Category Archives: Bible


I’ve been musing over some things I read in the notes to my chronological Bible recently. They seemed to me to suggest a compelling parallel between post-exilic Jews and modern American Christians.

In the transition into the book of Esther, the commentary points out that the book’s purpose was to encourage Jews living in a foreign land. “These Jews of the Diaspora (meaning “dispersion”) faced different pressures and different problems than those Jews who had returned to Palestine,” it explains. The religion of the Diaspora had certain characteristics, such as the tolerant attitude toward intermarriage. Earlier in the Old Testament, Phinehas skewers Israelites who marry people of other faiths, and later, after Esther, Ezra and Nehemiah make it a priority to confront intermarriage. But Esther’s marriage to Ahasuerus is depicted as a good and saving event in the book of Esther.

Also, while Palestinian Jews were very vocal and demonstrative about their faith, Diaspora Jews kept a low profile. Though ultimately she’s willing to die for her faith, Esther doesn’t tell her husband that she’s a Jew until it becomes essential to the survival of her people. And in the way the story is told, we see a similar reticence, for it tells the story of God’s salvation of the Jews without ever mentioning God’s name.

Palestinian Jews’ faith in this period has a very different character. It’s more outward and demonstrative. These Jews had returned to their homeland and were reclaiming territory they saw as rightfully their own. But it shares with Diaspora religion a focus that’s more Book-centric than temple-centric. Even though the Temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem, the Exile had changed the emphasis from the Temple to the Law. That’s why Ezra’s priestly heritage is so important, and why he points to his knowledge of Scripture as proof of his authority — rather than to the King who gave him permission to rebuild the wall.

All of this raises questions for me. For one, did God allow the Exile only as discipline, and was it merely tragic for the Jews — or did God really send it partly for the express purpose of transforming the Jewish faith, making it less about the objects and traditions, and more about His word? Did He want the Temple destroyed because it had warped the relationship between God and His people by becoming an idol?

For another, which branch of post-exilic Judaism does the American church resemble most closely? A goodly number of evangelicals would say, speaking as if from a majority position, “we are a Christian nation and must get back to our roots.” I have a hard time seeing this. But in any case, it resembles the more outspoken faith of Palestinian Jews who were in their own territory than that of the Diaspora Jews who were trying to maintain their identity in hostile territory.

I wonder, ultimately, if the American church labors under a false sense of itself as representing Palestinian-style faith, when in fact it is essentially “dispersed,” and would be better off adopting a more Diaspora-style perspective. There have after all been many “dispersals” for a once-unified, coherent expression of faith. The splintering into denominations. The movement, so much like that of the ancient Jews, away from knowledge of God to Temple-centric (institution-centric) faith — mere cultural Christianity. The divergence between faith and practice (read any poll on marital faithfulness or divorce rates in evangelicals). The slide from love for people to political stances. These and many other forces have weakened and splintered the church.

The good news is that in cultures where Christians recognize their Diaspora-state, Christianity is on the rise. The problem in this country is that we may fail to rightly assess our condition. Look around and try to see this as a culture in which Christianity has any momentum at all. Perhaps we are not “heirs apparent” to a Promised Land, but a people in exile right here on our native soil, in urgent need of repentance and revival. Perhaps like the Jews of the Diaspora, our faith should be less noisy and more real.

Violence in the Bible: Some Useful Sources

I think I’m done writing out my questions and thoughts-in-process on this subject for awhile. (I’m actually taking a reading detour into an Elizabeth Goudge novel right now and leaving this pot to simmer in the back of my mind and heart.) But I want to record here a few of the relevant ideas and resources that I’ve come across in recent weeks. In the comments, some others have indicated similar questions, so I’m sharing these for anyone interested in checking them out.

1.) This past Sunday, my pastor preached a sermon called “Holy Violence.” The podcast is here. He packs a lot in, including the relationship between Genesis 15:16 and the later wars against the Canaanites, as well as a consideration of the whole idea of God’s wrath. I’m grateful for his perspective on all of this, and I believe you will be too if you listen.

