Calvin, Self-Loathing, and the Image of God

I’m currently reading T. F. Torrance’s Calvin’s Doctrine of Man (Eugene, Or: Wipf & Stock, 2001), and I’m coming to the conclusion that I was wrong about Calvin.

You see, I’ve been frustrated with the way the neo-Calvinists love to baste us in a strange self-loathing in their emphasis on the total depravity of humanity. For years, when I bring this up, I’ve been told that Calvinism as we have it today goes much further in many respects than Calvin ever did, and that he probably wouldn’t roll with those guys if he were still here. Total depravity in Calvin’s mind, I’ve been told, refers to the fact that all humans are fallen and in need of grace, rather than some notion that everything we do is inherently evil and sick. So in spite of my frustration with Calvinism, I’ve held out hope for Calvin. I even asked for his massive commentary set for a birthday gift, complete with his Institutes. I want to like Calvin so bad, and I really thought that his thought was different than I feared it was.

I was wrong, apparently.

Here’s an excerpt from Calvin’s Doctrine of Man. I think I’m with him this far.

Because grace implies a total judgment on man, it also implies a total judgment on his possession of the imago dei. It is an inescapable inference from the revelation of grace that Christ is our righteousness, and wisdom, and imago dei, that fallen man is quite bereft of the image of God. He is therefore alienated from himself, and is totally corrupted or perverted. If there is anything left of the image of God in him it is a “fearful deformity.” – p. 86-87

Calvin starts with the concept of grace, and from that he figures that we were in need of saving. This is fine; Paul does the same thing, starting from the cross and deducing that if we were saved, we must have needed saving. Paul also says pretty clearly that Christ is our righteousness, and I’m totally fine with that: we are righteous before God because we identify with Christ (or rather, because Christ identifies himself with us). I’m also okay with saying that Christ is our wisdom, though I’m more prone to identify wisdom with the Holy Spirit. I’m also okay with saying that Christ is the true image of God. What I’m not so sure about is saying that “fallen man is quite bereft of the image of God.”

Here’s another quote, picking up where the last one left off. Tell me if you think he takes it a bit too far.

There can be no doubt, therefore, in the mind of Calvin, that from the point of view of salvation in Christ faith must speak of fallen man in total terms. By the single word of our Lord that we must be born again, he says, “our whole nature is condemned.” “In our nature there is nothing but perversity.” “Our whole nature is so vitiated that we can do nothing but sin.” “The soul of man is totally perverted and corrupted.” Even the natural virtues and the natural goodness of men must be regarded as “wholly iniquity”. Calvin can even say of fallen men: “Their proper nourishment is sin and there is not so much as one drop of goodness to be found in them, and, to be short, as the body receives its sustenance from meat and drink, so also men have no other substance in them than sin: all is corrupted.” “There is more worth in all the vermin of the world than there is in man, for he is a creature in whom the image of God has been effaced.” Again, speaking of man after the fall Calvin says: “And truly, it was a sad and horrible spectacle that he in whom recently the image of God was shining should lie hidden under fetid skins to cover his own disgrace, and that there should be more comeliness in a dead animal than in a living man.” “It is true that our Lord created us after His own image and likeness, but that was wholly defaced and wiped out in us by the sin of Adam. We are accursed, we are by nature shut out from all hope of life.” – p. 87-88

Calvin identifies the image of God as being the relationship between God and humanity. If this is the case, then I suppose there’s a logic in all of this. I’m much more inclined to think of the image of God as being a vocation, duty, or command. We represent God on earth. Image is stewardship, which is the responsibility to represent, and therefore resemble, the One who has charged us with this task. The imago dei is not so much that we resemble God, as it is that we’re made to resemble God. Not in the sense of being forced to do so, but in the sense of being created for this purpose. This is our telos, the inherent goal of human existence, included in us from our very creation and grown into as we grow in Christ-likeness. If this is what the imago dei or image of God is, then I’m willing to grant that it may be a “fearful deformity” in most of us, but it can never be separated from us or extinguished within us. In fact, it is the very obviousness of the image of God in us that makes our deformity of it so fearful: it’s still there, and it’s clear what we’re supposed to be, which makes our deviance from it so grotesque. Seeing a D student write a D paper is a shame, but it’s expected; seeing an A student write a D paper is tragic. Seeing someone get into petty crime is sad, but seeing the child of a spiritual leader or politician or chief of police is tragic. The tragic nature of the Fall is not that we’re bad to the core, it’s that we’re “very good”, even still, and we go against that goodness.

What bothers me about Calvin, aside from the fact that it appears that the neo-Calvinists aren’t exaggerating his views as much as I had hoped, is that he polarizes things so much. Everything is in absolutes with him. It’s not simply that we’re fallen, it’s that everything is as bad as it could possibly be. It’s not just that Christ redeems us, but that everything even remotely good in us is Christ and our only role on this earth is to give God glory for doing everything else for us because we’re so thoroughly evil that even our natural goodness is actually evil.

I find this kind of talk to be disrespectful toward God, and his creation. It implies that, rather than redeeming humanity, God decided to just do it all himself. Remember when you tried to help your dad with a chore or task when you were a little kid, and your “helping” just created more work for him? Sometimes, he’d get frustrated and just do it himself; but when he was being a really great dad, he’d take his time and show you how to do it right. And then watch while you screwed it up a dozen times. Calvin’s God is the one that just decides to do it himself.

There’s a logic in this, too. See, in Calvin’s view the imago dei, the image of God, is something that God sees, not something that anyone else does. In Calvin’s view of the imago dei, God created human beings in order to bring himself glory: we’re the mirror that he can admire himself in. Actually. So when we failed to reflect him well, and showed up in the mirror being dirty and bleeding from the effects of sin, God pushes us out of the mirror and incarnates his Son to take our place, so that he can continue to see his own glory in the world.

If that was his purpose, of course he would get frustrated with our failure and just do it himself! Now, if he actually desired to have creatures who not only resemble him, but would grow up into his image in the sense that they would come to be like him and represent him (that is, help him with his work), then he would be the other kind of dad, taking the time and effort to help us get it right, no matter how much he might get dirty and hurt along with us.

So I get Calvin now. I can even appreciate that our views on the depravity and perversity of humanity are pretty close. I can even get his sense of our utter grossness, when I think about it. But when it comes to why that’s important, and how it relates to our created purpose, we couldn’t be further apart.

Now I gotta figure out what I’m going to do with this 22-volume commentary set…

Noah First Impressions: You Should See It

I saw Noah a few nights ago, and my thoughts are still percolating. In a good way. I had a friend who said he’d seen it four days ago and was still angry; it’s been two days for me, and I’m still excited, and can’t get my thoughts straight enough for a full review. I don’t know where to begin for that, honestly, so I’ll begin by giving my first impressions and answer some of the issues and controversy.

1. The Medium of Film

I used to be a purist – that guy who always sees the movie version of his favourite novels, and then picks apart all of the “inaccuracies.” What I wanted was for someone to make the movie that plays in my head when I read; oddly enough, nobody ever seems to get it quite right! This happens for two reasons: first, because nobody can read my mind (and nobody makes a movie just for me), and second, because a movie just isn’t a book. I’ll give examples from Tolkien movies to help make my point.

