Primeval – Stories from the beginning

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Prompted by the soon released film Noah, Echo High School just finished a 4 week conversation on the first 11 chapters of the book of Genesis, a section often referred to as the “primeval prologue.” The book of Genesis is well named. Genesis means “origin,” and it is a book about beginnings. It addresses questions about the origins of the universe, life, human culture, evil, pain, and suffering. This section of scripture is a lightning rod for interpretive differences and passionate debate, and I think all the attention might serve to confuse the intended message instead of clarifying it.

The powerful message of Genesis’ early chapters is often obscured by modern debates regarding issues the text does not address and questions the text cannot answer. It is common today to debate what the book has to say about the origin of matter in terms of science, cosmology, evolutionary biology, and so on. People try to make the primeval prologue of Genesis into an alternative theory of origins, and the debate about whether or not to take Genesis literally or whether evolution or creation is behind the complexity and uniqueness of human beings.

We might be guilty here of reading modern questions into an ancient context, and in doing so missing the point. One of the keys to interpreting scripture is to allow the Bible to say what it wants to say, not what we wish it said. We have to avoid the temptation to let questions the Bible cannot answer distract us from the questions it is answering. Genesis is not a book about biology or cosmology. It is a book about theology. The tragic reality for many people is that they will miss the theology of Genesis because they are forcing on the text their questions about origin of species and creation vs. evolution. We can’t afford to miss the point, because the point is too important to miss!

Genesis IS NOT – a science book or a history book in the modern sense. Forcing modern questions and modern categories on this ancient narrative is futile and might actually lead to missing the point. It cannot answer questions that were not being asked (or even imagined) by its original audience.

Genesis IS – a story, or a collection of stories. It is sometimes poetic, sometimes narrative, and sometimes parabolic. Genesis certainly communicates to its ancient audience in the language and style of other such stories from the ancient world, yet it is unique. I think the question of whether or not Genesis is “literal” is the wrong question. The question is whether or not Genesis is true, and that answer is yes. It is beautifully and wonderfully TRUE, in that it is jam-packed full of TRUTH. Yet it does not need to be literal to be true.

I think we obsess in excess over the issue of literal vs. symbolic, as if truth can only be communicated in objective, modern, non-fiction styles. I think the idea of anything being truly “objective” even in the modern world is also silly. Even documentaries and modern journalism betray their bias. This attitude also underestimates how narrative was used to communicate value and truth in the ancient world. God seems to be more concerned with the heart than with the head, and stories and songs are the language of the heart and so they make up much of the language of scripture. Scripture actually gives us an example about how story can communicate truth without being literal. Look at the parable Nathan employs when he confronts King David about his sin with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 12:1-7.

The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, 3 but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

4 “Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

5 David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! 6 He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

7 Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!…”

What we have here is a story designed to communicate truth best received by the heart and not the head. Nathan has the unenviable task of confronting and correcting a king that though himself above the law. He doesn’t do this with direct, didactic communication style. Instead, he uses the power of story to communicate the truth of David’s sin in a powerful and disarming way. Is Nathan’s parable TRUE? Yes! It might not be literal, but it is true. The rich man is David, the sheep is Bathsheba, the poor man that was wronged and abused is Uriah. In this case, we have both the parabolic story and the more “historical” story of David’s sin against Bathsheba detailed in the preceding chapters. How would we make sense of the story if we only had the parabole form? Would we be debating what color the fleece of the lamb was, or what town the man was from, or who the guest was that required the meal? All these questions are irrelevant to the point of Nathan’s parable.

For people that cannot wrap their head around the magic fruit and the talking snake and the flaming swords of Genesis’ primeval prologue, at least don’t miss the point of these stories because the details distract you. The fantastic and mythic quality of the stories fits well with the other such stories circulating at the time these were originally told. The question remains: does the primeval prologue of Genesis belong to the genre of parable or theological story or should it be read more literally? I tend to lean toward the side of “parabolic” history for several reasons. The narrative itself seems to suggest it with poetic structures and symbolic names. Adam means something like “humanity.” Eve means something like “mother of all.” The trees seem like symbols. There are parallelisms and chiasmus and other forms of poetic structures throughout the narrative.

Whether you read them literally or not, the theological point doesn’t change. These stories were first told to answer the question: “Why are things the way they are?” Why are we filled with spiritual curiosity? Why do we look into the mysteries of the universe and wonder? Why do we long to be more than we are? Why do we crave to be connected to God? Why have we been cast out of Eden? These questions need to be answered whether you view these stories literally or not. Whether or not they are literal is actually not the most important issue. The most important issue is the theology of these stories, what do they teach us about the nature of humanity and our relation to God? How would the ancient audience have understood these stories? What story does the Primeval Prologue of Genesis tell? It tells a story of something beautifully made and tragically marred. A story of paradise created and paradise lost.

