“Magic”

Listened to this song from the Boss this morning on my walking/ train commute to downtown Seattle:

“I got a coin in your palm
I can make it disappear
I got a card up my sleeve
Name it and I’ll pull it out your ear
I got a rabbit in the hat
If you wanna come and see
This is what will be
This is what will be

I got shackles on my wrists
Soon I’ll slip and I’ll be gone
Chain me in a box in the river
And rising in the sun
Trust none of what you hear
And less of what you see
This is what will be
This is what will be

I got a shiny saw blade
All I need’s a volunteer
I’ll cut you in half
While you’re smilin’ ear to ear
And the freedom that you sought
Driftin’ like a ghost amongst the trees
This is what will be
This is what will be

Now there’s a fire down below
But it’s coming up here
So leave everything you know
Carry only what you fear
On the road the sun is sinkin’ low
Bodies hanging in the trees
This is what will be
This is what will be”

-Bruce Springsteen from the album “Magic”

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Coen Marathon: “Blood Simple”

The first time I encountered a Coen Bros movie was in high school when my friend, Jake, recommended we check out “Fargo” from our local movie rental store “Video Update” (remember when we had movie rental stores?).   Watching the film at the house I grew up in (south of Seattle in Kent), I couldn’t shake how zany and wild “Fargo” was after we saw it.  The next movie of theirs I watched was “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” while I was a junior at Grace College in Indiana.  After that experience, I was a full-fledged fan.

The strange thing is, I can mostly recount where I was and who I was with when I first saw each of the Coen Bros movies and I’m not at all like that with other filmmakers.  The Coens strong production values (even sometimes on indie budgets), originality, bizarre (and sometimes dark) humor, and their existentialism (they have to be existentialists, right?) have always been compelling to me.

Recently, Michelle and I decided to watch all of the Coen Bros films in a marathon of sorts (this certainly does not mean back to back to back).  We would start at the very beginning with “Blood Simple” which came out in 1984.

Blood Simple

When one has experienced seeing other movies in the Coen catalog and watch their debut movie, it is like seeing glimpses of a blueprint which harken things that would come.  “Blood Simple”, the aforementioned debut, belongs squarely in the genre camp of film noir.  However, the Coen’s invent unconventional ways to handle the story and even exhibit some of their diabolically dark humor from their career beginnings.

Julian Marty (played by a man who exudes sliminess Dan Hedaya) owns a Texas saloon and hires a private eye (M. Emmett Walsh) to kill his wife and her lover, Ray (John Getz) who is one of the bartenders at the saloon.  Ceiling fans become an ominous harbinger in one sequence where Julian stares at the circulating ceiling fan in his office at the same time that Abby stares at a fan in the home as Ray sleeps in the other room.  Making her cinema debut as Marty’s wife (Abby) is Frances McDormand who married Joel Coen back in 1984 (they are still married to this day).  She gives a brilliant and measured performance exhibiting why she would become a mainstay in many Coen films after this and an Oscar-winning actress.

The stories of the characters get more entangled and complex. The private eye decides not to kill Abby and her lover and instead opts to collect the money from Julian and off him in his saloon.  Who would happen upon the dead body of the scumbag husband then Ray?  Realizing that the clear murder of the man of whom he was having an affair with his wife might not look so good to him and Abby, Ray decides to dispose of the body.  A famous Coen Bros theme is birthed.  The imperfect but normal-ish person who makes a very stupid decision to involve themselves in a crime (somewhat innocently) ends up creating an even more terrible situation.

One of the elements of a Coen Bros film that is sometimes overlooked is that the setting becomes its own sort of character.  “Blood Simple” takes place in the dead heart of Texas (a marketing tagline for the movie made reference to this phrase) and is embodied by multiple shots of the headlights of cars illuminating a flat road extending out into blackness.

SPOILER:  By the time of the conclusion where the private eye is trying to take out Abby sniper-style, she turns off the lights in the room she is in forcing the would-be assassin to enter that very space.  This leads to the most famous scene of the film that involves Abby attempting to hide from the private eye. He reaches around a wall, trying to see if he can grab her, and she nails his hand to the wall.  Flailing he attempts to remove his hand from the wall and the way that he has to get out of this predicament creates both a painful reaction from the audience as well as laughter.  Pure Coen bliss.  By the time the private eye gets himself freed, Abby has located a gun and shoots him.  The gunshot propels him backward and he lands under a bathroom sink.  As he lays there dying, his eyes focus upon a lone drip of water coalescing around a pipe that is about to drip on his face.  The screen cuts to the credits.  From the outset, the Coens were into ending their movies, not with some glorious concluding shot but rather suddenly.  END SPOILER

A considerable debut film for future Oscar-winning and critical darling filmmakers, “Blood Simple” delivers quite a statement with a cocktail mixture of thriller and laughs.  When this came out, it was wholly original and marked a new, unique signature on the noir genre.

