Christian scholars who don’t take the creation story literally

It’s interesting to watch trends shift. You can view them from a number of perspectives, but I usually choose economy because it’s so closely tied to survival and has always been a pivotal force in my own life. I think we may be watching the very beginning of a shift right now. First came birth control without copays. Now, some evangelical Christian scholars are coming out with something many Christians have believed for a very long time: the story of Adam and Eve and the fall from Paradise is an allegory rather than history, but that doesn’t make the faith any less valid.

But let’s consider the context. In 2008, the U.S. appeared to be wealthy and secure. For a lot of people, a problem like whether or not Adam and Eve actually lived could well have seemed the most important thing in the world, because all their needs were being met. Then came the layoffs. And the next round of layoffs. And the skipped mortgage payments, and maybe a foreclosure. And more layoffs after that. And the kids came of age to go to college, but there was no savings fund to help them, and the loans were drying up fast. And now the unemployment is running out.

Suddenly, theological questions about Adam and Eve just don’t seem as pressing as day to day survival. It’s not that anyone’s lost faith or stopped caring. It’s just: who has time to worry about distant history when you’re actually not completely sure where you’ll be living next month? What one needs from religion in a time like that is not a politicized debate, but a miracle, or at least some support.

Religion survives recessions – thrives, even. It’s just extremism that tends to lose steam, because it requires resources. It takes a lot of time and energy. People suddenly deprived of their resources quickly reassess their priorities and take up more practical, centrist philosophies.

It should be noted that many Christians have believed for many decades that there is no real conflict between evolution theory and the creation story. Perhaps Adam and Eve evolved from other primate forms and the Bible simply doesn’t mention that – it doesn’t really change the story. And what if we don’t have two specific ancestors for all of humanity? That doesn’t take away from the point that humans have a capacity for good and evil that seems unique in the animal kingdom. Nor does it undermine Jesus’ sacrifice to redeem humans from original sin. If you believe in original sin, it shouldn’t matter whether Adam and Eve are the factual account or an allegorical way to explain something as complex as human psychology and amorality to a bunch of humans who had limited concepts and perspectives and – oh, here it is again – bigger anxieties to cope with.

I was brought up American Baptist and encouraged to believe there was no conflict between evolution and the creation story, so I admit I don’t understand where literalists are coming from. Additionally, I picked up rather early on the prevalence of the Conniving Bitch ™ stereotype in fiction – and in reality, with loads of men trying to blame women for everything ever – and that made it doubly hard to picture Adam and Eve as historical fact.

These scholars who advocate not taking every bit of the Bible as historical fact are trying to give their faith more credibility by showing that it doesn’t rely on lies or delusions – that it is fully compatible with the realities science has revealed, particularly in terms of the human genome and what it suggests about our origins. It is telling that a number of noted scientists have expressed belief in God and/or Christian faith.

If we are at the beginning of a shift in trends, and debates about Biblical literalism are losing their allure, and there’s not enough steam in the Tea Party to wreck the economy and prevent a revolution in health care for insured women in the same week (note they picked “Don’t tax the wealthy, please, anything but that!” over defeating the monstrous birth control agenda), then we are indeed living in interesting times. And maybe we can finally start talking about how Eve, the original femme fatale, was created by the minds of men, and what that says about the psychology of those men.

Or maybe there’s not that much to say, and it can all be summed up with: “I didn’t do it! Okay, I did do it, but she made me do it!” After all, that’s been the story for at least two thousand years.

Comments

  1. Em says

    If Adam’s punishment was having to work really hard, and Eve’s was to have a horrendous time in childbirth, then logically, if she weighs the same as a duck men are getting out of the working really hard thing due to the economy,* women should have an easier time getting out of childbearing to even things out. Right? Also, we should suddenly find that snakes are actually quite friendly! /sophistry

    …although I do think some snakes are cute. The brave new world might have some advantages if the rattlesnakes suddenly become as harmless and cuddly as garter snakes.

