Evolution, Evangelicals, the Historical Adam, and NPR

I read the Bible literally. Which is why I don’t believe in an historical Adam and Eve.

NPR ran a long piece yesterday morning about the controversy among evangelicals regarding the historicity of Genesis 2. I commend Barbara Bradley Hagerty for even-handed coverage of the story, and yet I listened with alarm to the arguments proposed by evangelicals on both sides of the debate.

On one side are people who believe that there can’t be an historical Adam because the scientific data disproves it. According to them, the human genome couldn’t have developed from two individual humans in so little time:

Asked how likely it is that we all descended from Adam and Eve, Dennis Venema, a biologist at Trinity Western University, replies: “That would be against all the genomic evidence that we’ve assembled over the last 20 years, so not likely at all.”

I assume that Venema got his science right. And yet in his comment he essentially pitted Genesis against modern evolutionary biology and decided that evolution wins. Another scientist makes a similar point:

“Evolution makes it pretty clear that in nature, and in the moral experience of human beings, there never was any such paradise to be lost,” Schneider [who taught theology at Calvin College in Michigan until recently] says. “So Christians, I think, have a challenge, have a job on their hands to reformulate some of their tradition about human beginnings.”

Then there’s the other side, the people NPR says read the Bible “literally.” This group asserts that the entire Christian faith hinges upon the historicity of the Genesis account:

“From my viewpoint, a historical Adam and Eve is absolutely central to the truth claims of the Christian faith,” says Fazale Rana, vice president of Reasons To Believe, an evangelical think tank that questions evolution.

Here, if Adam and Eve weren’t real people in a garden thousands of years ago, then we’ve lost our bearings as Christians now. If they weren’t real, then we aren’t created in the image of God. If they weren’t real, then there is no such thing as original sin. If they weren’t real, then everything falls, including Jesus’ death on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins and his resurrection from the dead in triumph over the grave.

Both of these arguments stem from fear instead of faith, fear that the Bible can’t stand up to scientific inquiry, fear that our faith rests upon a particular reading of Scripture rather than upon the historical reality of Jesus Christ, who died and rose again.

We need to get some English majors involved in this debate. Reading Genesis literally does not necessitate an historical Adam and Eve. It does necessitate respect for the text itself. It requires us to let the text tell us how to read it. 

Take Oliver Twist. Reading Dickens’ novel literally does not mean believing that a little orphan named Oliver lived in England two centuries ago. Reading it literally does mean believing that the conditions in which orphans lived in England two centuries ago were often cruel. Moreover, reading it literally means receiving truths about human nature in all its harshness and all its potential for redemption. Then take Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, an account of the 101st Airborne Division in World War II. Reading this book literally does mean believing that these men, with these particular names and stories, lived and fought and died. Both of these books when read literally tell us the truth about human beings. But a novel is not the same as a work of history.

In understanding Genesis, the first thing we need to do is ask what Genesis tells us about itself. I am an evangelical Christian. I believe that these particular books were set apart by God through the community of faith because their writing was inspired by the Holy Spirit. I believe that Scripture is one of God’s gifts to the church, and that Scripture ought to have authority over the lives of those who believe.

And when I turn to Genesis, the first thing I find is a poem. Genesis 1 has a rhythm. It has repetition, almost like a chorus. It speaks in grandiose terms about the creation of the universe. It records truth about God: that God is the Creator of all life, that God brings order out of chaos, and that God has established a particular relationship with human beings, created in his image. Genesis 1 is not a science textbook, nor is it trying to be. And reading Genesis 1 as a science textbook instead of a poem is to ignore the literal purpose of the text.

Similarly, Genesis 2 is a story. It offers clues that at the very least open up the possibility that it is not intended to be historical. Adam, for instance, is not so much a personal name as it is a representative type. In the Hebrew, the word Adam means, simply, “man” or “human.” Similarly, Eve means “living.” The text itself tells us that this is a story. Reading it literally means paying attention to the truth contained in the story—that God initiates a relationship with human beings and desires humans to flourish, that humans want to become their own gods instead of living under God’s direction, and that this rebellion results in pain, separation, and even death.

A literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2 need not be afraid of scientific inquiry. It never pretended to be a science textbook. But reading Genesis 1 and 2 as poems and stories instead of history does not do away with the authority of Scripture or the central premises of evangelical theology. As Christians, we need to let Scripture speak for itself.

