July 31, 2007

The Bigger Picture (Part II)

Sorry for the long pause in writing, I've been ... busy. Busy is probably the opposite of hyperbole, let's say I've been slowly going insane over the past four weeks. I've had work; at Coldstone, we once again no longer have a manager, making that three managers in four months that have either been fired or quit on us. This time, though, they decided to go a different route and give me all the responsibilities without the salary. Oh, I got a raise, for which I'm grateful, but I'd just as well not be the one in charge. It's one of those "I could get fired if anything bad happens!" which doesn't make it easy to sleep at night. But I love my new job at the optometrist's office. The people are great, the doctors are fantastic, and the work pace is steady. And I get to sit down most of the day instead of stand.

Then there's the baby. She's fantastic (new pictures on
flickr), if a bit fussy sometimes. Actually, she's been fussy a lot lately, giving Liz a run for her sanity every two hours. And I really mean every ... two ... hours. My parents were here a week and a half ago, which was awesome. And this past weekend was the Paine family reunion in Illinois. We had a good time, but getting there took a lot longer than we expected due to torrential rains in Indiana, a huge traffic jam in Louisville, and of course, the usual delays from having a four-week-old baby to worry about. But in and amongst all this I haven't had time for reading, much less any writing. But I have a very slow day at work today, so I thought I'd pick up the story where I left off in the last post.

* * *

There are lots of kinds of scripture, but the hardest thing for many Christians to wrap their head around is determining whether a certain passage of poetry should be taken literally or metaphorically. Scripture itself isn't even in historical order, though it roughly moves from earlier to later with some interruptions. For example, the letters of Paul are not in chronological order, likewise for much of the later old testament. Some books (or parts of books) seem fairly indicative of history, though told as a bard would in the early Celtic legends. Others seem to be simply emotional expression, though we could probably match them to historical events (many of the psalms are like this). Still others are both; they contain many levels of history, symbolism, metaphor, truth.

The book of Genesis is this last sort of scripture; it happened, but it's also metaphorical, full of symbols that mean a lot if you understand the perspective of those who wrote it and heard it first. Like the book of Joshua, Genesis is much more than it appears. Its authorship is somewhat debatable; some say that Moses wrote it, but most historians these days believe that Moses was merely a collector of many other works, adding his own commentary as needed. Its original authorship seems to include Adam himself, Noah, Enoch, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the many fathers of the Israeli nation. Historians and Bible Scholars tend to agree that Genesis wasn't written by just one person, but by many. Speaking from a literary standpoint, the style shifts back and forth, changing voice. We can tell when one person is writing and then another takes up the next line of the story (Sidenote: the methods for this used are often the same used in criminology and linguistic forensics, when researchers are able to tell one "voice" from another because of their writing style. You know, like in CSI).

But Genesis 1 is the crux of it all, the most debated passage in scripture these days. Evolutionists, creationists, and everybody in between seems to have an opinion about what this passage means. Genesis 1 is written in the form of a poem, an illustration of the beginning of something. You can see it over and over again, with two different refrains: "And God said, let there be __ and there was", and "and there was evening, and there was morning, the __ day." As a poem, it's not half bad, though I imagine it was probably far more impressive in its original tongue. Poetry usually is.

At the start, it says "in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." My first reaction is, in the beginning of ... what, exactly? Of time? Of space? Of everything? We don't seem to be off to a good start if the text is pure history; important details are left out. Looking closer, you could spend ages studying just verses 1 and 2:

(1) In the begining, God created the heavens and the earth. (2) Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
So let's see if I understand this right. In the beginning, God creates the heavens and the earth. There's no particular indication of what "heaven" means here, but most likely it would indicate that space beyond earth's atmosphere, a place we typically associate with a void. But you have to remember, if before this there was only God, there would first have to be created a place in which a universe could exist. And the earth.

An interesting parallel is John 1:1-5:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John takes five verses to say what the author of Genesis 1 took two. We learn some interesting stuff in there, about the triune nature of God, about God's relationship with darkness, and about God's creative nature. It's a loaded text full of mystery, poetry, and truth.

But the next verse (Gen 1:2) makes the first seem odd; the earth was formless and empty. God first creates the heavens and the earth, but the earth was formless and empty. Genesis 1 begins not when there was nothing, but when there was already something. But in classic form, the scripture's author writes it as the understatement of the ages; in fact, understatement runs rampant through the biblical story. Think of Gabriel, "be not afraid." Really? Well, ok, if you say so. "Yep, God made everything. But THEN ..." Maybe the authors just knew that God can't be captured just in words, an idea we (read: modern-day people) might want to keep in mind more often.

If you think about it more, it makes sense that Genesis 1 is poetry; how else could you possibly capture, in any meaningful way, God's desire to produce creation? How else could you record something so beyond man? Scientific language will never do it justice; to say "first he did this, exactly this way, and then he did this, but in between there was this middle stage where this happened ..." seems to lose the message. Poetry (and art in general) is the best way to capture something so profound without resorting to massive volumes of text. Sure, it's less specific, doesn't give a "how", but it reads a lot better.

Besides, if God made it, does it matter exactly how He did it?

(to be continued)

1 comment:

Dan said...

Have you read "Opening the Bible" by thomas merton? I just read it for my exegesis class in the fall and found it very intriguing. He talks about the different types of writing in the bible- and even says (gasp...) "It is of the very nature of the Bible to affront, perplex and astonish the human mind. Hence the reader who opens the Bible must be prepared for disorientation, confusion, incomprehension, perhaps outrage. The Bible is without question one of the most unsatisfying books ever written..." Most of this comes from the misconception that the Bible is the "answer book" to all of life's problems, issues, scientific research, and historical timelines. However, the Bible or any of its authors never make such a claim. While holding some of these parts, it is many different styles blended together as a story of God's relationship to man... not necessarily a scientific textbook. Anyway, that's what I've been learning and thinking about lately and it parallels what you are talking about. Do we trust God enough not to have all the answers to our questions?