First, purists (and I say this with fondness, as a former purist myself), often the biggest reason that the movie is wrong is YOU. We all read a story in a unique way, and imagine the characters and events slightly differently, and there’s no way that a filmmaker could make your version of the story even if they wanted to. This is bad for much-beloved modern classics like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but it’s much, much worse for a millennia-old religious text like the Bible. We form entire communities around certain readings of the text (and have schisms over them!), so when something doesn’t seem right with the text it might be insulting or appear to be an attack on our very group identity. I’ve seen and heard about many reviews of Noah that implied just that, including this one shared by my angry friend: “Noah is an insult to Bible-believing Christians, an insult to the character of Noah and, most of all, an insult to the God of the Bible.” The only way I can see that making any sense is because certain expectations were not met; personally, I found it to be the most honest depiction of that text that I’ve ever seen, and would apply the quote above to all of the watered-down (no pun intended) flannel-graph versions I’ve been told all my life. The version of the text that Evangelical Christians were expecting to see couldn’t have been made by these people: the writers of Noah were both (from what I can tell) from Jewish backgrounds, and they read the story differently. They’re not inside our Evangelical heads, and they don’t have to be – they have more claim to this story than we do.

Second, the medium of film requires different things to stay interesting than a book does. For most book adaptations, the text of the book is simply far too long for a movie, which is why we end up with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. It’s also why purists tend to be upset about movie adaptations the most: things are missing in the movie, sometimes multiple characters are collapsed into one, sometimes they’re missing altogether. It took me years to admit it, but a Fellowship of the Ring movie with Tom Bombadil in it would have been at least an hour too long, and dead boring. Tom Bombadil worked in the book, but it was too much of an aside to waste screen time on it, and Peter Jackson was smart to cut it.

The problem with recent film adaptations is the opposite though: the book is much smaller than a full movie treatment would make it, so the filmmaker has space to flesh out the story with what some people think are inaccurate additions. In The Hobbit, for example, we see three films made out of a single, relatively short book, and full of additions. The additions, however, were taking from Tolkien’s appendices and other books set in Middle Earth. It may seem like a money-grab to have Legolas in a Hobbit movie (he wasn’t in that book), but it makes perfect sense given who his character is, and while Tolkien wrote The Hobbit first and created Legolas for his later books, the film was made in hindsight and can incorporate him. Knowing what we know about who Legolas is, it would have been very odd for him not to be in the film! A very similar argument can be made for Noah: many Christians appear to be upset about the additions, such as the Watchers (rock monsters) and a magic-wielding Methuselah, but we need to be aware that Genesis is not the only ancient text written about this story. Genesis is a very short and bare-bones description of events – the Bible equivalent of a montage – and needs to be fleshed out in order to make a good film; the best way to be true to the text is to flesh it out using the other ancient texts that were written to do exactly that.

All that to say that the writers of Noah did an incredible job of remaining true to the source material – they just used the supplemental material to make it a richer film. Purists will never be satisfied with a film version of their book, and Evangelical Christians are purists with the conviction of hundreds of years of doctrine behind them! Sorry folks, if you’re a purist on this film, you’re really missing out!

2. Themes

For a movie about a global flood, Noah was surprisingly deep…

Seriously though, the depth of this film was absolutely incredible. As I said above, the text in Genesis is pretty bare-bones, but the thematic depth of the Genesis text is incredibly deep. Genesis 1-11 is arguably the most theologically and thematically dense text in the Bible, which also means that it’s probably the most thematically dense text ever written. I found that the film not only faithfully presented the themes of the text, but it enriched them.

I had the privilege of watching Noah with Old Testament scholar Dr. Lissa Wray Beal, who noted afterward that she prefers to read the text because she’s able to read it on a very deep level, but it’s written in such a way that there are many levels that it can be read on; she felt like the film submerged the audience to a deeper level, but lacked the layers that are present in the text. Simply put, though, not everyone reads the text as well as Lissa! I’ve never read the Noah text at this level of depth before, but I certainly will now, and it’s because the film took me there. What would it be like to sit inside the ark and hear the screams of the last humans slowly drowning outside? Suddenly Noah’s drunkenness at the end of his narrative makes perfect sense, and the flannel-graph images of happy animals on a boat seems sacrilegious. I was so impressed with how they portrayed the themes that are in the text.

When I say that they enriched the themes that are in the text, I don’t mean to say that they somehow made the Bible better. The Bible doesn’t need to be “improved upon”, and that’s not what I mean. But the task of adapting an old text into a new film is not just to present the old text, but to do so in a way that makes that text speak to today’s audience. In my opinion, they nailed it.

a) Environmental Themes and Dominion

Genesis is about creation and re-creation, and the theme of environmentalism is definitely present in the original text, but their portrayal of the world Noah lives in makes that theme pop out at us and convict us. It’s wonderfully prophetic.

Adam & Eve weren’t just the first humans, they were the first gardeners. One of the core themes of this film is the different interpretations of what the word “dominion” means. Noah is a steward of the earth, a protector of “the innocent” (animals), and sees his role of stewardship and his exercise of dominion to be simply doing what God commands him and respecting everything that God has made. Tubal-Cain, Noah’s foil (and ours!), sees dominion as ownership and rights, and uses the notion to justify depleting the earth of all of its resources. Both Noah and Tubal-Cain take their theology from Genesis, and Tubal-Cain directly quotes Genesis at times (but then again, so did Satan when he tempted Jesus!). I don’t doubt that this makes a lot of conservative Christians uncomfortable, as it sounds quite similar to Calvin’s take: “The whole order of this world is arranged and established for the purpose of conducing to the comfort and happiness of men” (Commentary on Psalm 8, quoted in T.F. Torrance, Calvin’s Doctrine of Man, 23). We’ve used this kind of theology to justify things like the industrial revolution and nearly every environmental compromise since. We’ve come a long way from being gardeners.

So have the humans in Noah. The world Noah lives in is already post-apocalyptic: the human race developed an industrial society, exploited the earth’s resources until every tree is cut down and every mine is depleted, and have reverted to a pre-industrial society by necessity. There are ruins on the landscape: old metal pipes from industrial sites, mechanical parts, welder’s masks. It puts the entire destruction of the earth in a new perspective: God is not destroying a good world because of bad people, he’s finishing off the already dead world that those bad people have killed. This perspective is not only fascinating (and I don’t think it’s in any way untrue to the text), but it makes the story connect to us very closely by taking a theme that’s implied in a millennia-old text and pushing it in our faces. Absolutely brilliant.

b) Creation, and Growing Up

Another central theme of this film is coming of age. This is crucial, so watch for it. Dr. Wray Beal pointed this out at coffee afterward, and we all agreed that it was central. There are several scenes showing a coming-of-age ritual, and this forms the skeleton of the film, which is ultimately about the question of whether or not humanity has come of age. Have we grown up enough to handle the responsibility that God has granted us? What does it mean to “be a man” if not this?

The rest of creation is depicted as having come of age, of having developed to maturity. This may be one of the more controversial elements for some Christians: there’s a breathtakingly beautiful time-lapse depiction of the creation of the world, from nothingness to the universe to the earth to a single cell in the ocean to mammals on land. It’s a stop-motion view of evolution, and it is absolutely beautiful. Even if you’re a creationist, please enjoy the beauty of this scene, and note what it implies: all of the rest of creation has developed into a state of harmony, and harmony implies maturity. Humanity is created special (as beings of light, very similar to the depiction of the angels), but doesn’t find this harmony, and the film is about wrestling with the question of whether or not humanity has come of age. This lack of maturity is shown in how humanity has developed into an industrial society, and then regressed to a very brutish state of survival of the fittest, all within ten generations (though at 700-900 years per generation, it’s a long time!).

c) The Fall, Human Depravity, and the Silence of God

One of the things that struck me the most is how different Noah and Tubal-Cain are from each other, and yet how similar they are. They both quote Genesis (which of course wasn’t written, but the theology of both is on a level), they both acknowledge that they are made in God’s image (though I don’t know if Noah says it outright, but Tubal-Cain says it repeatedly), and they both acknowledge that they’re more or less the same. And they both cry out to God, and get no apparent answer. How realistic.

