Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Genesis and Genre - insights from a Catholic Priest

This post from Fr Robert Barron popped up in my Facebook feed today. Although I have commented on the need to recognise genre before even beginning to interpret Scripture, Barron's post is worth mentioning if only to show what I mean by how critically engaging with information irrespective of its source is essential if one is to grow as a Bible student. 
Barron writes:
One of the most important principles of Catholic Biblical interpretation is that the reader of the Scriptural texts must be sensitive to the genre or literary type of the text with which he is dealing. Just as it would be counter-indicated to read Moby Dick as history or “The Waste Land” as social science, so it is silly to interpret, say, “The Song of Songs” as journalism or the Gospel of Matthew as a spy novel.  
By the same token, it is deeply problematic to read the opening chapters of Genesis as a scientific treatise. If I can borrow an insight from Fr. George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and astrophysicist, no Biblical text can possibly be “scientific” in nature, since “science,” as we understand it, first emerged some fourteen centuries after the composition of the last Biblical book. The author of Genesis simply wasn’t doing what Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and Hawking were doing; he wasn’t attempting to explain the origins of things in the characteristically modern manner, which is to say, on the basis of empirical observation, testing of hypotheses, marshaling of evidence, and experimentation. Therefore, to maintain that the opening chapters of Genesis are “bad science” is a bit like saying “The Iliad” is bad history or “The Chicago Tribune” is not very compelling poetry. 
I cannot speak for the Catholic faith tradition, but I would argue it is one of the most important principles of Biblical interpretation, irrespective of faith tradition. Barron continues:
So what precisely was that ancient author trying to communicate? Once we get past the “bad science” confusion, the opening of the Bible gives itself to us in all of its theological and spiritual power.  
Let me explore just a few dimensions of this lyrical and evocative text. We hear that Yahweh brought forth the whole of created reality through great acts of speech: “Let there be light,’ and there was light; ‘Let the dry land appear’ and so it was.” In almost every mythological cosmology in the ancient world, God or the gods establish order through some act of violence. They conquer rival powers or they impose their will on some recalcitrant matter. (How fascinating, by the way, that we still largely subscribe to this manner of explanation, convinced that order can be maintained only through violence or the threat of violence).  
But there is none of this in the Biblical account. God doesn’t subdue some rival or express his will through violence. Rather, through a sheerly generous and peaceful act of speech, he gives rise to the whole of the universe. This means that the most fundamental truth of things—the metaphysics that governs reality at the deepest level—is peace and non-violence. Can you see how congruent this is with Jesus’ great teachings on non-violence and enemy love in the Sermon on the Mount? The Lord is instructing his followers how to live in accord with the elemental grain of the universe.
Barron's comparison of contemporary ancient Near Eastern creation myths with the Genesis narrative highlights why any claims that Genesis is simply an unimaginative copy of ANE myths are frankly unconvincing. What we see here is revolutionary when read against its contemporary background. Instead of being created as labour-saving devices for the gods, humans were created in the image of God. Instead of achieving order through violence against a backdrop of squabbling gods, we have YHWH alone bringing order from chaos through his word.

All this is lost if we neglect genre and read Genesis the YEC way.