September 18, 2014
A final note: Is it really Schleiermacher who is Hauerwas’s progenitor? Might not a better candidate be the great, and neglected, Albrecht Ritschl, surely the theologian of liberal Protestant Christian moral culture? Ritschl was, to be sure, no sectarian. But his repudiation of metaphysics, his fear that preoccupation with fides quae is a speculative distraction from viewing the world in terms of moral value, and his conviction that Christian faith is principally a mode of active moral community are not far from much that may be found in Hauerwas’s corpus. Perhaps one of the services of this fine book may be to cause its readers to ponder the irony that a body of writing that sets its face resolutely against the liberal tradition of modern moral theology may in important respects be that tradition’s heir.
“Ecclesiocentrism,” First Things, October 2014
If you’re familiar with Webster’s works, as you should be, then you will have a good grasp of why Webster appreciates the book so much.
September 17, 2014
A disheveled musician walks around his motel room and smokes cigarettes, while his pretty girlfriend shows-off her legs.
That’s all you need to know. Enjoy.
“Time Shows Fools” by Justin Townes Earle, from his new album, Single Mothers. You can increase the video quality to HD.
This is definitely a different vibe than Harlem River Blues and his other albums. It’s too early for me to judge the album as a whole, but I hope that Earle is not venturing into smooth John Mayer territory. The critics are somewhat mixed but mostly positive from what I’ve seen. I recommend the review from SavingCountryMusic.com.
September 15, 2014
It is worth highlighting and further commenting on, as I called it, “the most ridiculous moment” in God’s Not Dead. As a reminder, here is the description in my review:
After this heated exchange between Josh and the professor, each student begins to stand, one by one, declaring, “God’s not dead.” (Think of Dead Poets Society and all the students declaring, “Oh Captain, my Captain.”) Over and over, “God’s not dead. God’s not dead.” Eventually the entire class is standing. Remember, this is the same class that wrote, “God is dead,” with their signatures just a few weeks prior. Josh is so persuasive that he wins over the entire class!
This is the coup d’etat for Josh. He has just delivered his final blow to the professor. Standing victorious, Josh watches the class rise in an emotionally-gripping declaration of their belief in God. Martin, a student from China, is the first to stand. Earlier in the film, he informs his father back home that he was being persuaded by arguments for God’s existence, much to his father’s displeasure (commie atheist bastard that he is, of course, because only stereotypes exist in this evangelical fantasy world). Apparently Martin was not alone, as we see every student in the class rise after him, determined and defiant with their newfound faith in God.
That should strike you as profoundly disturbing. Josh has converted the entire class. How? By proclaiming the love of God in Jesus Christ? No. By preaching repentance and forgiveness in the cross of Jesus Christ? Nope. By mentioning at least something vague about Jesus Christ, the promise of redemption, the hope of glory, or any of the sort? No again. The message of the film is clear. You don’t need Jesus or the Holy Spirit to convert a classroom of students to belief in God. Reason alone is a sufficient bridge from unbelief to belief. No “foolishness” to the Greeks here. Sorry, Paul. “God is alive,” and you don’t even need to change your heart of stone to a heart of flesh.
Josh has “put God on trial,” as he stated at the beginning, and God won! Whew, I’m glad that God has such great lawyers on his defense team. What would The Almighty do without them?
Switching topics. In the review, I talked about the one-dimensional characters and the filmmakers’ apparent inability to grapple with the complexities of human nature. In the comments, Robert has a sober reflection:
When contemporary Christians produce “art,” including and perhaps especially popular “art,” that so poorly reflects the truth of the human world around them, reducing it to caricature (and they do this very, very often), it inevitably supports the suspicion among perceptive non-believers that, since Christians are so badly out of touch with the truth about human reality, they are even less likely to be in touch with the truth about divine reality. It in fact produces the same suspicion in me, a Christian, about many other Christians, both the ones who produce this “art” and those who gleefully consume it. This is why it’s so embarrassing, and cringe-worthy.
Amen. The End of the Affair, this movie ain’t, and it is hard to imagine evangelicals today being capable of such.
