Saturday, March 23, 2013

Of Nameless Nonsense and Naked Emperors

When I write these posts, I usually spend a couple of days writing down the things I want to talk about (as they pop randomly into my head), and then sit down and arrange them into a rough outline before I start writing. But this time I'm skipping the outline, because I can't seem to arrange my thoughts into a coherent form. Sometimes you don't really know what you think until you sit down and write about it for a while. Which is one of the reasons I have this blog.

Anyway, this post is going to be a little unstructured, because I only have a vague idea of how the things I'm thinking about relate to each other. Worse, there's no word for the category they all fit into. Let me try to explain what those things are, by telling about some recent encounters with them.

I recently went to a conference for librarians. When I got to the hotel, I asked one of guys out front where the parking was. He said, "Oh, it's all valet parking. We'll take your car, sir." I looked at him and thought, "Well, crap." The thing is, I hate valet parking. It's always presented as a helpful, top-shelf service, offered up to make your life easier. But it doesn't. All that happens is some stranger takes your keys from you and whisks your car off to parts unknown. If you leave anything in it, you have to ask a valet to go get it. And then you have to tip him. I hold that valet parking has two purposes, neither of which have anything to do with convenience: 1. Making socially-insecure people feel like they're doing something fancy 2. Making money.

After the valet had careened out of sight in my car, I wrestled my bags back from a bellboy that wanted to carry them, headed up to my room, and sat down in an elegantly excruciating chair to look over the conference program. It was packed with ads from vendors and corporate sponsors, and for some reason, this reminded me of the valet parking. Professional conferences, I thought, can be a lot like valet parking: they don't necessarily serve the purpose they claim to serve. People think of them as a way to meet other professionals and share ideas (or to get drunk, hook up, and go sight-seeing). And they are all these things. But they're also a way for vendors to try to sell you things, and to get your contact information so they can bug you later. Conferences also seem to be big moneymakers for the organizations that sponsor them. In the case of libraries, they charge the librarians (who already pay yearly dues) to go to the conference, and they also charge the vendors big bucks for the best spots to set up their booths. And then they sell ads in the program.

Even the people attending the conference aren't there for the reasons they might claim. They aren't just there to share information and build professional networks. The people giving presentations, for example, aren't just trying to share what they've learned. They're giving a talk at the conference because it looks good on their resume. Sometimes it's based on a paper they wrote. And why did they write it? Because it looks good on their resume. Or they need to get published if they want tenure (academic librarian jobs are often tenure-track). Maybe they also did it because they had something valuable to contribute, but anybody who has read many academic papers, or sat through many conference presentations, will know that's not always the case.

These were my thoughts as I sat there reading that program. But then I remembered why I was there (or did I?) and decided to go to a keynote speech by a mover and shaker in the library world. The talk lasted about 45 minutes, and to be honest, I can't remember just what it was about. But I do know she was a great believer in "going forward" and "reaching out", and that she used the word "conversation" at least 35 times in 45 minutes. She seems to know what she's doing, too, so my money is on "conversation" as the go-to buzzword in the coming year. If you want to get ahead in 2013, don't say "let's talk about that". Say "we need to have a conversation about that". "Conversation" is the new "leverage". It will take you far.

I don't mean to sound too cynical about conferences, much less librarians, most of whom really do want to help people. It's just that librarians--like members of every other subculture--have their fads and bandwagons. One way of showing you are on a particular bandwagon, or that you belong to a particular subculture, is to use its buzzwords. As my friends and coworkers will tell you, I have a bit of a thing about buzzwords. I hate them. Corporate-speak, education-speak, bureaucratese, technobabble and psychobabble; they irritate me to no end. But it's not just a mindless peeve. They grate on me because I'm a passionate believer that people should think for themselves, and think about what they are saying. If people are using faddish buzzwords, that tells me they're doing neither. Instead, they're acting like a talking herd animal, sort of a cross between a parrot and a lemming. They're not thinking. They're imitating.

