I’ve been preparing for the upcoming Faith & Science Seminar that I co-developed (Sat, Sept 21st, 7pm @ Menlo Park Presbyterian), and some of that preparation involves making sure I have a good feel for the current conversations taking place about these topics. Part of this is simply good communication (i.e., know where the people are), but I also want to lessen the odds of getting blindsided by an oddball question.
As I’ve surveyed some of the Young Earth Creationism (YEC) writing, I’ve been reminded of what has long bugged me about their viewpoint. It doesn’t have anything to do with science, because I’m not really qualified to talk about science in public – I get irritated when people talk authoritatively about things they poorly understand, so I probably shouldn’t do it, either.
It has to do with the underlying assumptions that YECs often make about the Biblical Narrative, as exemplified by one article definitively stating that, “it’s the plain words of Genesis 1–2 that tell us how the world came to be.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly find the Bible to be ‘plain’ or ‘clear.’ It *might* be plain if I read it in English and assumed it was written by post-Enlightenment Westerners, but since it most definitely was not, we have a problem. Dismissing any other possible way of reading and interpreting part of the Biblical Narrative because “I have the plain reading…” comes across as arrogant and naïve.
By way of a very simple example for why “plain” doesn’t cut it, if I were to say, “I’m mad about my flat” to you, how would you respond? If you are an American, you would probably empathize with me because it sucks to get a flat tire. If you are English, you might buy my next beer at the pub because I’m excited about my apartment. So… which is the plain reading? The answer depends on the source of the quote and the one listening.
Americans and English have, essentially, the same worldview. But if you extend that out 2,000-3,000 years, with dead languages and a fundamentally different understanding of the way the world works, perhaps you can start to grasp the enormity of the problem. We not only have to translate the supposedly ‘plain’ documents “that tell us how the world came to be,” but we also have to ask ourselves in what ways the text(s) operate in an ancient worldview and cognitive environment. For example, we can’t assume that when an ancient text says “create,” it means the same thing as when an American says “create” on a blog that no one reads. Considering that a fundamental concept like “create” tends to be particularly affected by worldview, it’s a very safe bet that when Genesis talks about “create,” it means something very different.
But wait, there’s more! That particular article linked to another one that also exhibited an unfortunate problem in approaching the Bible. At one point, the writer said:
We need to realize that the Bible is God’s Word. And as it is the inspired Word of the infinite Creator, God, then it must be self-authenticating and self-attesting. Thus, we should always start with what God’s Word says regardless of outside ideas. Only God’s Word is infallible.
Starting with what God’s Word says regardless of outside ideas… I can guarantee that even those who propose this kind of approach don’t follow this. Why? Because the Bible(s) that we have in the modern world is the product of at least 2,000 years of work, scholarship, study, blood, sweat, ink, tears, beer, and frustration. We have English translations because very smart and well educated people put countless hours into studying the Biblical languages (Hebrew, Greek, and a little Aramaic) as well as secondary languages (Latin, Coptic, etc), all to have their work revised over and over again. For this to be minimized, which is what that particular group appears to be doing, places their theology of Biblical Revelation more on par with Mormonism and Islam – where the ‘revealed word’ more or less appears completely and immediately. And I’m willing to bet that they won’t appreciate that comparison, but then again, they probably won’t read this.
To push the point further, the same people translating the Bible into English were only able to learn those languages because others actually developed lexicons, preserved the study of the languages, did comparative studies with many, many writings to determine, as best as possible, what the words actually meant, surveyed the cultures that produced these languages, and published and revised their work ad nauseam.
Whether or not we want to admit it, no one actually “starts” with the Bible. Dismissing the thousands of years of history that goes into our understanding of the Bible is not only reckless; it’s dangerous. We run the risk of reading the Bible in a very small, ethnocentric world, where we have THE interpretation because we know the “plain” reading. It’s also intellectually dishonest at worst, or naïve at best.
If the Bible is God’s word (and I believe it is), then it’s worth reading it for what it is, and not for what we wish it to be – as though it were a book that fell out of the sky, in English, and is easily read by anyone with a passing desire.