I can definitely relate, and I think we all can. For that reason, I was very impressed with the silence of God through most of the movie. I think that we Christians would love to see more theophany, especially us Evangelical Christians, for whom God’s nearness and personal interaction with us is a central tenet. But God having an audible voice, or the presence of more miracles, would have cheesed it up and made it more difficult to relate to the film, even if it would have made us feel better. We shouldn’t feel better: this is a dark film about human sinfulness and grim justice. God’s presence is felt, but not heard, and only seen out of the corner of Noah’s eye. When we see God, we see him in Noah, and in Methuselah: in their faith, in their obedience, and even in Noah’s grief and turmoil. I’ve heard that some Christians were upset with how God was portrayed, but I think anything more direct would have been almost blasphemous, and certainly would have ruined the tension, turmoil, and questioning tone that makes the film one that we can relate to.

3. Conclusion: see it.

I’ve already written 3x more than I intended tonight, and it’s late, and a full treatment of this film would take a book or course in itself, so I’ll simply say “Go see it.” See it with eyes of faith. See it as a learning experience (because unless you want to read the hundreds of chapters of the books of Enoch, you probably won’t see the other elements of this story anywhere else, and they’re worth seeing!). See it as a work of art from a master filmmaker, with great performances from a stellar cast. See it as a fun movie, with action scenes and rock monsters and depression and joy and everything in between. But please, don’t let your expectations or purist tendencies ruin it for you.

Corban, World Vision, and Damning Ourselves For the Sake of Others

All of this stuff about World Vision reminds me of what Jesus said in Mark 7.

That Which Defiles

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.[a])

So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules.’[b]

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe[c] your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’[d] and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’[e] 11 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” [16] [f]

17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” – Mark 7:7-23

Last week, World Vision’s USA office announced that it will no longer discriminate against homosexuals in their hiring practices. That is, they would hire any Christians, including gay Christians who were married. This was a very bold move, particularly as many states are currently having their bans on gay marriage struck down by constitutional courts, or are lobbying to legalize gay marriage, in spite of very outspoken opposition largely from Christian groups. World Vision’s change in policy was a big move for a Christian organization in the US to make, and could have been symbolic of a larger shift toward laws that recognize all humans and their relationships and institutions without prejudice. And given the worldwide persecution that homosexuals are facing, not least in Russia and especially Uganda, where homosexuals are now given life in prison (or are simply being beaten or killed in the street), World Vision’s change in policy gave it some moral authority as it worked to serve the downtrodden around the world.

The next day, World Vision retracted their statement. In 24 hours, or so I’ve heard from multiple sources, 2000 or so people pulled their support from World Vision. Clearly World Vision wasn’t prepared for such a response. They should have been. But that’s not the heart of the issue.

Those who pulled their support did so, or so the internet explained, because they felt that World Vision had betrayed their Christian values. Or to put it differently, “minimizing something as structural as the definition of marriage is a damnable act, and whether or not World Vision suffers financially, it has already suffered, and inflicted suffering, spiritually.” World Vision’s actual statement reversing their decision said “we are brokenhearted over the pain and confusion we have caused many of our friends, who saw this decision as a reversal of our strong commitment to Biblical authority.” Those Christians who gave to World Vision are the victims here: they were betrayed, experienced spiritual suffering, and were painfully confused.

I’m confused too. I can’t even begin to understand how this decision could inflict pain or “spiritual suffering” (whatever that is), but I’ll give people the benefit of the doubt. I’ve been a bit sarcastic here, but I honestly believe that they’re probably good people who love Jesus. They were hurt by what they perceived to be a betrayal of their values, even breaking an implicit covenant of sorts in which they support World Vision because World Vision represents their values. I suppose that has some logic to it, even if it’s packed full of assumptions and bad theology. I could critique the theology involved here, I could pull out all of the assumptions, and I could point out that none of these people had time to even think it through before they pulled their support, but none of that would get to the heart of the issue either.

At the heart of the issue, I suggest, is that the people who pulled their support from World Vision, the people who railed against them on the internet and accused them of a ‘damnable act’, have allowed their own laws and rules to get in the way of the commandments of God.

The Pharisees Jesus was talking to in Mark 7 (above) had come up with the rule of Corban as a way of structuring their lives in the service of God. The Torah has a few thousand commandments, but the Pharisees had many more, designed to ensure that they kept the commandments of God. In Bible college this is called “building a fence around the law.” The idea behind it is good, but as Jesus points out here, things get complicated quickly when we create our own laws to go along with those we receive from God. What happens when our fence around God’s laws conflicts with God’s laws?

There are laws in the Bible about homosexuality. In spite of what Joe Dallas says about it (above), a lot of people disagree about the exact content and purpose of those laws, or even what’s being talked about in those passages, but let’s even assume that they’re very clear and say that homosexuality in any sense is totally and deeply sinful. Even if that’s the case, there’s no law that says that you can’t donate to a gay charity. There’s also no law that says that you can’t bake cakes for gay marriages, to pick up on another recent controversy. There are no commandments to shun gay people, to discriminate against them in your hiring practices, to keep them out of your churches (unless you get into some creative application of Corinthians), to refuse to participate in worship or charity with them, etc. etc. Those laws weren’t given. All of the ways that Christians have behaved toward homosexuals in North America, under the guise of religious freedom, were not in obedience to any law or commandment of God. They were, instead, things that we felt we had to do in order to defend the idea that homosexuality is sinful.

Pulling support from World Vision isn’t withdrawing finances from an organization. World Vision was not punished by these people. The way World Vision is set up, donors are connected with individual children, who receive (most of) the money that the donors give every month. These children write letters to their supporters, their “family”. Sometimes these relationships can last years, even decades. When people pulled their support from World Vision in response to the news that World Vision will not discriminate against homosexuals in their hiring practices, they weren’t doing it because of a command from God, they were calling their money “Corban” and refusing to give to the children who wrote them letters thanking them for saving their lives. Some of these kids probably live in Uganda, where homosexuals are being imprisoned and killed for simply being gay; do these kids know why their “families” have abandoned them?

I may be being a bit melodramatic here, but not as much as it sounds: these are real kids, and they’re not interchangeable with whatever kids those 2,000 supporters have supposedly sponsored elsewhere. You can’t just pull funding from one organization, and then find another who will allow you to sponsor the exact same child. Real people have been really hurt by this, and they weren’t hurt by World Vision, they were hurt by the people who let their politically charged (electric?) fence around the Law cut them off from the commandment of God to care for “the least of these.”

I’m going to take this a bit further, and say that God doesn’t care half as much about anyone’s sins as he does about their obedience and care for others. I’m going to say that God would rather have a gay person who works at World Vision in this world than 2,000 people who would pull their support because of that gay person. I feel very confident of this, because of a story Jesus told about a good Samaritan.

I’m not going to paste the whole story here, but the gist is: a priest and a levite, both religious leaders, pass by a guy who’s been badly beaten and is laying in a ditch on the side of the road. In fact, they cross the road to stay away from him. What we usually fail to recognize when we hear this preached is that they were following actual commandments of God, which told them that they should stay away from dead bodies. They thought the guy was dead, so they did what they were supposed to do and stayed away for the sake of their ritual cleanness, without which they couldn’t serve God in the Temple. Then a Samaritan, who was a religious outsider who was treated by the Jews very similarly to the way we treat the LGBTQ community and was considered unfit to worship in the Temple anyways (i.e., ritually unclean to the max!), comes along and saves the guy. Jesus commends the actions of the Samaritan over the actions of the priest and levite, in spite of the fact that they were following God’s commands (and not just a fence around the law – actual commands from the Torah!). If we follow what Jesus was saying, he was implying that in order for the priest or the levite to do the right thing, they would have had to be willing to break God’s direct commandments for the sake of a stranger they thought was probably already dead.

