A key element of the course’s popularity, I think, is that it takes on modern controversies about the Bible and Christianity very directly. We discuss feminism, homosexuality, immigration, terrorism, stem cell research, and other topics alongside the biblical texts most frequently cited when Americans make normative claims. Using documentary films like Craig Detweiler and John Marks’s courageous Purple State of Mind and Daniel Karslake’s poignant For the Bible Tells Me So, I pursue an atmosphere in which students can rethink many of their foundational assumptions in relative safety. In our dominantly white, homogeneous, lower-to-middle-class, Midwestern context, the complicated wisdom that emerges can be life-altering.
I thought about this course while reading a new book Paul Harvey sent along recently by Columbia Theological Seminary Professor of Old Testament William P. Brown. I haven’t read a lot of biblical criticism since my own seminary days, but The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder (Oxford, 2010) is a refreshing reminder of what such studies can provide. The book isn’t perfect—there are moments when its alliances of biblical and scientific metaphors feel forced—but it effectively opens what remains a crucial discussion of genre. In approaching intersections of eschatology and cosmology, of predestination and physics, it provides a thoughtful inspection of our hermeneutical lenses.
In past versions of Literature of the Bible, the primary text I have used to get at questions of genre and interpretation is Marcus J. Borg’s Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally (HarperSanFrancisco,2001). Borg recommends that Bible readers adopt a posture of “postcritical naivete,” whereby one “hear[s] the biblical stories once again as true stories, even as one knows that they may not be factually true and that their truth does not depend upon their factuality.” One of his best elucidations of this attitude builds on the way many Native American storytellers begin their performances: “Now I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true” (50). Like such narrators, Borg demonstrates that story-truth extends beyond factual evidence, that wisdom exceeds empiricism without countermanding it.
The spider came out first. She drank from the edge of the pool, careful to keep the delicate eggs sacs on her abdomen out of the water. She retraced her path, leaving faint crisscrossing patterns in the fine yellow sand. He remembered stories about her. She waited in certain locations for people to come to her for help. She alone had known how to outsmart the malicious mountain Ka’t’sina who imprisoned the rain clouds in the northwest room of his magical house. Spider Woman had told Sun Man how to win the storm clouds back from the Gambler so they would be free again to bring rain and snow to the people. He knew what white people thought about the stories. In school the science teacher had explained what superstition was, and then held the science textbook up for the class to see the true source of explanations. He had studied those books, and he had no reasons to believe the stories any more. The science books explained the causes and effects. But old Grandma always used to say, ‘Back in time immemorial, things were different, the animals could talk to human beings and many magical things still happened.’ He never lost the feeling he had in his chest when she spoke those words, as she did each time she told them stories; and he still felt it was true, despite all they had taught him in school—that long long ago things had been different, and human beings could understand what the animals said, and once the Gambler had trapped the storm clouds on his mountaintop. (87, emphasis in original)
I think biblical criticism like Brown’s may prove essential if our culture is to move beyond simplistic arguments about evolution, stem cell research, and genomics. So much of the resistance to biological knowledge and medical intervention is bound up with fear that God is being dishonored, and many Americans need to see either-or thinking about these issues give way to more complex both-and possibilities. By reading Genesis beside preexisting creation narratives like Mesopotamia’s Enuma elish, Brown’s book pulls readers toward active interpretations of their scriptures, much like those of other literature. In the process, he provides fresh images with clear implications for contemporary debates.
Two quick concluding examples: I like the way Brown wittily argues that instead of defining women in terms of men, “in Genesis 2, the separation of flesh makes possible gendered differentiation and, in turn, sexual union. Call it splitting the ‘adam. Through the creation of the woman, the groundling has become a man” (83). In other words, we Earth creatures only find gender identity in relationship; there is no “male” without “female.” Similarly—and unlike too many biblical commentaries—his book recognizes that the natural world of the Pentateuch is “red in tooth and claw” long before human beings appear on the scene, and that in representing “the quintessential ‘alpha male,’” Genesis is hardly attempting to refute concepts of biological evolution that would not emerge for thousands of years. I’ll be referring to Brown in my next version of Literature of the Bible for that reason alone: whether self-identifying as Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, or otherwise, my students need every opportunity to grasp that neither the Bible nor any other great wisdom literature is the enemy of scientific discovery.