Some of those buzzwords don't really mean anything at all, but they serve a purpose nonetheless. They show that the person saying them is part of the in-crowd, and up on the latest, trends. They also seem to inspire a certain kind of impressionable person, so they get plastered all over educational manifestos and corporate websites. And conference programs. Buzzwords have some nastier cousins, too. Things like euphemisms, weasel words, loaded language, and vague or impenetrable language--like buzzwords, they have a purpose other than clear, honest communication. But these can be used to obscure and distort the truth. As George Orwell put it in his important essay Politics and the English Language, this kind of language "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

So, how did I get from valet parking to buzzwords? The point I'm trying to make is that people are always saying, doing, and believing things not because they are true or useful, but because they serve some other purpose, which usually has to do with money, in-group identification, or both. That's what ties together valet parking, resume-padding professional activities, buzzwords, catchphrases, and all kinds of other things people do without stopping to think about why they're doing them. There's a disconnect between the assumed purpose of the words, ideas, or activities and their actual purpose. Sometimes they have no purpose at all, except that they have caught on, and people will feel like they're out of touch if they don't do them.

This is a problem, because doing things that are, at best, useless, is a waste of best. Life is just too short for that nonsense. But it's hard to speak clearly about the problem, because that there's no standard term that describes this category of things. There's no widely-known conceptual framework for understanding what they are, and how they relate to each other.

Personally, I tend to relate them to the Hans Christian Anderson story The Emperor's New Clothes--surely as wise a fable as has ever been told. If you haven't read it in a while, here's a refresher. Two swindlers convince an emperor that they can make him a wondrous set of clothes. These clothes will make him invisible to stupid or incompetent people, and in fact, the clothes themselves will be invisible to such people. The swindlers get their looms and go to work, pretending to spin and weave. When the emperor and his ministers come to check on their progress, each of them realizes with horror he can't see the clothes. But of course they all keep their mouths shut, so everyone thinks everyone else can see the clothes. Finally, the emperor strips, dons his new, invisible finery, and parades down the street. None of his subjects says a word, because they've all heard that stupid people can't see the clothes, and's the emperor! It takes a little boy to point out the obvious: "But he's not wearing any clothes at all!"

I love that story, because it seems to me that a whole lot of the things people take seriously in this world are just different styles of imperial non-clothing. They're just...made up. They don't serve any purpose, or not the purpose people think they serve. But people believe in them, and therefore we all have to spend a lot of energy dealing with them. The naked emperor holds up non-existent hoops, and makes us all jump through them.

As insightful as the story is, though, it doesn't give us a good word for this kind of nonsense--this misplaced importance we give to things that may not even be real or true or valuable. Saying "that sounds like the emperor's new clothes" is just too wordy. Other options--bullshit--for example, aren't precise enough and may not be socially acceptable, despite their clear usefulness. Also insufficient are the various terms for pointless activities (jumping through hoops, going through the motions), and the necessary multitude of terms for pointless or misleading language (cant, bafflegab, blather, drivel, verbiage, twaddle, buzzwords, codswallop, weasel words, euphemisms, loaded language, purr words and snarl words, lip service, etc). There's no term that draws all these things together in one basket and gives us a handle to carry it with.

We need one. We need a word that lets us identify this stuff to each other, so we can try to root it out. We need to be able to point to empty buzzwords and activities done for the sake of appearances, and say "Hold on, that's _______!" I'm not suggesting we use such a word as a thought-terminating cliche, along the lines of the current usage of "class warfare". The word should promote critical thinking, not shush it. We need a good word for describing things that are useless or worse. We need a word that reminds us it's time to look around and see if we're on a bandwagon, and to check whether the driver is wearing any clothes.

Such a word might remind people to spend more time asking questions like: "That word you keep saying: what does it actually mean?", and "How do you know that's true?", and "Does this idea really do anything useful, or is it just fashionable?", and "Is this crap really necessary?" What, in other words, is the actual point of this thing we are talking about? Of course, such a word should itself be watched closely, so it doesn't turn into another meaningless buzzword, emptied of all meaning. That would be ironic, but not unprecedented. After all, "drink the kool-aid" began as a clever, if tasteless, metaphor for the dangers of blind conformity. Now it's become an overworked corporate tic, and the only people who can sincerely say "don't drink the kool-aid" in 2013 have, in fact, drank the kool-aid.