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Make America Read Again: My February Reading List

After January, I had a head start.  Completing two books in the first month of the year, I had started a few others but I slacked in February.  Definitely should have completed more than two books.  Maybe in March…

Genesis:  History, Fiction, or Neither   Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters  Edited by Charles Halton/ Contributors:  James K Hoffmeier, Gordon J. Wenham and Kenton L. Sparks

Having read parts of this book for research for my Genesis sermon, I figured I should just finish the book and I’m glad I did.  The parts I read prior to my message didn’t connect with me but I think that has more to do with the information not being quite what I was after in compiling notes for my message.  The scope of this book has to do with Genesis 1-11 (i.e. pre-Abraham) and my sermon was addressing Genesis 1 exclusively.  Once I was able just to read the book (with no assignment attached), I got a lot more out of the work.

As I mentioned, three scholars dive into the Bible’s earliest accounts:  creation, Cain and Abel, the Nephilim mixing it up with earth women, Noah’s flood, the Tower of Babel and the table of nations.  All three scholars consider themselves evangelical(ish) and hold the Bible to be the Word of God.  The takes and interpretations on these early Biblical chapters certainly differ among them.

Hoffmeier definitely weights the first 11 chapters of Genesis to be actual history.  With the existence multiple genealogies in those chapters, he rationalizes that this is an accurate family history of Israel that communicates theology (specifically Israel’s relationship to the true God).

Wenham’s view of Genesis 1-11 is more complicated.  He argues that the text is “proto-history”.  The genealogies represent an expanded history of Israel and it is less important, in his view, that events “may not be datable and fixable chronologically, but they were viewed as real events”.  Emphasis on “viewed” or one could say believed to be real events.  Wenham moves a little bit away from an importance that every story in these opening Biblical chapters actually happened in history or perhaps if an event did happen, it has been recorded with hyperbole and certainly is not impartial.  He would uphold the theological teachings and messaging to be truth.

Sparks would be considered the most “liberal” of the three scholars.  His belief is that the opening chapters of Genesis are ancient historiography.  From his perspective, while Biblical writers probably intended to record historical events, the opening chapters of Genesis “do not narrate closely what actually happened. . . . There was no Edenic garden, nor trees of life and knowledge, nor a serpent that spoke, nor a worldwide flood in which all living things, save those on a giant boat, were killed by God”.  Sparks, like Wenham, would uphold the theological teaching of these chapters as the Word of God and maintains their value in communicating humanity’s relationship to God but would argue against their literal history and general scientific assumptions.  He would ask:  does something have to happen literally in history for it to be considered theologically (or philosophically) true?

Of the three perspectives, Sparks seemed the most reasoned and persuasive of the arguments…and I don’t agree with him on some of his points.  Attempting to weave a theological truth with modern scientific consensus and an understanding of anthropological history is not an easy task and Sparks comes the closest to actually pulling this off.

A few excerpts.  Hoffmeier wrote the following in response to Sparks:

“Human evolution and the biological sciences are by nature descriptive.  They cannot tell us what caused or who made it happen, and what or who made matter and transformed inanimate material living to organisms.  Even if one recognizes that biological evolution occurred, the Bible demands that we view this as how God created.  God is the who behind the processes and He sovereignly controls them creating according to His will.  Scripture answers the real questions the humans long to have answered.” (page 144)

“Augustine was very explicit that one should be open to changing one’s mind when it comes to the book of Genesis: “(I)n matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision…we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.  That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.’  The Bible, like every other text, is not self-interpreting.  Augustine, along with those mentioned above, realized that humans construct interpretations from Scripture and these can be, and often are, in error.  In his view, we should attempt to conform ourselves every closer to Scripture, not to human constructions derived from Scripture.  Readers have an active role in forming the meanings and understandings that they embrace.  The questions they ask of a writing, the ways in which they formulate synthetic conclusions, the methods they employ, the interpretive frameworks they bring, and even their emotional states and personal histories affect how they construct interpretations.  The emotional needs of readers may be the most overlooked shaper of interpretive outcomes because they often work on a subconscious level.  And as Roger Scruton observed, in many cases emotional needs precede rational arguments and shape theological conclusions in advance.  Often times the conclusions we draw from the Bible have more to do with our emotional disposition- our fears and wants- than they do about the data that is in front of us.  this is true when we read Gen 1-11 and this is one of the reasons why Christians often disagree over matters of Bible and theology.  We bring different emotional needs to these debates.” (Page 158)

If anyone is interested in scholarly debate on the first eleven chapters of Genesis, this is a highly recommended read.  The book is assessable (only 163 pages in the paperback) and introduces the audience to the interpretative challenges of Genesis in our modern era.

Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel by Russell Moore

“The shaking of American culture is no sign that God has given up on American Christianity. In fact, it may be a sign that God is rescuing American Christianity from itself.”

Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, spawned some waves during the 2016 presidential election when he took a fairly hardline stance against republican candidate Donald Trump.  In a Washington Post editorial, he eviscerated the Donald’s worldview and moral actions as he claimed that Trump had snuffed out the religious right.  Before these series of editorials from Moore, he wrote a book called “Onward” in 2015 about how Christianity should engage a “post-Christian” America.  Obviously, a lot of politics are discussed.

