Friday, September 07, 2007

Football Frenzied?

With the onset of football season, I thought I'd repost this. It's not just about foootball, but I find it to be a helpful perspective-refresher. Do you think I'm right? Or would C.S.Lewis chide me for being too scared to risk pain for the sake of love?
Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Meditations on Genesis #2: Genre and Other French Words

In the film Stranger Than Fiction, IRS agent Harold Crick asks English Professor Jules Hilbert for help. Someone is writing the story of his life, and he wants to know who it is. Prof. Hilbert (played by Dustin Hoffman) instructs him that he must first discover the nature of the story -- is it an epic, a fairy tale, a murder mystery? Together they exhaust all the genres until they discover that it is either a comedy or a tragedy, depending on how it ends.

When we read the Bible, it is also imperative that we discover what kind of story we are reading. It is a little trickier than Harold's predicament, because the genre options in the Bible are far more diverse and numerous. Poetry, narrative, wisdom, gospel, letter, song, apocalypse, epic, parable, etc. When Jesus says, "I am the true vine," we interpret this based on the genre clues. We don't take it literally, because it would yield wacky conclusions, for one. When Jesus says, "Before a rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times," we can take it literally, because it makes sense within the context of the discourse. In both cases be can apply a sort of reductio ad absurdum test: If we take it as strictly literal, does it result in an absurdity? If not, does it harmonize with the teaching of Scripture elsewhere?

When we approach Genesis 1 & 2, we must look for genre clues and apply our reductio if needed. Unfortunately, these two chapters are unique among Holy Writ, so they don't fit neatly into any of our prefabricated boxes. They don't read like a simple narrative, and they don't have the typical characteristics of Hebrew poetry. The events portrayed are themselves one-of-a-kind. However, there is some resemblance to certain genres. An epic is a kind of narrative that involves events of grand (or cosmic) scale, divine intervention, and miraculous elements. There is some of that here. While some epics may include fiction, they can be squarely grounded in historical events. Genesis 1 & 2 clearly connect with the history genre, since the events are purportedly true and they are part of a continuous narrative, the vast majority of which falls precisely within that category. But there are also didactic, or teaching, elements here, as the author is providing a proto-theology for his early Hebrew readers. God is depicted as the eternal creator and sustainer of all things, superior to all the gods of Egypt or Canaan. Add a dash of the poetic, which is present in nearly all Hebrew writing, and you have some idea of the genre.

So given the multifaceted nature of this section, it is not clear whether it should be taken strictly literally (as with history), or abstractly (as with theology), or metaphorically (as with poetry), or as a blend.

Can we apply our reductio? In my study, I have found several difficulties to emerge when I take the entire passage as strictly literal. (And I'm not even talking about the "day" controversy. We'll assume that is literal.) Perhaps a wiser man than I can resolve them. First, it is hard to understand how there could be a literal evening and morning with an unformed earth and no sun. God may be the light source (as in the heavenly city of Revelation), but where is God located in Genesis? If God is omnipresent, then wouldn't the light be everywhere? If so, then there could be no "sunset." Second, in 2:4-24, we get a zoom-lens picture of day 6. But could all these events take place in 12 hours of daylight? It seems wildly implausible. We could imagine God super-speeding it all along, so that any observer would have just seen a blur of motion, but given what we know of God's character and nature, can you see him rushing through this wonderful day? It just seems silly. No matter how many animals you think Adam named, it had to be a lot. Thousands, at least. I've seen some try to explain this by saying that it would only take a few seconds for each animal. Do you really think that is how God did it? With Adam like a worker on a warp-drive assembly line? That seems crazy to me. And I haven't even mentioned the crowning acheivement of God's creation -- the fashoning of woman. Did God rush through that? If He was just going to go "BAM!" and create Eve, why did he bother putting Adam to sleep and extracting a rib? Then Adam composes the world's first poem. Are we to think this whole day was like a movie in fast-forward? What possible reason would God have to hurry? There are other minor difficulties that I won't go into for the sake of space.

By our reductio test, I conclude that taking Genesis 1 & 2 as strictly literal is a mistake. Forcing a strictly literal interpretation on this passage strains and stretches the text to an uncomfortable shape. It just feels contrived, shoe-horned in. So what is the alternative? I think there may be a literal approach to Genesis 1 & 2 that provides greater flexibility and actually embraces the God-inspired imagination of the author. But I'll get to that in my next post.