    *I know, in reality being unemployed can be hard work. It isn’t so much unemployed as un-officially employed and unpaid. Just running with the allegory.

  2. says

    When I was a Christian I never had any trouble reconciling the creation story with evolution. God took a handful of dirt and breathed life into it – who’s to say the dirt isn’t metaphorical for a monkey and the life isn’t metaphorical for intelligence? But then again, being feminist practically from the womb, I had a lot of practice interpreting the Bible.

    I’ve always heard that religion thrives in times of difficulty (which I see you’ve mentioned in your post) but I never heard that extremism declines. I do hope it will. I’m rather tired of the word terrorist being shorthand for “Muslim” while Christians who bomb reproductive health clinics and gun down dozens of students are dismissed as isolated instances of insanity (No True Scotsman fallacy + ableism). And I sure wouldn’t mind never seeing a “God Hates Fags” poster again.

    Oh, and if we’re going back to the creation story, Lilith was always my hero. Adam’s first wife, created from the dust to be his equal, who left Eden when Adam wouldn’t let her have a turn on top. The fact that she’s been villainized, her request for equality presented as an imposition upon Adam and her leaving presented as abandonment instead of self-esteem, also says a lot about the men composing these stories. (Granted Lilith was a foreign deity/demon shoehorned into Abrahamic religion much later; but the entire Bible is fitted together from mismatched parts.)

  3. Casey says

    I STILL don’t get how Eve is considered the original femme fatale by some people. Ever since I was little I just thought she was a well-meaning person who got duped (and in turn got Adam duped).

  4. says

    I recently read a great quote from a woman in the nineteenth century to the effect that nobody with any sense could take the Genesis creation story literally, but heck if I can find it or remember who said it. There is an anecdote about Karl Barth being asked in a lecture whether the snake really spoke, and replying, “The question is not whether the snake spoke but rather what it said.” Even in the 17th century, the great Anne Hutchinson didn’t have much time for the woman-hating ways of Biblical literalists.

  5. says

    Casey,

    Because doing what a beautiful, naked woman says will get you kicked out of Paradise.

    See, you have to look at this from the man’s point of view. He’s the only one who’s important around here. /sarcasm

  6. says

    Sylvia Sybil: I’ve always heard that religion thrives in times of difficulty (which I see you’ve mentioned in your post) but I never heard that extremism declines.

    That’s just my own observation of economic downturns – ymmv. There’s also some logic to it: if you’re unemployed, are you going to protest gay rights or spend that time looking for a job? But again, it’s just something I’ve noticed.

    Casey, that’s a reasonable interpretation. But that passage has been used as “proof” throughout the centuries that women are vile corrupters of men’s pure souls. She “tempted” Adam into doing the wrong thing – that implies that had she never tempted him, he might never have committed original sin. You also have to ask yourself: how come the story isn’t “So the snake came to them both and tempted them both, and they consulted each other and decided to sin.” It could have been, right? But no: while Eve could be tempted by a mere snake, poor Adam was done in by his pure and innocent love of his female companion.

  7. The Other Anne says

    The Genesis creation myth was one of the logic problems I had with Christianity that helped me on my way to atheism. I could never figure out why a god would punish its creations for being naive and trusting, just the way it made them. If it wanted them to obey its every word why give them free will? If it loved them why punish them so harshly for a single disobedience? Why put any temptation in there for them at all? The only logical reason I could think of was that if the Christian god existed it was an asshole, and there was no way I was going to worship an asshole.

    Another biblical story I took issue with was Mary–no matter how I looked at it her pregnancy seemed like rape to me. Perhaps the Christian god does not have a penis but it somehow got a 14 year old pregnant by coercion. It took the eternal lives of the entire human race hostage. If it is a god why in the world does it need a woman to carry a fetus to term? Why could it not have created Jesus out of the mud with which it supposedly created Adam and Lilith? And HOW IN THE WORLD does the act of humans murdering its son somehow redeem humanity? I just don’t get it. And if nothing in a religion makes any sort of sense to me there is no reason for me to follow it.