Welcoming a growing secular age in America, Moore seems to say “bring it on” in the sense that a Christianity with conviction will make a roaring comeback up against what was, in large part, a national civic religion.  He writes:  “The problem was that . . . Christian values were always more popular in American culture than the Christian gospel. That’s why one could speak of ‘God and country’ with great reception in almost any era of the nation’s history but would create cultural distance as soon as one mentioned ‘Christ and him crucified.’ God was always welcome in American culture. He was, after all, the Deity whose job it was to bless America. The God who must be approached through the mediation of the blood of Christ, however, was much more difficult to set to patriotic music or to ‘Amen’ in a prayer at the Rotary Club.”

Moore is still fiercely conservative.  He is unapologetically pro-life, believes same-sex marriage to be sinful (but has numerous quotes about loving and being good neighbors to LGBTQ people) but seems less convinced that the best way for the church to go about politics is trying to legislate or elect the correct leaders.  “We receive celebrities simply because they are ‘conservative,’ without asking what they are conserving. If you are angry with the same people we are, you must be one of us. But it would be a tragedy to get the right president, the right Congress, and the wrong Christ.” The book was published in August 2015 and this specific quote seems haunting now.  He continues:  “Our vote for President is less important than our vote to receive new members for baptism into our churches. . . . The reception of members into the church marks out the future kings and queens of the universe. Our church membership rolls say to the people on them, and to the outside world, ‘These are those we believe will inherit the universe, as joint-heirs with Christ.’”

A big theme of the book is the Kingdom of God. That this Kingdom is transcendent and is made up of people all over the world.  Moore condemns racism and recognizes oppression that certain minorities face which must be made right.

If anyone is a Christian and interested either in cultural or political issues, this is a vastly important book to contemplate.  Moore is onboard with emphasizing less of a power religion (in the political sense) and more of churches living out the meaning and calling of the gospel.

Some other quotes:

“Our story is that of a little flock and of an army, awesome with banners. Our legacy is a Christianity of persecution and proliferation, of catacombs and cathedrals. If we see ourselves as only a minority, we will be tempted to isolation. If we see ourselves only as a kingdom, we will be tempted toward triumphalism. We are, instead, a church. We are a minority with a message and a mission.”

“Our life planning ought to be about the next trillion years, and beyond. If we assume that what’s waiting for us beyond the grave is a postlude rather than a mission and an adventure, we will cling tenaciously to the status quo, or at least the parts of it we like. . . . Our lives now are shaping us and preparing us for a future rule. Our lives now are an internship for the eschaton.”

“The kingdom of God turns the Darwinist narrative of the survival of the fittest upside down (Acts 17:6-7). When the church honors and cares for the vulnerable among us, we are not showing charity. We are simply recognizing the way the world really works, at least in the long run. The child with Down syndrome on the fifth row from the back in your church, he’s not a ‘ministry project.’ He’s a future king of the universe. The immigrant woman who scrubs toilets every day on hands and knees, and can barely speak enough English to sing along with your praise choruses, she’s not a problem to be solved. She’s a future queen of the cosmos, a joint-heir with Christ. . . . The first step to cultural influence is not to contextualize to the present, but to contextualize to the future, and the future is awfully strange, even to us.”

“Let’s model what happens to a culture when the kingdom interrupts us on our way to where we would go, if we were mapping this out on our own. Let’s not merely advocate for causes; let’s embody a kingdom. Let’s not aspire to be a moral majority but a gospel community, one that doesn’t exist for itself but for the larger mission of reaching the whole world with the whole gospel. That sort of kingdom-first cultural engagement drives us not inward, but onward.”

“It may be that America is not ‘post-Christian’ at all. It may be that America is instead pre-Christian, a land that though often Christ-haunted has never known the power of the gospel, yet.”

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A Prayer for Reuben

This is a prayer I wrote out for my son, Reuben, with Michelle’s blessings.  We dedicated Reuben to God on February 26th, 2017 at Seed Church.  I forgot the below transcript at home while going to the baby dedication service but prayed the spirit of the below in front of our church family.

Lord Jesus, we are grateful that you have brought Reuben into our family and our lives. Thank you that our son is healthy and has the early strength to withstand getting hit in the head with a book by his big sister, Naomi.  Beyond that, thank you that Naomi is so protective and sweet with Reuben.  We will never forget the first meeting between Reuben and Naomi in early October when he first came home.  Your grace is evidenced in so many ways.

We pray today that Reuben would have an understanding of your love, Jesus, now and as he grows older. In the future, we pray that he would have a strong faith in God and a hunger to learn more about the Bible.  We pray that Michelle and I would consistently model your love, grace, and thoughtful discipline with the extraordinary task of being parents.

Looking forward, we anticipate the many adventures together including: learning (both him and us), sporting events (if he likes them), church community events, hikes, family travel and prayerfully great conversations…eventually. May we always recognize life’s many blessings as being gifts from You.

Thank you Jesus for loving us, being with us and being for us as we have welcomed our son, baby Roo, into our home.

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Why Belief in God Matters: Genesis 1 Sermon Transcript (Part Two)

This is a message I preached at Seed Church on January 15th, 2017.  Here is the link to the audio.

Continued from Part one.

Matter:

Ancient Israelites were drawing the attention of the culture of the day and all cultures down through the ages of how vital it is to believe in the existence of God. For Israel, theoretically as they were in Babylonian captivity and recounting how Elohim or Yahweh provided for them in the past, this became their hope. A way to radically connect their lives to a higher meaning.