September 12, 2014
This past summer, I prepared and taught a Sunday school course at our church, aimed at equipping our high school students for college — especially those who are entering freshmen this fall. I addressed a wide range of issues, with a special focus on both the intellectual and the moral struggles of Christians in a college environment. The course was well-received, I am happy to say. There is a desperate need for such courses in all churches. Since we are Presbyterians, you might think that we wouldn’t need to equip our already bright and sober students, but you would be wrong. (That’s me being humorous.)
A number of folks in the congregation asked me if I had seen God’s Not Dead, the recent evangelical film chronicling the plight of a freshman in college who is challenged to defend his faith. I had not seen it. Until now. The film has been something of a sensation in the niche market of Christian films, preforming extraordinarily well at the box office. And if Amazon reviews are a reliable indicator, it is much beloved by a good many people — currently at over 2,000 reviews with an average of 4.5 stars.
The scenario which God’s Not Dead attempts to portray is something which Christian parents and students alike need to be conversant about. To the extent that this film may generate some much needed discussion, I am happy. But this is not the film we need. My review will be highly negative, with only a few positives along the way. There will be major spoilers, though I doubt it matters. The plot is not exactly riveting.
The protagonist in our story is a newly arrived freshman on campus, Josh Wheaton. We know nothing about him except that he wears a Newsboys t-shirt and a cross necklace, which prompts a fellow student to warn him about the philosophy 101 course on his schedule. The professor of the course, Dr. Jeffrey Radisson (Kevin Sorbo), is well-known for his avowed atheism and disdain for religion. After the brief exchange with the fellow student, we are treated to Josh’s first day of class with Professor Radisson.
The scene starts decently enough. Kevin Sorbo puts in an enjoyable performance as a charismatic and very confident professor of philosophy, who doesn’t skip a beat in his Dawkins-esque monologue against the primitive and infantile belief in a supreme being, who is now made obsolete by the advance of science. It’s a bit over the top, but that’s nothing compared to what happens next. The professor instructs the students to pull out a sheet of paper. Their first assignment is to write the words, “God is dead,” and then to sign their name underneath! Without any objections, the entire class obliges. It’s a large class of about 80 students, since this is a gen ed course. Yet the lone student who is struggling with writing, “God is dead,” is Josh. When the professor approaches Josh, he informs him that if he refuses to do the assignment, he will fail this portion of the class. Josh holds his ground, even while Professor Radisson mocks him mercilessly. The professor then gives Josh the option of defending his thesis that God is not dead — in front of the class during the next few sessions.
That’s how the movie begins. It’s ridiculous. It’s so painfully ridiculous that I was genuinely shocked and embarrassed as a Christian. The portrait of Professor Radisson is the fanciful product of an overactive evangelical imagination, an imagination too long steeped in fear. It’s a mockery of atheists and other skeptics, who have every justification to be angry at the film. It’s an exaggerated portrait, an unfair portrait, and an outright silly portrait. Philosophy professors do not require their students to sign a statement that God is dead. They would be reprimanded, and a sufficient number of students in the class would have refused — not just our protagonist. With the recent happenings at Cal State and Vanderbilt, there is not much that would shock me about the “benign guardianship” of our liberal elites. But this is dumb — nothing more than an obvious scare tactic in order to portray the professor as villainous as possible and Josh as the great martyr-hero. I was fully expecting Professor Radisson to next instruct the class to write 666 on their foreheads.
Afterwards, Josh is walking through the campus with his girlfriend, who is not happy that Josh is jeopardizing his grades and potentially ruining their future together, with him hoping to enter law school. She encourages him to just comply with the professor’s demands, to which Josh responds, “I feel like God wants someone to defend him.” And sure enough, Josh is the man to do it. He is given four different class sessions in order to make his case for the existence of God. During his first session, he tells the class that they are going to “look at the evidence” and “put God on trial.” Seriously. These are real quotes. Surprisingly, his first point is actually not too bad. He states that, against Aristotle’s belief in a “steady state” universe without beginning or end, both Genesis and the Big Bang indicate a beginning to the universe. I was pleasantly surprised to see the Big Bang and billions of years in a film geared toward an evangelical audience, where Young Earth Creationism still has its ardent proponents.