2.) Greg Boyd has a series of blog posts about the Bible’s violence at his blog. He is kneading some of the issues and ideas that will be developed in his forthcoming book Crucifixion of the Warrior God. The book won’t be out for another 18 months or so, but you can get a taste of some of the thinking behind what he calls “The Cruciform Thesis.”

3.) Boyd touched on the subject of violence in his book Letters from a Skeptic, which represents his thinking as of several years ago. The upcoming book will not necessarily reflect these same ideas in this form, but they have still fed into my own recent engagement with this subject. Here is an excerpt from the book:

Jesus Christ is the person in whom God is fully revealed. This, for me, must be my central definition of God. Whatever else God is like, He can’t be different from the God I encounter here. “If you see Me,” Jesus says, “you see the Father” (John 14). If something in Scripture appears to contradict this, I must confess ignorance and suspend judgment. I don’t always know why God did what He did in the Old Testament. But since I know on other grounds that God is all-loving and all-wise, I must simply trust that He had wise and loving reasons for doing what He did.

He moves on there to talk about

  • …how “intensely violent” and “power-driven” the ancient world was; he discusses some aspects of Canaanite culture and concludes, “perhaps one of the reasons God had to use violence in the Old Testament was because violence was the only way of accomplishing what He wanted to accomplish…”
  • “Perhaps the death of certain people was, in certain circumstances, the lesser of two evils. Do we not also believe that death is sometimes preferable to life? If, with this, one considers God’s universal perspective, one must ask not only what is the lesser of two evils for the individuals involved, but what is the lesser of two evils for the entire world throughout history?…”
  • “If one believes in an afterlife, as I do, then the death of the Canaanites is not really the end of their life at all. It may be just the beginning of an eternal life with God. What God does for historical purposes is not necessarily an indication of how God judges people eternally. And in this light, the death of certain Canaanite people, especially the children, could be seen as an act of mercy. Perhaps they were spared the hellish life (and afterlife) they would have had if they had grown to maturity…”

Now, all of this is excerpted from his book, and if it piques your interest I urge you to get ahold of a copy and read it so you can see the full development and context of these ideas. I am giving only brief quotations here and that never does full justice to someone’s thoughts.

4.) If you’d like to get a sense of Eric Seibert’s overarching themes in The Violence of Scripture, he wrote some guest blog posts over at Peter Enns’ blog: here, here, and here. Dr. Seibert’s book was helpful to me as a survey of both the troubling texts in Scripture, and the ways they have been used to justify violence throughout history (including in America). But though I agree that the Bible’s historical context is important, I don’t have quite so limited a view of its authority, so I didn’t find his recommendations for how to deal with the Bible’s violence that helpful. (I think the way certain elements in evangelicalism are attacking him is inexcusable.)

There are aspects of all these sources that I agree with, disagree with, and am up-in-the-air about, but here they are for anyone who’s interested.

The Violence of Scripture

“Is this a good story, or a bad story?”

Some friends were over, and the kids were watching Prince of Egypt. They were up to the plagues, before we even got to the part where the firstborn sons are all killed, and before the Egyptian army and all their horses are drowned, when the little boy asked his question.

poeIt’s a good question. I suppose the answer is, “It’s both — depending on your perspective.” For the Egyptians, it was a bad story. For the Israelites, it was a good story — or at least, they seemed to think so. They broke out the tambourines and sang and danced. (Remember when the Palestinians did this on 9/11?) That leads me to believe it’s a bad story for everyone. When we sing and dance over death, we are damaged people.

Lately I’ve felt like a deer in the headlights as I’ve been thinking about the many examples of violence, conquest, oppression, and in general moral atrocity in the Bible. How have I lived with this book for so long without facing it?