That meaning and hope can still be found today.  In our world, western civilization in the 21st century, we hear a lot about the rise of the religious ‘nones’. Some of you probably read the Pew Research Study and subsequent articles about it and heard how many people are not associating with church or organized religion anymore. I won’t get into the specific numbers but this is one of the fastest growing groups in America.

Here at Seed Church, we have seen great friends go through this haven’t we? Sometimes, they have a crisis in life or they come to a place where they don’t believe anymore for whatever reason and leave our community here at church. Now, we still have friendships with these people and we don’t shut anyone out at all but there still is a sadness to see people we care about abandon faith in Jesus.

A popular phrase is often muttered, ‘I’m spiritual but not religious.’ We hear this a lot in Seattle. So, what is interesting is it doesn’t seem like people are going to a hardcore atheism (like the New atheists) but still maintaining an open position to God and spirituality.

Here is the big question for us: Why does belief in God matter? Why does belief in this God that we heard about in Genesis 1 make a difference? Does belief in God make us merely feel better? Is belief in God just something we have always done or done for a very long time? What is the point? Why is this important?

Since I’m speaking, I should make a confession. I’m kind of a fan of the late Christopher Hitchens, the new atheist. I have read 3 of his books and I just finished a book by Larry Taunton, a pastor, which was about his friendship with Hitch (as his nickname was). In this book (which sadly wasn’t very good), Taunton describes a theorem that Hitch had that he used in debates all the time. Hitch would say (paraphrase) ‘Tell me one thing, morally speaking, that you Christian can do that I cannot do as an atheist?’ Now, his question is flawed because if we are basing Christian morality on the 10 commandments (though there is certainly more to it than those tablets Moses brought down), the first 2 commandments have to do with worshipping the true God and not having idols. By definition, an atheist cannot worship the True God so that is one thing that a believer can do that an atheist can’t. Hitch’s point though is well-taken: he can choose not to commit adultery, he can choose not to steal, he can choose to not kill anyone just like a believer can so what difference does belief in God make?

Thesis: By connecting with the true God that is testified to in Genesis 1, we can find a transcendent meaning and purpose to our lives.

Struggle:

Let’s face it and be real. Faith in God in the fallen world we live in can be extraordinarily difficult. When we look around at the world, read the news, and learn about the things going on out there, trusting in God can take just about everything within us. People who have tremendous faith in Christ suffer horribly right along side those who have no faith at all. The inverse is also true. People of faith sometimes have mostly comfortable and fun lives right alongside those who don’t believe at all. What difference does it make?

We could spend a bunch of time on apologetics, which is valuable to do and discuss, no doubt. We can talk about the cosmological argument related to God being the First Cause in a universe of cause and effect or what Aristotle called the ‘Unmoved Mover’ or ‘Prime Mover.’ I think this is an effective argument for me. Nothing cannot create something so that means something must be eternal, right? Or we can talk about the design argument and the fine tuning of the universe. This can also be effective to a certain extent.

These are merely intellectual arguments though (that again can be helpful) but do they really speak to why the existence of God matters?

1) Belief in God matters because it gives us a way to see the world. A foundation to sift information through and solid to construct our worldview and values upon. In Genesis 1, God brings order out of chaos. Believing in God helps us do this same thing. The world can seem random and chaotic. Trusting in God and helping us to see the world like He does can order this chaos.

2) Belief in God helps us to look outside of ourselves to others and challenges us to love without condition. This is not based on the ever changing sentiment about love in pop culture that is shallow and fake. God’s love is transcendent and rooted in firm commitment’s (covenant). Do we really meditate on the fact that God loves us or has it just become a phrase that we sing and pray with empty, cliche words? Believing that God loves us changes everything. That God loves our kids, our families, our communities, our country, our world. Really believing that God loves us and is for us changes our outlook as we go through this world. It affects everything about our lives.

3) Belief in God helps us to have unity when our society and culture is bitterly divided. In our country, we see this partisan outrage everyday. People literally hate other people because they have different political beliefs. The cool thing about Seed is we have people from all across the spectrum. What God can create in this community is a unity among us, with all our differences, around Him and His kingdom values. This can be a big difference that belief in God can make in our community and with our friends.

4) Belief in God can inspire and empower us to be free from things that may entrap us. God did not cease to be a Creator after the 7th day. He can create in you a new heart and new desires to conquer addictions, to be free from guilt or shame from the past. He can free us to have a deep seated joy through the difficulties of life that Jesus also faced when He was a man.

5) Belief in God gives us a present and future hope especially related to justice. To dive deeper into this enigma, I want to compare and contrast two people. I don’t know if these two have ever been compared before but I’m going to give it a shot. On one side here, we have Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr….a noble person, civil rights leader, Christian pastor, and one of the most consequential people in American history. On the opposite side, we have film director Woody Allen. Woody has made some really great films and some lousy ones.His personal life is a mess reportedly and he has been accused of extremely awful things. Have you heard of anyone comparing these two? Let’s see how this goes.

Woody Allen, in 2005, made a movie called ‘Match Point’. The theme of the film is that there is no cosmic justice. Everything is absurd and meaningless. If justice happens in this world and existence of ours, it is nothing but fateful chance.