When the movie Noah comes out, maybe you should watch it with your teen and have a lively discussion on parable, truth, history, and ultimate origins.

Twilight Part 2 – Bella’s Secret

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As an ongoing exercise in cultural redemption, we have been looking at the Twilight phenomenon. These love stories have taken teenage girls by storm…much to the puzzlement of many teenage guys. It is a typical story of girl meets boy, (who seems to be the only one that understands her) falls in love, and much emotional drama ensues. The twist is: the boy is a vampire. Their relationship is complicated by his “thirst” for her blood, which serves as a bit of a metaphor and the source of erotic tension. These characters endure an ever present, mutual desire that culminates with Bella – on prom night – offering her jugular to Edward so that his bite might turn her into a vampire…Hmm….sound at all familiar?

Let’s look at this story from the perspective of a teenage girl, who sees the unfolding drama through Bella’s eyes. Bella has her dreams come true in storybook fashion. She is described as a very plain, ordinary young lady, yet she manages to capture the heart of a very extraordinary guy (two extraordinary guys if you read the whole series). Edward is a vampire, and that gives him some supernatural charm or power over women. He seems to be able to attract people. He is also in possession of the ability to read the minds of the people around him. The book portrays him as some sort of Super Romeo; the perfect balance of good looks and intrigue. He has his pick of the girls, but he only chooses one. Not insignificantly, this girl is the one whose mind he cannot read. She is the one least available to him. The questions racing through the minds of teenage girls are along the lines of: “how can this happen to me?” What is it that makes some people stand out and others seem rather ordinary? How do I get the attention of Prince Charming? What is it that makes a woman captivating?

This is a huge question that our teenage girls struggle to answer, and their culture is short on quality answers. Am I attractive? Am I enough? Am I captivating? Will a guy ever bother to pursue me and fight for me?

Our girls are growing up in a twisted world. I heard one story (it made national news) of a young woman auctioning her virginity. She is “putting it out there.” That seems to be the model in culture right now. I am not saying that many women are so blatantly “for sale,” but I am saying that many women “have it in the showroom,” so to speak. Modesty is a lost art. I don’t think that girls understand what really captures a man’s heart. Many seem to understand what captures a man’s eye – that is easy. You don’t want his eye – you want his heart. His eye is the most fickle and fleeting part of him. You want a man to give his life to chase you and delight in you and cherish you forever. You want a man that can appreciate the beauty of who you are long after time has its way with your physical body. When it comes to finding a mate, the question our teenagers should be asking is: how do you get the attention of his heart?

Beauty is another reality distorted in the teenage mind by our culture. Let me give you an example: a very pretty 15 year old comes to me and her youth leader because she is struggling with bulimia. This might sound shocking, but when you stop and think that the average model is 5’10” and weighs 110 lbs, but the average woman is 5’4” and weighs 150 lbs, it’s easy to see why this creates a tremendous health risk for young girls. Advertisers are hiring psychologists to help them exploit teenagers’ insecurities to sell more products. Last year, girls saw more advertisements for diet products than adults. I just read an article about students having anxiety attacks about acne on prom. I thought zits were a part of the teenage deal! This distorted ideal makes this world a very hard place to be girl. I am finding more and more girls that never feel like they are enough. “I am not pretty enough, I am not skinny enough, my hair is not thick enough, my skin is not smooth enough, some things are never big enough, and other things are never small enough.” As our teenagers are struggling to figure this out, we need to help them discover the biblical ideal of inner beauty. They need help so they don’t let beauty become something as superficial as their appearance; what they weigh, what they wear, and so on. Let your beauty be found within. When they settle this issue in their hearts, they will finally find “enough.”

These are just symptoms of the real problem. Ultimately, Bella decides what many girls decide: that life without Edward is not really worth living. She is only complete when she is with him. The heart of every woman is seeking the answers to specific questions: am I loved, am I valuable, am I captivating, am I wanted and needed? No guy can be the answer to these questions. Our girls have a hunger in their souls for a significance “he” (whoever he may be) cannot give them. I have met too many girls that are incomplete without a boy on their arm. The truth is: having that boy makes them no more complete. When we can find the answers to the questions of our hearts in the presence of God, we will have found the source of true strength. The most beautiful and strong kind of girl is the one that is confident in her identity in Christ. She respects herself, and so others will respect and value her too.