But everything else is downhill from here. With each session, Josh gains in confidence, though he was already rather confident from the beginning. You would never know that he was a freshman. The point, of course, is to show that our Christian hero is just as confident and capable as the evil professor. The problem is that he’s a college freshman, not a professor. The film encourages the completely unrealistic expectation that any Christian, after reading a few Josh McDowell or John Lennox books, can take on any professor. I can assure you, every Christian at every university can tell you that this is just plain stupid.
There are some bizarre moments, like when Professor Radisson tells Josh after class, “Do not humiliate me in front of my students,” which is followed by the threat, “If you continue with this charade, I will destroy any hope of you getting a law degree in the future.” Professor Radisson is a completely one-dimensional character, in a film with only one-dimensional characters. Everyone is stereotyped in an exaggerated manner. The good guys are really good, and the bad guys are really bad. The Christians are kind and thoughtful. The non-Christians are mean and flippant. This inability to deal with the complexities of the human personality is, frankly, amateurish and pathetic. If this is Christian artistry today, God help us. You would never know that we have Shakespeare and Tolkien in our heritage.
Worst Moment in Film History
I have not disclosed the most ridiculous moment in the movie. Here is the scene: During Josh’s fourth and final performance in front of the class, Professor Radisson engages with Josh in a tit-for-tat, where Josh comes across like a rock star lawyer. (Think of A Few Good Men with Cruise versus Nicholson.) Josh is blasting away about the immorality and meaninglessness of life without God, and the professor is responding from the Dawkins playbook about the “disease” of religion and so forth. It all culminates with Josh yelling at the professor, “Why do you hate God?!” Radisson responds, “Because he took everything from me,” in reference to the death of his mother when he was a child. “Yes, I hate God.” Josh deals the final blow, “How can you hate someone if he doesn’t exist?”
Booyah! You see what happened? The professor’s rejection of God is not about reason. It’s about emotions. It’s about the loss of his mother. Josh even declares that Radisson knows that the reasons are on Josh’s side. Atheism is not about reason. We’ve already seen how easily Josh has been able to demolish all of the rational objections. So it must be about something else. Emotions. Nevermind that this is exactly the same tactic that skeptics use against Christians. After this heated exchange between Josh and the professor, each student begins to stand, one by one, declaring, “God’s not dead.” (Think of Dead Poets Society and all the students declaring, “Oh Captain, my Captain.”) Over and over, “God’s not dead. God’s not dead.” Eventually the entire class is standing. Remember, this is the same class that wrote, “God is dead,” with their signatures just a few weeks prior. Josh is so persuasive that he wins over the entire class!
That, my friends, was the most ridiculous moment in the whole movie.
There are other characters in the film — various sub-narratives that lend support to the overarching narrative between Josh and Professor Radisson. We have Amy, a young and attractive journalist, highly ambitious and highly condescending toward Christians. She gets cancer, and when she reveals this to her equally driven boyfriend (played by Dean Cain), his response is callous beyond imagination (“This couldn’t wait until tomorrow?,” since he was celebrating his promotion) and he dumps her. Trisha LaFache plays Amy, and I thought she did a fine job. She lends a great deal of empathy to her character. Throughout her struggle, she is alone and afraid. Amy eventually comes to faith at the Newsboys concert at the end of the movie. Yep. Everything comes to a resolution at a Newsboys concert. Professor Radisson, while on his way to the Newsboys concert, gets hit by a car and, while he is dying on the street, the minister in the movie (who happened to be present at the intersection) shares the gospel message and Radisson finally relents and accepts Christ for his salvation. There is also a Muslim girl who is severely beaten by her father for secretly being a Christian (after her brother catches her listening to Franklin Graham sermons on her iPod). And there is Martin, a Chinese classmate of Josh who comes to faith after hearing his arguments in the class. And, finally, there is the minister, who actually has some solid practical wisdom in the film.
The film ends with Newsboys’ lead singer giving a shout-out, during the concert, to Josh. He praises him for “defending God’s honor” and “putting a smile on God’s face.” Before the rolling credits, we have an exhortation on the screen: “Join the movement. Text everyone you know. God’s not dead.”
That’s right. They will know us by our texts.
