Rereading Creation: Teaching About The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder

Rereading Creation

Everett Hamner

A good deal of my work has to do with questions of origins. I teach a liberal arts and sciences gateway course on evolution; I am writing a book about how science and religion have interacted in the last century’s fiction. But as a scholar of contemporary American fiction, one course I didn’t imagine teaching was Literature of the Bible. The first time I offered it resulted from a schedule fluke, but it impacted the students so deeply that this fall I’ll be teaching it for the third time. This canon still matters a great deal to students who self-identify both as religious and irreligious.

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.

Why is this realization so important, yet so elusive? In my experience with Literature of the Bible, almost every student openly or secretly expects in week one that a choice must be made: either embrace the world of religious tradition and personal righteousness or adopt the route of scientific abstraction and intellectual integrity. And beneath their politically-correct facades, many of the students can only characterize opposing convictions with inflammatory terms. But a realization that consistently helps both groups is that religion is not just Christianity, and apparent tensions between the natural and the supernatural extend well beyond this tradition’s purview.

Consider the scientism critiqued in this paragraph from Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, I invite them:

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)

This passage shares a great deal with the mindset Brown’s book encourages: an openness to the possibility of meaning beyond factuality, of wonder beyond mastery, whether the facts to be mastered spring from religious or scientific sources. As the introduction to The Seven Pillars proposes, the book is “a tour of the biblical contours of creation conducted in conversation with science” (5), an expedition that looks beyond the obvious passages in Genesis to equally significant ones in Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Second Isaiah. While Brown may too easily equate “biblical” with “Christian,” his book models a wonder that usefully contests both religious and scientific absolutism. In this he stretches toward the same goal I pursue for my students: a sense that profound meaning has not disappeared with secularization, that not just “long long ago” but even now, there is great reason for awe. In fact this response remains the source of our best science, a point also made by a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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.


Edward J Blum at: June 24, 2010 at 11:15 AM said...

sounds cool Everett!

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