‘Making the text say things that it never meant’

One of my pet-peeve misconceptions is the notion that an illiterately literal reading of Genesis 1-11 is somehow an expression of “conservative” theology.

It isn’t.

Of course this “literal” belief in the six-day creation of a young earth isn’t liberal theology either. It’s just bad theology. Not orthodox, not conservative or liberal, just wrong — just a weirdly misleading way to read this text.

Bad theology and wrong theology shouldn’t be blithely equated with conservative theology. Yes, Al Mohler is a young-earth creationist and he’s right-wing politically. But just because he’s a political conservative doesn’t mean that his disrespectful abuse of Genesis is also “conservative.” His disrespectful abuse of this scripture is only just that — the disrespectful abuse of scripture.

That’s partly why I like this engaging short video on “Science and Genesis” (via here)– because it refuses to play this game of calling modern, illiterate literalism “conservative.” The video features a bunch of fairly conservative Protestant theologians treating the text with respect. This ain’t liberal theology, and it’s not some kind of radical new cutting-edge approach to the text.

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This is how Christians read the Bible. The actual Bible — not the make-believe one of the make-believe “conservatives.”

* * * * * * * * *

Maggie Koerth-Baker writes about “Crackpots, geniuses, and how to tell the difference.”

She offers five smart “suggestions” for sorting the crackpots from the geniuses, but I want to highlight the third:

If believing the idea will make you smarter than the official experts, be suspicious. Experts aren’t always right. But they do know their fields and experience does matter. Chances are, you’re an expert in something. Say you knew how to bake pies really well. You’d be pretty suspicious if somebody who didn’t bake (or didn’t even really cook much) told you that you were making pies all wrong — and that they had a secret pie recipe that was better than yours. They might be right. It’s worth taking a look at their evidence. But it also worth being skeptical.

This is good advice that applies to every field of study — including those fields of study that fall under the category of religion.

You can find plenty of ignorant books and blogs written by crackpot Christians “explaining” what’s wrong with Mormonism or Judaism or “secular humanism.” They’re all written by people who don’t know anything about Mormonism, Judaism or secular humanism, but who imagine they have some special insight that makes them more knowledgeable about those subjects than any of the people who actually study such things.

Likewise, you can find plenty of ignorant things written by people “explaining” what’s wrong with what they imagine Christians believe about, say, Genesis 1-11. Sometimes these are written by crackpots who imagine they have some special insight that makes them more knowledgeable about that than any of those theologians in the video above. Sometimes these are written by people who encounter a crackpot like Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis and mistake him for an actual, and typical, Christian biblical scholar.

  • Another Matt

    Sure.  Historical people had FABLES.  They understand how stories work.  Genesis doesn’t have anything to do with science any more than The Lion King does.  Talking snakes & lions are part of how fiction works.  It is…it is frankly REALLY WEIRD that people want to act like it is factual.  IT HAS A TALKING SNAKE.

    Here’s what I don’t get when I hear this argument (I don’t know what Mordicai’s beliefs are, so maybe this isn’t appropriate):

    “Sure. Historical people had FABLES. They understand how stories work. The gospels don’t have anything to do with science/history any more than The Lion King does. Divine avatars performing miracles are part of how fiction works. It is…it is frankly REALLY WEIRD that people want to act like it is factual. IT HAS A DUDE WHO WALKS ON WATER.”How do we know which parts of it to take as though it were factual?

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Anyway, short version: I’m not your fundamentalist cousin from Kansas.

    Apropos of the other thread, my life is significant now that I’ve invented a meme transmitted to at least one other person :)

  • Joshua

    Hooray!

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    …well I mean, I would go right ahead & agree with you. Jesus as an economics & ethics figure is one thing, but the belief in miracles is quite another. Forget walking on water; cut straight to the “died & rose again” part, since that is actually core doctrine, right?

  • swbarnes2

    You seem to be arguing under the misapprehension that I believe the Bible is the content of God’s revelation to us. Human people wrote it, subject to all sorts of limitations in their knowledge, morals and priorities.

     
    You were talking about the writers of Genesis, and you said you believed that God told them a bunch of stuff that would have been unavailable to them otherwise, that this was the virtue of the Bible.  And now you say, no, they were in fact limited?  What happens to the virtue of the Bible?

    In fact, I believe that God revealed himself to biblical figures, to a greater or lesser extent, but definitively in the person of Jesus.

    The same Jesus who talked about a global flood as if he sincerely believed it had actually happened? 
    And God didn’t reveal himself to anyone else figured in any other religious texts composed anywhere else in the world, ever?

    But they wrote down what they wrote down in response themselves. Hence, mythologised legends like your Ex 12:29.

    So the resurrection, that’s just as likely to be mythologized legend too?  The gospel writers were surely subject to all sorts of limitations in their knowledge, morals and priorities, right?
    If the Fall is a mythologized legend, then no one really needs redemption from it, do they?  So how do you figure out which fantastic stories are talking about real deeds, and which ones are mythologized legends? 

    Anyway, short version: I’m not your fundamentalist cousin from Kansas.

    If I had one, would your religious beliefs be on a better evidentiary or even logical foundation than hers?

    If I had one, would your religious beliefs be on a better evidentiary or even logical foundation than hers?

     

  • Joshua


    You were talking about the writers of Genesis, and you said you believed that God told them a bunch of stuff that would have been unavailable to them otherwise, that this was the virtue of the Bible.  And now you say, no, they were in fact limited?  What happens to the virtue of the Bible? 

    I think I have already explained this. I doubt anyone needs a rehash, or that I could be much clearer the second time around.

    And God didn’t reveal himself to anyone else figured in any other religious texts composed anywhere else in the world, ever?

     This sentence is pretty unclear to me. The grammar’s a bit wonko. However, it appears to be talking about other world religions, which is not a topic that has even been mentioned so far. I can’t really see why you have a  bone to pick with me about them, since you have no idea what my opinions of other world religions are.

    If I had one, would your religious beliefs be on a better evidentiary or even logical foundation than hers?

     I’m having real trouble with the idea that you’re engaging with me in good faith. I decline to continue this conversation. If by some strange chance you actually are interested in answers to these questions, not just attacking people, then I’ve commented previously on a bunch of good theological resources online that you can read in your spare time.

  • Andy Funk

    The point made in the video is that so much of what we read in Genesis must be understood within the context of the interplay between the Hebrew understanding of who God is and the practices of the surrounding cultures. The point is that the Hebrew bible speaks in terms of days and nights first, so as to very intentionally steer away from the prevalent custom of seeing multiple gods warring against one another in order to create the universe. You seem to have missed this crucial element of what NT Wright and others have clearly put forth. They also are not arguing for us to be able to read Genesis consistently with modern science, as that is not at ALL the point of the biblical narrative. It does not offer proof of material origins, which is precisely what many Christians are attempting to do. This is a 21st Century imposition upon biblical texts…something called “eisegesis”, which leads to very bad theology. I hope this clarifies some of what’s going on anyway.

    Peace,
    Andy


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