In the most recent issue of Christianity Today (June 2011), the magazine’s cover and feature article sports a rendition of Genesis’ Adam as a Cro-Magnon man (and if you think that’s scary, you should see Eve). The article’s title reads “The Search for the Historical Adam,” and its subtitle promises readers a generalized “state of the debate” in light of ongoing genetic research into the human genome and its unmistakeable parallels and connectivity with less advanced creatures (think of mice and apes -not men-). This is certainly a hot topic for some Evangelical circles, especially those of more conservative spheres, and while Christianity Today serves up its usual, surface-level approach to far weightier issues, its editors do a sloppy job of keeping the lid on their own biases in the debate. What I mean is that they do not merely offer their readers a dispassionate “state of the debate,” but rather take sides and let a skewed perspective have the last word.
There are three instances in the article that betray the magazine’s bias. In its next to last paragraph, pastor Richard Philips of South Carolina goes unchallenged with his statement, “The [interpretive frameworks] behind theistic evolution are a Trojan horse that, once inside our gates, must cause the entire fortress of Christian belief to fall.” In the same paragraph he also asks, “Can the Bible’s theology be true if the historical events on which the theology is based are false?” Then the entire piece ends with another voice offering that this issue “could produce a huge split right through the heart of conservative, orthodox, historic Christianity.” The message that Christianity Today not-so-subtly proclaims is that an ahistorical, non-literal appreciation of Adam means that proponents of the idea are not only militant traitors to the faith and have thrown out the entire Bible, but they also have potentially divided the Body of Christ right through the heart.
Excuse me, but gag. I object to the branding of those who ask legitimate questions as traitors. If anything is cult-like, it is the forbidding of honest questions and the vilification of those who ask them. That pastor Philips uses this tactic is indicative of his fear, and if I may speculate, I’d say it’s probably fear for the long-term sustainability of his own position. That he uses a liberal application of military analogies to describe his Christian faith is further evidence of this. The faith “fortress” metaphor is not only repugnant but indicative of a larger problem, namely, that some see Christianity (or at least their version of it) as some sort of brick and mortar, static object that must be defended from the hostile masses as well as dissenting Christians. This is a mistake, for Christ is anything but a static, impersonal object, and he certainly does not need our help in defending his survival. Furthermore, we must retire the use of military and war analogies when it comes to interpretive frameworks for the biblical text. Given the “love your enemies” aspect of Christ’s teachings and the heads that have rolled using so-called “just” or “holy” war rhetoric as a pretext for violent oppression should give us all pause before we use such verbal judo.
Secondly, Philips makes a subtle and underhanded move when he asks the polarizing question, “Can the Bible’s theology be true if the historical events on which the theology is based are false?” The problem here is that he has confused his interpretation of the Bible with the Bible itself. The theological connection between them can be the same, but they can also be different. Even if we believe in a “perfect” Bible, there is simply no guaranty that our understanding of it is perfected. The question he should have asked is: “Can some of my preferred literal interpretations be true if the historical events on which they are based are neither literal nor historical?” I suggest that the answer might well be “no,” but this doesn’t require apostasy or rejection of the Bible, but rather that he adjust his theology in light of the evidence. This can be painful, but is it more painful than the alternatives in the long-run?
As for me, it does not stretch the imagination too much to allow for science to actually help us gain better insight into the biblical text and the world in general. Instead of seeing science and biblical revelation as adversaries, why not see them as dual threads of inspired “texts” to teach us about God and his creation? This is middle ground that both atheists and Christian literalists would prefer that we keep unexplored (more on that in just a minute).
Thirdly, just as we need not be so quick to draw lines and label others as traitors to the faith, we also need not blow things completely out of proportion nor use peripheral issues as a leverage point to “split right through the heart of [Christianity].” I recognize that over the past few hundred years we in the evangelical crowd have proved to be more concerned with being right than with being unified, but at its most basic level, discussion about the historical Adam is an in-house conversation among people who love Christ and want to serve him. Could we ever be so brave as to allow our Christian sisters and brothers to disagree with us on the issue of Adam’s historicity and still worship with the same congregation and share fellowship and life together? As I understand it, the historicity of Adam and Eve (or lack of historicity) has never been a core piece of what it means to follow Christ or to be covered by his love and grace. The precise age of the earth or exactly how God went about creating creatures in his image are also issues that I would consider unworthy of dividing over. At the end of the day, and regardless of how we interpret the Bible passages that address them, none of the respective positions change or overturn the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Maybe that should tell us something.
While I cannot pretend to be a casual observer on the issue, I freely admit that I do not know if the Adam and Eve we find in the early chapters of Genesis were actually historical figures or not. That being said, I tend to think that interpreters err when they force the first 11 chapters of the book to be too literal at the expense of equally biblical and plausible alternate options. Similarly, I believe that Christians must move forward in their faith with eyes wide open and the humility to have their beliefs stretched and adapted as knowledge and experience increases. Show me a Christian with their eyes shut and fingers jammed in their ears or one whose understanding is purposefully static, and I’ll show you an immature and/or fearful faith.
Finally, what generates even more hesitancy for me regarding a literal or rigidly historical accounting of these early chapters in Genesis is that both devout Christian fundamentalists and their equally dogmatic and caustic atheist counterparts are committed to the same conclusions about the Bible. In my personal experience with atheists, they need their Christian challengers to have a rigid and literal approach to Genesis 1-11 (and indeed the entirety of the Bible) because it makes for an easy mark. There is so much hard evidence against these dogmatic literal/ historical interpretations that holding to them in the face of such evidence makes for a happy field-day of mockery for vocal, no-class atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens et al.
Even more tellingly, I have found that when possible alternative interpretive frameworks are suggested, both Christian fundamentalists and atheists engage in acerbic diatribes intended to push questioners back into either the allegedly “true” faith or the already-sighted target zone (one and the same in this case). I have personally found that many atheists don’t know what to do with us Christians when we don’t make for easy literalist targets other than to try and tell us that our fellow Christians would consider us heretics. Sadly, sometimes they are proved right on this front, but at present I at least have the luxury of not caring what label others would try and brand me with. Nevertheless, the deeper question is this: If the overwhelming scientific data is in favor of an ahistorical Adam (or old earth and creation via macro-evolution for that matter), then what advantage is there for Christians to clutch to an outmoded interpretive framework that merely denies this data, especially when equally viable, biblical options are available that allow not just for the reconciliation of science and Christianity, but for their cooperation in the pursuit of understanding our place and purpose in the cosmos? I still don’t have a good answer to that question.
But back to Christianity Today. Despite its thinly veiled biases (see also the editorial “No Adam, No Eve, No Gospel” on page 61), the story on the Search for the Historical Adam did a fair job of presenting the Christian case for not being tied to a literal, historical conception of Adam and Eve as the first /only humans ever created. Indeed, given the evidence (both scientific and textual), multiple alternatives are allowed which do not undercut the legitimacy of the Adam and Eve narratives or the theology tied to them. As author and pastor Rob Bell has said, “The tragedy of [the sin in] the Garden of Eden is not so much that it happened, but that it happens.” Regardless of which side we come down on concerning the historical Adam, I have never met a Christian who didn’t believe that God created humanity or that humans have not gone wrong in catastrophic ways. As Adam allegedly chose, we all continue to choose, and in that sense Adam and Eve are very real proxies for the rest of us and the general human condition. There is no denying this.
Thank you for reading me.