The reason we need this word, and the reason people should ask these questions, is that even though the emperor's new clothes don't actually exist, they still manage to do real harm, because people believe in them. Think about how many people spend big chunks of their lives doing things for the sole purpose of padding their resumes: joining committees they don't have time for (and possibly aren't even needed), writing papers that don't advance knowledge a single step, giving talks nobody really listens to, and so on. Parents push their kids to take on too many extracurricular activities, for the same reason. Some people waste their precious days in other ways, but still for the sake of appearances. Does anybody buy a Cadillac Escalade, for example, to actually take off road? No, because that's not what it's for. An Escalade is for showing people that you drive an Escalade. And then there's the stuff people believe in, that just isn't true. How many people have devoted their lives to forgotten religions that nobody believes in anymore? How many people were murdered for questioning those forgotten, non-existent gods?

The common denominator of all these things is that they involve mistaking appearances for substance or ideas for reality, and that people do them without stopping to ask why. They "give an appearance of solidity to pure wind".

If it's true that nonexistent imperial clothing causes trouble, so do the naked emperors themselves.  Some people make a whole career out of imperial nakedness. In fact, maybe "naked" isn't a strong enough word. As Lewis Grizzard said, "'Naked' means you ain't got no clothes on. 'Nekkid' means you ain't got no clothes on and you're up to something." These people are full-on nekkid. Those who learn to manipulate language and appearances, and make others believe in things that aren't really there, can become extremely powerful, and often quite destructive. They may actually believe their own nonsense--they probably think they're really wearing clothes--but that's beside the point. The point is that they're hawking nonsense and people are wasting their lives buying it. Skilled naked emperors go far, because we take them seriously. For example, the speaker I saw at the conference, who kept saying "conversation", is pretty powerful in her world. She may mean well, and she may even be doing a lot of good, but I can't help thinking that part of the reason she rose to the top of her field is that she's good at keeping up appearances--at joining the right committees and throwing around the right buzzwords. Lots of powerful people--politicians, university presidents, corporate heads--have an intuitive sense of managing perception. Maybe my view is jaundiced, but many of the ones I've met strike me as soulless phonies; "perma-grin zombies", I call them. You can go a long way by being a soulless phony--a nekkid emperor--if people are gullible enough to think they're admiring your clothes, instead of staring at your bare backside.

How do we respond to all this imperial nakedness, and even outright nekkidness? By not putting up with it. By teaching kids to ask tough questions about whether conventional wisdom is true, and whether common practice makes sense. If society has made up various types of nonsense, it will take a society-wide movement to un-make it. When questioning and critical thinking fail, satire is a time-honored method of dealing with nonsense. My whole point here, after all, is that nonsense should not be taken seriously, and nothing deflates a bloated sense of importance like laughter. Naked emperors, in other words, deserve to be mooned. As Orwell says about bloated, insincere language (just one variety of imperial nakedness): "One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase...into the dustbin where it belongs".

So how about it? What are we going to call this stuff, so we can actually talk about how to rid of it?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Can You Say "Shibboleth"?

I've had the good fortune lately to go to a couple of fancy dinners. I call it good fortune because the company was good, not because the event was fancy. The food was not especially tasty, but it was presented with great style and pomp: it looked pretty. And then there was the silverware. My plate was surrounded by a garrison of forks, spoons, and knives. I had no idea which spoon to use for the soup, or which fork to use for the salad. Worse, there were glasses placed, with perfect symmetry, on each side of my plate. Which glass was mine? I chose the wrong one, of course, thus stealing my neighbor's glass. This breach of etiquette sent shock waves around the table, as each of my dinner companions had to use their neighbor's glass instead of their own. I apologized in my politest Arkansas accent, but if any of my dinner companions had decided I was a yokel, that probably didn't help.

