I was hired to be senior fellow in biblical studies, i.e., someone to see over the Bible side of the Christianity/evolution discussion. It dawned on me rather quickly just how difficult that would prove to be.
At least in the American conservative Christian context (my British friends are always reminding me to leave them out of this squabble), the Bible can’t be tweaked in order to foster a conversation with science. You cannot simply leave the Bible more or less where conservatives have it, maybe make a slight adjustment or two, and graft evolution onto it.
Why? Because in the above-mentioned context the Bible is expected to perform certain roles, primarily the role of last stop for settling the important questions of the universe–one of them being, “Where do we come from?”
When presented with this “model” of Scripture, the only option is to choose between the Bible and science–or to borrow the common rhetoric, between God and liberalism, atheism, secularism, Satan, etc.
So, it struck me early on that for the conversation truly to go forward, what is needed is nothing short of a “theological mass re-education”–and in some cases I would even say “de-programming”–not to take the Bible away from anyone, but to give it back without the tons of freight that literalism shackles to it.
This theological re-education does not have to be (and should not be) invented from scratch. Plenty of real, live, honest to goodness, Jesus followers have come to peace with all of this. The re-education is not about “caving in” to the dark side but joining a Christian conversation that is already happening.
I feel that re-education needs to happen mainly in two interconnected areas (although, commenters, feel free to add others you think are important): History and Jesus.
By “History” I simply mean learning more about the historical context of the Bible–or better, contexts. This can be unnerving for some, but I’ve rarely met anyone who hasn’t taken this task seriously and who hasn’t also come away thinking, “Wow, the Bible really does look a lot like it was written from an ancient point of view.”
This insight has theological implications: studying the Bible against its cultural backdrops teaches us to ask ancient questions of the text rather than imposing modern ones. That in and of itself is a major theological overhaul for many.
I bring this up a lot on this blog, and a couple of my books spend some time on this important issue (here and here). The idea is basically this: the New Testament writers weren’t literalists but read their Bible in a “Christ-centered” way.
Reading the Bible this way required them to re-think, re-interpret, and re-cast the past in view of the surprise ending of a messiah who was not only executed by the Romans (messiah’s aren’t supposed to lose) but whose resurrection brought the future into the present–thus the future “breaks into” the present moment.
The language and concepts concerning God and his people in the Old Testament were not set up to handle this sort of surprise move, and so the Gospel writers, Paul, and others reframed Israel’s past around Jesus.
What’s my point? When it comes to theological overhaul of conservative Christians in America, simply sitting back and watching with both eyes open how the New Testament writers talk about Jesus vis-a-vis the Old Testament is about as re-orienting an experience as a biblical literalist can have. “Following Jesus” has hermeneutical implications.
For the New Testament writers, Jesus exerts a gravitational pull on the Old Testament, bending its light inward, toward him. The result is not an Old Testament read literally, but an Old Testament re-read Christologically.
In Inspiration and Incarnation I call this a “Christo-telic” reading of the Old Testament, where Christ is the “end” (Greek telos) of Israel’s story. In light of this ending, the New Testament re-read their Bible in a necessarily different, creative, more nuanced, way, where parts of Israel story are transformed and reshaped, and parts of if left behind entirely.
If Christians were to take up the task, laid down by the the earliest Christian writers, of reading Israel’s story primarily as a story in need of transformation, rather than an ancient field guide for Christians today, an issue like evolution, which raises questions about the literal value of the Old Testament, may not as crippling and anxiety-producing as it often is.
I wish I could say all that to these young people featured in this video. I wish they could have a bigger Bible, a bigger Jesus, and a bigger God than the ones that now have.