Genesis 1 as a Model for Cultural Engagement
The debate about what to do with Genesis 1 is divisive. Many prominent Young Earth Creationists stake the entire truth value of the Gospel on whether or not the passage is describing a literal history, while those who identify as theistic evolutionists can be accused of playing “fast and loose” with the text. No matter what position one takes, understanding the background of this text is a pre-requisite to understanding its message.
When Genesis 1 is allowed to speak for itself, instead of having an anachronistic scientific debate foisted upon it, it can present a model for cultural engagement which still has applicability for Christians today.
The reactions of Christians to our increasingly secularized culture have gravitated towards two extremes. First is a form of isolationism, which does not effectively grapple with the larger culture. This includes things like the creation of Christian subculture in art, music, movies, etc. The risk of this response is a kind of evangelical impotence. Christianity is reduced to niche marketing with no real culture-changing force. The second reaction is capitulation to the dominant society. Many might interpret the kind of compromises made by the mainline denominations on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, etc. as a result of pressure brought on by secularization as a modern kind of syncretism. These compromises are ultimately ineffective because they become products of the larger social milieu rather than allowing the Christian faith to shape culture. Fortunately, Scripture is replete with examples of healthy cultural engagement that can be corrective to both of these errant views and one of the most cogent instances can be found in Genesis 1. This passage demonstrates a via media, a middle way, between the two extremes of isolationism and syncretism.
Genesis 1 wasn’t written in a vacuum. In fact, the creation poem finds many points of contact with pagan creation stories. Take the Babylonian story Enuma Elish, which also depicts the creation of the world. It tells of the god Marduk who creates the world from darkness by defeating the chaos goddess Tiamat, who parallels with the “deep” in Gen 1:2. Marduk uses the body of Tiamat as a wall to keep the waters in the sky where they belong while God fashions a dome with an identical function in Gen 1:6-8. Plus, the days of creation are similar in both accounts. In the end of Enuma Elish, a temple for Marduk is built. While not a formal temple, the language about Eden indicates it was a prefiguration of the Temple in Jerusalem. (for more information about these connections, see John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009).
But why would the authors of Holy Scripture make use of pagan stories to convey truths about God?
Many Christians have sought to answer this question. Tertullian is often quoted (admittedly out-of-context) as disparagingly asking, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Christian thinkers like Peter Leithart answer the question by stating, quite dramatically, that “the basic biblical paradigm for dealing with idolatrous religions, their ideas, literature, and practices is unrelenting, total, holy war.”
To some degree, he is right. Traditional Christianity makes totalizing truth claims and, as a result, leaves no room for paganism or syncretism. However, the issue is more nuanced than simply holy war.
Judges 6 may help us understand the answer to this question a little better. In this chapter, the Lord appears to Gideon and tasks him with the job of destroying the pagan altars. Here is what Gideon is commanded to do (Judg 6:26-27, NRSV): “Take your father’s bull, the second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal that belongs to your father, and cut down the sacred pole that is beside it; and build an altar to the Lord your God on the top of the stronghold here, in proper order; then take the second bull and offer it as a burnt offering with the wood of the sacred pole that you shall cut down” (emphasis mine). God commands Gideon to construct an altar using the remains of the cultic site for pagan worship. Out of the materials of such a broken worldview, an altar to God is built, signaling his superiority and victory. In a manner similar to Augustine’s view of precious minerals from Egypt, Gideon first has to deconstruct. Then, he has to construct something new, thus teaching truth about God.
In a sense, this is what occurs in Genesis 1. The pagan nations Israel would have been in contact with worshipped the created world. Babylonians, for instance, believed the stars were gods. This is what makes Genesis 1:16b so devastating: “God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.” The stars are added almost as an afterthought. Not only that, but Israel’s God is the one responsible for the creation of the stars to begin with! The pagans placed their gods within the created order while the Israelites saw their God as transcendent, standing outside the created order.
Thoughtful Christianity, as Dr. David Dockery from Trinity International University calls it, recognizes the unity of all Truth in Christ, the Logos. Because of this foundational conviction, Christians should be able to identify where secular cultures have stumbled into truth and explain how it connects back to God. This is what St. Augustine described as “faith seeking understanding.”
Indeed, this is exactly what Paul does in Acts 17 when he goes to Athens. Of course he was against pagan worship and idolatry (see Romans 1), but when he’s actually engaging with the pagan culture, he builds bridges using their own vocabulary. He compliments their religiosity, uses their altar to an unknown god, and recites pagan poetry to proclaim the Gospel of Christ.
Paul’s strategy is remarkably similar to what Genesis 1 accomplishes. The pagans were fascinated with the created world and saw divinity within it. Israel, on the other hand, had a proper theology of creation and were able to utilize aspects of the pagan narrative to provide a persuasive polemic to explain the superiority of their God.
To engage with the world, those of us who identify as Christians need to discover first where the larger society has stumbled onto truth. Then we must engage from our robust theological tradition and follow the examples of Genesis 1 and Gideon. This involves two steps. First, we need to deconstruct the secular perspective but then we have to construct something out of it. Our role is to take the narratives of the world and demonstrate God’s truth by repurposing them.