About Amy Julia Becker

Amy Julia Becker writes and speaks about family, faith, disability, and culture. A graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, she is the author of Penelope Ayers: A Memoir, A Good and Perfect Gift (Bethany House), and Why I Am Both Spiritual and Religious (Patheos Press).

Comments

  1. Offjamespiper says:

    “…the scientific data disproves it.” Wrong. There are no data to prove it therefore there’s no reason to believe it.

  2. Offjamespiper says:

    “…the scientific data disproves it.” Wrong. There are no data to prove it therefore there’s no reason to believe it.

  3. Offjamespiper says:

    What people fail to understand is that evolution is a fact. What Darwin did was explain why evolution happens. He didn’t discover it. He didn’t invent it. He provided the rational reasons for why species evolve. That includes homo sapiens–us–one of several ape species living on earth.

  4. Offjamespiper says:

    What people fail to understand is that evolution is a fact. What Darwin did was explain why evolution happens. He didn’t discover it. He didn’t invent it. He provided the rational reasons for why species evolve. That includes homo sapiens–us–one of several ape species living on earth.

  5. I heard this on NPR yesterday too. Thanks for your thoughts on it, Amy Julia. I like your connection to Oliver Twist and Band of Brothers. I think I immediately get defensive when I hear shows like the NPR one or engage in discussions regarding the evolution/creation debate.

  6. I heard this on NPR yesterday too. Thanks for your thoughts on it, Amy Julia. I like your connection to Oliver Twist and Band of Brothers. I think I immediately get defensive when I hear shows like the NPR one or engage in discussions regarding the evolution/creation debate.

  7. Great post, Amy! The false dichotomies become incredibly tiring. They lack relationship and they lack imagination. Thank you for your contribution to the conversation.

  8. Great post, Amy! The false dichotomies become incredibly tiring. They lack relationship and they lack imagination. Thank you for your contribution to the conversation.

  9. Aethermist says:

    Hi, Amy:

    I haven’t been a Christian for years, but I enjoyed reading your take on Genesis and yesterday’s NPR story because I think it reflects an attitude of interpreting Biblical text as moral poetic metaphor. A literal reading of the Bible introduces too many contradictions and “gray areas” on its own, without the introduction of outside facts. Read with a bit more hubris and historical perspective, though, the Old and New Testaments contain a wealth of teachings and stories about humankind that can be character-building for both believers and non-believers.

  10. Aethermist says:

    Hi, Amy:

    I haven’t been a Christian for years, but I enjoyed reading your take on Genesis and yesterday’s NPR story because I think it reflects an attitude of interpreting Biblical text as moral poetic metaphor. A literal reading of the Bible introduces too many contradictions and “gray areas” on its own, without the introduction of outside facts. Read with a bit more hubris and historical perspective, though, the Old and New Testaments contain a wealth of teachings and stories about humankind that can be character-building for both believers and non-believers.

  11. Aethermist, thanks for your comment. I do want to clarify that while I believe a literal or true reading of Genesis allows room to understand Adam and Eve as figurative types, I don’t think the same is true for all of Scripture. In the Gospels, for example, the writers go to great lengths to make sure their readers understand that they aren’t writing in allegory. Luke, for instance, begins his Gospel with the words, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” As with Genesis, if we are to give respect to this text, we need to acknowledge that Luke is not writing an allegory but a history. Yes, the “rules” of history might be different now than then, but Luke intends his reader to believe the facts as he records them. John 20 makes a similar statement as to the veracity of the stories within, and Paul points out the eyewitness accounts to the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. Richard Bauckham has a helpful book on this topic, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

    In conclusion, for believers, each book of Scripture needs to be understood as a part of the larger whole and of a grand narrative of God’s redemption of the world. But each book also needs to be taken on its own terms in understanding what it means to read it literally.