    But for the topic at hand: Good. At least there may be one good thing about a recession. Granted, I think many many people would rather humans gain the ability to get over prejudices and end injustice while the majority is thriving….but I guess it’s too much to ask those who are thriving to think about those who are not, especially if they look around at their peers and say “I don’t see any injustice and I certainly don’t have prejudices! (How dare you insinuate I do!) You must be overreacting or imagining things, you shrill girl!”

  8. Patrick McGraw says

    I’m not sure where Biblical literalism came from, but it’s been around a long time. Saint Augustine had a lot to say to early Christians who didn’t get the concept of “metaphor” and preached a literal reading of Genesis.

    Re: Lilith. The way religions change with exposure to other cultures is really fascinating. For example, there’s a lot of scholarship looking at how Zoroastrianism affected Judaism, and at how its’ influence is even more profound on Christianity.

    The Other Anne: There are indeed a LOT of different views on these ideas, many of which diverge significantly from the most well-known interpretations. I think that a lot of it has more to do with the values a particular culture brings to the table – I’ve read the saying that people bring readings to the bible rather than taking readings from the Bible.

    I really hope that we are seeing a broadening of Christian viewpoints in America now – the success of Rob Bell’s Love Wins despite the venom it has received from the “God is hate” crowd is surely a good sign. The Darbyites and Scofieldians have dominated American Christianity far too long.

  9. Dani says

    Sylvia Sybil:

    I’ve always heard that religion thrives in times of difficulty (which I see you’ve mentioned in your post) but I never heard that extremism declines. I do hope it will. I’m rather tired of the word terrorist being shorthand for “Muslim” while Christians who bomb reproductive health clinics and gun down dozens of students are dismissed as isolated instances of insanity (No True Scotsman fallacy + ableism). And I sure wouldn’t mind never seeing a “God Hates Fags” poster again.

    This. Jon Stewart did a funny (and sadly true) bit about how, in the days after the Norway shootings, so many American news pundits were going on and on about how people shouldn’t judge all Christians by the actions of this one person. Of course, some of these same pundits are the ones who lump all Muslims into the “terrorist” group…

    It hit me the other day that, when my friends who practice different religions visit this area, most of them either hide or completely go without symbols of their religion that they would normally wear otherwise, because of how people will react. Yet, I could probably walk down most streets in America wearing a cross around my neck and be fine :(

    Religion survives recessions – thrives, even. It’s just extremism that tends to lose steam, because it requires resources. It takes a lot of time and energy. People suddenly deprived of their resources quickly reassess their priorities and take up more practical, centrist philosophies.

    That’s very interesting. I’ve always assumed that extremism would thrive during a recession, what with all of the fear and uncertainty about the future. I’ll have to keep this in mind as I keep an eye on how current trends shift in the US.

    Re: Genesis story: I’ve always saw it as both Adam and Eve as being equally at fault, and that all the serpent did was play on any desire for power they might have had; Eve may have been tricked into thinking she could eat the fruit and be fine, but Adam just stood there, knowing what she was doing was wrong, and then did the same thing with his eyes open. I know people have used this passage to say that women were somehow worse than/more gullible than/more sinful than men (I’m looking at you, misogynists who use the term “feminization of the church” as a scare tactic)…but I just think they’re wrong.

  10. says

    You know, I think it’s really hard – not impossible, but hard – to be educated and still take the Bible literally. And I don’t just mean institutional education. Because once you’ve been exposed to some history of Christianity, to other religions and how their teachings evolved, the fact that practically every culture has some myths in common (the Greeks and the Japanese both have a myth about looking back just when you’ve almost escaped the Underworld; Noah’s Ark sounds like the flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh), you start to see the patterns and how the Bible stories fit into these patterns. Not a singular truth, but one of many.

  11. sbg says

    Dani: That’s very interesting. I’ve always assumed that extremism would thrive during a recession, what with all of the fear and uncertainty about the future. I’ll have to keep this in mind as I keep an eye on how current trends shift in the US.