In contrast, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Had the famous saying, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ This implies that there is a progress of justice toward a final conclusion.  A reckoning. A direction that justice and morality are headed in while being orchestrated by a Higher Being. Even if we don’t see justice in this life, justice will eventually prevail because God will bring it to us.

Gospel:

And this belief about justice from these two personalities and the tension that we feel wherever we are in between those two points. Eventually in the life of a true believer in God, these intellectual concepts move from being just in our heads to the core of our being. Jesus not only inspires us toward His Kingdom values of ‘Love God with all your heart mind, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself’ but He empowers this work in us. Purpose. Meaning. Mission. Hope.

Hope comes because even if we don’t see the gospel and justice take root in our lifetimes, we know they eventually will come upon the creation being brought to completion by the True God who created the heavens and the earth. God did not cease to be a Creator after Genesis 1. He still is creating and one of those acts of creation is giving those who want to follow Him a new heart. Ezekiel 36:26 states, ‘And I will give you a new heart, and a new Spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.’ For those struggling with addictions or entrapped by sins that you feel are getting the best of you, God can work and change your heart. For those struggling with apathy or a sense of being overwhelmed at the craziness of our world, God can create in you a new heart and guide you to the things you can do to help build His Kingdom and pursue justice even if they are the littlest of steps.

When cultures, governments or other groups perform evil acts, we follow a transcendent moral code given to us by Jesus. When we fall short of our own moral code, we are offered God’s grace and Christ continues to embrace us. To view others, with the Spirit’s help, through Jesus’ perspective which includes upholding them as bearing the image of God, we can be kept from getting carried away by a poisoned, evil ethical system of thought advanced by our society. All people, from unborn to the elderly, both sexes, all races, are valuable to God as they bear His image. Another difference that belief in God makes. Not only helping us to have an intellectual framework to discern truth and morality but we are given His Spirit to be empowered to live according to His truths in the manner of love.

At the end of the day, arguments and debates can be made from any position. If any of you have been in a debate class, you already know this. The thing about taking debate is that we learn by often getting assigned viewpoints we disagree with and then we have to defend them.

All information can be spun around and used for whatever purpose. Same with the debate about God. Here is the question: how do you want to see the world? What do you want to place your trust in? Do you want to see the world as random chaos? According to this view, we are all extremely lucky to be here (against all odds) and morality and ethics are simply human constructs subject to adjustment and change depending on who is in power. Another way to see the world is that in the beginning God created. He brought order out of chaos. He created all things: sun, moon, stars, plants, trees, animals and human beings.  All of these things are beautiful and inspire awe and wonder because they come from the true Creator’s hand. And this Creator came into history as Jesus, a poor carpenter from Nazareth, to speak the truth and ask us to follow Him.

May we see the world through the poor carpenter from Nazareth’s eyes. The brutal death He suffered and the empty tomb on the third day. And may we see from the testimony of John’s Gospel (chapter 1) that at the beginning of the creation of the universe and earth, this homeless carpenter was there (present in the creative act) and was even there even prior to the creation to eternity past. ‘In the beginning was the Word….’

 

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Why Belief in God Matters: Genesis 1 Sermon Transcript

This is a message I preached at Seed Church on January 15th, 2017.  Here is the link to the audio.

New Year everyone. I thought we would go back to Genesis here toward the beginning of the year. Check in on the beginning of beginnings a couple of weeks after the onset of 2017.

As I was thinking about Genesis, and specifically Genesis 1 where we will be this morning, I have been considering various messages and sermons I have heard on the passage throughout my life. I cannot think of one example where I did not hear Genesis 1 spoken on in the context of the creation/ evolution debate. Not that there is anything wrong with having a discussion about that but it struck me that the interpretation of Genesis as something akin to a scientific play-by-play book has really not been around that long.

Charles Darwin, of course, published ‘On the Origin of the Species’ in 1859 and Christians reacted by kicking off a defense of Genesis. Science versus faith.  Before Darwin though, how was Genesis 1 interpreted? How has the church read this creation account throughout the ages and even more importantly, why did the ancient Israelites feel it was important to write this passage describing God’s creation of the cosmos down and preserve it for generations of people to read and experience?

My belief is that Genesis 1 is a poem and is not meant to be a scientific play-by-play. Some of you may disagree. Here at Seed Church I’m sure we have young earth creationists, old earth creationists, theistic evolutionists and people who may be somewhere in between any of those views. If Genesis 1 is a poem, that does not take away from the passage’s ultimate truth that God created the universe and everything in it. Also, the theological meaning of this passage still holds true such as that people bear the image of God, the world is beautiful and good and that we have a 7-day, ordered week with a Sabbath day.

We are going to dive into this passage this morning and I’m going to try and stay away from the creation/ evolution debate as much as possible to simply get at the incredible understanding and truth we can mine when we really dig into the words of Genesis 1.

Say:

1:1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The Hebrew word for God here is Elohim (other places in the Torah, it is Yahweh). This means ‘Power of powers’ or ‘God of gods’. The writer of Genesis does not use any apologetics or arguments for God’s existence. Rather, the existence of God is self-evident. He is announced as the Author and Creator of all created reality. He is transcendent, beyond the creation including space and time.

