N.T. Wright on “unfaithful”, “flat” readings of Genesis

The BioLogos Foundation hits another home run by soliciting and sharing this gem:

Bishop of Durham Tom Wright, while no fundie, is generally regarded among scholars and many evangelicals as fairly conservative in his theological outlook (e.g., he affirms an historical Fall of some kind), so this is good to hear from him. I found it interesting that Bishop Wright clearly affirmed Walton’s model of Genesis 1 as a statement of God’s authorship and control of the universe recounted in the form of an analogy to a temple dedication. He echoes Walton when he warns that taking a “flat” view of Genesis as simple history just because it’s what our culture expects is in a real sense a dishonor to the text itself.

If we want to be faithful to the text, we must take it on its own terms, regardless of what we think it should be saying. Those who insist on a simple historical account are in effect attempting to wrest the creation stories away from the original audiences and make it meet our interests. The ancients would have found little enough meaning in a newspaper account of the events that began world history, but so many Christians are insisting that God was under some obligation to leave them out in the cold in order to satiate our modern demands.

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  • I watched the Wright video. I agree that myth can be used to inform how to view ourselves without being literal and stuck on details. I get how one can look at the “thrust” of the Myth — as Wright says. In fact, I just posted about a Hindu myth in the Mahabharata.

    But Wright seems to want it both ways. He wants us not to judge his myth so that he can have it claiming “truths” that he wants it to say. He wants it “true” in many ways. So, he is willing to let the details go, just as long as he gets to decide what the “thrust” of the myth is.

    He tells us that he believes that Genesis tells us the truth when it says that something like “a primal pair getting it wrong did happen.” And that Genesis makes a true claim when it says this world was made to be God’s dwelling and he shared it with humans. [whatever that means?]

    Point is, Wright seems to me to want his Bible myths to be true in very strong ways. He wants to say, “Well, not literally true” which I get, but he does want to decide exactly what part we should hang on to as true.

    So if we get a list of true claims that Wright wants the Bible to say, then we can discuss it. I get how it is important to look for the “thrust” or themes of a text, but that doesn’t mean we can’t completely disagree with those meanings too. But unless one writes down the claims you think are made by the myths, conversations will slide all over the place as people keep moving the meaning to avoid detection. Instead they want to use it as a sacred tribal flag.
    .-= Sabio Lantz´s last blog ..Ganesh =-.

  • I watched the Wright video. I agree that myth can be used to inform how to view ourselves without being literal and stuck on details. I get how one can look at the “thrust” of the Myth — as Wright says. In fact, I just posted about a Hindu myth in the Mahabharata.

    But Wright seems to want it both ways. He wants us not to judge his myth so that he can have it claiming “truths” that he wants it to say. He wants it “true” in many ways. So, he is willing to let the details go, just as long as he gets to decide what the “thrust” of the myth is.

    He tells us that he believes that Genesis tells us the truth when it says that something like “a primal pair getting it wrong did happen.” And that Genesis makes a true claim when it says this world was made to be God’s dwelling and he shared it with humans. [whatever that means?]

    Point is, Wright seems to me to want his Bible myths to be true in very strong ways. He wants to say, “Well, not literally true” which I get, but he does want to decide exactly what part we should hang on to as true.

    So if we get a list of true claims that Wright wants the Bible to say, then we can discuss it. I get how it is important to look for the “thrust” or themes of a text, but that doesn’t mean we can’t completely disagree with those meanings too. But unless one writes down the claims you think are made by the myths, conversations will slide all over the place as people keep moving the meaning to avoid detection. Instead they want to use it as a sacred tribal flag.
    .-= Sabio Lantz´s last blog ..Ganesh =-.

  • Sabio,

    Would you be surprised to learn that I agree with you almost completely? It’s my major criticism of his position. But surely you’d agree that it’s a heck of a lot better than the prevailing U.S. evangelical mindset he’s critiquing. I presented it here because hearing this position from a respected theologian like Wright showcases a better (though not, in our opinions, perfect) way out of blind literalism and disregard for science and literary criticism.

  • Sabio,

    Would you be surprised to learn that I agree with you almost completely? It’s my major criticism of his position. But surely you’d agree that it’s a heck of a lot better than the prevailing U.S. evangelical mindset he’s critiquing. I presented it here because hearing this position from a respected theologian like Wright showcases a better (though not, in our opinions, perfect) way out of blind literalism and disregard for science and literary criticism.

  • Edward T. Babinski

    Temple imagery is just as mythical as Genesis 1.

    Apparently Walton and Wright wish to make their particular religious “myth” unfalsifiably “true” without it being literally true. But why should anyone believe in Hebrew temple mythology any more than they should believe in creation mythology?

    And what about Revelation? Does the Bible begin and end with mythology? Genesis 1 and the “New Jerusalem” coming down “from heaven?” What other myths might not lie in between those two?

    Read everything, enjoy myths galore, get the most out of each one as Karen Armstrong says. Seek the best in every book and every person. What more can “God” possibly want from humanity than that?

  • Edward T. Babinski

    Temple imagery is just as mythical as Genesis 1.

    Apparently Walton and Wright wish to make their particular religious “myth” unfalsifiably “true” without it being literally true. But why should anyone believe in Hebrew temple mythology any more than they should believe in creation mythology?

    And what about Revelation? Does the Bible begin and end with mythology? Genesis 1 and the “New Jerusalem” coming down “from heaven?” What other myths might not lie in between those two?