    I actually had the same inclination. Sure, people lack resources, but they’re also in increasingly desperate situations in which they feel out of control (or, that’s how I feel more and more) – which can have the side effect of turning that anger toward others, latching onto the extremist religious beliefs as an okay of sorts to blame the [insert persecuted/non majority group here] for having their job, their car, their whatever.

    Hmm, does that make sense?

  12. says

    The Other Anne, that’s very similar to my own journey to atheism.

    Patrick McGraw: I really hope that we are seeing a broadening of Christian viewpoints in America now – the success of Rob Bell’s Love Wins despite the venom it has received from the “God is hate” crowd is surely a good sign. The Darbyites and Scofieldians have dominated American Christianity far too long.

    That would be awesome!

    Dani, I think that’s a valid interpretation.

    Re: extremism and recessions. Again, it’s just my observation and I could totally be mistaken, but in more detail, here’s what I think I’ve observed. It seems to me maybe 10-20% of people are really self-directed (for better or worse, depending how strong their consciences are), and the rest just go with the flow. In economic downturns, US politicians tend to talk less about abortion and the looming threat of OMGMuslims! and more about jobs and taxes and social security, because economic issues are slapping voters in the face while suddenly the other issues seem distant. The media reinforces this because they, too, figure it’s what the audience cares about right now. The “go with the flow” majority of Christians (in this case, but really, these forces affect any religion/philosophy, including feminism) takes that cultural cue and figures, “Oh, okay. Crusading against abortion is out; praying to God for help on keeping the house and finding a job is in”, and that becomes their flavor of Christianity until everyone’s rich enough to go searching for problems again, and then suddenly we’re back to abortions or whatever. The “self-directed” minority may stick to their guns, assuming they have the time to invest, but they won’t be supported by the “flow” majority anymore. Their concerns just aren’t immediate and practical.

    I’ve been trying to think how one would study this empirically, and I haven’t figured it out.

    I do think SBG is right about some desperate people turning MORE extreme, but I just think they have trouble getting much support for their views. It’s sort of, “Well, I’m sure you’re right that women are the cause of all my problems, damn them, but what do I do with this information? How do I get a job right now, and then we’ll sort out the women later?” The extremist has no answer for this – he just wants you to drop everything and join him on a crusade – so the jobless would-be follower postpones his devotion until his more immediate problems are resolved.

  13. Azzy says

    Re: Adam and Eve: I was raised Eastern Orthodox Christian (I’m agnostic now), and had religious classes at school*. When we were discussing Adam and Eve, one of the boys raised his hand and snootily asked the teacher (a kindly old priest) why Adam got kicked out of Paradise if the whole thing was Eve’s fault. The teacher told him that their sin was not apologizig for their trespass. Adam’s sin, in particular, was laying the blame on Eve, (and Eve, I think, laid the blame on the snake?) and if they’d both just apologized for going against God’s command, He would have forgiven them and allowed them to stay. Now it’s possible that was just one priest’s interpretation, or just a story he told to stop the boys from using this to bully the girls, but I’ve always felt it was a valid explanation. The lesson it taught me is that making mistakes is one thing, but it’s trying to evade responsability that’s really, morally wrong.

    *In Romania, schools teach one hour of religion a week, commonly Orthodox Christian (presumably Catholicism, in those counties whre it’s the pedominant religion). If you are a different religion, you can skip the class and bring grades from your own church’s religious classes, or you can have your parents come in and opt you out of the class completely. However, it’s pretty much a breeze-through class. Nearly all my religion teachers were priests, and a pretty easy-going bunch.

  14. says

    Maybe it’s because of my Jewish background, but I tend to read the Adam & Eve story as, like, necessary character development for humankind. WAY too much emphasis has been put on the idea that, if only they hadn’t been dumb evil sinners, we would still be living in the Garden of Eden and everything would be ~perfect~. Reading Genesis, I think it’s a lot more complicated than the traditional [evangelical] Christian presentation of “everything was perfect and humans screwed it up”. The story doesn’t answer difficult questions of theodicy so much as raise them (“why does God let suffering happen?” meets “why would God put the tree there in the first place?”). I just don’t buy the interpretation that portrays God as a sadistic trickster.