  12. Aethermist, thanks for your comment. I do want to clarify that while I believe a literal or true reading of Genesis allows room to understand Adam and Eve as figurative types, I don’t think the same is true for all of Scripture. In the Gospels, for example, the writers go to great lengths to make sure their readers understand that they aren’t writing in allegory. Luke, for instance, begins his Gospel with the words, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” As with Genesis, if we are to give respect to this text, we need to acknowledge that Luke is not writing an allegory but a history. Yes, the “rules” of history might be different now than then, but Luke intends his reader to believe the facts as he records them. John 20 makes a similar statement as to the veracity of the stories within, and Paul points out the eyewitness accounts to the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. Richard Bauckham has a helpful book on this topic, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

    In conclusion, for believers, each book of Scripture needs to be understood as a part of the larger whole and of a grand narrative of God’s redemption of the world. But each book also needs to be taken on its own terms in understanding what it means to read it literally.

  13. So which parts of the bible are poetic and which parts are factual truth? Who decides? Does this subjective judgement change with time? Does reality ever enter the process?

    • Poetic vs. factual truth is not , in my mind, the issue at hand. It seems we need to look at the Bible as the spiritual instruction that it is to us today, as opposed to a cultural, moral, history or science lesson. If we as believers were to stick to arguing the virtues of the Bible from that standpoint, then there would be no room for this endless, politically motivated bickering with the sciences.

  14. So which parts of the bible are poetic and which parts are factual truth? Who decides? Does this subjective judgement change with time? Does reality ever enter the process?

    • Poetic vs. factual truth is not , in my mind, the issue at hand. It seems we need to look at the Bible as the spiritual instruction that it is to us today, as opposed to a cultural, moral, history or science lesson. If we as believers were to stick to arguing the virtues of the Bible from that standpoint, then there would be no room for this endless, politically motivated bickering with the sciences.

  15. Clarence Oddbody says:

    Interesting article, Amy. I’m a Calvin grad and found your story after listening to the NPR piece. However, IMHO if the writers (and prior to them, storytellers) of the Genesis account didn’t believe the story “necessitate[s] an historical Adam and Eve,” I’d be inclined to agree.

    Unfortunately, I believe they believed the stories they were telling were literally true; and in a world where everything is relative (including literary criticism), there is no foundation for convincing anyone that one particular perspective has more merit than another.

    Don’t get me wrong I think you’re right: fiction (or parable or metaphor or whatever we want to call it) often presents more helpful insight into human nature than nonfiction; but divorcing the reader from the factual substrate leads to unexpected consequences, like agnosticism or atheism, which is often the acceptance stage of a frustrated Christianity.

    Calvin is failing to keep pace with a changing church and student body, many of whom are now my age, where more years have passed since we graduated than had come before. And by “keeping pace” I don’t mean compromise, I mean intelligently and sensitively dealing with widely differing opinions in the Christian community, rather than simply expelling those we disagree with because we can.

    Being right has no meaning if no one’s listening.

    –csc
    (Once a Calvin English major)

    • CSC– I certainly agree that the writers of Genesis thought that the stories were true. I’m not as convinced that they thought Adam and Eve were specific individuals rather than representative ones. I’m sure you have good reasons for disagreeing–if you check back in here, I’d love to hear what makes you come to your conclusion.

      The reason I tend to think that the writers themselves believed Adam and Eve to be representative types is due to their names. I’m trying to receive the text as it is meant to be received–first and foremost as the Word of God, and within that as a compilation of different genres, poetry, story, history, letter, lament, and so forth.

      • Clarence Oddbody says:

        Good question.

        I’m of two minds.

        Since I can’t go back in time, I can’t answer it from first-person-experience, but despite lots of time in the bible, I can recall no point where it was obvious to me the people reading or listening to it would regard the stories as primarily representative of deeper truths (and only secondarily or unnecessarily accurate).

        (IMHO with a couple exceptions – 1. Parables, and 2. Fantastical accounts, see below)

        Now that is not true today. Most Christians (except American fundamentalists) interpret more incredible passages, even some accounts of Christ, as instructive, not historical. That’s for the individual to decide. Many claim the name “Christian” while denying the Virgin Birth or Resurrection, for example; that is entirely their prerogative, since no one owns the title or all the pieces that define it.

        I’m more interested in how Christians respond to it and invite others to respond.

        When we tell a child there is no Santa Claus, the child goes through some tears, some questions, and resigns himself to the obvious (depending on the age and how much we reinforced the story to that point). To help it along, we say things like “Santa’s not a real person, but his spirit lives in the hearts of everyone at Christmastime,” or something similar.

