Overcoming Literalism

The recent celebration of Easter included, in many churches, a service known as the Great Vigil of Easter.  Traditionally celebrated after sundown on Easter Eve (and often very early Easter morning), the Vigil includes near its beginning a series of readings from the Bible that are meant to present “the record of God’s saving deeds in history, how he saved his people in ages past”   (Book of Common Prayer).  The number of readings can be as few as two or as many as eight, and they hit the “high points” in terms of following the theme of God’s desire to bring humanity into being as people who are free to be in relationship with God and to be fully and authentically themselves.

At many Easter Vigils, the first reading to be heard is one of the creation stories from Genesis.  And I was surprised recently to hear the inclusion of that particular reading criticized rather strongly by a scientist who is not at all hostile to Christianity (indeed, the scientist in question participates in Christian worship).  The criticism was that the Genesis story seeks to describe creation in a mythic way, that does not accord with modern scientific understandings of how the universe and our world came into being.  It seems that this particular scientist felt that by reading the Genesis story, the church was reinforcing a fanciful view of creation –or promoting the idea of biblical creationism.

Hearing this criticism made me a bit sad, I have to say, because it is yet another example of the way in which even very educated people can misunderstand the meaning and purpose of the Bible.  And nowhere is this misunderstanding more evident than when we speak of the biblical creation stories.  Far too many people continue to approach Genesis as if it were meant to be a scientific text, accurately describing the facts of creation.  This was never, however, the intention of those people who are responsible for the stories of Genesis as we now have them.  The authors who contributed the biblical creation stories knew very well that they were not describing how creation actually happened – because they were well aware that they didn’t know!

The creation stories of Genesis are influenced by the creation myths of other religious traditions Israel encountered and, in fact, occupy a much less central role in the Hebrew tradition than they did in other ancient religious traditions.  For the people of Israel, the central narrative was not the creation of the world but rather the creation of a people with a unique identity: and thus, it is the Exodus story that occupies a much more important place in the Hebrew tradition than the creation stories.

Nevertheless, Israel did develop the creation stories of Genesis, but they did not do so in order to provide an accurate account of how the world was made.  Rather, the purpose of these stories is to insist on one simple truth:  that creation is a divine activity and depends, therefore, upon God.  And the creation stories of Genesis are meant to put forward this simple truth in a poetic way.

In fact, the Bible as a whole is much closer to poetry than it is to anything else, and poetry always uses image and metaphor to try to communicate a deeper truth.  We dishonor the Bible when we try to take its stories literally and to insist that there is no difference between Genesis, for example, and a biology textbook.  The result of dishonoring the Bible in this way is to continue to drive a wedge between science and religion.  There need not be any such wedge.  Religion speaks to truth that is deeper than science can grasp or describe, while science speaks to truth that is not the province of religion.

Thus, when it comes to the Genesis creation stories, the Bible – religion – simply insists that creation is a divine activity and depends on God for its existence.  Science shows us the details of that divine activity.  The Bible’s language is poetry, and the scientist’s language is theory, observation and facts.  These are not competing truths, but complementary.  If we allow each to speak to the other properly, we are led to a far more beautiful and meaningful understanding than either can bring to us on its own.

2 thoughts on “Overcoming Literalism

  1. Wonderful points made, Matthew.

    Oft times we forget that the scope of the Bible covers, literally, thousands of years of God’s interaction with our world and its inhabitants. As time progressed from the earliest times to the writing of the Book of Revelations, human understanding, sophistication, and ability to grasp more complex ideas progressed as well. The earliest stories, mainly from the Old Testament, were not written for centuries after the events therein described, but rather were passed by word of mouth, studiously memorized, from generation to generation. For those stories to have meaning, they had to be couched in terms that were understandable to contemporary humans. The earliest of God’s people could never understand the ‘Big Bang’ theory, or the chemistry and physics involved in the Creation, so the story was told in terms they could relate to. As ages passed, Biblical detail became more realistic, and historically accurate, as writing became possible, for example, and humans became aware of the world around them. It speaks well of these stories that even after thousands of years, we are still able to comprehend the message: God created the heavens and the earth, and all that dwell within. They understood that simple truth five thousand years ago, and we can still understand it today.

  2. Thank you again, Matthew, for a really thoughtful and interesting post. One of my goals is to learn how to communicate those ideas effectively to literalists, partly because I originally come from that background. I have found, however, that this project has a high degree of difficulty! One starting point might be the fact that Jesus himself clearly regarded non-literal (parabolic) language as most appropriate or necessary for saying important things about God. Why, then, should we be surprised if biblical writers do so as well? Or why should we ourselves insist on a very different approach than Jesus? Where would the idea come from that literal language is “God’s language”? Most Christian literalists that I’ve known are very well-intentioned, and are trying to give the Bible maximum respect. They’ve never fathomed that they are inadvertently doing the opposite. Literalism creates so many unnecessary problems as well as a huge divide among Christians. Learning to communicate across that divide seems really important, but requires lots of skill.

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