The critically-acclaimed movie "Memento" was unique in its depiction of anterograde amnesia, the inability to form new memories or to recall the recent past. In the flick, Leonard Shelby wrote notes to himself in order to function on a daily basis. The movie was also significant in portraying the problems of written communication.

Reading the Bible in today’s scientific society

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The critically-acclaimed movie “Memento” was unique in its depiction of anterograde amnesia, the inability to form new memories or to recall the recent past. In the flick, Leonard Shelby wrote notes to himself in order to function on a daily basis. The movie was also significant in portraying the problems of written communication. What is written in one circumstance can mean something completely different in another. To make this point, the film was shown as two series of events: a black-and-white sequence and a color sequence. One was chronologically forward and the other backwards, meeting at the end of the film. As the two sequences unfold, the viewer realized Leonard’s notes were written in one context and understood completely differently in the other. The result was tragedy. 

When it comes to reading the Bible, today’s scientific society has anterograde amnesia to the civilization of when the Bible was written. Despite all the efforts of translation, words in another language do not mean the same thing in a context that is poles and thousands of years apart. Scientific precision has permeated our culture. When we demand that every word be infallibly inerrant, we are reading our science into an ancient society that had no such notions. An example is the first chapter of Genesis. Many Christians today say Genesis speaks of a literal seven-day creation, but is that they way the ancient Hebrews would have recognized their own work? 

It is difficult for us to understand the viewpoints of a close brother, sister, or spouse living today, much less somebody from so long ago on the other side of the world.  Fortunately we have help. Biblical criticism or higher criticism is available to understand the original historical context of an ancient work. As an example, consider Genesis. The higher critics assist us by comparing Genesis to other writings of that period, such as the Babylonian Enuma Elish.  That ancient work helps scholars see Genesis as highly symbolic, and not a literal “seven-day” work. Genesis speaks of one God who brought order out of chaos, with the seven-day regimen as reinforcing the concept of order. 

Sadly, much of the church does not accept this help. A vast majority of the Christian churches that I’ve visited in the Spokane region reject the work of the higher critics, the evolutionary scientists, and the academic intellectuals. Instead of listening, we insist on reading the Bible as if it were a modern newspaper or a SpokaneFAVS blog. Worse, we gather around our own “Bible-believing” experts such as the Institute for Creation Research who tell us what we want to hear. We read ourselves and our own culture into the Bible rather than getting God’s word out. Even the new atheists are no help. They project their own scientific precision into the Bible as a point of their contention. 

Like “Memento,” the result is tragedy. There is a proliferation of misunderstanding and a continuing but completely unnecessary battle between science and religion.

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  1. Ah, the great stumbling block:
    “We read ourselves and our own culture into the Bible rather than getting God’s word out.”

    In my Biblical interpretation classes in college, we heard more than once about the dangers of eisegesis: reading our interpretations into scripture. Instead, we were taught to practice exegesis: pulling meaning from scripture.

  2. Cool, I learned some new words, eisegesis and exegesis. I’m going to remember that.

  3. Hey Bruce…as always I feel like sharing some thoughts and I hope this contributes to the spirit of the overall discussion.

    Has anyone heard of the Creation Museum?
    I never had a chance to see it…at least not yet.

    In one of their displays are human beings standing next to dinosaurs; if I’m not mistaken. I remember seeing this on a news report once. The display does go against conventional thinking on geologic time, that’s for sure.

    What I’m about share may go contrary to what is commonly thought when dealing with the book of Genesis. I will be appealing to mainly Jewish Theological traditions.

    In my Hebrew Bible classes at the university it was taught that there are two creation stories in Genesis. Not one. Often this teaching is credited to Biblical criticism but this view was first introduced at least 3,000 years beforehand: in Jewish Teaching on Genesis.

    In the first creation story…
    God oversaw a chronological process that lasted for several days. It starts off with everything as a formless, watery chaos situation. Ending with human beings made in the image and likeness of God.

    The second story…
    It begins in a desert with a single human being, being made first from the stuff of the Earth. Instead of a narration showing a progression of chaos to order…we have a drama of human beings getting banished from a garden.

    The first creation story has God saying repeatedly, everything is good.
    Whereas the second story has God saying…only once…’it is not good for this person to be alone.’

    The first creation story has God creating everything before the appearance of man.
    Whereas the second story has God creating Man…basically…before the appearance of anything else.

    To thicken the plot…
    In Classical Jewish Theology it has been mentioned that Adam had two wives: how did they come to this conclusion? It was because of the two creation stories in Genesis.

    In Jewish Theology the name of Adam’s first wife was Lilith. This perspective isn’t universally expected by all Jewish Theologians, scholars and Jewish people…but is a teaching found from ancient Judaism nonetheless.

