnout or failing personal health (or all of it at once), all we really want to do is find a solution for it all, a way through it or out of it.  Over time, not a whole lot else matters. 

 So, in the face of such things, what difference does focused Bible study make?  Who cares about “contextual” anything?  Who has time for extended jaunts into the black forest of overdone detail?  I mean, what difference does it make whether 1John was written to people being influenced by Gnostic-like thinking?  Who cares if some of them were buying into a philosophy that said Jesus didn’t really come in the flesh, or that he didn’t really die, or that sin is nothing to be concerned about;  a teaching that focused, instead, on highly spiritual principles like “the more we know of the secret mysteries of God, the more we live in the light, and the less all the physical or religious stuff matters”?  So what?

Hmm.  You know, come to think of it, this might even appeal to us!  If we are so overwhelmed at work or by health or with family that we can’t see our a way out of the current mess (or dilemma or whatever we call it), we might be subtly, if not incredibly, open to a mysterious secret of God rushing in from out of nowhere to “get us out of this mess.”  Of course, we don’t call this “salvation” or “forgiveness” or any other overly religious sounding word—we already know we’ve “been saved,” so that’s not the issue;  what we need is real here-and-now deliverance from what is right in front of us.  We want out!

So, with that very real concern weighing over us, pushing our heads down so that we can’t see two feet in front of us, when we as harried bearers of the name of Christ do read a Bible text, we read it eagerly, selfishly, demandingly, having no time for any original intent or contextual consideration, but requiring instead an immediate pay off—“How will this help me now?”  And if we can’t see it immediately, if we don’t feel the weight lessen right now, then we just don’t have time for it.

I don’t intend to say this gently.  This kind of mindless, spineless reading of the Bible is its own proof of why contextual, responsible Bible study is needed, especially by the people who just don’t have time for it.  This in no way de-contextualizes your own pain or horrid circumstances;  it does not deny the reality of suffering or frustration or anger or even abuse by others.  In fact, it does just the opposite.  It honors and respects your pain and it says this:

If you want to deal with the realities of the things overwhelming you, if you really want a way out, you must face it contextually in your own life (i.e., directly, squarely, completely), and not just hurriedly, demandingly, and selfishly, with wishful thinking.  When you read the Bible only for fast, unconsidered answers, you are not looking for God or for what he has to say;  you are looking for a favorable horoscope—–or perhaps for a genie.

If you really want help from the Bible, you should understand this point:  just as your life has a context with many ebbs and flows and complexities, so does the Bible.  Don’t expect cheap, off the top, “magical” approaches to the Bible to offer lasting aid for your real-life situations.  Instead, engaging in sustained, careful, contextual readings of the Bible will help to arm you for all kinds of situations you might face.  

If you want your daily horoscope, read the newspaper—–and don’t expect much.  But when you pick up your Bible, come ready for a real conversation.

Book Review: Introduction to Biblical Studies (by Steve Moyise)

I was delighted to receive in the mail today the book entitled Introduction to Biblical Studies by Steve Moyise (professor of biblical studies at the University of Chichester, UK).  This is the third edition (2013), but I will simply treat it as a new book for those who have never heard of it before.  This book is written for non-specialists, an introduction for general readers that summarizes the study of the Bible among scholars.  It is a wonderful overview being only 152 pages before about 25 pages of appendices.

This is an excellent introduction to the topic for people who have never before surveyed this area.  There are nine chapters including:

  1. God in the Bible
  2. Historical approaches: the search for sources
  3. Historical approaches: the search for context
  4. Historical approaches the search for intentions
  5. Historical approaches: the text of the Bible
  6. Literary approaches: how do texts affect readers?
  7. The role of readers: gender, ethnicity and social location
  8. The role of readers: reading against the grain
  9. Theological approaches

Moyise writes so that anyone can understand.  Although he could certainly be criticized for leaving vast amounts of material unrehearsed, his intent is to give a survey of Biblical studies among scholars from the vantage point of someone in a U2 spy plane at the height of about 70,000 feet.  In that respect this is an excellent introduction.

The advantage of such a book it is in bringing perspective.  This can help someone, for example, who has been introduced to a number of Biblical scholars (say, through commentaries or the like), but do not understand how they fit into the larger picture of Biblical scholarship.  It can help such readers to make sense out of the lay of the land.  It can also help readers who have never been exposed to this discipline, and who may only have read the Bible through their church traditions or personal habits.  Such a book can help to make people aware of larger issues in reading sacred literature.