1:2 And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. When Scripture says the earth was without form and void, this means that things had not taken shape. There was chaos and God was bringing order to this chaos. The Earth was an empty place, unproductive, inhospitable to life and God was shaping His creation so life could come about. The text talks about ‘darkness being over the surface of the deep’ which sounds like a dark abyss. The Spirit of God (Hebrew word: ‘ruah’ which can be translated wind of God or perhaps mighty wind) was hovering over the waters beginning to form and shape the creation.

Verse 1:3-5 And God said ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. Now, you will notice that we have light being created on day one and then a separation of light from darkness. All of this is happening when the sun had not been created yet. The sun comes on Day 4 in this chronology. ‘Light’ in Scriptures as a term also symbolizes life and blessings of various sorts. The earth was barren and void and lacking form. With God introducing light, life and everything that we know on this planet is now coming forth.

God separated the light from the darkness. These are two things that do not and cannot belong together. However, they both have their distinctive tasks in the creation.  God saw that this separation was good. Commentator Bruce Waltke explains the term ‘good’: ‘Although the eggshells of the precreated state, darkness and seas of abyss, are still present, they can now be called ‘good’ because they are bounded by light and land, respectively, and serve useful tasks. Creation is imbued with God’s goodness…’

Then we come to the end of the first day.  The Hebrew word for ‘day’ is ‘yom’. The word ‘Yom’ in some contexts can mean an extended period of time and not a 24 hour period. Psalm 90:4 is a popular verse to illustrate this point. It reads: ‘For a thousand years in Your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.’ That is the ESV. The NIV reads: ‘A thousand years in Your sight are like a day…’ It is truly trippy to try and contemplate God as being above time and space. Transcendent to those things that bind us as people. God is not confined in time like we are and so periods of time can get extremely hazy when we are talking about God being the only One in existence prior to any other life coming forward.

Some of these phrases are common to the remainder of the passage so I thought I would explain them at the outset here so we have the foundation to build upon. Verse 1:6-8 And God said, ‘Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters. And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven, and there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

God creates an expanse between waters. This again communicates an idea that the earth was a watery abyss and on this day, God separates the waters. One of these ‘waters’ is the oceans and seas of our world. The other ‘waters’ reference is declared to be ‘heavens’ by the ESV but can also be translated skies.

The Hebrew word for expanse is ‘raqia’. The expanse separating the skies from the seas of the earth is apparently a part of the sky. Interestingly enough, this word for expanse can be translated ‘firmament’, ‘dome’, and ‘vault’. More than likely, the text is referring to the skies where water/ rain falls from clouds.

Verses 9-13 And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth and the waters that were gathered together He called Seas. And God saw that it was good. And God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.’

On the third day, we have another separation. This time between the lands and the seas. Vegetation and fruit trees come upon the land. Plant life. What is the issue here? We do not have a sun yet. Have you ever heard skeptics point this out?

Verses 14-19 And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens toseparate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so. And God made the two great lights- the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night- and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.’

God creates the sun and the moon on day 4. These lights to help measure seasons, days and years. They give light upon the earth. There is another separation (notice the repetition of language being used throughout the passage and recalls of verses all throughout the stanzas of this passage). This separation is of the sun and the lesser light (the moon) which separates the light from darkness.

Now, the writers of Genesis were not dumb people. They were human beings like you and me. Their brains had the same mass and weighed the same as ours. These ancient Israelites who wrote the Genesis account planted crops and knew about fruit trees. They may not have understood the complexities of photosynthesis but they knew about the connection between vegetation, fruit trees and the sun. Most certainly they did.

So, we have some sort of light on Day 1 and vegetation and fruit trees on day 3. Then we have the sun on day 4, instrumental to life on earth. If these writers knew of this connection (no matter how scientifically limited in that day and age), why would they have vegetation go before the sun ? Not only that, but the moon and stars were created on this day. I’m still going to leave you hanging just a little bit longer but with the way that this is written and the Genesis authors crafting the narrative in the way they did, this is intentional and is driving at the deeper point and meaning. Stay tuned.

Verses 20-23 And God said, ‘Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.’ So God created great sea creatures and every living creature that moves with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’ And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.’

Sea creatures and birds are created on this day and given the charge to reproduce which is in the DNA of every animal.

Verses 1:24-31 And God said, ‘Let the Earth bring forth living creatures according to the kinds- livestock and creeping things and beasts of the Earth according to their kinds.’ And it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own Image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth. And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and morning, the sixth day.’

God creates animals and there is a contrast between domesticated animals and wild animals (livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth). And it was good.

Then God declares ‘Let Us…’ which is probably similar to a royal decree, a plural of majesty from a ruler. Having the New Testament now and being aware that God is a Trinity, many Christians read the ‘us’ as the three persons of the Godhead shaping the creation and forming humanity from the dust.

