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.

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.

4th of July, Biblical Civilization, Atheism, and Conversation

To all US citizens, happy 4th of July. May this be a time of reflection on the best of our hopes, while we also consider the worst of our failures as a diverse and imperfect people.

In honor of this day, I recently recommended to the very energetic online Coffee With Paul Bible Study partners two fairly recent academic (you have been warned) discussions:

Biblical Criticism and the Decline of America’s Biblical Civilisation, 1865-1918  by Mark Noll, 2013 Astor Lecture, Oxford University.   The lecture is a detailed and probing history of post American civil war readings of the Bible, centering around the key date:  1876.  If you listen carefully, there are plenty of applications for why people read the Bible the way they do in any era.  Mark Noll is a prominent evangelical historian and theologian who also is the author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1995) which states:  “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind,”  and which asks, “why has the largest single group of religious Americans, who enjoy increasing wealth, status, and political influence, contributed so little to rigorous intellectual scholarship in North America?”  The audio is not about that topic.  (1 hour, audio only).

The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin. A stimulating panel discussion by atheist Richard Dawkins, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and philosopher Anthony Kenny.  Although all three accept evolution as a fact, that is not the point of the discussion (and is not the point of my sharing this).  The point is rather with the way in which the discussion was conducted and the stimulating way in which questions were asked and engaged. This was held at Oxford University in Feb 2012. (Video 1.5 hours).

The Question

So I presented this to my online study partners, and one very astute member of the group, after listening to the first recording, commented and asked (in part):

Q:  “Critical thinking should not cause a person to lose Faith or discard the Bible as myth. So what would a true Biblical Civilization look like?”

This is a great observation and question. When faith is afraid to face honest and legitimate questions with reasonable answers, it is “chicken faith,” not Christian faith.  While I don’t want to accuse people of this (and sit in judgment on others), I also don’t want this to mark my own faith.  Hence the book:  Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration.  That is the entire concern of that book.  Christians need to be able to face up to realities about the Bible and AT LEAST engage in reasonable discussions about such things.

This reminded me of something I saw on space.com recently: a beautiful picture of the “stunning new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of NGC 2467” (an actual star nursery)—a picture that would make any astronomy enthusiast beam with joy—right next to the most unlikely ad for this page. Here it is:

astronomy-astrology

Astrology and Astronomy. What a combination!

It immediately struck me that this aptly represents just how Christians often (or normally) read the Bible—in popularized, hop-scotch, horoscope fashion. The fact is, many might define “Biblical Civilization” as just such a thing! However, Bible readers should have no more patience for this kind of approach to the Bible than astronomers do for astrology.

A Biblical Civilization

This is why I also liked the second listed video (above).  In that video, atheist Richard Dawkins asks a very legitimate question to the Archbishop about “why God waited 4.7 billion years (or whatever) to finally get to the point,” and then again, “why should we turn to ancient sources in the first place?”  They were running out of time, so a good answer didn’t happen, but I still respected the way the question got asked and how the Archbishop (quickly) replied.

Part of my own answer (because I DO accept a 4.7 billion year span) is that Dawkins, who does not believe in God in the first place, is making all kinds of unwarranted assumptions about “what God would have to be like.”  In other words, even accepting a 4.7 billion year time before humans (which you might not accept, but that is not the point—let’s stay on this point!), I am not bound by somebody else’s opinion and assertion of what God must be like or what he must do, or what must be important for him, especially by somebody who thinks God is a “ghost” anyway.

Who says that God did not or could not “delight in” or enjoy every single minute of the 4.7 billion years that existed before all of the kids were born?

Now, I’m attempting to offer some levity, but the point is quite serious.  I am respecting Dawkins’ question and asking him right back:

Accepting your assumptions about time, who are you to say that there could be no divine purpose to a long creative process, or that purpose can only exist when humans come along? Or what God can or can’t be? Or how God must act? And who are you to tell me that the Bible must be read in such a shallow way?  I get that enough from Christians, I don’t have to accept those kinds of assumptions from them OR you!

Again, the question Dawkins asked is a good and legitimate question and deserves a good and reasonable answer from believers.  (And my answer is, the Bible makes no claims about such things and was not written to such questions. So I don’t have to submit to your forced opinions about such things any more than I do from some Christians.)

So, I offer this as food for thought: A “Biblical Civilization” would NOT be one that is bound by only one particular view of how the scriptures apply to current questions.  (That means that a “Biblical Civilization” will be one of disagreement and discussion, not lock-step conformity!) Rather a “Biblical Civilization” would be one of vibrant, open discussion of this question: “How do we apply ancient texts to current contexts?”   And that right there is the most important question current readers of the Bible have to deal with.

Now, in that enterprise, Dawkins is ill equipped and totally off base.  But so are most Christians!   Dawkins (and most atheists I am aware of) fight against one particular kind of Christian viewpoint about the Bible, and then call it “the Bible!”  Most Christians comply by accepting that approach!

I absolutely do not.  A responsible and contextual reading of the scriptures considers first and foremost two things:

(1) Why these texts came into existence in the first place.

(2) Why they were kept and handed on by others.

It was NOT because the questions we are asking nowadays were being asked by them.  It was because other questions were being asked, and we have largely forgotten those questions and those contexts.   Genesis is not addressing the questions that science is asking today.  And whenever Christians accept that platform (which most conservative approaches do), they have already shown that they don’t understand the nature of their own book!  This is exactly why Christian teachers sometimes use texts out of context when they know better.  It is because they are often more motivated by the “right answers” they already know are true than they are by the integrity of the texts they have right in front of them.

I suggest that a “Biblical Civilization” would be comprised of people energetic and responsible in discussion about our ancient and precious texts.  And it would carry on this conversation without wrangling or frothing at the mouth.  A “Biblical Civilization” would be a searching civilization.

Gary