    RE: Virgin Mary, as a believing Christian I call BS on that whole thing. The only reason that story’s in there is because Luke was trying to make it match up with the OT prophecy that “a virgin shall conceive” – except it doesn’t say that. Luke was working from the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), which mistranslates the original Hebrew. It’s just “young woman” – it’s not “virgin” at all. Luke’s whole nativity narrative is profoundly implausible. I think it’s a back-formed fiction to align Jesus’ birth with certain (sometimes misconstrued) OT prophecies.

    (Having said that, I believe it was a very useful fiction in the spread of Christianity. A lot of people used the figure of Mary – virgin and mother, nice Jewish girl – to facilitate their transition to Christianity from either goddess cults or Judaism itself.)

  15. says

    Rainicorn: RE: Virgin Mary, as a believing Christian I call BS on that whole thing. The only reason that story’s in there is because Luke was trying to make it match up with the OT prophecy that “a virgin shall conceive” – except it doesn’t say that. Luke was working from the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), which mistranslates the original Hebrew. It’s just “young woman” – it’s not “virgin” at all. Luke’s whole nativity narrative is profoundly implausible. I think it’s a back-formed fiction to align Jesus’ birth with certain (sometimes misconstrued) OT prophecies.

    And also probably a knock-off of the Zoroastrian pagan tradition (the very sort people were transitioning from into Christianity, as you said), as mentioned up thread. If you’re interested, check this link and scroll to the “Mithra and Christ” heading to see the many striking similarities. It’s hard to credit that Jesus coincidentally happened to live an actual historical life that corresponded so perfectly with this earlier Persian/Roman myth that would have been available to Jewish scholars. It makes far more sense that the NT writers borrowed good stuff, much the way TV writers tend to “borrow” from other TV shows, and the NT story of Jesus is at least partially a propaganda piece rather than actual facts.

  16. says

    Dani:

    It hit me the other day that, when my friends who practice different religions visit this area, most of them either hide or completely go without symbols of their religion that they would normally wear otherwise, because of how people will react.Yet, I could probably walk down most streets in America wearing a cross around my neck and be fine.

    It’s why I keep my atheism on the Down Low. I’ve gotten harassed for my LACK of religion, and almost ALWAYS by so-called “christians”.

  17. Jenny Islander says

    Going back to the first comment–I know that bad English translations of the Bible (not sure about other languages) have been used to deny women pain relief in childbirth. The King James Version actually gets it right: the word isn’t suffering as in ouch, it’s suffering as in anguish, or as the KJV puts it, “sorrow.” All of humanity is facing uncertain times full of sorrow and fear; Adam wears himself out scratching a living from the earth and Eve cannot rejoice at the birth of her babies because they are facing more of the same, if they even live to grow up.

  18. Patrick McGraw says

    Jennifer Kesler,

    I agree with your assessment of how most people’s reaction to change is to go with what they’re told by those they regard as authorities. It’s a basic aspect of the authoritarian mindset, and as you said, it certainly isn’t limited to religions or political ideologies.

    Fred Clark of Slacktivist has just written two interesting articles following on the NPR article referenced in your original post, here and here.

    I find Clark’s take very interesting because we are both progressive Christians who come from very different traditions, which the second article brought into sharp focus for me because of his use of the Nicene Creed, which doesn’t factor into my religious views at all. (Like most Quakers, I reject religious creeds.)

  19. Patrick McGraw says

    Unsurprisingly, the second link’s discussion didn’t get far before someone made the “All X believe Y” argument, claiming that non-creedal Christians (like me) are living a contradiction and aren’t really Christians. Joy.

  20. Musereader says

    Eve was not able to have children untill after she was banished from the garden, so exactly how would we all “still be living in paradise” if we were not born, because she couldn’t give birth in Eden QED. Basically the fall had to happen for history to begin.

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