If you’re like me, you’ve woven an intricate dance through the Scriptures, perpetually adjusting your orientation so that these troubling scenes are in your peripheral vision. Once in awhile you don’t spin fast enough, and you come up against something unspeakable face to face:

  • Egyptian bodies washed ashore to the sound of gleeful singing (I have sung along with the catchy “Horse and Rider song” that was popular in the 80′s)
  • Foreign priests lured into a temple and then summarily executed
  • Jericho, in which men, women, children, and animals are slaughtered
  • Abraham sacrificing Isaac; Jephthah sacrificing his daughter
  • War — first in a long list of “holy wars” for which God’s will is used as justification
  • Slavery, rape, kidnapping (the virgins of Jabesh-Gilead are taken as prisoners of war and forced to marry the Benjamites)

There are lots of other examples, and The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy sets these and many more before us. Author Eric Seibert calls it “virtuous” violence — in other words the violence is depicted as good and necessary in some way. Sometimes God orders it in the text (Canaanite genocide); sometimes it’s written into the laws (capital punishment); sometimes it is more cryptic or ambiguous whether God approves of it or not (Jephthah sacrificing his daughter). In several instances (Ezekiel, Nahum…) metaphors of sexual abuse are developed to illustrate God’s wrath at various cities. (I have to wonder if these texts would have even made it into the canon if they had depicted sexual violence against men.)

If you grow up in the church, you become desensitized. All the tales become fodder for abstract spiritual lessons without your having ever been encouraged to see them at their literal level. Seibert calls it “textual blindness”: “We have grown so familiar with these violent stories, and with certain sanitized ways of reading and hearing these stories, that we fail to notice what they are actually saying.”  I feel a little angry about that official sanitizing. I admit it. None of us probably has to look very far back to see an example of it. As someone who has been fed these tales since childhood, I feel I haven’t been well-served.

One of the experiences that led me to home school was when my oldest daughter was in kindergarten and heard the Easter story. She exclaimed, “That’s terrible!” and then looked at me very hard, very searchingly. She was looking for confirmation that she was really hearing it right, and that her response was right. It was a teachable moment, an opportunity to affirm her natural sense of right and wrong and her tender heart. The crucifixion is terrible (and some aspects of its traditional western interpretation that emphasize God’s wrath and turning away from Jesus as he dies are equally terrible). But there are lots of other terrible things in the Bible too, and I haven’t named them for what they are. I get all up in arms about the violence people allow their young children to watch in movies, but I remain silent about the battle of Jericho. I am pro-life, yet I haven’t noticed that Abraham and Isaac, or Jephthah and his daughter (for whom no ram is provided), or the numerous children killed in biblical battles, devalue human life on a grand scale.

I believe there has been a level of conditioning that has encouraged my “textual blindness.” But ultimately I have to take responsibility for any callouses on my moral sensibility. Children don’t have that callous. And having children is among the first of the pricks that have pierced mine.

When I look down deep, I see that the way I’ve always dealt with this is by believing that the ancient Israelites simply got it wrong. This belief has been fuzzy and undefined, lurking there and producing cognitive dissonance alongside my belief that the Bible is God’s word (something I still believe, let there be no doubt). How can the God who forbade murder order it on so many occasions? How can the God who was always headed toward redemption of the whole world be so selective about the value of human life in the Old Testament? “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed,” he says to Abraham in Genesis 12. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son,” Jesus echoed in John 3. How can the God whose ultimate judgment on all violence and killing was pronounced from a cross where he bore it all demand it so many times?

I realize that this sounds like I’m being pretty free with Scripture. But the truth is that I know of no one who doesn’t do this already — who doesn’t write off large chunks of Old Testament morality. Today if a parent kills a child, it is universally condemned. Today when one country invades another because they believe themselves to be entitled to the land, there is an international response. Rightly so. Is this because we believe God’s moral standard has changed? Or because our cultural conditioning has changed?

Maybe it seems to put us in less stable territory to suggest that there are things in the Bible that reflect the human vessels through whom God spoke, but it’s no less stable than it had ever been. If we believe in inspiration of Scripture, be acknowledge a level of cultural conditioning in the human minds through which God works as he conveys his word. I guess this book has made me think seriously about moving the boundaries I’ve placed circumscribing the divine word within the human vessels. It’s a smaller territory than I thought — unless I believe that God’s moral sensibility is accurately reflected in some of these stories.