    The thought goes as follows…
    She become Adam’s first wife and was created at the same time in the first creation story. It is this couple…Adam and Lilith…where God blesses them, saying be fruitful and multiply. This is in contrast to Eve…who was created from the flesh of Adam in the second creation story.

    Many Jewish Scholars developed this reflection on Genesis in a way to bring harmony between the two creation stories.

    The story of Lilith is found in the Talmud.
    What is that?
    The Talmud is the rabbinic tradition, commentary that developed along side the Hebrew Scriptures. In many Jewish traditions The Talmud is liken to what The Catechism of the Catholic Church is to Rome. It is an authoritative source given to help learners understand the wisdom and teaching of thousands of years of Jewish understanding of their faith and collective history.

    In a lot of Jewish Theology Adam and Even are not considered the only human beings that God created from the very beginning, for instance: as illustrated in The Talmud. What Genesis does is focus on one particular human family from which the Jewish nation would eventually come from.

    Genesis chapter one labors the point that when God created human beings in God’s image and likeness, it indicates a plural number of people. Not merely a single couple.

    For the average Christian how radical does this interpretation of Genesis sound? I imagine, it sounds somewhat new.

    How far off is this interpretation, however. Given that there are/were other humanoid species before modern humans. Given this answer insight alone should be enough reason to pause.

    The weakness to this interpretation of Genesis is that Adam is specified as being created directly from the dust of the ground and eventually he meets Eve. If Lilith was indeed Adam’s first wife then shouldn’t she been formed first from Adam’s other rib?

    One way Jewish scholars would likely answer this objection is that other races of human beings would been around before Adam (if this objection is so).

    Why? It’s because when other aspects of the Hebrew Scriptures are examined in the original language: the indication is that by the time God made Adam, the Earth had become desolate. At least the geologic location that God did this act of creation. Under this answer the first humans would have been somewhat different then Adam and Eve (given that Adam arrived after the events of Genesis chapter one).

    The name Lilith was created partly from how the Hebrew language works.
    And there are some rabbinical teachings that indicate she decided to leave Adam before Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden.

    Genesis speaks of a human like race called the Sons of God and it is indicated that this race of persons is somewhat different then the likes of Noah and his family (see Genesis 6:1-8). Some would argue that these Sons of God were decedents of the first round of humanoids that God created in the first chapter of Genesis. It is possible that Lilith would have went with one of them. (Given this objection as being the right take on all this.)

    Who really knows?
    A lot of what has been said herein is speculation on Genesis.

    Even so, it is rooted in another theological tradition that may and/or would sound foreign to many Christians. Many of whom will mistakenly think that true Judaism is basically what one would find in the Old Testament, alone. Jewish theology and the Jewish faith is more then what is recorded in the Old Testament.

    Likewise, the early Church went with a Trinitarian take on Genesis. Something that would sound just as foreign to the writers of The Talmud (as the concept of Lilith would be to modern Christians). But is still a sensible way to understand God by and how God is reveled in the Scriptures.

    Though I am not Jewish I deeply respect the various Jewish denominations today and the rich theological traditions that Judaism has to offer. Moreover, I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian and the Eastern Orthodox take on Genesis is also something that may sound foreign to many other Christian Belief systems as well.

    My feel is that the whole notion that the opening chapters in an ancient book can somehow give an adequate rundown of the totality of geologic history: would have been almost blasphemy to the ears of the Early Church and theologians that came afterwords. Genesis never claims to be a hard science book. What it is, is an ancient theological reflection on God’s relationship with human beings and creation.

  5. Yes, I am familiar with the Jewish interpretations of Genesis, and thank you for sharing them. There are so many valid interpretations of Genesis that are more plausible than the literal seven-day idea. I don’t understand why so many hold to a literal seven-day creation story?

  6. Good point Bruce…

    …In “Reading the Bible Again For the First Time/Taking the Bible Seriously but not literally” By Marcus Borg: in there Borg commented that at one time people generally took for granted that God created everything in 7 days. Unlike today where it wasn’t a preoccupation or a counter cultural agenda. It was simply a view that was more or less in the background of everyday life. Borg called this natural literalism (when someone takes the Bible and excepts its literally without effort; With no reason to think differently, a literal reading of the Bible poses no problems).

    Of course with the on slot of how things are now…it’s hard being a Biblical literalist. Let alone a natural literalist. Doing so requires a lot effort to argue against the contrary (as it were).

    Like you I have often wondered the same question.
    There are many reasons. Two that seem most prevelant I think are…

    +Anything with a worldview of human origins different from how Genesis describes it…is somehow deemed as antithetical to God
    *A strong belief that if the Bible got it wrong in Genesis it somehow cannot be the Word of God, because…as the thinking goes…God’s Word cannot lie

    This is just my speculation but I think it sums a lot of it up.

    I personally relate to Genesis in a literal context but in not a literalist perspective. I don’t think the community that composed and preserved Genesis wouldn’t have been literalists either.

