Reading Genesis in the 21st Century: Interview with Jon Parker (@OneAnglican)

NOTE from Andy: As theological consultant here at BigBible, I will be working with other digidisciples to ask scholars, clergy, and laypersons about their theological understandings of various topics appearing on the blog. In this three-part interview, I ask Jon Parker about some of the sticky issues in reading Genesis today. Jon (@OneAnglican) is finishing up his PhD in Old Testament at Durham after over a decade of experience in the trenches of student ministry.


BigBible: Thanks, Jon, for joining in on the conversation on Genesis! As a Christian and an academic studying the Old Testament, do you find yourself tugged between two different worldviews, that of the church and the academy?

 Jon: Yes, absolutely. There are multiple places in Old Testament studies where the tension between Christian faith and the academy feel like they play out in particularly hard way.  In Genesis, questions of (1) the single-authorship of Moses (vs. a more composite nature to the text), (2) the relationship between biblical literary genre (like ‘myth’ or ‘saga’) and history and science, and (3) the New Testament’s use of the Old (e.g. James on Gen 22 as evidence of ‘faith and works’ or Paul’s use of Gen 12 and 17 in Rom 4) rise to the fore rather quickly.  So academic study often presses the scholar to take one side of these in ways which feel counter to the views of the people in the pews.  Knowing when to bring the pew to the classroom or the classroom to the pew is a live question, not to mention what all of it means for my own personal faith in Christ.  Ultimately, the ‘worldview’ I want to have is that of the text, and since that is the ostensive goal of academic study as well as the revealed word of God, then I should be able to find the balanced truth that way.

BigBibleReligious groups have this bizarre practice of reading ancient texts in the contemporary world. As Christians, we believe that old tales, songs, poems, laws and genealogies from the alien sands of the ancient Near East have something to say to us in the 21st century. Can God really speak to us today through old books like Genesis? If God is not time-bound, but Genesis was written within a certain time frame, how can such a text still be valid today?
Jon: I think the basic question here is about the nature of knowledge.  So, it’s not so bizarre that knowledge comes to us from the past.  For example, we wouldn’t know to plant non-shattering seed heads into ploughed soil in order to produce a crop if someone in the past hadn’t tried it first. In agricultural science, we have asked further questions about how these seeds work and done more with them.  We’ve discovered which processes of crop-production are outmoded and which ones work better now.  With religion, modern people tend to assume that ancient conceptions of God are now just outmoded, that we need more modern conceptions now. To them, reading the Bible might seem like reading an ancient farming manual, maybe historically interesting but not much use.
BigBible: So how valid is the claim of the church that these texts speak to us today?
Jon: The key question for me has been, ‘Did these ancient writers receive revelation about God which is still true of God, humanity, and the world today? Are there truths about God, humanity and the world, which are particularly reflected in the Bible, which deserve reverence and adherence today?’  The answer for most of human history from a strong segment of the population is ‘yes’.  The Bible was not only ‘affirmed’ in the ancient near east, it has been ‘re-affirmed’ in Greco-Roman, medieval, far eastern, African, Latin American, and both modern and post-modern contexts.  For me, what is in the Bible is not just the result of human experimentation, it is, in fact, from God and deeply correct in its depiction of reality.  In theology, I can ask different questions about the text (because I know different things about my world than they did), but reflected in their time-bound sphere, something revelatory is there, not just about God, but about all existence.

[NOTE: My interview with Jon will continue with questions about reading Genesis to our kids in a scientific age and reading Genesis in light of Christ. If you want to get to get to know Jon a bit better, he says “I try to blog here, but between 4 kids, a wife, and a PhD, my posts are like the word of the Lord before the days of Samuel: Rare.”]

About AndyByers

I serve as the Chaplain for St Mary's College at Durham University while working on a PhD in the Department of Theology. CODEC has also taken me on to work as a theological consultant of sorts for the BigBible blog. My first book is about cynicism toward the church and disillusionment with God—'Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint' (IVP Likewise, 2011). My latest is ‘TheoMedia: The Media of God in the Digital Age’ (Cascade Books, 2013).