All this would have bothered me if I were a more formal person. But I laughed it off, because I figure things like that shouldn't be taken too seriously. Knowing which fork to use--and speaking in a certain accent, for that matter--are nothing more than shibboleths. They don't have any particular purpose except to identify who belongs to a particular group...and who doesn't. Using the wrong fork immediately identifies me as someone who hasn't mastered the rules of etiquette. My accent identifies me as being from the hilly part of the south--not a region associated with sophistication in the average American mind. Linguists know that pronunciation is arbitrary, and has no intrinsic association with intelligence, but I can attest that people will judge you for having an accent like mine. The shibboleth is still in effect, no matter what the linguists say. But when I think about the origins of the term "shibboleth", I realize it could be a lot worse.

The word "shibboleth" comes from the Old Testament. In the late second millennium BC, the Israelites were still a set of quarrelsome tribes who hadn't yet united into the Kingdom of Israel. The Book of Judges tells how two Israelite tribes, the Ephraimites and Gileadites, went to war. The Gileadites defeated the Ephraimites, leaving many Ephraimites stuck in Gileadite country, east of the Jordan river. As they tried to cross back into their own country, the Gileadites stopped them at the river. The two tribes spoke the same language, but unfortunately for the Ephraimites, they had different accents. Judges 12:5-6 tells what happened next.
Whenever one of the fugitives of Ephraim said, "Let me go over," the men of Gilead would say to him, "Are you an Ephraimite?" When he said, "No," they said to him "Then say Shibboleth," and he said "Sibboleth" for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time.
A fateful word, shibboleth, but not because of its meaning. Depending on who you ask, it meant either "ear of grain" or "torrent". The point was that Ephraimites said it differently than Gileadites, and that allowed the Gileadites to identify their enemies. Shibboleths have been used in warfare more recently, too. In World War II, Allied soldiers would distinguish Japanese soldiers from other Asians by asking them to say, "lollapalooza." Since the Japanese language doesn't distinguish the "L" and "R" sounds, the Japanese would say "rorraparooza"--a dead giveaway, often in the literal sense. A fictional shibboleth appears in the movie "Inglourious Basterds", where an Englishman posing as a German soldier is caught making a hand-gesture a German would never use.

Not all shibboleths are so deadly, or even particularly nasty. Accents, in-jokes, fashions, slang, musical preferences--all these things can function as shibboleths. Many of them are pretty harmless, and just used to distinguish some subculture, often distinct only in its sense of fashion or music. There are all kinds of pop culture shibboleths I haven't mastered, but no one is particularly mean to me because of that (there's the occasional snotty hipster, but life is too short to concern oneself with the opinions of snotty hipsters).

However, the shibboleths of formal etiquette can get nasty (though not usually downright murderous). Knowing your table settings is a shibboleth indicating whether you know the rules of etiquette, and that is historically a way of indicating whether someone is from the upper or aristocratic classes, because only people from those classes had the means to learn such things. That's why etiquette is full of rules that don't really serve any purpose except to differentiate people who know the rules from those who don't. The word "etiquette" actually means "tag" or "label" in French. Having etiquette labels you as being from the refined classes. It's a behavioral badge, but a badge nonetheless.

Of course, etiquette can be more than just a set of shibboleths. It can also give people guidelines for being polite and thoughtful. But that purpose can be lost in the minutia of social rules. The shibboleth function of etiquette, when you think about it, is not very polite and thoughtful at all, at least to the people it excludes. Arbitrary social rules are also a burden for the people who know them, because life would be simpler (and often less expensive) if they didn't have to bother with them. People will work very hard to appear better than others.

It's odd how notions of good behavior are still bound up with old notions of class, or even old-world aristocracy. Think about the word "classy", as in, "That was a classy thing to do." "Classy" didn't originally mean "thoughtful and admirable", but "what a person from the higher classes would do". Today we think of a "gentleman" as a man who has good manners, but once it simply meant somebody who didn't have to work with his hands, or even work at all, regardless of how polite he was. The word "courtesy" originally meant "the proper way of acting at court." Americans still say certain behaviors are "noble" even though we have never had a class of noble men and women here. The aristocracy often weren't very noble, anyway, if by "noble" you mean "well-behaved and honorable". In fact, the oldest noble families in Europe first became nobles by fighting brutal wars.