September 11, 2014
If you were to ask Christians to list the attributes of God, I do not think that humility would rank very high. It would probably barely even register. Humility is what we do, not God. Glory and Power and Might, yes. Humility, not so much. Even when we think of Love and Mercy, we do not often define these in terms of God’s humility from eternity.
These are not mutually exclusive — the attributes of freedom and the attributes of love. God can hold together contraries in his being, which we separate and pervert in our being. But it is impossible for us to know this, without God first enacting this possibility in Jesus Christ. And if we look to Jesus Christ as where the fullness of deity dwells bodily (Col 2:9), then humility defines God in his essence.
I just started reading Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s journals. He mentions God’s humility in one of his entries (below), which I found helpful. When we try to find humility within ourselves, it is when pride manifests itself sub contrario – as we are all too aware, if we’re honest. Instead, we have to look toward God’s humility and find our place within His life:
Essentially, all sins come from two sources: flesh and pride. But pride is more frightening (after all, it ruined the angelic powers). Christians have focused their attention, their religious “passion,” on flesh, but how easy it is to succumb to pride. Spiritual pride (truth, spirituality, maximalism) is the most frightful of all. The difficulty of the fight against pride lies in the fact that pride, unlike the flesh, appears in so many different forms and most easily appropriates that of the angel of light. In humility, people gain the knowledge of their unworthiness and defects, yet humility is the most divine of all possible qualities. We become humble, not because we see ourselves (one way or another, that always leads to pride because false humility is just another aspect of pride, perhaps the most difficult to conquer), but only if we see God and His humility.
Wednesday, February 28, 1973
[The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, p. 4]
September 9, 2014
I recently wrote a post, “Faith Without Apologetics,” and I stand by every word! But I appreciate when an apologist offers some wise advice on how to talk with real people, which is not something I typically associate with my fellow systematic theology nerds.
Mary Jo Sharp teaches at Houston Baptist University, and here is a Question and Answer session with her:
She avoids, here at least, all of the facile maneuvers that have plagued apologetics, and she demonstrates an obvious depth of both warmth and intelligence. May she prosper in all things (3 John 1:2).
September 7, 2014
I realize that this post will be of limited interest — or no interest — to most of my theological readership. But, hey, it’s time for y’all to expand your horizons.
This has been an interesting year in mainstream country music. There has been a civil war within the genre for the better part of a decade now, beginning roughly in the mid-00’s. It would be too simplistic to say that it’s “traditionalists” versus “modernists,” or something like that. In fact, country has shown a remarkable ability to adapt and appropriate genuine creativity through its storied history, from Hank to Merle to Dolly to Dwight to Garth. There has always been those who have picked one particular iteration of the genre and excluded all others as something less than the read deal. The miracle that was Hank Sr., whose consolidation of the genre pioneered by Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff was indeed stunning, is a good example of someone who has defined country music for many people. But most country fans have a deep appreciation for the broader contours through which this genre has molded itself through the years, self-consciously as a representative form of American folk art, at least in the South. Yet the past is inevitably a point of reference. Collin Raye, well-known on 90’s country radio, ably expresses the frustration of many:
I’m passionate about it because I love our genre. I got into country music not to make a buck. I did it because I love it … I grew up at a time when Merle Haggard was writing stuff like “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” and “Sing Me Back Home”. Kristofferson was writing “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Me & Bobby McGee” and stuff like that. It was poetry. Country music has never been about the chord progression or the complexity of the music. It’s always been about lyrics and stories, and real life slices of life. And the one common thread has always been poetry.
You can click on the links to the Haggard tunes and understand what he’s talking about. Yet Collin Raye’s own style of country was itself quite different from the heroes he mentions. The intensity of the current civil war within country music is among those who accept and encourage the forward movement of the genre, not lazily repeating the past. This introduces a great deal of complexity when it comes to identifying the worrisome features of the music on country radio.