        In other words, we’ve removed the factual aspect of the story from the child’s universe, and there is little left to sustain a belief. Some children are devastated, some sort of had it figured out already.

        Likewise with a belief in biblical stories, which, once the factual aspect is removed, become less interesting to most people. This is often the response of someone with a Western cultural background, where accuracy is simply expected in historical reporting. There are other cultures (usually ancient ones) where the message is not in the accuracy, but in the elements of exaggeration or metaphor that served to explain a principle.

        (Many biblical scholars believe that certain durations like 40 and 7, miraculous acts, or a ludicrously long life, are examples of this.)

        However, our Western culture is skeptical of any account that is not also accurate; it’s a wonderful expectation, for it gives us a solid foundation for science and debate; unfortunately, it misses equally great rewards that can come from literary devices that need more flexibility. Neither side is right or wrong; both sides offer insight into the substance of a thing, but from different angles.

        (I don’t think we disagree on this. I’m probably restating the obvious.)

        BTW, I never did tell my son, now 20 years old, there was no Santa. I never stopped playing the game, and though he of course came to realize the truth, he still to this day plays along with me. I did that because I value the childlike magic of the season and think it has a great deal to offer in an age when celebrations of simple sentiments are increasingly ridiculed and cluttered with commercial nonsense.

  16. Clarence Oddbody says:

    Interesting article, Amy. I’m a Calvin grad and found your story after listening to the NPR piece. However, IMHO if the writers (and prior to them, storytellers) of the Genesis account didn’t believe the story “necessitate[s] an historical Adam and Eve,” I’d be inclined to agree.

    Unfortunately, I believe they believed the stories they were telling were literally true; and in a world where everything is relative (including literary criticism), there is no foundation for convincing anyone that one particular perspective has more merit than another.

    Don’t get me wrong I think you’re right: fiction (or parable or metaphor or whatever we want to call it) often presents more helpful insight into human nature than nonfiction; but divorcing the reader from the factual substrate leads to unexpected consequences, like agnosticism or atheism, which is often the acceptance stage of a frustrated Christianity.

    Calvin is failing to keep pace with a changing church and student body, many of whom are now my age, where more years have passed since we graduated than had come before. And by “keeping pace” I don’t mean compromise, I mean intelligently and sensitively dealing with widely differing opinions in the Christian community, rather than simply expelling those we disagree with because we can.

    Being right has no meaning if no one’s listening.

    –csc
    (Once a Calvin English major)

    • CSC– I certainly agree that the writers of Genesis thought that the stories were true. I’m not as convinced that they thought Adam and Eve were specific individuals rather than representative ones. I’m sure you have good reasons for disagreeing–if you check back in here, I’d love to hear what makes you come to your conclusion.

      The reason I tend to think that the writers themselves believed Adam and Eve to be representative types is due to their names. I’m trying to receive the text as it is meant to be received–first and foremost as the Word of God, and within that as a compilation of different genres, poetry, story, history, letter, lament, and so forth.

      • Clarence Oddbody says:

        Good question.

        I’m of two minds.

        Since I can’t go back in time, I can’t answer it from first-person-experience, but despite lots of time in the bible, I can recall no point where it was obvious to me the people reading or listening to it would regard the stories as primarily representative of deeper truths (and only secondarily or unnecessarily accurate).

        (IMHO with a couple exceptions – 1. Parables, and 2. Fantastical accounts, see below)

        Now that is not true today. Most Christians (except American fundamentalists) interpret more incredible passages, even some accounts of Christ, as instructive, not historical. That’s for the individual to decide. Many claim the name “Christian” while denying the Virgin Birth or Resurrection, for example; that is entirely their prerogative, since no one owns the title or all the pieces that define it.

        I’m more interested in how Christians respond to it and invite others to respond.

        When we tell a child there is no Santa Claus, the child goes through some tears, some questions, and resigns himself to the obvious (depending on the age and how much we reinforced the story to that point). To help it along, we say things like “Santa’s not a real person, but his spirit lives in the hearts of everyone at Christmastime,” or something similar.

        In other words, we’ve removed the factual aspect of the story from the child’s universe, and there is little left to sustain a belief. Some children are devastated, some sort of had it figured out already.

