God’s works are as good as we make them.
Yes, the Ancients were right: the Circle is all; All is a Circle. Einstein showed us space always curves. Time curves, too; like any other dimension. As atomic nuclei and their circling particles model galaxies and stars, circles like seasons model how and whether Time began or will end. Telescopes squinting through our temporal arrow slit report yellowed news: those bodies hurtling away happened billions of years ago. They may no longer exist. Or they’ve begun their return to center, for every explosion gives in to gravity. Stars and planets will fall back in and in and create a new black hole. Meanwhile, another black hole will have swallowed so much matter and energy it will burst, and some race ages thence will self-centeredly call it The Big Bang. Incubating whole universes, these “black holes.” Eons of re-Creation we’ll never know. As one universe dies, a new one, and Time, are born again and again and again.
The writer of the first Creation story in the Bible, the newer one that’s placed in the first chapter or so, begins his story before even time began and describes the indescribable with metaphors like The Deep and the Spirit, or Breath, of God. What a story; what awesome images. Worth reading over and over. I especially like the writer’s concepts of Light and Darkness as just ideas at first — the sun, moon, and stars came later — and the separation of water and air with that firmament, dome, or space humping up. He ends with God creating men and women to care for the earth and then taking a day off. That’s the end, but it’s really only the beginning, of course.
And look how all those things happen: “God said, ‘Let there be light;’ God said ‘Let there be a space in the middle of the water;’ God said, ‘Let the earth sprout plants,’” and so on, slowly building from basic and simple to complex, each stage happening thanks to the power of words.
Those must have been some super-special words. God just says them, and a universe comes into being. With the words of this story, and the next one, which seems very different because it’s truly ancient, we can begin to wrap our minds around the miracle of our existence. These words create for us a way to think about ourselves.
So is this story true? Yes. Absolutely. Why argue about that? We may argue only because we don’t start out by agreeing on what we mean by truth.
Would you read Winnie the Pooh to kids if it were all lies? It’s a classic for the same reason anything — a poem like Beowulf, a story like “The Velveteen Rabbit,” a painting like Guernica, music like Händel’s Messiah — the same reason any great work becomes classic: its truth and relevance stand the test of time. Pooh Bear tells more truth than any newspaper, and here’s why.
The truth can hurt. Sometimes it can just about blind you. You can’t face it straight on. It’s just too powerful. That’s what fiction is for. It can tell us the truth with a story, and that story works like a lens and helps us focus our minds on the really important, really big questions of our lives. Great fiction like Winnie the Pooh, or Hamlet, or parts of Genesis, still ring true in a way that an accurate historical account never could.
There, I said it. I called parts of Genesis fiction. Most scholars, as a matter of fact, refer to the early chapters as creation myths. Now don’t let the word myth throw you off. Even though we often misuse it, please remember that a myth is no more a lie than a theory, such as the Theory of Evolution, or the Theory of Gravity, is just a wild idea. The creation myths are true stories because, like The Odyssey and The Iliad, they teach us truth about human nature, good and evil, and why we’re here.
Please also remember that until recently, recently meaning the past three or four centuries, we didn’t even have the concept of accurate, objective history. Whoever wrote history felt perfectly free to add good stuff, toss bad stuff, and make up juicy episodes to make a point and keep you reading.
Take William Shakespeare, for instance. Shakespeare couldn’t write and produce movies 400 years ago, so he put on plays and was very popular. Really. One of his best shows is about a real king from an even earlier time, named Henry V. Did Henry inspire his exhausted, outnumbered soldiers with exactly that great St. Crispin’s Day speech? Of course not. Shakespeare knew how to make an audience pay attention and money. He didn’t care about the precise facts of history.
We like to think we’re better than that now, but we can see obvious reworkings of history today in movies such as JFK, The Road to 9/11, Troy, and Selma.
So even though history may be less than reliable, it exists to tell us who and when. Science tells us how. Maybe fiction really tells us what, but we have religion to tell us why. And the big question the writers of Genesis have in mind is, Why are we here?
They can’t tell us when we appeared, because of course they had no records. They can’t tell us how, really; they just say that God spoke His wish, and it happened. So the writer of Chapter 1 puts down a series of fortunate events that presents the creation of our world like the greatest animated short film ever made. And it can never be made, because the story is so good that the movie in our minds is better than anything on the screen. That’s the power of words.
Words have great power, but they’re like fire, necessary, but dangerous when misused. Most of us can remember some grownup saying to us when we were kids that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” What a crock. You can’t fool kids. When I first heard that, it was a big clue that sometimes, grownups don’t have all the right answers.
Of course, words can hurt. One of our most important growing-up lessons is learning how to use the power of words wisely. Some of us are still learning. Words can also heal. Words can connect us to each other, and to God. We must use them carefully, and try to know what we’re doing.