The problem with confusing good, thoughtful behavior with class-based shibboleths is that class divisions don't necessarily reflect good behavior. In fact, most people today would say that a rigid, hereditary class system is a form of societal injustice. People aren't members of the upper classes because they have good manners, but because they were born in certain families, or made a lot of money and bought their way in. As the old saying goes, "Make money and the world will conspire to make you a gentleman." Making your money in a gentlemanly way is optional, and often counter-productive.

I don't mean to bash the upper classes here. I've known people from the upper classes who were truly noble, but I've also known some who used social niceties as a weapon to shame others.  I don't care how "well-bred" they are, those people can be as mean as scorpions in a skillet.

The point of all this is that we need to disentangle true courtesy from arbitrary shibboleths, and politeness from class and wealth. If some rule of etiquette makes life more pleasant, or shows thoughtfulness and respect toward other people, then let's keep it. If it's merely a shibboleth, good for nothing but distinguishing one group of people from another, then toss it in the garbage, where it belongs. I'm all for refinement and politeness when it serves a real purpose. After all, people can be pretty nasty creatures when they aren't taught manners, and the current parenting style ignoring rudeness strikes me as a horrible idea. But what's also a horrible idea is continuing to use arbitrary rules to distinguish people based on social class. If we could root out shibboleths masquerading as manners, and focus on actually being nice, thoughtful, and honorable, the world would be a simpler and kinder place. As Emily Post herself said: "Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use."

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Two Creations: Why Genesis Can't be Taken Literally

In the last few months I've found myself doing something I swore off years ago: arguing with creationists. I had stopped because I realized you can't convince most of them that evolution is true, no matter how good you think your arguments are, or how much evidence you offer them. The problem is that creationism and science proceed in entirely different directions. Creationism takes it on faith that Genesis is literally true, and then (sometimes) seeks to find arguments that support that claim. Science (ideally) looks at nature, and then proposes theories that seem to explain it. If the theory seems to match the evidence, it's retained. If it doesn't, it's discarded.

So, with creationism, belief comes before evidence, while in science, evidence comes before belief. Darwin didn't start with a belief in evolution, and then set out to prove it. He observed the natural world, and then proposed a theory that seemed to explain it. Creationism values faith above all, while science values empirical evidence above all. That's why debating a creationist is like playing basketball with someone who refuses to count your baskets, and insists they've already won no matter how well you play. They've made up their minds that Genesis is literally true, so they aren't particularly interested in hearing reasons it might not be. I'm no Galileo, but it always makes me think about how he must have felt when people refused to even look through his telescope.

In other words, it's absolutely maddening, so I had given up the creation/evolution debate. For years, the topic rarely came up, because I wasn't around many people who liked to discuss it, and the ones who did took creationism no more seriously than Norse mythology. Honestly, I had forgotten how many Americans are biblical literalists who believe Genesis is fact, not parable or myth. Then came Facebook, which put me back in touch with old friends and family members, and gave me a window into their thoughts. They are good, funny, smart people, most of them—and an astounding number of them believe the Earth is just a few thousand years old. I was shocked by that, and they were shocked by me. Creationism and biblical literalism are certainly not uncommon. Gallup polls show that nearly 50% of people in the US think "God created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years."  Around 30% of people in the US agree with the statement  that "the Bible is the actual word of God, and is to be taken literally, word for word."

The difference between mainstream scientific views and young earth creationism is a huge one. If the earth is really 4.56 billion years old, and creationists think it's 6 to 10 thousand years old, that's equivalent to saying Texas is ten feet across. If mainstream science is right, then creationists aren't just a little bit wrong. They're outrageously, spectacularly wrong. From my perspective, hearing someone say the earth is a few thousand years old is just about as bewildering, and admittedly frustrating, as hearing someone insist that Texas is the width of a mobile home.

