Sunday, September 15, 2019

Polyphonic narration

1. I'd like to consider the hermeneutics of young-earth creationism, old-earth creationism, and theistic evolution. In particular, how does Gen 1-9 map onto natural history according to these three positions? How, if at all, does Gen 1-9 provide guidance for the way primeval history unfolds? 

2. Because YEC operates with a face-value reading, it posits a straightforward correlation between the narrative descriptions and natural history. For YEC, Gen 1-9 is a clear-pane window onto natural history. 

3. Conversely, because the narrative of theistic evolution is at such variance from Gen 1-9, it has several options:

i) Gen 1-9 is pious fiction rather than historical narrative. There's no correlation between Gen 1-9 and natural history. It doesn't operate at that level. Rather, the text teaches "spiritual" truths. 

ii) Gen 1-9 is purified pagan mythology. It's not directly related to what happened. Rather, it corrects prevalent heathen narratives by removing the objectionable features and substituting a theologically orthodox concept. The frame of reference isn't natural history; rather, the frame of reference is pagan mythology, but using that as a foil. But if the template is fiction, then a redacted template is fiction. If the template is a pagan creation myth or flood legend, then after all the impious elements are edited out, the end-result will still be fictional. 

iii) Gen 1-9 is allegory. There's a kind of analogy between Gen 1-9 and natural history, but it's not a recognizable description of what actually happened. You can't use the text as a guide to what really happened. It's like an extended metaphor. The allegory is consistent with any number of scenarios. 

For theistic evolution, Gen 1-9 is a mural. It doesn't show the viewer what's outside. It doesn't show the viewer what lies on the other side of the wall. 

4. So where does OEC lie. Somewhere in the middle. 

i) In my experience, it's less developed. At least until recently, the argument for OEC has been more scientific than exegetical. It critiques evolution on scientific grounds and it critiques YEC on scientific and exegetical grounds, but it doesn't provide a detailed exegetical alternative. 

ii) In part that's because it's more challenging than YEC, which reads events right off the text, as it stands. Or at least as it seems to a YEC reader. 

iii) One issue is whether YEC oversimplifies the text. Whether it misses certain clues, in part because it's insensitive of the experience of an ancient audience. How the descriptions appear to a modern reader may not be how they appear to an ancient reader, in the 2nd millennium BC. We must try to adjust to their outlook. 

iv) Although OEC falls in-between YEC and theistic evolution, the reading is much closer to the YEC end of the spectrum. Like YEC, an OEC reading regards Gen 1-9 as a historical narrative. And the descriptions would bear recognizable correspondence to actual events. 

It simply regards the YEC reading as too crude. A failure to grapple with the chronological relationship between day on and day four. A failure to appreciate the role of stock numbers in Genesis. A failure to appreciate the wide-ranging significance of light and darkness for pre-modern readers. A failure to appreciate the name of the Tempter as a pun. A failure to appreciate the possible role of hyperbole in the flood account. A failure to make adjustments for the historical horizon of the original audience when reading geographical markers in the flood account. 

Ironically, an OEC reading may even be more literal than a YEC reading. For instance, it's OEC that takes the Mesopotamian setting of Eden at face-value, while YEC reinterprets that as a case of using old names for new locations (e.g. American towns and cities named after English counterparts). 

v) Because OEC lies somewhere in the middle, there's the risk of an ad hoc interpretation that is more about avoiding the extremes of the two opposing positions than having its own plot. If, say, Gen 1 isn't consistently chronological, then what is the actual sequence of events? And if we can't say how Gen 1 corresponds to the actual sequence of events, if we can't use it as a guide in that respect, then what does the text teach us? 

vi) In that regard, consider a comparison:

The narrative technique…consists in constantly shifting from one story and one set of characters to another, but with a "dovetail" or liaison at the point where we change…It may be called the "interwoven" or "polyphonic" narrative…In polyphonic narrative…scenes can succeed one another not where the exigencies of a single rigid "plot" permit. C. S. Lewis, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge 2013), 133-34.

If you think about it, Revelation employs polyphonic narration. The plot in Revelation shifts back and forth between different streams of action. And even though Lewis is discussing a traditional technique in fictional narration, it's something often used in historical narration. When a historian writes about a complex event like WWII or how the Old West was settled, he must alternate between different streams of action. It's not reducible to a single rigid plot because it's not one event but a cluster of interrelated events. There never was a unilinear order of priority and posteriority, because multiple chains of events are in play. 

That may make it harder, or sometimes impossible, to reconstruct the actual series of events. Rather, we're treated to segmented history. Chronological segments. How those correlate is complicated. But in many cases that's a necessity of realistic writing. There isn't a just one course of action to record. Rather, there are multiple events in different places that may run parallel for a time, but begin and end at different times. A historical narrative may conceal that fact because it's selective, but the underlying reality was more variegated. 

However, a historian using polyphonic narration to recount the Civil War or how the Old West was settled will will be an accurate, detailed account of real events. It provides a guide to what really happened. It strings together historical segments. So while it may be difficult for reader to piece all that into a linear plot, it's a principled and necessary way to write history. 


  1. This is partly why I don't say I'm a full theistic evolutionist, even though (as I put it) I am "broadly speaking" such. I've mentioned before my own thoughts on how time really has no meaning outside of a subject to perceive it, and really I believe that that subject is specifically intended to be man. Consequently, for my own view, I actually hold fairly close to what most YECs would hold to from Genesis 2 onward (it's only Genesis 1 that I interpret more metaphorically--or typologically--which I think I have grounds from the text itself to do so). I think this could be held by more thesistic evolutionists, but my experience is as Steve has stated in that typically most TEs render at least chapters 1-9, if not the entire Old Testament, as any of the three options Steve presented.

  2. Peter,

    How do you understand the fall and its effect on the world? Do you believe the whole creation is corrupted by sin or just the human condition? Both TE and OEC seem weak on theodicy to me, particularly regarding natural evil. I'm not sure it's insurmountable, but the explanations I've heard tend to strain credulity.

    I'd also be interested in your opinion of intelligent design/ directed evolution. I'm not opposed to the possibility of TE per se, but most TE advocates I hear are staunchly committed to methodological naturalism, a philosophical commitment I find far too close to deism. Since the scientific critiques of evolution given naturalism by ID / creationism seem quite strong to me, I view the antagonism towards ID by TE advocates with a great deal of suspicion.

    1. WittensbergDoor wrote:
      Do you believe the whole creation is corrupted by sin or just the human condition?

      Yes, the whole of creation was corrupted by the Fall. However, many people also assume that the "corruption" includes all kinds of death. I think that there was death before then (even those who hold to man eating just vegetables overlooks plant death, and of course there's the cellular breakdown of digestion which destroys living cells and turns them into proteins, etc.). There probably wasn't as much of what we consider to be gratuitous death even among the animals, but I have no theological issue with animals eating other animals and so on, even before the Fall occurred.

      I'd also be interested in your opinion of intelligent design/ directed evolution.

      I'm not sure if you've seen my other comments on other posts, but I'm firmly in the ID camp. I don't think Darwinism is at all tenable precisely because it relies on randomness, while all the evidence I see shows very clearly that evolution must be goal oriented in order for it to work at all. In point of fact, Darwinism only works at "narrowing down" options anyway. It can't explain how we got to where we are.

      The only reason I say I'm a theistic evolutionist is because evolution =/= Darwinism. So Darwinists and the average TE proponent won't find an ally in me.