        Likewise with a belief in biblical stories, which, once the factual aspect is removed, become less interesting to most people. This is often the response of someone with a Western cultural background, where accuracy is simply expected in historical reporting. There are other cultures (usually ancient ones) where the message is not in the accuracy, but in the elements of exaggeration or metaphor that served to explain a principle.

        (Many biblical scholars believe that certain durations like 40 and 7, miraculous acts, or a ludicrously long life, are examples of this.)

        However, our Western culture is skeptical of any account that is not also accurate; it’s a wonderful expectation, for it gives us a solid foundation for science and debate; unfortunately, it misses equally great rewards that can come from literary devices that need more flexibility. Neither side is right or wrong; both sides offer insight into the substance of a thing, but from different angles.

        (I don’t think we disagree on this. I’m probably restating the obvious.)

        BTW, I never did tell my son, now 20 years old, there was no Santa. I never stopped playing the game, and though he of course came to realize the truth, he still to this day plays along with me. I did that because I value the childlike magic of the season and think it has a great deal to offer in an age when celebrations of simple sentiments are increasingly ridiculed and cluttered with commercial nonsense.

  17. Interesting piece Amy Julia. I would love to hear your response to the claim that Paul makes in Romans 5 regarding the ‘literal’ Adam.

  18. Interesting piece Amy Julia. I would love to hear your response to the claim that Paul makes in Romans 5 regarding the ‘literal’ Adam.

  19. cotswoldsrose says:

    I grew up evangelical, where the standard approach to science–especially biology and geology–was fear and mistrust. Eleven years ago I became Catholic, and one of the most things that has struck me about the Church is its lack of fear and mistrust for science. Instead, I encountered a high respect–though with a little caution–for science. Though individual Catholics differ on their views of things like evolution, the general attitude of the Church is that science and the Bible will not truly conflict, though they may appear to at times; instead, science helps illuminate the meaning of science-related parts of the Bible and helps us know God even better. This may require us to change some previous understandings about the world and how it works, as well as some interpretations of biblical passages (such as Genesis 1 and 2), but it does not really change or water down our faith. It is just a little scary and uncomfortable as we assimilate the new information.

  20. cotswoldsrose says:

    I grew up evangelical, where the standard approach to science–especially biology and geology–was fear and mistrust. Eleven years ago I became Catholic, and one of the most things that has struck me about the Church is its lack of fear and mistrust for science. Instead, I encountered a high respect–though with a little caution–for science. Though individual Catholics differ on their views of things like evolution, the general attitude of the Church is that science and the Bible will not truly conflict, though they may appear to at times; instead, science helps illuminate the meaning of science-related parts of the Bible and helps us know God even better. This may require us to change some previous understandings about the world and how it works, as well as some interpretations of biblical passages (such as Genesis 1 and 2), but it does not really change or water down our faith. It is just a little scary and uncomfortable as we assimilate the new information.

  21. Wait, so Adam and Eve weren’t historical individuals, but humans rebelled against god, which results in death. But…when? When was the Fall if there were no Adam and Eve? How does the Fall, and the subsequent guilt of humanity make any sense, if the Fall isn’t an event?

    • I am not a Christian anymore, but I grew up in the church, and I have looked at it this way:

      Before we were humans like we are, we were like animals. We did what our instincts told us to. At some point, some point too early for anyone actually _writing anything down_ to be alive, we began to see cause and effect, to make judgments, and to decide things were “good” and “bad” or “right” and “wrong.”

      If you look at the Tree of Knowledge as a metaphor for that self judgment, then what did Adam and Eve do after they received that knowledge? They covered themselves. They covered the gifts of God because they were ashamed. The writers of the story (whomever they really were) were saying, I think, that we misjudge God’s decisions, we second-guess how the world is supposed to be. We create our own “hell on earth.”

      That’s probably echoing some other philosophy somewhere, but that’s how I see it. We as humans are born to worry, dread, and jump to the wrong conclusions. How we “fell” comes all at once in a story, because by the time it was a story, we were thousands of years past our “awakening.”

  22. Wait, so Adam and Eve weren’t historical individuals, but humans rebelled against god, which results in death. But…when? When was the Fall if there were no Adam and Eve? How does the Fall, and the subsequent guilt of humanity make any sense, if the Fall isn’t an event?

