PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
June 7, 2005

In the Beginning...

by Jim Newsom

The Bible was never intended to be used as a scientific text, so it is ironic that in the year 2005 in the most educated country the world has ever known, there is once again a well-orchestrated movement to make science out of Biblical writings.

It’s been eighty years since the famous “Scopes monkey trial” in Dayton, Tennessee, in July, 1925, in which science teacher John Scopes was prosecuted for violating a new state law that made it unlawful "to teach any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught by the Bible and to teach instead that man was descended from a lower order of animals."

Similar laws had been introduced in fourteen other states as a wave of fundamentalism and intolerance swept across the country in reaction to the new modernism, jazz age mores and burst of intellectual creativity of the “roaring twenties.” Oklahoma and Florida preceded Tennessee in the legislative attack by passing laws in 1923.

During the Scopes trial, defense lawyer Clarence Darrow called the lead attorney for the prosecution, William Jennings Bryan, to the stand as an expert witness on the Bible. As Darrow pressed Bryan on his literalist beliefs, Bryan, who began his testimony by stating that "everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there," ultimately conceded that the scriptures couldn’t always be taken literally. He acknowledged of the Bible’s six “days” of creation that “my impression is that they were periods.”

When I was about six years old, I was living in Tennessee myself, and I recall the day I asked my father about the Bible’s creation story as I understood it at that age. My dad was a young Episcopal priest, just a couple of years out of divinity school at Yale University, so it’s safe to assume he had a pretty good working knowledge of things Biblical.

His response has carried me through the rest of my life with no anxiety over reconciling religion with knowledge. He told me that God’s days were not necessarily the same as human days, that one of God’s days might actually be thousands of years in our way of measuring time.

He also noted that the books of the Bible had been written or assembled by people who did not possess the scientific knowledge or wherewithal that we had subsequently acquired and accumulated through the centuries, that the stories in Genesis were their way of explaining things that they didn’t understand in ways that they could understand. He pointed out that we shouldn’t try to place limits on God based on our own limited pool of information. God, he said, is much bigger than that.

I don’t remember much debate about “creation vs. evolution” during my school days in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. Only two more states, Mississippi and Arkansas, passed anti-evolution statutes in the wake of the Scopes case and the others that had been pending at the time quietly went away. The period of my schooling was a more enlightened time in which intellectual development and scientific curiosity were encouraged---it was the era of our space race (and weapons race) with the Russians. But, interestingly, it wasn’t until 1968, when the Supreme Court struck down Arkansas’ 40-year old law in the case of Epperson v. Arkansas, that states were actually prohibited from banning the teaching of evolution. By then it was a fairly moot point.

Since the beginning of the Reagan era and the accompanying rise to prominence of the religious right, however, fundamentalists have become emboldened again, shifting their tactics from attempting to get the theory of evolution out of the classroom altogether to demanding equal time for Genesis by coming up with pseudo-scientific names like “Creationism” and “Intelligent Design,” and pressuring local school boards and state legislatures to mandate their inclusion in the academic curricula of public schools.

My first question for those who wish to include the Biblical story of creation in the science curriculum is, “Which creation story?” There are two distinct creation stories told in the first three chapters of Genesis, and elements of each are blended together in many people’s minds to create the pop culture version. In fact, the two are quite contradictory.

The first story is actually the more recent of the two, and dates, scholars believe, back to about 500-700 B.C. This is the one in which God takes six days to do his work, resting on the seventh. In the third verse, God says, “Let there be light,” and there is. On the second day, He separates the waters of heaven from the waters of earth; on the third day, dry land appears on the earth and He brings forth vegetation, plants and trees. On day four, God sets lights in the firmament of the heavens, the sun, the moon and the stars. On day five, God creates the “great sea monsters” and the winged birds. It’s not until the sixth day that the living creatures of the land appear, the cattle and animals first, then man and woman. He creates the male and female humans concurrently, and gives them dominion over every living thing. This story ends in the first half of Genesis 2:4.

In the middle of the fourth verse of the second chapter of Genesis, there is another beginning. This time, it is man who is created first, from the dust of the ground, and he comes to life when God breathes the “breath of life” into his nostrils. God then creates the Garden of Eden, and places the man there. When God decides that the man needs a helper, He forms the beasts and birds from the ground and lets the man name them all. But, something is still missing, so God causes the man to fall asleep and takes out one of his ribs to create a woman. The third chapter then relates the story of the serpent, the tree, the banishment from Eden. This account dates back to approximately 1,000 B.C.

The numerous contradictions in these two stories at the very beginning of the Bible should be a warning to anyone who feels a need to take every word of scripture literally. Was the earth covered with water in the beginning as in chapter 1, or was it dry and barren as in chapter 2? Were man and woman created simultaneously as the last act of creation, or was man the first creature, and woman later formed from the man? Could they eat from every tree without restriction as in the first story, or was there an exception as in the second?

Perhaps most perplexing, how powerful is God? In the first story, God is so powerful that he can create everything by command. In the second story, God walks in the garden and cannot even find the man and woman when they hide after eating the forbidden fruit.

Fortunately, if you understand, as I did when I was six years old, that the Bible need not be taken word-for-word to contain truths and guidance for living, you do not have to be burdened with resolving these man-made dilemmas, and can instead focus on the more important lessons and larger picture contained therein. As my daddy told me 45 years ago, we cannot contain God within our own limited understanding. Science and religion serve two different purposes, but they need not be incompatible.

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