I am amazed by the humility of a God who is willing to be so misrepresented, willing to work with such desperately misguided and self-involved creatures as we are. In Jesus we see a God willing to humble himself “even to death on a cross.” In Scripture, perhaps we see a God equally willing to humble himself to violence done to his character through our human terms. He overcomes both sets of strictures: the cross, by returning to life; the violence in the Bible, by managing to convey a clear redemption narrative across the whole sweep of history and the intricate and often confusing polyphony of the biblical writers. Though I am beginning to believe he is victimized by having words put into his mouth that he didn’t say in the Old Testament, the events of history (Jesus) and the fulfillment of prophecy (the promised Messiah, the suffering servant) indicate that he triumphs over these limitations and his character is revealed in the person of Jesus. Enough truth gets through to validate the Bible’s overarching message.

I keep veering away from talking about The Violence of Scripture.

Honestly, I’m not sure I recommend this book. It is helpful in a limited way. It locates the hard parts of the Bible very well, and it assures us that we’re right in seeing serious confusion in the moral picture of the Old Testament. Seibert also lays out a number of historical events in which the Old Testament has been used to justify atrocities.

But I part ways with Seibert in several regards. For one thing, what seems to be his primary motivation is preventing further misuse of Scripture to justify violence, whereas my interest is in clarifying the character of God. For another, Seibert’s solution is changing how we read Scripture to “reading nonviolently.” This involves using the ethics laid out in some of Scripture — what he calls its “normative” pattern — as a lens through which to judge what we read, and I’m fine with that. But he also recommends various other “reading strategies” that I am more dubious about: filling in the gaps in the stories with our own imaginative material; using literary deconstruction to make sophisticated analyses of the ancient texts; censoring the Bible for children. (In this last item I wouldn’t argue that all the stories in the Bible are suitable for children, but I favor a developmentally appropriate approach that introduces different parts of the Bible at different ages rather than censorship or rewriting. For instance, at one point Seibert recommends excising the verses where David says God is with him when he fights Goliath, then following up the story with lots of imagining how Goliath might have felt.)

To me the elephant in the room with a book like this is, who needs a holy book if you know better than it does? Who needs a holy book that has to be censored and heavily superscribed with your own enlightened editorial judgments and additions? And who, certainly, needs a holy book that can’t be understood without the techniques of postmodern literary theory? At times Seibert assures us that there is much to be appreciated in the Bible, and he speaks from a believer’s perspective. But overall I found his attitude toward it to be too condescending to be of much use.

The-Violence-of-ScriptureIn the end it’s the Holy Spirit — who, we believe, inspired the biblical writers in the first place — to whom we must appeal for help in understanding his book. I don’t believe these matters are intellectual so much as spiritual. God will help us to push all the way through to meaningful answers. (He has already begun to do this.)

I can look back and see what I believe to be a long accumulation of answered prayers in my life, many of them prayers for understanding. But one stands out. It was when I was in my twenties and had gone through a period of rebellion, and now I was repenting. I regretted the way I had spent that year and realized that I couldn’t make things all better; such damage as was done, was done. But God forgave me. I remember crying off and on for several days in a curious combination of grief and joy, sorrow  and grace. It’s the most real, most powerful marker in my spiritual life. A church kid, I saw my sinfulness at last. And I knew God’s love and grace. That’s who he is: he is beyond intellectual precept or emotion, and he gives us his Spirit to meet us, to provide for every need of our souls. Surely one such need is for wisdom regarding his written word, and I believe he is the one who clarifies all that’s confusing or false.

Lent begins today. I guess what I’m giving up is some of my security in how I think of Scripture. I’m giving it back to God. I am probably giving up some of my security in my community too, because these are very uncomfortable issues and questions for evangelicals. These are the kinds of questions that can lead one to stumble in their faith. Yet I still believe a faith that never works through them is ultimately in more danger. God asks for more than mere intellectual assent; he asks for our trust. That’s what makes it so important to face these questions honestly. God is big enough.

Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith

Natures Witness coverRecently a question occurred to me: what if the way we read the Bible is all wrong? Typically we approach it with the idea that the world was perfect until humans messed it up through sin. Jesus came and gave it all a partial fix. Now we can be restored to relationship with God, and live out our lives knowing that we’ll go to Heaven when we die. Meanwhile life on earth gets worse and worse, and the end seems to be approaching, but God tarries because he is gracious.