Let’s bring this into the issue at hand then: Christians, God would rather have you work with LGBTQ people in your ministry than miss any chance to serve the poor. In fact, God would rather have you hang out at gay bars and rest stops with drag queens and fetishists and show them his love than ignore a single person in need. I can’t say this strongly enough: Christians, God would rather have you be gay, with all of the prejudices and persecution that you would have to suffer for being so, than to have you disobey his command to love your neighbour as yourself. (Gay Christians, God would rather have you be a homophobe who protests funerals but still obeys him by serving others, than an inclusive and kind person who would refuse to help a homophobe. This cuts both ways.)

So don’t blame this on World Vision: they screwed up, but what they did has nothing to do with our responsibility to serve others, or with the relationships that were destroyed for those 2,000 kids. Don’t appeal to Biblical authority, because when it comes to refusing to serve others (for any reason), you won’t find much support there. And don’t even appeal to religious freedom, which is another way we like to use man-made things to help us get away with ignoring the commands of God. No, Christians of North America, we need to own this: the culture wars, the systematic exclusion of LGBTQ people, the endless debates about religious freedom, this is all ours. We’ve made our bed in a white-washed tomb, and we’re lying in it, and we need to get up and start serving the people that God loves: ALL of them.

Unedited thoughts on communities and language-groups

I found out today that I get to give two lectures to a hermeneutics class next week. I’m pretty stoked, but don’t have much time to prepare! So as I sit here in a Chapters Starbucks, waiting to shuttle students home, I wrote down some thoughts. It’s rough, but it’s what I’m thinking about for my first lecture on language groups before Gus takes over to talk about Lyotard. Perhaps you’ll find it helpful; as always, I write here to help myself work out thoughts, because I don’t really understand anything until it’s been put into words.

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We’re all members of several communities. I’m a Christian in the broadest sense, united with people around the world by my confession of faith and some specific practices like Baptism and Communion; but I’m also a Pentecostal, united to a smaller pool of people around the world united by a certain expression of Christianity; and I’m also a member of Kleefeld Christian Community, my local congregation (which is technically Baptist). I’m a Canadian, and though I live in Manitoba I still identify mostly with BC where I was born and raised, and I still maintain connections to Toronto and have experienced life in Northern Alberta. Even being Canadian, my worldview is strongly influenced by America, since I take in so much American media; American culture permeates most of the world these days, and is unavoidable. I went to a Pentecostal Bible college, but now I live among Mennonites and Catholics and attend a non-denominational Evangelical seminary where I learn from Anglican, Baptist, Evangelical-Free, and Mennonite scholars, among others. This academic community is itself part of the larger community of “the academy”, the community of scholarship in its broadest sense, including all of the disciplines. Of all of the disciplines, I am part of the smaller community of Biblical and Theological Studies, and the subset of that community, Systematic Theology, and the subset of that community, Ethics, and the subset of that community, Political Theology; but I also dabble in Sociology, Economics, History, and Political Science. I’m also a member of the Green Party of Canada, a national party, and a member of the Green Party Provencher, the GPC’s local body. Though I haven’t worked as one for quite a while, I’m a trucker and the son of a trucker, and I still identify with other truckers. I’m male, one of the most basic communities in the world yet still with particular viewpoints not shared by females; yet many of my friends are feminists, and I live with a woman (my wife), and try really hard to understand how her perspective differs from my own due to our different social realities. And I’m human, sharing a common bond with other humans that does not extend to animals or plants. I’m not sure how much we can describe mammals as a community, or animals and plants as separate communities with shared viewpoints, but it’s easy to see how community and ecology are linked concepts!
But communities also extend through time, and interact with each other historically. Being Pentecostal, I trace my roots back through Wesleyan holiness movements, camp and revivalist movements, Protestantism, Anabaptism, and through the mystics of Catholic and Orthodox churches all the way back to Acts 2, and through Christ and John the Baptist back to the charismatic prophets of the Old Testament. In the same way, my Canadian culture and Western worldview can be traced back through England and France, through Germanic Christian empires, through Rome, to ancient Greece. This development of worldviews through time is called tradition, with each thread representing its own tradition, and each thread being connected to others or emerging from others.
Each of these communities is an expression of a shared tradition, complete with shared actions and ideas. What divides these groups into individual communities is, as much as anything else, language: each community is also a language-group, with shared terminology and understanding of words. Language itself is a system of symbols with agreed-upon meanings, but what those meanings are shift from group to group, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in huge ways. Different regions have specific terms (in Saskatchewan they call a hoodie a “bunnyhug”), different careers or disciplines have technical jargon (a trucker and a mathematician mean very different things by the term “differential”, which is a term that most of us never use at all), and different groups have different nuances, understandings of, or perspectives on the same terms (e.g., white, middle-class, Christian males in Canada have a very different understanding of the word “privilege” than, say, an Aboriginal woman who lives on the streets of Winnipeg; it evokes very different feelings for these different groups!). Not all of the features of these language groups plays a major role in their worldview or theology; I doubt that people from Saskatchewan have a different worldview based on their unique word “bunnyhug”. But the language we use does affect the way we see the world.
A friend of mine was recently telling me about an episode of Radiolab they heard recently about colour, and they mentioned that in the oldest epic poems the sea was often described as being red. It was suggested that this was because when these old epics were written, that language had not yet developed a word for “blue”, and that members of language groups that don’t have a word for blue would also describe the sky as being “white.” Red is apparently one of the first colour-words that a language develops, as it’s the easiest dye to make, while blue is one of the hardest dyes to make and thus usually enters languages last of all colour-words. I grew up close to a lake that we often describe as being green, but it’s actually more of a teal. We’ve invented words to describe shades of blue and green, and those words allow us to understand those distinctions more thoroughly. Then we can make even finer distinctions, and give those names. Inventing a word for something doesn’t invent the thing itself, but it does invent our concept of that thing, and it invents the possibility for us to understand and agree upon that concept or idea, and then take it further.
Helen Keller described her life before she had language as being animalistic. People with limited language are unable to understand higher concepts – not just that they can’t express them, but because they can’t express them, they actually can’t grasp them on a deep level. Because of this, recognizing the particularities of our language groups is essential to a self-aware and self-critical interpretive methodology.
I am a member of many different communities, and the way I read texts (whether actual texts, or the “texts” of the reality in which I live) is formed by all of them. When I read a story about the Canadian tarsands, for example, my understanding of it (and therefore my opinion about it) is shaped by many different words specific to different communities I have some membership in: the word “oiligarchy” is a political word that actually comes from environmental activists to describe a government corrupted by oil money, but the word “petro-state” is a political word that actually comes from economists to describe the same thing; my understanding of the concept is influenced by my time as a trucker in Fort McMurray, where I drove a “honey wagon” but the real shit was being dug out of the ground; “anthropogenic climate change” is a phrase used by scientists and politicians and activists alike to describe the results of burning fossil fuels, and “anthropocene” is a new word created by scientists and sociologists to describe a new era of history in which human beings are the cause of global ecological change; and while we’re talking about the issue on a global and historic scale, my reading of environmental news occurs within the tradition and narrative of Christian theology, in which human beings were created as stewards of the earth and all creation groans in anticipation of being set free and renewed.
I privilege some of these language groups over others without even thinking about it. I’m more involved in some of these communities than others, not by virtue of how completely I’m a part of that group, but by virtue of my language preferences. For example, I am most certainly a human being – 100%, unavoidable fact that I cannot change. Being a Christian, on the other hand, is much more tenuous: it is a chosen association rather than a fact of life (did I mention that I’m an Arminian, or perhaps an Open Theist, or something in between? More groups!), and there’s nothing physically true or apparent about it. But my dominant way of seeing the world as a human being is as a Christian, because Christianity is my dominant narrative and language group: it’s my community, and it’s from this community that I derive my self-understanding. Rather than my Christianity being defined by my humanity, my humanity is defined by my Christianity. Because of this, I’m more likely to describe environmental degradation in terms of creation, providence, and apocalypse, than I am to describe it in scientific terms, even though I’m familiar with scientific terms and they may be better suited to describing the environmental situation. My theological understanding of stewardship of creation has inspired me to environmental activism, so my activist terminology has a decidedly theological tone; and my environmental activism has prompted me to join the Green Party, giving my environmental jargon a political spin and bite. At the same time, my theological language has recently become more and more intertwined with political language, because I wrote my MA thesis on the concept of the Powers and Principalities as the spiritual aspect of social institutions. My vocabulary grew, and words took on new nuances, and political words became theological words. Because of this, I can no longer talk about politics without talking about theology. So I started with theology, moved through environmentalism, to activism, to politics, and back to theology. This mess of interacting language-groups is how I primarily read a story about the Canadian tarsands. My truck driver sensibilities are pretty forcefully pushed out of the conversation at times because most of my theo-politico-ecological jargon has no place in the language group of truckers; it’s just not on their radar, and further, my experience in the trucker community was characterized by concerns about security in an oil-based economy and diesel-driven jobs. These concerns compete with the concerns of my dominant communities, so they get pushed down. If I were still active in the trucking community, and if that were a primary community for me, I would understand the issue of tarsands expansion much differently!
The issue of language groups and the issue of social context are therefore completely linked and work together to form our perspective as we read, and this perspective has a major influence on our theology. This is why we have black theology, and feminist theology, and Latin-American theology, and why all of these are different variations of Liberation Theology, which is itself a theology of the oppressed and contrasts sharply with health-and-wealth theology and the “prosperity gospel” which represent a very different perspective on social inequality. It’s also why we have so many different Bibles: the women’s Bible, the men’s Bible, kids Bibles, youth Bibles, student Bibles, apologetics Bibles, green Bibles, golfers’ Bibles (yes, the Golfer’s Bible is a real thing); because each of them has notes and highlights metaphors that speak to their particular group or community’s perspective.
Each perspective has the ability to write a meta-narrative, or grand story, a way to explain life, the universe, and everything, all from that particular perspective. A communist metanarrative might be to look at all of life from the perspective of the proletariat, the class of people oppressed by the wealthy aristocratic capitalists; a Calvinist metanarrative interprets every event in history as God’s sovereign act as part of a huge and mysterious plan; an atheistic metanarrative would probably be primarily scientific, explaining everything in life as the result of physical, chemical, and biological processes; and so on. Not every perspective is capable of accurately describing everything though: communist metanarratives tend to be reductive in regard to the rich, assuming their thoughts and motivations; Calvinist metanarratives struggle to explain the existence of evil in a world in which God supposedly controls everything; and naturalistic atheists simply lack the conceptual tools to adequately understand or explain values, meaning, and the sublime.
No one perspective, then, is capable of giving us an accurate picture of the world. Thankfully, we’re all members of many different communities, and therefore our views always amalgamate the perspectives and vocabularies of those communities and help us to have deeper, more nuanced views. One of the features of the postmodern world is that we recognize the validity of these other perspectives more and more. This has a few different results: it makes us more accepting of other communities, and it also allows us to adopt their vocabularies and merge them with our own, which makes finer distinctions and deeper nuances possible. At the same time, it makes us suspicious of metanarratives, because we’re more aware of the perspectives that aren’t represented by a particular metanarrative.
So read your Bible as yourself, but recognize that “no man is an island”, and that you always read it as a member of many different communities. Recognize that you share some communities with the writers of Scripture through your shared tradition, but that you have many other communities from which you draw language and meanings. This is both good and bad, but awareness of it allows us to maximize the benefits and minimize the negative elements as we strive for a self-aware and critical interpretation.

