The Ark Encounter in Kentucky (USA), featuring a gargantuan replica of Noah’s ark built to biblical specifications, has garnered plenty of headlines. I’m sure it’s not exactly like its scriptural antecedent. I’ll bet it has modern bathrooms. And no attraction would be complete without restaurants (‘Shem’s Shandwich Shack – 75 cubits this way!’) and a gift shop. The ark’s braintrust envisions a sort of Genesis theme park and you can imagine potential rides and exhibits – the Two-by-Two Petting Zoo, Captain Noah’s Whitewater Adventure, the Tower of Babel Free Fall – that practically build themselves. In fact, there’s an accompanying Creation Museum already up and running.
The prime movers behind projects like these aim to persuade the public of the literal truth of the opening chapters of Genesis, to safeguard the authority of scripture from the attacks of godless scientists and the scourge of evolutionary theory.
But what if it’s us who fail to appreciate or understand ‘scriptural authority’?
Playing the Enlightenment Game
The assault on Genesis’s ‘primeval prologue’ (chapters 1-11) began to gain its present strength during the 18th-century Enlightenment. Thinkers in this period determined that anything worth knowing must be discovered through observation with the senses and through human reason. And this ‘Age of Reason’ did lead to incredible, world-altering scientific discoveries. Many of these discoveries in biology, geology and palaeontology called into question the widely accepted accounts of human origin found in the Bible.
Western societies are the Enlightenment’s cultural descendants and its positivism continues to dominate the landscape, particularly in the scientific community. One of the lasting effects of positivism and empiricism is that most people in the western world now equate truth with facts. As such, they dismiss the biblical creation and primeval narratives as ‘untrue’, because they don’t contain the ‘facts’ that science has revealed to us.
Ironically, many of us (sometimes called Young Earth or Six-Day creationists) also assert that in order to be true, Genesis’s initial chapters must be (and are) historically and scientifically factual. This is playing the Enlightenment game by Enlightenment rules – embracing positivism as an absolute, a default setting. It’s assigning the thought patterns and agendas of modernity to ancient writers (with their own rich cultural complexities). Thus, when the findings of science contradict the scriptural ‘facts’, we’re forced to double down on our literal reading of biblical texts and either ignore or awkwardly explain away the evidence.
I think there are a few reasons why many of us hold this position:
We don’t understand Genesis’s purpose.
Giving a flat, blow-by-blow account of natural history or human prehistory was not a primary, or even a secondary motivation for the writer (or writers) of Genesis. They were far more concerned with God establishing order from chaos, with the position and responsibility of humankind, with humanity’s perpetual gravitation to wickedness and chaos, and God’s intent to restore order through a particular family and people. Understanding this purpose must alter the way we interpret the text.
We don’t acknowledge the power of story.
These writers were storytellers and teachers, not historiographers or chroniclers in the present-day sense (That said, let’s not discount them as superstitious and ignorant; that’s just modernist arrogance). They understood something we often forget: stories relay profound truths at a depth that mere facts do not. They impact us on an emotional as well as an intellectual level.
Deep down, we know this. It’s why, for instance, we watch powerful dramas like Les Miserables and 12 Years a Slave. So why do we follow cultural precedent and privilege cold, hard facts over story when it comes to Genesis? We should instead be asking, ‘What truths are the stories of Genesis’s primeval prologue trying to communicate?’
We’re uncomfortable with the unknown.
Great stories employ rich metaphors and the opening story of Genesis is no exception. In it, God constructs a ‘temple’ (as N.T. Wright has wisely noted), arising out of the primordial chaos. He speaks it into existence methodically, layer by layer, calling each strata ‘good’, until at last placing the living image of God within the temple to tend it and to focus creation’s worship toward the Creator. Through this metaphor, the writer describes the intention for God’s creation and for humans within it.
If the story has different aims than delivering textbook facts, then the ’how’ of God’s creative act (the means by which God brought the universe, the earth and humankind into existence) remains an unanswered question. And if there’s one thing we don’t like, it’s not having all the answers. Contrary to our thinking, though, a lack of answers calls for more faith, not less. It can also afford us some much needed humility in our interactions with the secular world.
We don’t want to lose face.
We’ve resisted and rebutted the slings and arrows of geologists, archaeologists, palaeontologists and evolutionary biologists for so long, the last thing we want is to see those smug looks on their faces if we admit they might be on to something! Yes, the academic community often falls prey to self-importance, but that doesn’t mean that science and natural history have nothing to teach us.
Opening the Conversation
Would we be willing to allow the findings of biologists, archeologists, geologists and others to complement our understanding of the Genesis texts? Can we accept that the story of our beginnings may be far more nuanced and far less straightforward then we’ve imagined?
I believe there’s much that faith and science can contribute to each other. Through ongoing conversation, people of faith might gain a fuller appreciation for the incredible complexity of God’s creation. We, in turn, can offer significance and substance that facts and evidence alone don’t carry.
We can start by recognising that the authority of these stories rests not in their factual accuracy with respect to prehistory, but in the powerful truths they convey about the benevolence and supremacy of God, the nature of the universe and the role of human beings. And recognising that can bring us to the table with the academic community for a more open, genuine, thoughtful and meaningful dialogue, free from belligerence and antagonism.
The Ark Encounter might even have some excellent picnic areas where such conversations could take place.
- Feature Image: A collage of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam and a diagram of primate skeletons (both Public Domain, from Wikipedia)
- A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery by Joseph Wright of Derby (Public Domain from Wikipedia)