Lately, bothered by the pointlessness in this view of even redeemed human life, and equally bothered by the awareness that there was plenty of death and suffering on earth even before humans came on the scene, it’s occurred to me that maybe creating humanity in the first place was God’s first movement toward redemption: the creation of “rulers.” Then Jesus came, a divine corrective and clarification of our understanding of humanity’s role in creation. Now the Holy Spirit inhabits us, and we are granted access to a whole dimension “by faith” whereby we are supposed to be doing what Adam and Eve were originally supposed to do: “rule,” or “tend,” the creation as God’s representatives, made in his image. Rather than awaiting a transformed world in the distant future, the Kingdom is operative now. This is what Jesus said, after all. But looking at our typical experience of the Christian life, it’s hard to see it in action. Could we be missing something important, simply because we are looking through the wrong glasses?

I’ve been picking this idea up and putting it down, not sure if I’m being heretical or not. I’ve even written about it here, in a post I published privately, as I do with all my potentially heretical posts. Imagine how I felt when I encountered a similar idea in the pages of Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith. Except here it is developed more fully, and set into a fuller context of both science and theology. Perhaps, writes Daniel Harrell,

creation is not so much something good that went bad but something started as good that just is not yet done. It’s as if redemption was the purpose from the beginning. It’s as if the creation is being pulled, called toward that day when all things become radically new in Christ. If perfection never was and is “not yet,” the appearance of evil and suffering (including the suffering and struggle depicted by Darwinian science) is no longer inconceivable. That the serpent got into the garden may suggest that everything was not yet right with the world, even before everything went wrong… What this entails is that you flip your Bible around and read the end as the beginning. Instead of Genesis, what if Revelation is the more plausible place from which to view God’s creative design? What if the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21:1) already exist in eternity, and we’re just waiting for our experience to catch up with that reality — a compression, if you will, of eternity and time.

Daniel M. Harrell is a long-time pastor and has a doctorate in developmental psychology, and in this book he takes up the subject of evolution and whether it can be harmonized with Christian faith. Often Christians approach science defensively, rather than remembering that if all truth is God’s truth, and if God is the Creator of nature, science too will attest to his character and authority. Harrell points out that science and faith once had a cooperative interest in studying the natural world, but in more recent times, not so much because of scientific knowledge but because of the competing interpretations given to it by some branches of science and the church, this relationship has become much more wary.

This book is a model for how to explore the subject of evolution from a Christian perspective. “Christian theology doesn’t have to submit to accurate scientific findings, only to account for them,” Harrell explains. “Authentic faith strives to believe in what is rather than in what we wish was. All truth is God’s truth, however you look at it and whether you like it or not.”

This is not always easy, of course, and sometimes we need some help thinking things through. I’m an example of that. It’s not that I have intellectual problems with the idea that God could have used evolution; it’s that evolution involves so much pain and death and time that it seriously challenges my understanding of God’s love and his personal nature. This is something Harrell has felt too:

Theology teaches me that the character of creation reflects the character of the Creator — God’s beauty and order and goodness and purposefulness. But as soon as you start thinking about what an evolving creation truly reveals — namely, cruelty and disorder and indifference and randomness — you can’t help but wonder about your faith and about the God to whom that faith points.

Delving with equal energy into both science and theology, Harrell confronts such questions head on. Nature’s Witness is a veritable popcorn popper of ideas, and it will bear (it will require) rereading at some point when my brain has peeled itself off the floor and recovered from the intense workout these pages necessitated. It’s 137 pages long and relatively fast-paced, and it proceeds, I felt, in a somewhat cyclical fashion — ideas and questions surface and resurface rather than being pinned down, exhaustively detailed, and then left there. I found the reading experience to be a little frustrating in this respect. The book’s organizational pattern wasn’t always clear to me as I was reading (which naturally could be my own fault and not the book’s), so I wasn’t able to assimilate the material as well as I would have liked to.