Eucharist, Half-Measures, and Outsiders

Yesterday I attended a Ukrainian Catholic church. I’ve had a growing appreciation for liturgy for several years now, and I was intrigued by their worship, but I was very distracted. I was angry, and surprised at how angry I felt. I even left for a while to cool off, but it didn’t really help. The people were lovely, but that seemed to make it worse. I realized after a while that this feeling went back a long way.

When I was in Bible college I had to attend worship services from other denominations to see how their worship differed. My good friends, Bill and Anna, attended a Catholic church in a neighbouring town, and invited me to their church for the assignment. Bill and Anna were always hospitality incarnate, so I was only a little surprised to find that they had arranged for me to interview the priest in his parsonage before the service. The priest was very nice and welcoming, though his chain smoking threw me off a bit (the good Pentecostal that I am). He indulged my questions about their worship, and when the service started he introduced me to the whole congregation. I felt almost overwhelmed with welcome.

Except when I didn’t.

There were a few things that put me off that day, and threw off the sense of welcome that I had received. There were a few distinctions, and they all had the same point: I was welcome, but I was still an outsider.

It started when the priest asked me, in his parsonage, where I was baptised. I had been baptised at a Christian Missionary Alliance church, but I made sure to explain that I was a Pentecostal, attending a Pentecostal Bible college. He seemed not to hear me: “Christian Missionary Alliance?” He paused. “Yes, but now I’m P-” He resumed: “Oh yeah, I don’t think those guys are heretics. They’re okay.” He said it with a smile, but with complete seriousness. I wasn’t sure how much I appreciated his “approval” of my Christianity. When he introduced me to the congregation, it was as a missionary from the Alliance church.

This threw me off. When I was baptised, it never occurred to me that I was being baptised to a particular denomination. I was being baptised with Christ, dying to self and rising to new life. I had been taught that it was merely a symbol to identify myself with Christ and remember his death and resurrection, but however my theology of baptism has changed since then, the intent was still the same: I belong to him now, and where he goes, I go. I could have been baptised in a sewer by hobos, and it would have meant the same to me. I understood when the priest asked me the question that he understood baptism as an initiation into a particular church, but I was still taken aback by it – that my baptism had to be questioned, that it was in doubt. To me, it was the same as questioning my faith, my confession, my Lord himself. I knew that no offense was intended, but it bothered me nonetheless, and blunted the effect of his hospitality.

At the time, this bothered me more than not being able to receive the Eucharist during the service. My grandmother is Catholic, so I had been to Mass a few times, and I was taught back then how to receive a blessing instead. The priest on this particular Sunday was very genuine in his blessing of me, and I felt honoured. Besides, Catholics eat wafers that taste like envelopes. Plus, I knew I disagreed with transubstantiation (that the host is transformed into the literal body of Christ), and had read that the ritual involved was a kind of idolatry. I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on that point, but I was fine with not participating.

