The truth of Genesis

by Richard on October 10, 2012

An amended reblog, partly prompted by some recent comments

I was talking to someone recently about the evolution ‘debate’. He got very troubled when I spoke of the first chapter of Genesis as a myth. “If Genesis 1 isn’t true, how can we trust anything the Bible says?” he asked.

Imagine yourself in one of those photobooths that takes passport pictures. When you collect the pictures, are you happy with them? Will you be showing them proudly to friends? I strongly doubt it! The photograph may be an accurate image of a specific moment, but it is unlikely to be a “good” picture. On the other hand, an artist with a few simple materials may produce a portrait of you that is less “accurate” than the photobooth, but more truthful in the insight it provides. “Painting the soul” is the way I believe the arty types put it. You can see this even in children’s drawings. They may not be draughtsmen, but you can learn a lot about a child’s family (for example) by the way that they draw them. There is truth there for those with eyes to see. That’s why painters did not go out of business with the advent of photography. In some mysterious way they are able to present truth which goes beyond the merely representational.

Changing my metaphor, another way to think of this is in terms of maps. A map may be true or false, just as a myth may be. But even a good map can be useless or even dangerous if it is used for the wrong purpose. Any visitor to London who tries to navigate the streets using only the iconic ‘underground’ map is going to learn the truth of this very quickly. Similarly, a world atlas may well be accurate — but don’t try to use it to round Cape Horn.

When I say that - for example - Genesis 1 is a myth, I do not mean it isn’t true or that I am rejecting it. I mean that it conveys a truth about God, creation and human beings which goes beyond the merely
representational “photograph” which is offered to us by cosmology and the rest. Neither am I denigrating the truth which these sciences offer. Just as a photograph is not “contradicted” by a painting, the myth of Genesis is not contradicted by science. The whole notion is absurd! A photograph can be compared to a painting, and it is sometimes instructive to do so. But they are in no sense competitors.

Of course, a problem would arise if you present a painting and claim that it is a photograph. Do that, and you shift the ‘truth claims’ of your picture from one category into another and you will inevitably judge it unfairly, using the wrong criteria. Taking Genesis as science or history is to do exactly this: taking a sophisticated work of art and talking about it as though it were a photograph. Not even one of those artful photographs that the really gifted are able to take, but a crude photobooth snapshot.

The last time I posted this my friend Tony commented very helpfully:

[Myth] has a popular usage, which generally means ‘fairy tale’ or something like that, and is assumed to mean ‘not true’. That is not the proper function of mythology. Let me give you modern example: 1940 was a hugely significant year for British people. The events of the evacuation from Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the beginning of the Blitz, all had a profound effect upon the national psyche: we stood alone against the Nazis, and the nation stood together. That has been part of our national self-understanding ever since, part of what it means to be British. Now, the events in question are absolutely historical, but the popular memory isn’t absolutely correct; it has been reshaped to reinforce the self-understanding. For example, there were more Hurricanes than Spitfires, we didn’t win the Battle of Britain as such, the Germans lost it, and we didn’t stand alone - without the strength of the Commonwealth/Empire, and the economic support of Lend-Lease, we’d have been bankrupt and suing for peace before the end of the year. But hat doesn’t affect the underlying meaning of the events - and that is a mythological function.
In the same, the Exodus from Egypt is a foundation myth of Israel - that’s why the youngest child asks the key questions in every year’s Passover seder. The death and resurrection of Jesus are foundation myths for Christians - they give us our meaning and our identity. Now, in each case, I have no doubt as to the historicity of the underlying event. The way the events have been narrated is always shaped according to the meaning, rather than according to the historical details, but the underlying event is still there. In the same way, the different creation traditions in Genesis and Isa.40-55 (and they ARE different) are narrated to say something about God and his people. That is mythology. It isn’t science, and it isn’t history. It’s narrative theology. Trying to filter a text through the wrong lens misses so much - the attempts to make Genesis a modern scientific account is not only a waste of effort, it actually obscures the colour and texture of the original. If someone gave you a Leonardo or a Monet, you wouldn’t retouch or varnish it to make it look more like a colour photo. You’d let the Old Master be seen in its own colour and texture. So why do you persist in retouching the Oldest Master of all?

That’s exactly right. Both the fundamentalist who insists on reading Genesis as science and the atheist who dismisses it because it isn’t are insisting that only one kind of picture has any value. That’s not just a mistake. It’s a travesty.

{ 1 trackback }

Exploring truth & myth in the Bible | connexions
12.01.13 at 10:45 pm

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>