The most insightful critiques have focused on the obvious gender disparity on country radio. Rolling Stone, for example, has identified the problem but with some hopeful signs for the future. The problem has been and continues to be, as it is labeled, “bro country” or “party country.” Jody Rosen coined, “bro country,” last year, and it is now used widely. We can quote Collin Raye again, as he humorously describes the trend:
There appears to be not even the slightest attempt to “say” anything other than to repeat the tired, overused mantra of redneck party boy in his truck, partying in said truck, hoping to get lucky in the cab of said truck, and his greatest possible achievement in life is to continue to be physically and emotionally attached to the aforementioned truck as all things in life should and must take place in his, you guessed it…truck.
I didn’t mind the first two or three hundred versions of these gems but I think we can all agree by now that everything’s been said about a redneck and his truck, that can possibly be said. It is time to move on to the next subject. Any subject, anything at all.
Willie Nelson once wrote in his early song, “Shotgun Willie,” that “you can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say.” Apparently, that’s not the case anymore.
Disposable, forgettable music has been the order of the day for quite a while now and it’s time for that to stop.
Looking at the past year, the dominance of bro country is still going strong, though a push-back is emerging. It is painful for me to offer examples of bro country, but here is one of the hit songs on country radio this year: “Ready Set Roll” by Chase Rice. Sorry, you may never recover. The latest single from Jason Aldean is arguably worse, which I didn’t think was possible. To be fair, these two songs are the most egregious examples that I could recall and are not representative of the whole. But it would have been impossible to imagine these songs on country radio even five years ago. Impossible. Hence, the civil war today. If you read the comments on the videos or follow country blogs or listen to callers on country radio, there is a significant amount of listeners who have had enough. And country radio is caught in a bind, losing longtime listeners in droves, while gaining unstable and fickle listeners in the short term — the sort that Nashville loves, for now.
The problem is that women are eating this stuff up. [But see the next paragraph.] Everyone knows it. Not a secret. Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan have built massive followings on vapid songs, with a fan base almost entirely of women. That’s an exaggeration, but the dedicated base is clear. They buy most of the concert tickets, the albums, the t-shirts, and the smart guys looking for girls will follow accordingly. That sounds sexist, I know. I have little doubt that men are capable, or more capable, of consuming fantasies and catering their libido with the greatest resolve. But we’re talking about this specific market place. The fantasy world of bro country is heavily fueled by female consumers. Yes, these are men’s fantasies — the “girl in a country song” satirized by Maddie & Tae, which has been getting airplay finally — for which men are responsible. But the consumer is very much the woman who wants to be the girl in a country song. Nashville knows it. They’re not stupid.
Yet, women may save country music. Everyone knows this too. That’s the paradox. When you look at the artists today, women dominate by every credible criteria of genuine artistry. Miranda Lambert is the most famous, and God bless her for being a standout artist in this dark malaise. We could add Brandy Clark, Ashley Monroe, Kacey Musgraves, Holly Williams, and Maggie Rose, among others. But with the notable exception of Miranda, country radio is currently dominated by male voices, unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the history of country music. Miranda has expressed dismay at the situation, rightly asking where is today’s Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, or Pam Tillis? For every ten songs, you are lucky if one is female. Yet, the artistry and intelligence is clearly on the female side, as multiple music critics and average fans have recognized for some time now.
The latest nominations for the 2014 CMA’s is a significant nod in the direction of the female performers, as Kevin John Coyne noticed. Miranda leads the nominations. Jason Aldean is snubbed. And George Strait is nominated for entertainer of the year. There is harmony in the universe once again! As a result, the nominations reveal some curious incongruities with country radio. Martina McBride is nominated for female vocalist of the year. Country radio ignored her most recent album, yet the album debuted at number one. Brandy Clark was nominated for new artist of the year. Country radio ignored her album, yet music critics and country fans alike have lauded it as one of the most refreshing albums in years. It is nice when nominations actually buck the radio trend to some extent. There are disappointing nominations to be sure, like Thomas Rhett among the new artists. Rhett is a poster boy for bro country. Look at the comments for his hit song, “Get Me Some of That,” and you can test my thesis about women eating this up.
My hope is that the women can indeed save country music — not the female fans who swoon at every insipid “hey pretty girl,” but the female artists who are keeping the genre alive. There are plenty of women among the fans who agree, but they are currently outnumbered by (apparently) former fans of Backstreet Boys. That is sad.