    • I am not a Christian anymore, but I grew up in the church, and I have looked at it this way:

      Before we were humans like we are, we were like animals. We did what our instincts told us to. At some point, some point too early for anyone actually _writing anything down_ to be alive, we began to see cause and effect, to make judgments, and to decide things were “good” and “bad” or “right” and “wrong.”

      If you look at the Tree of Knowledge as a metaphor for that self judgment, then what did Adam and Eve do after they received that knowledge? They covered themselves. They covered the gifts of God because they were ashamed. The writers of the story (whomever they really were) were saying, I think, that we misjudge God’s decisions, we second-guess how the world is supposed to be. We create our own “hell on earth.”

      That’s probably echoing some other philosophy somewhere, but that’s how I see it. We as humans are born to worry, dread, and jump to the wrong conclusions. How we “fell” comes all at once in a story, because by the time it was a story, we were thousands of years past our “awakening.”

  23. English major here: What I take away from this post is that the word “literal” has no meaning in this discussion. I come from a tradition that doesn’t fetishize having a “literal” reading of the Bible, so I have no problem with your interpretation. (Whoops! “Interpretation” is a taboo word, isn’t it?) But I don’t imagine it to be literal.

    Usually, when people speak of a “literal” reading this is in contrast with an interpretation of the text as a metaphor. (“Metaphor” is another taboo word in some circles.) This is why I tend to roll my eyes when people claim that they read the Bible literally. Of course they don’t. If they did, then they would understand Jesus’ statement that “I am the light of the world” to mean that Jesus is an actual light: handy to read a book by, I suppose. My other usual example is “The Lord is my shepherd”. Read that literally and you end up with the Lord being an employee responsible for ovine management.

    No one has any objection to reading passages like these as metaphors. They do it all the time without a second thought. So what do they actually mean when they claim to read the Bible literally? At one time this often referred to the historicity of the resurrection, but nowadays what they likely really mean is they read Genesis, especially the first two chapters, literally.

    This is a mistake, for the reasons you give. Two hundred years ago it was more plausible. The genre of ancient creation story was poorly understood, as was Earth’s geological history. People read the first two chapters of Genesis literally because they lacked the background to better understand it. There is no such excuse for modern readers.

    So I agree with your substantive points, but disagree with your claim to a literal reading. The key is to get away from the use of the word “literal” as a shibboleth. Redefining it to a more convenient meaning is a poor substitute.

    • A friend of mine distinguishes between a “literal” meaning and “literalistic” meaning. That’s what I’m trying to get at–that taking the text as it invites us to take it means reading it literally without imposing upon it our own categories.

  24. English major here: What I take away from this post is that the word “literal” has no meaning in this discussion. I come from a tradition that doesn’t fetishize having a “literal” reading of the Bible, so I have no problem with your interpretation. (Whoops! “Interpretation” is a taboo word, isn’t it?) But I don’t imagine it to be literal.

    Usually, when people speak of a “literal” reading this is in contrast with an interpretation of the text as a metaphor. (“Metaphor” is another taboo word in some circles.) This is why I tend to roll my eyes when people claim that they read the Bible literally. Of course they don’t. If they did, then they would understand Jesus’ statement that “I am the light of the world” to mean that Jesus is an actual light: handy to read a book by, I suppose. My other usual example is “The Lord is my shepherd”. Read that literally and you end up with the Lord being an employee responsible for ovine management.

    No one has any objection to reading passages like these as metaphors. They do it all the time without a second thought. So what do they actually mean when they claim to read the Bible literally? At one time this often referred to the historicity of the resurrection, but nowadays what they likely really mean is they read Genesis, especially the first two chapters, literally.

    This is a mistake, for the reasons you give. Two hundred years ago it was more plausible. The genre of ancient creation story was poorly understood, as was Earth’s geological history. People read the first two chapters of Genesis literally because they lacked the background to better understand it. There is no such excuse for modern readers.

    So I agree with your substantive points, but disagree with your claim to a literal reading. The key is to get away from the use of the word “literal” as a shibboleth. Redefining it to a more convenient meaning is a poor substitute.

    • A friend of mine distinguishes between a “literal” meaning and “literalistic” meaning. That’s what I’m trying to get at–that taking the text as it invites us to take it means reading it literally without imposing upon it our own categories.


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