Twilight – Summer Cinema Series

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This Sunday, in the Main Service at DCC, I will tackle the movie/book Twilight as a cultural parable. We did an entire series on the book a few months back for Echo High School, and we had some great conversations with our students about desire, temptation, appetites, and sexuality. As I prepare to talk to DCC’s adult population, I have never had so much “input” from people that want to make sure I handle the message “correctly.” This is not from teenagers, this is from adults. People LOVE their vampires it seems.

My thoughts for the parents of Echo students on this book, movie, and cultural phenomenon are as follows:
First, let me comment on the church and cultural engagement. Years ago, when the craze was a boy named Harry who happened to be a wizard, our youth ministry did a sermon series talking out redemptive themes and looking critically at the worldview behind the “Potterverse.” The fact that a youth ministry was talking about these issues severely disturbed a pastor of a neighboring church. He called me to warn me about the dangers of witchcraft and the sinister nature of Harry Potter and to tell me about the plan of the author to turn our children into warlocks. When I respectfully disagreed, he called the officials of the denomination I was credentialed with (who told him to mind his own business). The facts as I saw them then were: 1.The kind of fantasy magic in books like Harry Potter resembles the real witchcraft that the bible forbids like W.W.E. resembles real hand-to-hand combat. It is imaginary. The imagination is something that honors God and should be set free and employed to the purpose of the Kingdom of God. 2. The church is at its best when it can hear the stories and songs of the culture it finds itself in and redeem them. Hiding from culture or ignoring culture are two fast ways to minimize the influence God has called His people to have. 3. The apostle Paul, when preaching to a crowd of pagans and philosophers in Athens, did not quote scripture. Instead, he quoted the words of one of their own poets. He used the art and expression of the receptor culture to find common ground for spiritual conversation. 4. Not one of the students that sat through our sermon series on Harry Potter became a warlock. No spells were cast and no brooms were ridden. My point is that the crowd that says “Vampires are evil because blood drinking is forbidden in the Old Testament” needs to be reminded that no one reading a novel about a girl falling in love with a vampire believes such vampires actually exist.

Second, let me tell you why I do think the Twilight books are somewhat dangerous. Many students (and children) are reading these books like they consume most media: in a vacuum. They watch TV alone because mom and dad don’t want to watch what they want to watch. They listen to music with little white earbuds because mom and dad don’t want to listen to that “noise.” My experience has been that teens and children are great observers but horrible interpreters. They don’t miss the subtleties of emotion or even innuendo that we assume goes over their heads. They have no idea what to do with the information or emotion they observe. When mom is reading Twilight with them, she can be so engrossed in the romance herself that she does not view the book through the eyes of her teenage daughter. I heard of a facebook club started by one woman calling women to join whose “husbands no longer met their expectations after Edward.” Song of Solomon, which is a Hebrew love poem, says 4 different times: “Do not awaken love before its time.” The bible is not down on sexuality, it celebrates it. It does however warn young people about starting a fire they cannot control. Twilight is a highly erotic book for the teenage mind. Yes, the characters remain celibate and their romance seems outwardly and physically appropriate. Yet there is much erotic tension in the wanting. Bella does not want to live without Edward, Edward hungers and thirsts for Bella. This is a heavy amount of passion for a 6th grader. They might not be able to connect the dots about how Bella offering up her neck to Edward on Prom night to make her a vampire is more than a bit allegorical about her virginity…but they do feel the impact of all the fantasy, desire, and longing that are exchanged between the teenage characters. There is a time and a place to celebrate that kind of intimacy, but it is not in the teen years. Our young teens do not always know how to process the introduction of this kind of emotion. Would you think it was appropriate for a father to give a 6th grade boy a Victoria’s Secret catalog? We all know how visually stimulated teenage boys are, so this type of thing rarely happens. I am not so sure we are as diligent about protecting our girls who are equally as stimulated emotionally. Again, I am not saying that Twilight is evil, but I am saying that parents should be aware of the heavy emotional and sexual themes in the story and prepare their teens accordingly.

Third, I believe strongly that more than anything else, parents shape the values and worldview of teens. If you haven’t yet, have some good conversations with your teen about sexuality. We know its awkward…we know they act like they don’t want to talk to you about it. I really believe it is all an act – they secretly want and need your guidance and advice on this stuff. Talk to them often and talk to them openly. Twilight gives you a great excuse!

I will blog about a few talk points for you and your teen over the next few days taken directly from our sermon series to Echo High School.