September 3, 2014
It is sometimes heard, within feminist and liberationist circles, that the original creation of אָדָם (Adam) was androgynous, not differentiated into the gender binary of male and female. אָדָם only becomes male and female in Gen 2:21-23, which is interpreted as the splitting of the original אָדָם into two distinct and gendered beings (with צְלָעֹת translated as “side” and understood conceptually as “half”). Phyllis Trible is best known for popularizing this view.
This androgynous reading of Adam as merely a neuter “earthling” has come under criticism and not just from the usual suspects (evangelicals like me). Jerome Gellman, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, has a hard-hitting article in Theology & Sexuality 12:3 (2006), “Gender and Sexuality in the Garden of Eden,” which takes this feminist reading to task for trying, in his opinion, to smooth over the obvious misogyny of the text. So, basically, he argues that Trible’s reading is not only bad exegesis, but it is also a disservice to feminism. And Robert Kawashima, NYU and now University of Florida, has an article in Vetus Testamentum 56:1 (2006), “A Revisionist Reading Revisited: On the Creation of Adam and then Eve,” wherein he takes the feminists to task for their faulty reader-oriented epistemology.
What might a dogmatician have to say? As someone who is concerned about the gnosticism that underwrites our current gender theorizing, I highly appreciate Emil Brunner’s rejection of this androgynous reading of אָדָם in the second volume of his Dogmatics. Brunner is discussing the imago Dei, using the familiar Brunnerian lense of relationality within differentiation. He notes a “special satisfaction” that Barth uses an analogia relationis in CD III.1 (citing p. 219 in the German KD).
Below is the relevant excerpt, namely the second paragraph and following. This is among my favorite material in Brunner’s works:
Hence from the outset man has not been created as an isolated being, but as a “twofold” being; and not simply as two human beings, but as two beings who necessarily belong to one another, who have been created for this purpose, and whose whole nature is ordered in this direction, that is, as two beings who cannot be, apart from each other. In the older version of the Creation story (J) this is explicitly stated: “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). The Creation of Man is not finished until the partner is there. In the later version (Gen. 1) the twofold Creation is presupposed from the outset, and follows immediately on the definition of man as made in the Image of God. Because God is Love, because in God’s very Nature there is community, man must be able to love: thus “man” has to be created as a pair of human beings. He cannot realize his nature without the “Other”; his destiny is fellowship in love.
This twofold character of man in the Creation Story is in contrast to the world-wide myth of androgyny. The latter is necessarily connected with rational thinking, for which the ultimate and supreme truth is Unity, just as the fact of the two sexes is necessarily connected with the God who wills community. Either community or unity is the final supreme truth. The God of the Biblical revelation is the God of community; the God of rational philosophy is the God of unity. It is no accident that Plato’s Symposium accepts the myth of androgyny. Androgyny belongs to the thought of Platonism, and sexual polarity to Christian thought. [fn., It is therefore no accident that the gnostic thinker, Berdyaev, accepts the androgynous principle, and conceives the fact of the two sexes as the result of the Fall. Die Philosophie der Freiheit des Geistes, p. 238]
Androgyny is the ontological basis of narcisissm. Within the sphere of speculative thought love is always, in the last resort, self-love, because the final end sought is unity. Within the sphere of Biblical thought love is never narcissism or self-love, because love is always self-communication, the will to community. Agape presupposes the “I” and the “Thou” over against each other; narcissism, androgyny, presupposes thought which aims at unity; it presupposes the elimination of anything opposite; it presupposes the identity of object and subject. …
Sexual polarity, however, as such, is not itself the “I” and the “Thou.” It is only a picture of the purpose of Creation, and the natural basis of the true “I” and “Thou.” Sexual polarity is therefore not intended for eternity [Matt. 22:30] whereas the “I” and the “Thou,” the communion and the fellowship of the Kingdom of God, is certainly intended for eternity. Hence sexual polarity is not itself the Imago Dei; it is, as it were, a secondary Imago, a reflection of the Divine purpose, and at the same time the natural basis of true community. …
[The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, trans. Olive Wyon, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1952, pp. 64-65]
The point about narcissism is especially astute.