In the intervening years, being denied the Eucharist that day has bothered me more. It was bad enough that my type of Christianity was questioned in regard to my baptism, but I realized that even though I had “passed” that test, I was still an outsider. For several years now, the Roman Catholic Church has formally recognized most denominations of Christianity, Orthodox and Protestant, but only halfway. Instead of being heretics, we’re now in “imperfect communion”, meaning that we might go to heaven as long as our beliefs are orthodox, but we’re still not really Christians. Some formulations of this doctrine also imply that we’re only this kind of half-Christian so long as we’re ignorant of the doctrines of the “one true church” (the Roman Catholic Church), rather than having rejected them. So regardless of my devotion, my learning, my works, my wisdom, any exhibition of the fruit of the Spirit, even miracles, I’d only be half a Christian to them, and be denied the Eucharist. Still an outsider. Even if my baptism is recognized (which isn’t always the case).

My discomfort with being an outsider among Christians has increased the more I learn about the nature of the Eucharist, and of sacraments in general. I’ve come to understand Christianity as being primarily our participation in the life of Christ: partaking of the Eucharist is partaking of Christ himself, the Bread of Life. I’ve come to understand that sacraments are actions which embody Christ, making him known by making him take up space: in the Eucharist we take Christ’s body into our own, and are united to it. Exclusion from the Eucharist is exclusion from unity with Christ in the mystical and sacramental sense as well as the communal sense.

My hurt over this (because it goes way beyond mere discomfort!) increased even more when I learned more about the Catholic understanding of justification and sanctification. They believe that, being flawed and sinful people, we are incapable of receiving God’s grace fully. As we receive grace, we are transformed by it more and more into the likeness of Christ, so that the more grace we receive the more grace we’re able to receive. And we receive grace primarily by participating with the church, particularly in the sacraments, of which the Eucharist is generally thought to be the central or chief. So even if the Catholic Church recognizes my baptism, my doctrine, my character and intent, and my ethics and works, so long as I’m not officially Catholic I am barred from participating in the sacrament that unites me with Christ and his church, and which imparts on me the grace I need to grow in grace and ultimately be perfected toward my salvation. Not only am I not able to be recognized as belonging to Christ, but I’m denied the means of improvement in that regard.

So yesterday, when four or five people went out of their way to introduce themselves to me after the service and invite me into the fellowship hall for snacks, I politely declined. I didn’t want coffee cake, I wanted the Bread of Life. I was angry, but more than that, I was hurt. Their kindness, their genuine generosity and hospitality, had been completely undermined. No matter how “welcome” I was, I could never be more than a guest there. Suddenly, even the kindest people seem condescending, and I wonder if they shake their heads when I leave and pray for my lost soul. They might, they might not, and it probably wouldn’t be condescending even if they did, but it’s hard to recognize the kindness of people who are part of an organization that systematically excludes you.

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Today as I thought about this, I suddenly made a connection. In some small way, I can begin to understand what it must feel like to be female, or gay, in a Protestant church today. Well, in any church, but I’ve picked on Catholics enough.

Yesterday my own church was talking about those verses in Timothy – you know the ones. They’re in the Bible, and I don’t doubt their importance or their status as holy scripture, but there’s an interpretation of those verses that has been dominant for a very long time, and is responsible for making women second-class Christians who are considered unworthy of speaking, teaching, or having any authority over any man, regardless of evidence of spiritual gifts, wisdom, or calling. This interpretation, if we were to take it seriously and follow its implications, even implies that Eve’s sin was of a different nature than Adam’s, that women have a different type of salvation than men (saved through childbirth, so nuns and spinsters and barren women, or the wives of impotent men, are out). If this is the case, what is the nature of a woman’s relationship to Christ? How does he represent her, and how is she united to him? Can she really even be called a Christian, or is she somehow less of a Christian?

Even outside of that passage’s interpretation, there’s still systematic sexism in the church. Denominations who officially interpret such verses differently, unofficially still don’t promote women in leadership, or promote leadership to women. We have no expectations of women, we provide few opportunities to women, and when we do, few or none step up. Then we say “well, women just don’t want to be in leadership,” and we go back to grooming young men for the pulpit (but never to be a kids’ pastor, that’s women’s work!). Women can be saved, but all too often, they’re still outsiders.

And what about homosexuals? In many churches they’re not just outsiders, they’re considered the enemy. In some churches they’re accepted provisionally, in a sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell type of way. They can get along fine so long as they’re “passing” (i.e., don’t appear to be too gay, and keep any relationships under wraps, so that nobody will suspect them and embarrass the church), or if they go through therapies to repress or reverse their homosexuality.  Other churches proudly welcome openly gay congregants, but require vows of celibacy, exclude them from ministry, and/or refuse them marriage. On this issue, even some of the most generous and welcoming churches have some pretty big holes in their hospitality. I realize now why there’s such thing as “gay churches” – because a church where a gay person can worship God and not feel like an outsider must be very, very hard to find.

I don’t know what I think about gay marriage from a theological perspective, but I do know that most of the Christian church has failed to recognize how serious our systematic exclusion of homosexuals is. Sin can break fellowship, it’s true – but we’re all guilty of that. When it comes to fellowships being broken over homosexuality, it’s not sin that does so, it’s us. We could acknowledge our own sin, forgive them for theirs, and worship Christ together, but instead we insist on their otherness even when we recognize them half-way.

So I still don’t know what I think of the theology of gay marriage, and I’m pretty confident in my theology of women in the church (and specifically in ministry), but I know that I can’t in good conscience push someone out of fellowship with God. I know that I’m sick and tired of half-measures that half-recognize half-Christians and completely ruin our unity. The hospitality of Christ is not exclusive. Outsiders: come on in!

A Review of Flame of Love by Clark H. Pinnock

Pinnock, Clark H. Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996. 280 pages.

Pinnock begins by defining the Holy Spirit as a member of the Trinity, emphasizing the social nature of the Trinity to not only clarify the concept of Trinity, but also to clarify the being and role of the Spirit, which is traditionally the most obscure member. The Spirit is not only active in our redemption and piety, but also in creating and sustaining the world (chapter 2); acknowledging this helps us to have a more integrated theology, as well as improving our integration of theology with science, questions of origins and death, our understanding of humanity and the human spirit, and our motivation for environmental stewardship.

Pinnock then describes a “Spirit Christology” (chapter 3), framing the Incarnation and Atonement as part of a work already begun by the Spirit (in prevenient grace), empowered by and dependent upon the Spirit (empowering Christ in his kenosis), and unifying humanity with Christ to participate in his representative recapitulation, thus emphasizing the saving power of his life and resurrection as well as his death. The church is the continuing incarnation and mission of Jesus in the world, empowered and directed by the Spirit, who is experienced in the church through both sacrament and charisma, and requires both in order to be a healthy and holistic tool of the Spirit for Christ’s mission (chapter 4).

Salvation is described not as a legal transaction of justification, but as a journey of being brought into union (at-one-ment) with God through the power and love of the Spirit, as evidenced in normally-charismatic events such as conversion, baptism, and Spirit-baptism, which should all be read as one event that may unfold over time rather than as distinctive events; charisma and tongues should be seen as normal rather than normative, and read in light of our growing union with God, which predates our conversion and is present in the world in God’s prevenient grace, as the Spirit works to make a new creation, part of which is forming us in the likeness of Christ (chapter 5).

As for access to salvation, historic emphasis on the particularity of the mission of Christ has distracted from the universality of the prevenient mission of the Spirit, whose universal activity in the world, including in other religions, can be recognized in light of the particularity of Christ, allowing us to hope for all others (chapter 6).

Pinnock finishes by describing revelation as God’s self-revealing (as opposed to liberal experiential models or conservative notions of timeless principles), mediated by the Spirit who both inspires and illuminates Scripture and safeguards it through the Spirit’s presence in and gifts to the Christian community, which is empowered to discern truth in consultation and unity with the body of Christ; in this way God’s self-revelation is both eternal and timely (chapter 7).

