The Genesis conversation
I found myself at a social gathering many years ago. There were good things to eat. I was concentrating on helping myself. A glass of juice in one hand, a plate with sandwiches and goodies in the other, and sundry marks on my clothing as I failed to resolve the absence of a third hand to guide food to my mouth.
As all my powers of concentration were focussed on the challenge of food consumption, a total stranger approached me and said, in a tone of accusation, ‘You’re the minister aren’t you?’ In deference to the otherwise occupied state of my mouth, I nodded mutely.
With a sneering laugh my new acquaintance continued the monologue, ‘and yet they tell me you are also one of these amateur astronomers as well.’ Again, I nodded, making a mental note that if I identified ‘them’, I would be dealing very severely with whoever ‘they’ might be. I threw a dark glance at the chuckling group in the corner.
‘You can’t possibly believe all that stuff.’ There then followed a diatribe against the Christian faith. My charming conversation partner took me on a journey through the Genesis narrative, explaining to me how absurd it was in the light of modern science, and how the order was all wrong, how the sun and moon appeared too late and who would Adam and Eve’s children have married and so on. He completely missed the irony in my question as to whether he thought anyone might actually have considered these questions before. It also became clear that he didn’t want to listen to my answer, as I tried to suggest that he needed to ask what the original author was trying to convey and what kind of literature those early chapters of Genesis might be.
In worship, we will soon begin a series of studies in Genesis on Sunday evenings. If you have had the frustration, like me, of your sausage roll being wasted at parties by such questions, you ought to be there! Actually you ought to be there anyway! Don’t miss it!
Let me make a very simple point, which seems lost on those who insist on reading the Genesis narrative very woodenly. Let me make this point by describing the renovation project recently completed on our church, from two different perspectives.
First, from the Contractor’s point of view. Through the project we held fortnightly meetings between ourselves, the contractor and the architect. Amidst the papers that these meetings generated, there was a plan which set out the order in which various tasks would be completed and how long each would take. Here is how the beginning of the plan might have been (roughly) broken down:
1. Remove old woodwork and pipework
2. Erect scaffolding through the centre of the church
3. Strip out old lighting
4. In-fill the old door spaces before opening up new entrance
5. Fit new ceiling………….
You get the idea that there was a necessary order and sequence to what was done. You don’t try to fit a new ceiling without putting the scaffolding up first. You don’t bring in a nice new oak floor whilst the old pews are still in place. You don’t try to install a new heating system without first removing the old pipework. You don’t try to fit new windows without removing the old windows. You don’t decorate whilst you are knocking holes in the walls. You see the point. The order is important. The chronology is what makes the plan work.
Now let me give a different account of the same renovation. A few weeks ago, our friends on the Kirk Session of the High Kirk in Stevenson came to see our renovated church and asked me to give them a presentation on the project. Initially, I gave them a tour, with a quick explanation of what was driving the renovation; our vision which shaped the plan. I said something like this:
‘We wanted a comfortable, welcoming, flexible place of worship, with attractive, bright décor and lighting; a place to which people would be glad to come. We wanted an entrance which drew people in, with an enlarged welcoming space and lots of glass to let people see where they were going. So we opted for glass sliding doors at the main door and a glass ‘box’ for entering the sanctuary, so people could see right into the sanctuary from the street, even during worship. We wanted the place to be full of light and appealing (nice décor and lighting) warm and comfortable (new heating, comfy seats, reduced draughts with new windows)’
So I continued. You can imagine a contractor listening to this would dismiss it as a plan of works. You don’t start with the décor and the things that make for comfort - they come at the end. You don’t decorate first. The glass box and sliding doors were to be put in much later in the project, after old door spaces were in-filled and a large hole created in the back wall, none of which I mentioned. The order of my description is all wrong for a plan of works.
Of course, being sensible people, you realise that I was giving an account of our aims and vision, and not a plan of works. A plan of works was not what our friends from Stevenson needed. They needed to think about their own vision for their own place, and someone else could come up with a plan of works to realise that vision.
What has all this to do with the book of Genesis? My point is that it is unwise to read the Genesis narrative as if it were a plan of works, and then criticise it for not being a good one. We must first ask what kind of literature it is and what lessons the author had in mind to teach us.
Come along to a series coming to a church near you…..