The Creation as Story and History
Improbably, our exegesis has reclaimed the literal six-day interval of the Creation. It’s the interval during which, for the first time, raw existence became meaningful. Elohim embedded the world in reality; the witness embedded the creation in narrative; the witness’ audience embedded the narrative in community. The English word “story” is a truncation of “history”; in French the word histoire means both history and story. The etymological root is the Greek word histor, meaning “witness.” In Genesis 1 the witness tells the story of the beginning of human history.
In Genesis 1 we see elohim putting himself in time, making things happen, numbering the days. Making history. The Genesis narrative casts no rueful glance over its shoulder toward a lost eternity past. The story begins at the beginning and, day by day, it moves forward. Without the forward movement of time there can be no creation, because creation makes things different from the way they were before. The ongoing challenge of solving problems and attaining goals eventually comes to dominate the creative endeavors of man-in-time. But elohim has no problems; elohim has no goals: he starts up history just to make something different happen. Why would such a God ever want history to stop?
The intelligent design advocates see God participating in the evolutionary process, intervening at critical junctures in the temporal sequence, keeping the forward momentum going. Increasingly evangelicals seem prepared to abandon the ID agenda. The post-evangelical exegesis of Genesis 1 recaptures the sense of narrative, envisioning an ancient storyteller telling a tale about the creator-God. What’s lost is the sense of history, of the storyteller witnessing a meaningful event taking place in real time. Evolution may well be true, all the way back to the Big Bang. What the narrator of Genesis 1 presumably tells us is that God stands somewhere behind and beneath the dynamic movement of matter through time. In this post-evangelical exegesis God’s creatorly impetus is essentially ahistorical, almost Greek.
From the beginning the Judeo-Christian tradition has been intrinsically historical. The call of Abraham, the Egyptian captivity, the trek to the Promised Land, the chronicles of Israel, the two Babylonian captivities, the coming of Jesus, the spread of Christianity – specific events are always pivotal. The Bible is full of stories, and stories make sense only in a world where time passes. Still, there’s always a sense of tension in the Biblical narratives, a nostalgia and a longing the people of God carry on their backs as they make the perilous sojourn from eternity past to eternity present.
Western dominance over the last half a millennium has been fueled by a forward lean into the future, a spirit of progress that regards the passing of time not as the burden of a transient mortality but as an opportunity to make something different happen. Liberal Christian and Jewish theology participated in the modern spirit, seeing God revealing himself more and more fully as humanity progressed. It’s no coincidence that a rigorous theory of evolution arose in a culture that regards the passage of time as integral to the creative process, whether that process is spontaneous and emergent or the result of conscious intent.
Christian Ambivalence about History
But Judeo-Christian theology has long been ambivalent about the eternal God’s involvement in historical time. Between eternity past and eternity future the generations of men live out their brief lifetimes. There is an eschatological longing, an anticipation of the day when Messiah establishes his eternal reign, the day when history comes to an end. Philosophical and political longings for an end of history may reflect the ongoing tension between the Greek idealization of eternity and the intrinsic temporality of the Hebrew tradition. Evangelicals often speak of “renewal,” of restoring the innocence of the Garden of Eden and the spiritual vibrancy of first-generation Christianity. Evangelicals also speak of the end of days, when Christ will return in glory to destroy sorrow and death. Rarely have evangelicals acknowledged the discrete intervals of creation that introduce change into this world.
Evangelicalism typically rejects the progressive ideology intrinsic to modernity. Even the fundamentalists’ governmentally-imposed morality and apocalyptic dreams about the Holy Land are losing favor in evangelical circles, dismissed as yet another manifestation of a progressivism that sees fulfillment wrapped up in some as-yet-unattained future scenario. Increasingly the postmodern evangelicals look to the historic past. This isn’t the nostalgic urge to recapture a prehistoric paradise, but rather an attempt to reposition the twenty-first century church inside Biblical history. Christ came during a pivotal era in the long ongoing story of God’s relationship with humanity. Presumably that Christological era continues, despite developments in science, politics, and other aspects of strictly human history. God may have created the forward movement of time, but for postmodern evangelicals progress is on indefinite hold.
Renewal as Alienation
Historical progress has often been propelled, slingshot-wise, by reaching back for the impetus of a prior golden era. The Renaissance and the Reformation were the founding renewal projects of what would become the Modern Age. The Renaissance sought to restore the art and the philosophy of classical Greece and Rome; the Reformation, to restore the Church to its Biblical and first-century roots. Both movements saw something wrong with the status quo, something static and distorted; both, hoping to release a long-suppressed urge for change and progress, sought to recapture a long-dormant vitality that had been exuberantly expressed in a more vibrant era. Still, neither the Renaissance artists nor the Reformers sought to embed themselves in the past. Instead, they brought insights from the past forward into the present in order to generate forward momentum toward the future.
Five hundred years later, the spirit of renewal is tinged by the unmistakable tang of alienation. There’s a sense of dissatisfaction not just with the present but with the future, a feeling that modernity’s relentless forward momentum is running out of control, carrying us somewhere we don’t want to go. Things might not be going downhill, but they’re certainly not getting any better. While life has become more comfortable, it has also become coarser, more aggressive, lonelier. To an extent we would all like to recapture a time before the anxiety induced by relentless change, but also before the rigidity and stagnation settled in – a time when stability and tradition enfolded the community in its secure embrace. This time the gaze into the deep past feels a lot like nostalgia.
For some postmodern evangelicals the spirit of renewal means experimenting with the old forms and structures, retrofitting the present with attachments retrieved from the deep past. There’s a Borges short story about a writer who recreated portions of Don Quixote word for word, exactly like the original. But he wasn’t just copying the old text; he was rewriting it. The “new” Quixote meant something so different three centuries after Cervantes’ time that the critics regarded it as an entirely new work, perhaps even more remarkable than the original. So too the creeds and the candles, the liturgical choreography and the mystical praxes can by superimposing them on the postmodern church become perhaps something miraculous. More pervasive, though, is the sense that history itself has become corrupted, that time is wandering aimlessly away from a defining event that occurred long ago. For evangelicals that event was the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. How Christians live their earthly lives may either hasten or hinder his return in some vaguely understood way, but the paradigmatic Christian life was defined during the first century or two A.D. Humanity can accomplish nothing of any lasting significance; only God can do that. Meanwhile, history is on indefinite hold.