Pinnock’s approach is a breath of fresh air: a systematic pneumatology, written for a popular audience! Doubly rare! He focuses on how the Spirit has been neglected in theology, and points out how a more robust pneumatology helps us to solve theological debates, providing a synthesis that moves us past old arguments and into “both-and” solutions, doing so without excessive recourse to oversimplification of issues or to mystery. He writes with humility, acknowledging possible arguments and seeking support from many other traditions; he may be the most ecumenical baptist I’ve ever heard of! He’s often repetitive, and I felt that the book could have been cut down by about 1/3 without losing content, but his conversational and humble tone make up for it and allow me to recommend this book to readers of every level.

A solid “A”.

Sounds like a bad romance novel, I know. Don’t judge a book by its cover, or its title. Also, don’t search for this book title without safesearch on.

Why I’m Not a 6-Day Creationist

#HamOnNye, the recent debate at the Creation Museum between Ken Ham and Bill Nye “the Science Guy”, made a lot of headlines, and not necessarily a lot of sense. Though I didn’t watch it, I’ve heard enough about it to affirm that, like most public debates about religion between Christians and atheists, it missed the point entirely (at least in my opinion). That said, debates like these have one positive function: they start conversations. This debate started a lot of conversations about Genesis, human origins, and science, and I’ve been part of several such conversations this week. Conversations are great ways to figure out what you believe, because it forces you to articulate it. So here goes: Why I Am Not a 6-Day Creationist.

HamOnNye

First, some disclaimers: I used to be a 6-day creationist. Big time. I understood the whole debate to be grounded in competing assumptions in scientific method, and tried to become an armchair scientist. This led me to embrace Intelligent Design, which seemed to take science more seriously and didn’t appear to start with Genesis and work backward toward science, as Young-Earth or 6-Day creationism sometimes seems to. Getting deeper into science was beginning to be a lot of work that I didn’t have time for, though, so I went back to my studies in theology and biblical studies, and it was there – in Genesis, not in the underlying assumptions of science – that I found a satisfying solution. Now I’m happily agnostic on the whole debate about human origins: I no longer find any tension between Genesis and science, and find scientific approaches to human origins mildly interesting at best. All that to say that I’m not going to argue for Creationism or Evolution (theistic or otherwise). I’m not going to argue about any scientific evidence, which is beyond my expertise and seems to be where the debate gets bogged down: issues of missing links, faults in carbon dating, theories of sedimentation, longer lifespans and global floods, are all vaguely interesting and completely immaterial to my understanding of Genesis. As I told one friend this week, I’m far more interested in the type of theology that these views espouse than in their scientific validity.

I loved this book, back then. I’m sure I still have it somewhere. I’m sure it makes some decent points, but I think that it misses the biggest one.

Another friend framed the issue for me pretty well, so I’ll try to paraphrase him: if Genesis 1-11 isn’t factually true, then the fall didn’t happen; if the fall didn’t happen, then humanity isn’t born in sin, and death is not a result of sin; and if humanity isn’t born in sin, then we have no need of a saviour. I hadn’t heard it phrased in (roughly) this way before, but that’s basically how it was presented to me growing up: if Genesis isn’t true, then the rest of the Bible isn’t true. So here’s why I disagree with each of those points, in turn.

1. Is Genesis 1-11 True?

Creationists sometimes argue that if Genesis isn’t true, then the rest of the Bible isn’t true either. That’s actually very reductive of their own position, but I’ve heard them argue it, so let’s explain it, starting with what they mean by “true”.

Often, the word “literally” shows up here: Fundamentalists (in the sense of the 19th-20th century theological movement, not “radicals” or “ultra-conservatives” as the media uses the word today) believe that Scripture should be read literally wherever possible. Many take this to mean that it should be read as factually true, in the sense that the Bible is read as true historical accounts that are factually accurate, having been passed down to us from the most reliable eyewitness, God himself. (After all, if we’re talking about the creation of the universe, he was the only eyewitness!) The downside of this approach is that to read the Bible this way, you must completely disregard the notion of genre. If you take the genre of the different books and sections of books in the Bible seriously, I don’t believe that a single word of it would fall into this (thoroughly modern) category. Put simply, ancient peoples didn’t read that way, let alone write that way. Even the “historical books” are highly interpreted, with absolutely no concept of “objectivity” on the part of the writers. They told their story of what happened, and often rearranged events to make their point more clearly, because their primary purpose was not to be an eyewitness but to provide a theological understanding of their history as a people – as the people of God. To read even these “historical” books as “factually” true is to misread them. A truly “literal” reading of a text must take its genre into account.

The genre of Genesis 1-11 is myth. This doesn’t necessarily imply that the events in those chapters didn’t happen, but only that they were written in a particular genre that highlights truths that are much deeper than the mere facts. The facts are that God created the world, but the details of these chapters focus on revealing God rather than giving a blow-by-blow account of what he did to create the universe. The structure of Genesis 1, for example, is borrowed from other Ancient Near Eastern creation myths, notably Egyptian creation myths; this was done deliberately to show how Israel’s God is different from Egypt’s gods. Genesis 1 is therefore not only myth, but a polemical document designed to compare and contrast with other documents from the same region. The flood account of Genesis 6 does the same with many Ancient Near Eastern flood accounts, the most famous being the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest known stories in human history (far older than Genesis). When you read Genesis in the context of the older mythologies from Israel’s region, it becomes clear that their purpose is far from scientific, and entirely about showing how Israel’s God is distinct from, and greater than, all other gods.

So yes, Genesis is deeply, “literally” true – but not necessarily factually true. It could be factually true, but that would have no bearing on whether or not it were true in the sense of whether or not it reveals true things about God – which is its true purpose.

Fundamentalists can apply their notion of literal or factual truth to the entire Bible because of their view of inspiration. The Bible is inspired by God, which implies that it is fully true – but the sense in which it is true depends on the sense in which you say that the Bible is inspired. Fundamentalists hold to “verbal inspiration” – meaning that God told the writers of the Bible exactly what to write, word for word. I believe that the Bible is inspired, but I don’t believe that it was verbally inspired; I believe that God speaks through human beings when human beings tell the truth, and that human beings participate with God by telling the truth at his prompting, and that this doesn’t require God to write it for us. This leaves me free to interpret Scripture in many different ways, seeing it as a collection of human-written books over a few thousand years in many different contexts and genres, and still find God within it. I should point out that a doctrine of verbal inspiration doesn’t require people to interpret the Bible as factually true, but even so, without the doctrine of verbal inspiration a factually-true interpretation of the Bible doesn’t hold up. The point here is that if you hold to this combination of verbal inspiration and a factually-true reading of the Bible, then if Genesis isn’t true the entire Bible is undermined; God must either be a liar, or not exist. I don’t think this is actually the case, but it certainly explains why some people argue for this view so tenaciously: their entire faith hinges on it. Thankfully, mine does not.

The Fundamentals. There’s a big difference between Fundamentalism as a Christian movement in the early 1900s and “fundamentalism” as we hear about it today, which usually means ultra-conservative radicalism. It was an important response to theological liberalism, but it wasn’t without its problems. Start here if you want to know where creationism as we know it today came from.