    What I find most interesting is when other creation stories from antiquity and indigenous cultures are compared and contrasted with Genesis. They all seem to say vary similar themes. The Hopi Creation stories were generated on a different continent, far removed from the Genesis Creation stories: yet, they share similarities.

    I think there is historical truth in creation stories, though the stories by themselves are certainly mythos: yet, they also contain ancient memories of real events. At one time Earth may have been a more magical place. At one time people would have lived the type of innocence as described in Genesis. Something happened along the way and we’re still trying to figure it out. Aren’t we.

  7. I’ve read that book by Borg and thought it was good. Like you, I don’t hold that myths are fairly tales, rather they are a way for a culture to define themselves, and usually contain a memory of historical events. A myth or a parable is a good way to relate a truth that is not completely understood in a scientific or technical manner. Your speculation for why people still hold to a literal creation account are probably right.

    It’s just that we’ve gained so much in understanding ourselves and the Bible through anthropology, archaeology, and criticism that it’s frustrating to see so many pastors at so many churches denying all of it. Some even go so far as to deem university religion study as a bad pursuit. I’m sure they do it out of fear, but fear is not the same thing as faith. If they really had faith, I would think they would accept the unknown and trust God’s providence rather than revile academia and criticism.

  8. Hey Bruce…

    …as you’re well aware, for many centuries the Church helped generate some really great scholars. Many of whom contributed to the world of academia and genuine criticism. And sometimes I am left wondering what happened.

    I share a similar if not the same frustration….
    I wonder if those who vile the academic study of religion, theology and faith: really understand what is their Bible. And can actually see the human aspect of the Bible.

    There are some unsettling passages in the Old Testament that if they were put into practice today, on the surface would seem awful and unChristian. Here we are disgusted and rightly so…at vile the actions that people do to one another. Yet: some of the Old Testament passages endorse some of these vile actions. Such as stoning children who smart mouth their parents and making holy the idea of slavery.

    I remember watching Richard Dawkins on C-Span once, doing a public reading at a major university. His critique on the story of Abraham and his son Isaac (though it was 100% borrowed capital); where God asked Abraham to sacrifice his own son: Dawkins called it child abuse and asked if people really understood what something like this suggests. Though I disagree with Dawkins verbatim here however he makes a very valid point that I share. Should we simply take the Bible as it says without question? Without criticism? Without at least first understanding what various passages meant in their historical setting?

    Of course to balance it out…
    Simply enter Kierkegaard and his classic Fear and Trembling. It certainly does counter the borrowed capital that Dawkins employed.

    Even so (to use more examples)…
    The Bible doesn’t support the idea of Blind Faith, like it never uses the term Free Will.

    Yet, people mistakenly read all this into the Bible. Assuming the Bible is the source for these concepts.

    To be sure: the Bible contributed to the development of these ideals.
    Arguments, based on the Bible; have been made for these ideals.

    Yet, Jesus in the Gospels never supported the idea that faith was blind. In fact, I would contend that he would be in favor a reasonably informed faith

    The idea of Free will?
    Does the Bible really teach that. Now, that is a good debate. Many will say yes because they feel it is a needed presupposition for morality to work.

    Returning to the main point…
    There are a lot people who believe God is there to simply make them happy. They don’t want to think critically about anything. No! What they want is God to prosper them and to given an abundance of the good life.

    And if something like the good life doesn’t happen…well, simply sow more faith into it.

    And…these people are lied too.
    Sometimes God says no; it’s as simple as that. Sadness and loss are apart of living a life in tune with the Holy Spirit.

    What God would want (from how I understand it) is for us to renew our minds and think critically about what’s going on.

    I think as far as the Bible Jesus said it best,
    “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me…” John 5, 39.

    Some unfortunately will turn the Bible into an idol while ignoring WHO it is that the Scriptures are pointing too. Without Jesus, the centrality of the Bible falls apart. Jesus was learned in his own right. He was able to read and write according to the Scriptures. Though he didn’t seem to be very bookish…his classroom was doing walkabouts in the great outdoors.

    If anything, Jesus never rejected the idea of critical thinking. According to the Gospels and extra material not included in the New Testament, Jesus used critical thinking on many occasion. ‘you without sin caste the first stone…give onto God what is God’s, give onto Cesar what is Cesar’s….and woe to you!” Now…these are some really good, critical statements.

  9. Good points Rob. Your thoughts are once again appreciated. I guess I would see free choice and determinism as more modern ideas that we often try to read into the Bible, modernity starting with the renaissance and the reformation. I think ancient cultures thought of our relationship to God more in terms of a Suzerain-vassal covenant, God being described as “Sovereign”. This was often the ancient relationship between Kings and their subjects. We don’t have these kinds of government arrangements anymore. I don’t see our culture as superior or more intelligent, just different. We have different ways of thinking of things today then they did two to three thousand years ago.

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