Image: “Eve” by Irina from Romania
September 1, 2014
During the height of the biblical theology movement in the middle of the last century, it was common to make a rather sharp distinction between the primeval period of Gen. 1-11 and the Abrahamic patriarchal period of Gen. 12-50. On this view, the primeval history is heavily mythical in its construction of ancient realities, replete with numerous etiologies (e.g., the tower of Babel as the origin of diverse languages), whereas the ancestral history is the beginning of history proper, more or less, focused as it is on Israel’s lineage from Abraham. Or to put it another way, the former is universal and therefore prone to mythical media of interpretation; the latter is particular and therefore historically contingent and “real” as we think of history, though not without “embellishments.”
This view was popularized by OT scholars like John Bright, and others at Union Seminary in Richmond, and Bernhard Anderson at Drew and Princeton, both of whom wrote OT surveys that were widely used at seminaries across the country. To this, we could add the “biblical archaeology” movement of William F. Albright and George Ernest Wright. For a nice summary statement, we can quote the old Metzger-edited New Oxford Annotated Study Bible (NRSV):
The primeval history reflects a “prehistorical” or mythical view of the movement from creation to the return of chaos in a catastrophic flood and the new beginning afterwards, while the ancestral history can be read, at least to some degree, in the context of the history of the Near East in the latter part of the second millennium (1500-1200 B.C.). The primary purpose of the book, however, is not to present straightforward history but to tell the dramatic story of God’s dealings with the world and, in particular, to interpret Israel’s special role in God’s purpose.
However, this consensus (and it did basically form a consensus in the mainline, as far as that was once possible) would eventually come under significant criticism. Evangelicals had long been critical of the divide between non-historical and historical, splitting the book of Genesis where the text gives no such indication of a shift to real history. The primeval history presents itself as just as historical as the Abrahamic history, especially indicated by the genealogies (albeit stylized in some way) in the primeval history. From the opposite vantage point, criticism came from within the mainline Protestant guild and elsewhere. The archaeological data became more contested, just as postmodern exegesis emerged to uncover the (alleged) ideologies and agendas that shaped the purported history(ies) of Israel. By the time we get to Walter Brueggemann’s An Introduction to the Old Testament, first published in 2003, things are rather different. Brueggemann never tires of reminding the reader that we have no knowledge of what really happened (e.g., exodus, conquest, temple, monarchy, etc.). It is all imaginative reconstructions, but that’s alright in Brueggemann’s account because we are called now to recapture the same imagination that inspired their confidence in God.
As for myself, I am not clear on how to precisely answer the question of historicity in the primeval chapters of Genesis or even the rest of the Pentateuch and historical books, though obviously the stakes are higher when speaking of Israel’s history. Brueggemann is a bridge too far, to say the least, and it appears that Peter Enns (like Kenton Sparks) is following the same path. The evangelical criticism itself would have to be modified today in the light of John Walton, Kevin Vanhoozer, and others’ (“progressive inerrantists”) recognition that ancient historiography may not follow the same conventions as modern historiography, which would bring them closer to the old biblical theology guys mentioned above, albeit with a sharper interest in preserving historicity where that appears to be the unambiguous affirmation of the text, not merely incidental. My inclinations are with the progressive inerrantists, as well as the biblical theology movement, though with some significant reservations with how the latter legitimates historicity.
I was inspired to write this post after browsing through Alice Linsley’s blog, Just Genesis. Linsley is a “biblical anthropologist,” that is, an anthropologist who brings her research to the text of Scripture for illumination of the context, especially the kinship ties. I can hardly render a judgment on the quality of her work, but it is fascinating. She argues for a “meta-historical” reading of Gen. 1-3, but she sees a shift to history proper, by and large, soon thereafter — thanks to anthropology and other research into ancient ethnic groups. So, for example, you should see her posts, “Are Adam and Eve Real?” and “Adam and Eve as Archetypal Ancestors.” Also, a good overview is “Objections to the Fundamentalist Reading of Genesis.” Her most recent index is very helpful. By the way, she is a former Episcopal minister and
convert to Eastern Orthodoxy revert to Anglicanism.
Image: “The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man” by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens. They collaborated on this work at Rubens’ studio in Antwerp, (Spanish) Netherlands, now Belgium, in the 1610’s.