2. If Genesis 1-11 Isn’t (Factually) True, then The Fall Didn’t Happen

If Genesis 1-11 is factually true, then Adam ate a magical fruit (and I don’t mean beans) which gave him knowledge of good and evil and at the same time cursed all of humanity to sinfulness. This is incredibly problematic to me, and seems to lay the blame for all human sinfulness and misery at God’s feet: why would God even create a tree whose fruit was so incredibly deadly poisonous? Surely he’s smarter than that. That apple was more powerful than all of the weapons of mass destruction of history, because it (indirectly) created all of them. Yes, the sin was Adam’s (and Eve’s), in that they disobeyed God, but I’m not sure that a factual reading of Genesis 3 in a court of law wouldn’t end up with God being found guilty of criminal negligence causing Death.

If we are free to read Genesis as myth, though, everything changes. Adam (whose name in Hebrew actually means “human” or “humanity”) is representative of all human beings. It becomes a story that describes the human condition, rather than positing a single cause of the human condition. We’re all sinful, with Adam rather than because of him. Adam represents us all, in the same way that Christ represents us all: Adam represents our sinfulness, Christ represents our redemption. The fact that Paul makes this direct comparison in Romans has been used to support the existence of a historical Adam; I think it does the opposite, highlighting Adam’s representative function – a function that does not require him to be historically real as an individual human being.

If this is the case, and Adam wasn’t a real individual human being, then The Fall didn’t happen in a factual, historical sense. I’m okay with that; the implications of the Fall remain true, even if the event wasn’t factual, and a mythological reading of the text actually makes more sense because it implies that human sinfulness is the fault of humanity, and that we weren’t set up for endless torment by magic fruit. A mythological reading of Genesis 3 allows for the tree to be representative of human choice, a freedom that carries with it difficult consequences; God is responsible for giving us free choice, certainly, but that makes far more sense than God being responsible for giving us free choice and arbitrarily creating magical fruit. If the tree is supposed to be an actual, factual tree, then its presence is unexplained, and appears unwise; but if the tree is representative of choice, its presence is symbolic, and God is not responsible for giving us weapons of mass destruction.

Housecats in the garden of Eden? This artist (Hendrik Gultzius) must have been a creationist…

3. If the Fall Didn’t Happen Magically/Factually, Death Isn’t the Result of Sin

This is a slightly more serious objection. Scripture repeatedly links sin and death together, not least in Genesis 2 and 3. Adam and Eve are sent out of the garden, because if they were able to remain they would be able to eat from the tree of life and life forever. If we read this mythologically, as I believe the text requires, then the case for linking death to sin is even greater: mythologically, the tree of life is symbolic of relationship with or connection to God, who sustains our very being. This makes more sense than referring to more magical fruit, as though if someone were to find this tree they would still be able to live forever (like the “fountain of youth”).

In the Creation/Evolution argument, evolutionists must deal with the notion that evolution requires a continual cycle of death called natural selection – the idea that beneficial genes are passed on because creatures with less beneficial traits don’t survive, or the so-called “survival of the fittest.” If death didn’t exist before sin, then Adam couldn’t have been the product of evolution. Let’s keep in mind, though, that Genesis doesn’t say that there was no death before Eve ate the fruit; God merely said “if you eat of it, you will surely die.” Even then, this is only referring to Adam and Eve – the rest of the animals, even though they’re apparently all herbivores, aren’t mentioned in connection to the tree of life. There’s nothing anywhere saying that they can’t die, or that they weren’t dying for a very long time before Adam’s sin. So while this objection may appear troubling for evolutionists, I don’t think it’s as strong as it’s made out to be.

Some turn to Romans to make this argument, referring to Paul’s comparison of the old Adam and the new Adam (who is Christ). Paul says that through Adam we’ve received sin and death, and through Christ we receive forgiveness and eternal life. As I mentioned before, this compare/contrast doesn’t necessarily imply that Adam was a specific, historical individual, as Paul was trying to highlight him as representative of humankind; in the same way, I don’t think that this comparison implies that Adam’s sin invented death in a general sense, but only that Adam’s sin caused death, and even set a pattern of death, in contrast to Christ who brings life.

Eating the fruit didn’t cause immediate death, and nowhere is it implied that there was no death before the eating of the fruit. (Surely there was at least plant death, as all of the animals ate plants. Did any eat insects? Do they count?) Does that mean that sin is unrelated to death? By no means! Death is very, very often the result of sin – and sin very often leads to death, indirectly if not directly. Human conflict comes from sin, always. But did sin create viruses? Did sin create harmful bacteria, allergic reactions, natural disasters? Genesis says that God kicked humans out of the garden to cut them off from fruit that would sustain them forever, implying they’d never get old – but what if Adam fell off a cliff? We’ve traditionally interpreted Genesis as saying that all “natural evil” (illness, natural disasters, etc.) were part of the ground being cursed, that nature itself (including human nature) was somehow tainted by a single choice of disobedience. That’s a pretty big logical leap from what the actual text says (it relates the “curse” to the difficulty of farming, not the advent of earthquakes and viruses). The text itself is so vague that it ought to suggest to us that it wasn’t intending to factually retell the beginnings of all painful or damaging things. It doesn’t really comment on “natural evil”, because it’s focused on moral evil – sin and disobedience, and the hardship that they cause. So again, reading the text with the text, picking up its cues and emphases, leads us away from the problematic argument and toward a more simple and theologically sound exploration of the nature of God rather than the natural world.

In short, then, I’m okay with there being death before the Fall. It doesn’t make sin less sinful, or less harmful, to say that not all death is caused by sin.

“Take off, eh?”

4. If Humans Weren’t Born In Sin, Then We Don’t Need A Saviour

I think that this is a big logical leap. I’m sinful, whether Adam was a real guy or not: I don’t need to have been ‘born in sin’ in the sense of having inherited a sinful nature from a specific historical person who ate magic fruit in order to need a saviour. I need to be saved because of the choices that I’ve made, and even because of the choices that others have made, whether or not a historical Adam ate fruit. It’s been argued that if we weren’t born with original sin, which seems to be some sort of spiritual-genetic predisposition to sin, then it would be possible to be perfect and therefore wouldn’t need a saviour. I say that it is possible to be perfect (the Bible actually tells us to be perfect, several times), but that doesn’t mean that anyone (other than Jesus) is! We have enough food to feed everyone on the planet, but people still go hungry; we have the resources to eliminate poverty, but there are plenty of poor people; we have the technology to live sustainably, but we still burn coal and indulge in excess. Due to the systematic nature of the effects of sin, even if a lot of people were perfect they’d still need a saviour! I think that this objection only works with a very specific notion of salvation (individual spiritual salvation from hell), which only reflects a tiny bit of what God is working at in this world: a whole new creation, new society based on reconciliation and new relationships and structures, a place with no more sin and death. If you see salvation in a more holistic light, it becomes clear that the most perfect person in this imperfect world still needs a saviour.

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To sum it up: I think that if we read Genesis in light of its genre (myth) and context (ancient near eastern myths and cosmologies) we have no basis for scientific theories in it. It’s simply not about creation science, which makes it a very shaky foundation for creation science. The implications of this are only theologically threatening if we hold to a certain type of hermeneutics (modern Fundamentalist notions of reading all texts as woodenly “literal” in the sense of objectively and historically factual), a position which is exacerbated by its combination with a certain approach to the doctrine of inspiration (verbal inspiration). It doesn’t necessarily have any negative effect on our doctrine of sin and death, and certainly not on our need for a saviour and our doctrine of salvation. Far from being problematic for other doctrines, I think that reading Genesis mythologically makes much more sense in light of the world as we know it, relieving tensions caused by reading the text in light of certain philosophical assumptions (determinism, etc.) and leading to a more holistic and integrated theology that allows for greater input from other fields, including science. In other words, if we stop trying to turn Genesis into science, we can allow Genesis to speak for Genesis, science to speak for science, and God to speak in all things.