However I don’t have any regrets about reading it, or any annoyance at the prospect of rereading it. In fact I was reminded that one of my main reasons for reading is companionship. I read for instruction too, and for entertainment. But when you’re troubled by questions that strike at the heart of your faith, and unsure of how to move through them systematically, the right book at the right time is — well, an answer to prayer. Even the 10 pages or so of nothing but questions about three quarters of the way through. We all have questions, but too often and for too long they have been casualties of the wars between science and faith, and between biblical literalism and whatever you call its alternative (it can make the Darwinian struggle for survival look pretty tame). We’re all in this together, and this book met a need I have for those questions to be given a full hearing.

I can’t conclude without mentioning that Nature’s Witness is also entertaining. It’s written accessibly, and there are dialogues and jokes sprinkled throughout. As a reward for anyone who’s made it all the way to the end of this post, here is one example:

My uncle told me this joke: Adam is lonely and moping around the garden, so God says to him, “I can make a companion for you. She will harvest the garden and cook you delicious meals. She will tidy up the house and do the dishes. When you disagree, she will always admit she’s wrong first, and she’ll never have a headache.” Bowled over, Adam says, “What will that cost me?” The Lord replies, “An arm and a leg.” Thinking about it, Adam then counters, “What can I get for a rib?”

The Evolution of Adam

evolution-of-adamIt’s hard to know where to begin writing about the experience of reading The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins. It isn’t a book about evolution, which the author accepts as a true account of human origins. It’s a book about the Bible, one that challenges us to think about how our view of Adam needs to evolve in the face of the archaeological and scientific discoveries since the 19th century. I found it to be a fascinating, informative, sometimes destabilizing, ultimately exhilarating read.

Biblical scholar Peter Enns has packed a lot into this fairly slim volume. The first half of the book focuses on Genesis (with discussion of the Old Testament in general) within its cultural context. Enns argues that Genesis shares many similarities with the stories of origins by other (older) ancient Near Eastern cultures. He proposes that the Old Testament was assembled after Israel’s exile to Babylon, including the Pentateuch (which we might have been taught was written by Moses close to the events it recounts). The overarching purpose of the Old Testament writers, Enns suggests, is self-definition. They were engaging questions like, “Who are we? Do we still have a special relationship with God even after all that’s happened to us?”

The second half of the book focuses on the apostle Paul’s teaching about Adam, and the way he used Old Testament writings (especially the Adam story) creatively to make his case for Christ. I learned so much about the biblical scholarship of Paul’s time, and it became apparent to me that the way Adam is understood has already undergone significant evolution. Enns makes the case that a historical Adam is not essential to acceptance of Paul’s teaching about Christ as God’s solution to the problems of sin and death.

Enns’ purpose in writing is essentially pastoral; he wants to show that a strictly literal reading of the Bible does both the Bible, and those who grant it authority, a disservice. The Bible can stand on its own in the face of changing scientific knowledge and historical investigation, but only if we ask of it what it legitimately supplies. He’s offering a tremendous storehouse of knowledge here for the purpose of a “theological reorientation” that will enable today’s Christians to engage both the Bible and the preoccupations of our own cultural milieu with confidence and integrity.

Speaking of doing a book a disservice, my summary in no way does justice to all that this book contains. I’m less interested in summary here than in processing some reactions to the book and perhaps through that giving you a sense of how much it has to offer, even if you don’t agree on every point. So here are the reactions that rise to the surface as I think back over my reading:

*Enns’ explanations of Scripture deal with aspects that I’ve noticed before and haven’t known what to do with. It was more satisfying than I can describe to find these bewildering passages and details addressed directly and set into a coherent picture.

*I was brought to a fresh appreciation for the riches of the Bible and the grace of God. I read one book review of this work that began by accusing Enns of being a heretic, but such a statement is utterly unfounded. Throughout the book it’s clear that he believes the Bible to be God’s inspired and authoritative Word, though not necessarily inerrant in its documentation of historical events or untainted by culture. “By faith I believe that the Christian story has deep access to a reality that materialism cannot provide and cannot be expected to know,” Enns writes in one of many affirmations of faith. His treatment of the Bible is honest and focused on accounting for, rather than ignoring or explaining away, scientific and archaeological data that doesn’t fall into line with biblical accounts. Isn’t this what we need?