When we grow up, we learn to weigh words in their context and consider their source, so we can estimate their power. Even in the Bible, we pay attention to some words and ignore others. The Bible condones slavery and has clear and firm laws against wearing blended fabrics, breeding hybrid livestock, shaving, and eating lobster, but we know as educated adults that all those laws had good reasons for them at the time, but those reasons have disappeared with modern knowledge.
The words of the first creation story, though, are still relevant. Maybe they sound fresh because they still make us think. They may vaguely point a way, but they stay focused on why we’re here, not on what to wear, or how much to put into the collection plate. The only explicit tasks the unknown number of people are given are to eat the plant kingdom and rule the animal kingdom. Oh, and fill the earth and master it.
I like to think that the writer liked government by monarchy because his experience with rulers was positive. He did have enough leisure to sit and write beautiful stories. He was apparently lucky enough to live in a system that recognized his genius with sponsorship.
So if he lived and worked under the rule of a good and wise king or high priest, that’s probably what he had in mind when he wrote that God said to rule or master. We are to have dominion like good and wise kings and queens, not greedy ones who waste what has been given them. The inconvenient truth is that we haven’t done so well in our dominion over the earth.
And even without all that inference and reasoning, let’s just look at what the story says: God made everything, from galaxies to gall wasps, so shouldn’t we honor God’s creation?
A vengeful God may not always set the best example for Christians, but in this story, God is purely a creator who enjoyed God’s work. God sets a universal example by seeing good in what God has made. The God of the next creation story shows some differences, but here, God appreciates. At the end of a day’s work, God pronounces it good, very good. It sounds like a proto-prayer of thanks, a model for us to follow.
I like the way this idea gets expanded in The Color Purple. In the book. I recommend it. In a later section of the book, the main character, Celie, is suffering terribly because she can’t possibly live up to the strict, cheerless standards, the Thou Shalt Nots, of her church and judgmental community. Her friend Shug preaches one of my favorite sermons, reassuring her that God is Love, and all God wants is love, love in your life, and love back to God. You make God happy, says Shug, when you just sit back and enjoy someone you love and all the great stuff God made. This is where the title of the book comes from.
So on the seventh day, God sat back and enjoyed, another behavior model to follow. Just to be healthy — emotionally, spiritually, and physically healthy — we simply must take time to relax and appreciate just being alive. Think about it now. Considering all the close calls we’ve lived through, all the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I’s, all the almost-got-me’s, isn’t it a blooming miracle that we’re all here, alive, today? Thanks be to God!
So the author of this creation myth had no intention to present a historical account. He (yes, probably he) meant to offer a meditation on the very nature of being.
It’s almost a poem, with seven majestic stanzas. I believe it was divinely inspired, like all great art, but it’s written as an attempt to make sense of what is beyond our senses. Nobody was there to note what God thought or said; it’s just one of the magnificent guesses the Bible offers about where we came from and why we’re here.
Having two possibilities, this story and what follows in Chapter 2, underlines the unpleasant, grownup fact that we don’t have many neat, tidy answers, and there’s no easy, straightforward path to enlightenment.
This faith we celebrate is but one of those paths up the mountain. One of my favorite images of this concept is a mountain in Sri Lanka, Adam’s Peak, that’s sacred to Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and maybe more. The mountain has at least a half-dozen trails to the summit, where they all meet, because we all agree on God. We may use different names, but it’s the same god. We may have different words in our holy books, but we’re all trying to use human words to describe something beyond us mere mortals. And those words, being ours, aren’t always perfect.
In the words of Karen Armstrong, a religion scholar who’s an idol of mine, “We cannot treat the Bible as a holy encyclopedia where we can look up information about the divine, because we are likely to find contradictory data in the very next chapter.”
In closing, I’ll indulge my ego and share my own creation myth. Don’t worry, it doesn’t conflict with the Bible at all. It’s called
Big Bang Theory
Yes, the Ancients were right: the Circle is all; All is a Circle. Einstein showed us space always curves. Time curves, too; like any other dimension. As atomic nuclei and their circling particles model galaxies and stars, circles, like seasons, model how, and whether, Time began, or will end. Telescopes, squinting through our temporal arrow slit, report yellowed news: those bodies hurtling away happened billions of years ago. They may no longer exist. Or they’ve begun their return to center, for every explosion gives in to gravity. Stars and planets will fall back in and in and create a new black hole. Meanwhile, another black hole will have swallowed so much matter and energy it will burst, and some race ages thence will self-centeredly call it The Big Bang. Incubating whole universes, these “black holes.” Eons of re-Creation we’ll never know. As one universe dies, a new one, and Time, are born again and again and again.
Copyright ©2015 James L. Evans