    Read everything, enjoy myths galore, get the most out of each one as Karen Armstrong says. Seek the best in every book and every person. What more can “God” possibly want from humanity than that?

  • Steve,

    Jesse Galef just wrote a superb short article on “Metaphorical Truth” which states my objection very nicely, if you are interested. I’d love to hear your take on it.
    .-= Sabio Lantz´s last blog ..Your god is weird ! =-.

  • Steve,

    Jesse Galef just wrote a superb short article on “Metaphorical Truth” which states my objection very nicely, if you are interested. I’d love to hear your take on it.
    .-= Sabio Lantz´s last blog ..Your god is weird ! =-.

  • Edward and Sabio,

    I do not dispute the premise of Galef’s objection. He seems to be asking, like Edward, why we “should” believe their myths if they’re not backed up by extrabiblical facts. I don’t happen to think we “should”, either, but neither am I nearly as content with dimissing biblical testimony as uniformly lacking any credibility: the writings of the Hebrews are not always corroborated by external sources, but do secularists ever acknowledge that these other external sources are neither infallible nor inerrant, either? Not enough.

    I’m sure you would both agree that determining what the ancient authors were trying to communicate is a valid pursuit for one reason or another. But I don’t seek out authorial intent based upon a presumption that whatever the author intended to convey was true; this is a problem for what one gleans of Wright’s stance as it is presented in the above video. I steadfastly resist attempts to unnaturally reinterpret what they wrote to find out a secret “spiritual” meaning that just so happens to coordinate with other Scriptures or Christian morality: I really just want to know what the authors believed and were trying to teach. What I find cogent enough on its own merits, including how well it sits with other things I’m convinced of, I’ll acknowledge. What I find out of sync, I’ll question. A case in point is the cruelty of the conquest of Palestine: there’s no doubt the authorial intent was to depict God as authorizing and sanctioning their barbaric acts, and I find that characterization to be seriously wanting. I’m nearly as skeptical of singling out particular myths and extracting doctrines from them as you are. I’ll not base my life on any particular myth, even Scriptural myths, alone. It’s not as though I believe God to be the ultimate author of creation and man to be inclined toward selfishness singly because of the Genesis stories. rather, I am persuaded by the general (and evolving) understanding of God and His ways as presented throughout the writings of the Hebrews and confirmed by my personal and observed experience.

    I really don’t want to harp on this (I hope you’ll respect my desire to maintain this blog’s focus on intra-faith discussion), but I find it necessary to point out that while Galef thinks it’s foolhardy to base our life on unverifiable ideas, he himself does so every day. His beliefs about objective reality and our ability to apprehend it with our human minds are themselves wholly unable to be substantiated objectively. Are these rationalistic hunches good enough to go on? Probably so! Are they more rational than a faith perspective? By definition! But they are not inherently sufficient to squelch other branches of inquiry, such as the search for meaning through spirituality. And rather than conduct a personal search in isolation from the findings of others, I engage the findings I find most compelling, inhabiting what they built where I find it sufficient and building on their foundation where I don’t.

    Thanks for the comments!

  • Edward and Sabio,

    I do not dispute the premise of Galef’s objection. He seems to be asking, like Edward, why we “should” believe their myths if they’re not backed up by extrabiblical facts. I don’t happen to think we “should”, either, but neither am I nearly as content with dimissing biblical testimony as uniformly lacking any credibility: the writings of the Hebrews are not always corroborated by external sources, but do secularists ever acknowledge that these other external sources are neither infallible nor inerrant, either? Not enough.

    I’m sure you would both agree that determining what the ancient authors were trying to communicate is a valid pursuit for one reason or another. But I don’t seek out authorial intent based upon a presumption that whatever the author intended to convey was true; this is a problem for what one gleans of Wright’s stance as it is presented in the above video. I steadfastly resist attempts to unnaturally reinterpret what they wrote to find out a secret “spiritual” meaning that just so happens to coordinate with other Scriptures or Christian morality: I really just want to know what the authors believed and were trying to teach. What I find cogent enough on its own merits, including how well it sits with other things I’m convinced of, I’ll acknowledge. What I find out of sync, I’ll question. A case in point is the cruelty of the conquest of Palestine: there’s no doubt the authorial intent was to depict God as authorizing and sanctioning their barbaric acts, and I find that characterization to be seriously wanting. I’m nearly as skeptical of singling out particular myths and extracting doctrines from them as you are. I’ll not base my life on any particular myth, even Scriptural myths, alone. It’s not as though I believe God to be the ultimate author of creation and man to be inclined toward selfishness singly because of the Genesis stories. rather, I am persuaded by the general (and evolving) understanding of God and His ways as presented throughout the writings of the Hebrews and confirmed by my personal and observed experience.

    I really don’t want to harp on this (I hope you’ll respect my desire to maintain this blog’s focus on intra-faith discussion), but I find it necessary to point out that while Galef thinks it’s foolhardy to base our life on unverifiable ideas, he himself does so every day. His beliefs about objective reality and our ability to apprehend it with our human minds are themselves wholly unable to be substantiated objectively. Are these rationalistic hunches good enough to go on? Probably so! Are they more rational than a faith perspective? By definition! But they are not inherently sufficient to squelch other branches of inquiry, such as the search for meaning through spirituality. And rather than conduct a personal search in isolation from the findings of others, I engage the findings I find most compelling, inhabiting what they built where I find it sufficient and building on their foundation where I don’t.

    Thanks for the comments!