God makes male and female in His image. The ‘Imago Dei’. The animals were not given this designation. Humanity specifically was. It means that we are God’s representatives on the earth. He charges us (the first command) to take care of the earth (have dominion over the creation). God had just got done shaping and forming the creation. God brought order out of chaos. He creates humanity to further shape creation and bring order out of chaos. Bearing the Image of God is why all people are sacred. They are loved by God- all people, all races, both genders. We may not physically look like God, that is not what this necessarily means, but it does mean we share characteristics with Him. God hears so we have ears. God sees so we have eyes. God has fun so we have fun. God laughs so we laugh. God pursues justice so we can pursue justice. God gets angry so we can get angry without sin. God loves and bestows grace so we can love and bestow grace. All of these characteristics are a part of our lives and are a part of bearing the image of God.

Transition: This is the creation account. The very beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures and the beginning of our Bibles. If this passage was not read as a scientific play-by-play for most of history, what is this passage’s purpose beyond communicating the deep truths of God creating the universe and breathing the breath of life into humanity? To explore this, we should talk a little bit about when Genesis was written, who it was written by and the cultural context that scholars believe the account was written in.

Meaning:

First off, the authorship of Genesis is hard to determine. Traditionally, Moses has been designated as the author of the Torah. This could very well be the case. There is virtual unanimous scholarly consensus that there was a lot of oral tradition passed down by the Israelites and probably some writing as well. A lot or most of this may have had a source in Moses. At some point, ancient Israelites put together these teachings and writings into the Scripture we have today including Genesis 1. There may have been a few editors. By the way, this does not at all change our commitment to the Bible being the inspired Word of God. God worked through all the personalities who wrote the Bible down through history via the Holy Spirit and preserved His Word.

When was the Torah including Genesis compiled and put together? A great number of scholars believe (although this is certainly debatable) that the Torah was put together during the Babylonian exile and post-exile period. Israel, the chosen people of God, were again going through hardship but they longed to remember the relationship they had with the True God, the One who had rescued the from slavery in Egypt.

Now, what does this have to do with Genesis? We are talking about the cultural context that Genesis was first written or the account was compiled together. When the Israelites were in Babylon, they probably had heard different creation accounts. Those creation accounts involved many gods. One of the most famous archeological discoveries related to Old Testament scholarship was done in 1847. They dug up King Ashurbanipal’s library and found 7 tablets. On those tablets was the Enuma Elish. This is a Babylonian account of creation involving the gods Marduk and Tiamat at war.

In this account, Marduk rips Tiamat apart and from the two halves of her body he creates the world. One half of her body is the heavens and the other half is the earth.

Now, the Israelites probably heard that account in the Babylonian captivity and said, ‘No. That is not what happened and those were not the gods involved.’ In the beginning, there was one God- monotheism (virtual unanimous consensus again that the Israelites were the only tribe who believed in one God). And there weren’t wars between gods and violence. There was the. Mighty wind of God shaping and forming creation. There was peace, harmony, it was good and this God- the true God- delighted in His creation.

The Genesis creation account is a polemic against other near eastern religions. It is a beautiful poem but it also is subversive. The text challenges the religions of that time and calls people to worship the true God that is depicted in the creation account. Do you see that when we treat Genesis as a mere scientific play-by-play book, we completely miss the point about why it was written? The point is not science here or stating exactly how God created the world in step-by-step format. It is establishing Elohim as the only God, who alone should be worshipped, and is throwing all the other gods of the age under the bus.

Genesis challenges not only the account of Enuma Elish but other Mesopotamian myths as well.  This is why we see that the sun and moon were created in Day 4 with light and vegetation preceding this day. In ancient times, the religions around Israel worshipped gods based on the sun and moon. The Sumerian god of the sun was Utu. Nanna was the god of the moon. For Egypt, Ra was the God of the sun and Khonsu was the god of the moon.

The writer of Genesis was correcting the record. The author was communicating that the true God’s light (Day 1) was all the creation needed. Subversively, they argued that vegetation and plants came before the sun and moon (on day 3) as if the ancient Israelite author was suggesting that sun gods and moon gods are nothing compared to the true God who sustains everything. The Giver of life who is One and the ultimate power in the universe and in all creation is more powerful than any gods that human beings can create.

We could go on and on with all the ancient civilizations around Israel. They all were polytheistic believing in many gods. The creation myths that these other civilizations come up with are violent and involve war among the gods. Notice the difference of Genesis 1. It was radically different. Gods, war in the pantheons, bodies being ripped apart. In Genesis, Elohim is bringing order out of chaos. His mighty Spirit or wind is shaping and molding creation. There is peace, harmony and joy. There is an intention and a purpose that is glorious.

Israel, always claiming to have a special connection with the true God. One God created the heavens and the earth. He alone is to be worshipped and sought after and He alone is the sustainer of life, of reality.

-To be Continued…

 

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Books Read: My January Reading List

Don’t call this a New Year’s resolution because I do not make those.  However, one of my goals for 2017 is to read at least 24 books (not including children’s books I read to Naomi and Reuben though that would be nice).  I’m planning on keeping a running list month-to-month and doing small (or larger) reviews.  Join in on the 2017 reading train if you would like.  Feel free to make comments below on what you are reading or publish your own blogs and link to your site.