On the other hand, reading this book will not give anyone a new skill.  For example, you will read about redaction criticism, or form criticism, or historical criticism, or feminist readings of scripture, but you will not become proficient in any sense in any of these disciplines.  This could of course simply add to the confusion of some readers who may feel overwhelmed by the variety of types of reading found among Biblical scholars, and no doubt some already entrenched readers might simply dismiss such a variety in favor of the simpler approach that they have either been taught or have practiced most of their lives.  However, the purpose of the book is actually to help those people to be able to broaden their understanding and to make sense out of such a variety.  In effect, it should say to them:  “You are not the only one who reads the Bible;  there is a vast community of people doing that, some of whom have spent their lives in doing so.  It will help you if you read in conversation with such people.”  

In each of the chapters, Moyise briefly lays out the parameters of the issues involved, and he talks about those parameters from the standpoint both of conservative scholars and those not so conservative.  He makes an attempt to be as objective as possible in the presentation without showing particular favoritism.  He not only offers summaries of such approaches, but he also gives specific examples to illustrate his points.  Most of the examples he chooses are exceptionally well laid out, and they go a long way for illustrating the point he is trying to make.  He does not hide from controversial issues, nor does he try to force them.

For example on page 57 he states:

The disappointing conclusion is that apart from the early letters of Paul (49-55 CE) and perhaps the Gospels of Mark (65-68 CE) and John (c. 95 CE), there is very little consensus concerning the rest of the New Testament.  In general, scholars tend to be either “early daters” or “late daters”, though some are content to outline the main options without coming down on a particular side.

He then offers a brief summary of the dating of New Testament documents showing the variety side-by-side in a helpful chart.  If nothing else, this should say to readers that we are probably wise in guarding against being too dogmatic about such things.

Moyise deals with both Old Testament and New Testament topics, and he gives illustrations from both.  Although he is certainly interested in showing a variety of scholarship that exists, he is careful to illustrate his points by using specific texts and shows the implications of interpretation rather than simply trying to champion one scholar over another.  In other words, this is more about understanding the Bible that it is making sure you know who’s who in scholarship.

The last several chapters of the book deal specifically with readers and understanding processes.  The chapter titles show the topics, but one example will be given for interpreting the letters of Paul.  I offer this because at the time of this writing in our Coffee with Paul studies we are working through the letter of Galatians.  So this is appropriate to our discussions. 

The question is about the interpretation of Galatians 2:16 and Romans 4:5 (which talk about justification by faith), as contrasted with statements by Paul found in Romans 2:6, 7, and 13 (which connect “righteousness” with “doers of the law”).  About this Moyise states on p 116:

Generally speaking, protestant have taken Galatians 2:16/Romans 4:5 as expressing what Paul “really” means and have attempted to explain (away) passages like Romans 2.  But taking the lead from [E. P.] Sanders, scholars from the so-called “new perspective” have tried to integrate them.  The most important point is that Paul’s “faith and works” contrast is only prominent in Galatians and Romans, where the issue under discussion is whether gentile Christians are obliged to take up the Jewish law.  Paul is not accusing his ancestral faith of legalism.  He is attacking Christians who are trying to force the Gentile converts to take up the law.  Even Peter appears to be implicated in this.

This is not presented as the one true and final answer on the topic, but as how Sanders and others in the “new perspective on Paul” address the topic.  Moyise is very consistent in providing a fair summary of the parameters of such discussions.

I highly recommend this book for all readers who would like to have a better perspective of how their commentaries and Bible translations might fit into the larger discussion of how the Bible is being approached by Biblical scholars.  Even more than that, I recommend this book as a way for readers to expand their own horizons to see Biblical scholars as conversation partners in the quest that we all have for understanding the Bible.  This is not simply an academic verses a practical approach to the Bible.  This is really about how we understand the Bible and how we should go about reading the Bible and applying it to our situations today.  Realizing that Biblical scholars can be used as conversation partners can help all of us to think through issues that affect the way we read and apply the Bibles to our everyday lives. 

The bottom line is, this is a very practical book and I highly recommend it.   

“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