*It was refreshing to take a step back and look at the Bible in its cultural contexts — the thought worlds and literary traditions of its human writers. This challenged me to think about what I really believe about the Bible, and it underscored how humble God is willing to be (he allows himself to be described in the terms we humans can come up with), and just how amazing inspiration is. I can’t resist quoting from the book here:

A noncontextual reading of Scripture is not only methodologically arbitrary but also theologically problematic. It fails to grasp in its entirety a foundational principle of theology that informs not only our understanding of the Bible but of all of God’s dealing with humanity recorded there, particularly in Jesus himself: God condescends to where people are, speaks their language, and employs their ways of thinking. Without God’s condescension — seen most clearly in the incarnation — any true knowledge of God would cease to exist.

It is not beneath God to condescend to culturally conditioned human modes of communication. Having such a condescending God is crucial to the very heart of Christianity. True, such a God will allow ancient Israelites to produce a description of human origins that reflects the ancient ideas and so will not satisfy scientific questions. But if we are going to talk about the Christian God, then this is something we are going to have to get used to. What sets this God apart is his habit of coming down to our level. Posing such a condescending and incarnating God as a theological problem to be overcome — which is what a literal reading of Genesis unwittingly requires — creates a far greater and more harmful theological problem than the nonliteral reading of Genesis.

I was reminded of C.S. Lewis’s remarks in Reflections on the Psalms:

[T]he value of the Old Testament may be dependent on what seems its imperfection. It may repel one use in order that we may be forced to use it in another way… to feel the very contentions between the Word and the human material through which it works… Certainly it seems to me that from having had to reach what is really the Voice of God in the cursing Psalms through all the horrible distortions of the human medium, I have gained something I might not have gained from a flawless, ethical exposition. The shadows have indicated (at least to my heart) something more about the light.

There is no sense of denigrating the “human medium” in The Evolution of Adam, but like Lewis does here I marveled at the way God uses such limited vessels to convey himself, and manages to highlight his own grace and grandeur even more in the process.

*It was wonderful to read of a different interpretation of the fall of man than the “original sin” explanation I’ve heard.  Rather than seeing the act of disobedience as a prideful grasping to be like God, with God subsequently inflicting the punishment of inborn sin and death on all humanity to follow, an alternative reading sees it as a wisdom story: Adam and Eve were innocent and naive, and the serpent (who was more subtle than anyone else in the Garden) tricked them. Their act of disobedience was important not because God didn’t want them to know about good and evil, but because they stepped out of his plan in order to learn about it. They introduced chaos into God’s created order. (Enns’ perspective on this concept of order in the Old Testament makes a lot of sense to me. It’s elucidated in Telling God’s Story too.)

Honestly, I think I’ve always seen this story more in this light, though I haven’t thought about it very much directly. It seems to account more fully for the details of the story. This was my experience many times in reading The Evolution of Adam: finding passages that I haven’t really understood set before me and clarified, finding that my own intuitions have a home in a larger tradition I didn’t know about, finding a beautiful order and coherence among aspects of Scripture and doctrine.

There is so much more I would have to write if I were going to be complete in recounting the impact of this book, but this post is already long enough that no one is probably still reading it. But here is one final thought: in a Victorian literature class in graduate school, I remember the professor explaining to us that there were three major developments in the 19th century that shook people’s faith:

  • Darwin’s Origin of Species
  • Freud and the discovery of the unconscious
  • Higher biblical criticism (studying the Bible in its cultural and literary contexts)

It’s interesting to me that The Evolution of Adam takes up two of these three developments in the 21st century because they still represent challenges to many people of faith. It seems to me that the evangelical tradition has not responded that well. The problem isn’t God, but it may well be the lens we’re using to view him and his Word. The Evolution of Adam suggests some adjustments to this lens — “recalibrations,” “reorientations” — that in no way undermine Scripture, but do bring greater light and clarity to the conflicts regarding origins, science and history, literalism and its alternatives.

This book is my first experience with historical criticism, and I found it to be rejuvenating to my faith and stimulating to my mind. It makes me want to return with fresh energy to the pages of my Bible, and to learn more about its surrounding contexts. I recommend it highly.