January was overtaken by sermon preparation for my message on Genesis 1 so a lot of books I read were related to that (I only counted books I read all the way through).  Here is what has been rattling around in my mind:

“The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins” by Peter Enns

What is tragic related to contemporary study of Genesis 1 is how most messages on this passage of Scripture are often framed as a creation versus evolution debate.  Science versus Faith.  A lot of people are led to believe they have to choose between two disciplines of knowledge.  Enter Peter Enns who is a very good Old Testament scholar.  His work in “The Evolution of Adam” is to completely free Genesis 1-2 from the creationism and evolutionism debate by exploring what should be a very obvious question:  how did ancient Israelites read Genesis?

This book is very approachable for a lay person.  The paperback is only 148 pages.  Enns summarizes the discussion very well by laying out scholarly consensus with the ability to revolutionize how people read the very beginning of the Bible.  Enns’ argument is that the opening chapter of the Word of God has nothing to do with a scientific play-by-play of creation or even a step-by-step on how God created.  Rather, he argues that Genesis 1 is a polemic against other Ancient Near Eastern religions and their creation accounts.  Where most of those accounts involved many gods (polytheism) and those gods at war, Enns contrasts the Genesis account as being monotheistic and filled with an orderly harmony and joy (God declared things good).

He also delves into the debate about Adam in the second half of the book.  The primary questions he addresses are whether Adam and Eve are actual historical people (DNA evidence suggests that there were not a first two human beings but thousands) or archetypes representing theological truth.  Enns also floats an interesting idea that Adam and Eve may not have been the first two human beings but rather were the first two proto-Israelites.  The notes from this perspective entertain easy explanations for those age-old Sunday School questions like “Where did Cain get his wife?” or “Why would God put a mark on Cain when he cast him out to spare him if there was no one else on the earth yet?” To be sure, both of these ideas have problems and Enns freely admits that in the book as he hashes them out.

Some conservative readers may be uncomfortable with a few of Enns theses and theology.  That being the case, I feel like this is a very important book to read as an introduction into views on Genesis that haven’t been presented as much as “science versus faith” motifs even though scholars have been at this for quite some time.

A quote:  “For many, it is important for the future viability of faith, let alone the evolution-Christianity discussion, that we recognize and embrace the fact that the Bible is a thoroughly enculturated product.  But it is not enough merely to say so and press on, with a quaint nod or an embarrassed shuffling of the feet.  It is important for future generations of Christians to have a view of the Bible where its rootedness in ancient ways of thinking is embraced as a theological positive, not a problem to be overcome.  At present there is a lot of fear about the implications bringing evolution and Christianity together, and this fear needs to be addressed head-on.  Many fear that we are on a slippery slope, to use the hackneyed expression. Perhaps the way forward is not to resist the slide so much as to stop struggling, look around, and realize that we may have been on the wrong hill altogether.”

Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again Through Science by Mike McHargue

Deconstruction is all the rave these days and this very raw, honest book tells the story of how Mike McHargue (“Science Mike” for those who have listened to the “The Liturgists” Podcast”) was a Southern Baptist Christian for most of his life, was challenged by an atheist friend to read Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and eventually found his faith in Jesus being chipped away.  He gruelingly describes in this book reading Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” one evening when he stopped believing in God and felt a tremendous sense of grief.  What would he tell his wife, Jenny?  How would he be viewed at his church where he was heavily involved?  Quickly, he decided to be a closet atheist for 2 years and try to carry on with his life (his wife eventually noticed something really wrong).

The central aspect of Science Mike’s book is a mystical experience he had at the ocean in California.  Attending a Christian retreat via a friend’s recommendation, he was strangely moved to go forward for communion and heard an audible voice stating that God was with him.  He ran from the room and later that evening found himself on the shores of the Pacific Ocean when he had his encounter with what he believed is Jesus.

The second half of the book focuses on Science Mike philosophically working through how to lay a foundation for his faith to be built upon.  He came up with some axioms such as:

-“Faith is at least a way to contextualize the human need for spirituality and to find meaning in the face of mortality.  Even if this is all faith is, spiritual practices can be beneficial to human cognition, emotions and culture.”

-“God is at least the natural forces that created and sustain the universe as experienced via a psychosocial model in human brains that naturally emerges from innate biases.  Even if that is a comprehensive definition of God, the pursuit of this personal, subjective experience can provide meaning, peace, and empathy for others.”

-“Jesus is at least a man so connected to God that He was called the Son of God, and the largest religious movement in human history is centered around His teachings.  Even if this is all Jesus is, following His teachings can promote peace, empathy, and genuine morality.”

There are more axioms for sin, salvation, the afterlife, etc.  Christian orthodox peoples (such as myself) may be taken aback by some of the language in these axioms but remember, Science Mike’s approach here is coming out of atheism and finding very basic, foundational blocks to rebuild a faith upon.  He is not necessarily saying that faith, God and Jesus are totally surmised in his axiom.

A quote to close out the review:  “God.  I keep finding God in the waves- the waves of the Pacific, the waves of gravity, the waves of electromagnetic energy, and the waves that move through our brains.  I find God in the sound waves of ancient hymns, of children laughing, and in the quiet sobbing of those who say under impossible assault, ‘I can’t breathe.'”

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Feel free to comment about the books you have read or write your own blog about your literary adventures.

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