Anyway, I found myself in the creation/evolution debate again, but I soon remembered why I had stopped. There's no point in trying to convince creationists using scientific evidence. They're playing a different game; a game based on faith. So I decided to try to understand where they're coming from, and take another look at the creation story in Genesis.

And a fascinating story it is. One surprising thing is how short it is. In my New Oxford Annotated Bible, it's only a little over 5 pages from “In the beginning” to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden—and half of those pages are footnotes. Another surprising thing is that there isn't just one creation story. There are two, and they are very different. I had always heard this, but it's amazing to read them and see just how different they are.

The first (Genesis 1:1 through 2:3) is the one that describes the creation of the world in six days, and God resting on the seventh. In this version, the original Hebrew text calls God “Elohim”; which is basically a generic name for “god” or “deity”. The second narrative (Genesis 2:4 through 25) refers to God as Yahweh in the original Hebrew. If I understand it correctly, Yahweh is the personal name of this particular god (apparently, the early Hebrews believed in many gods, but came to worship the one named Yahweh exclusively. Only later did they come to believe there were no other gods). The name Yahweh is rendered in many Bibles as “the LORD”.

Before I get into what the two narratives say, a little background on Genesis as a whole might be useful. Genesis, of course, is the first book in the Old Testament. It describes the creation of the world, the fall of Adam and Eve, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph—the lineage thought to give rise to the Jews. Genesis is the first of the five books traditionally thought to have been dictated by God to Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Jews call these five books the Torah, and Christians call them the Pentateuch. In the late Renaissance, when the risk of being killed or imprisoned for heresy began to decline, people started pointing out that the Torah/Pentateuch, like the rest of the Bible, gives the distinct impression of having been written by more than one person, in more than one style. In the 1800's, the German scholar Julius Wellhausen proposed that the first five books of the Bible were composed by four different people (or groups of people) who he called J (for Jahweh, German for Yahweh, because this is what J calls God), E (because this source calls God “Elohim”), P (for Priestly), and D (for Deuteronomist, because this source wrote much of Deuteronomy as well as some later books in the Old Testament). This line of thinking is known as the Documentary Hypothesis. The idea has been hugely influential, though it's become more controversial since the 1970's. Still, the basic idea that the Pentateuch was written by different people at different times is still accepted by all but the most conservative biblical scholars, and clear to anyone who takes a close look at both stories in Genesis.

The First Creation Story

The first creation narrative in the bible is thought to be written by P, the Priestly author (or group of authors). This source depicts God as a distant, all-powerful deity who creates an orderly cosmos from a primeval, watery darkness. He does this with the power of words, beginning with, “Let there be light”. In this narrative, God (Elohim) separates light from darkness on the first day, and names them Day and Night. On the second day, he divides the primordial waters by raising the dome of the sky, which separates the waters below from the waters above the dome. When this text was written, Hebrews thought of the Earth as a flat place surrounded by water. The sky was thought to be an actual, solid dome, and the sun, moon, and stars were lights embedded in the dome. In this narrative, there is water beyond the dome (a disconcerting thought, really). Later, Hebrews adopted the Greek idea that the world is a sphere, surrounded by a series of concentric domes. At the time this narrative was written, the world was not only thought to be the center of the universe, but a flat piece of ground in a dome-shaped bubble between primordial waters. Not even young-earth creationists these days are willing to take Genesis that literally.

On the third day, God creates land and commands it to bring forth plants. On the fourth, he says “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years”. Signs were important to the ancient Hebrews, who, like most other ancient people, took it for granted that you could see portents in the motion of the stars. God also creates the sun and moon, “the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night”. On the fifth day God creates sea creatures (including “great sea monsters”) and birds. On the sixth day he creates land animals, and then says “Let us make humankind in our image”. This “us” is a puzzler, and it may indicate an ancient belief that God was the head of a heavenly court or counsel. The other members may have also been considered gods early on, but as monotheism evolved they were demoted to angels, cherubim, and such. In this narrative, unlike the next, God seems to create male and female simultaneously. Then he tells them to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth”. He also says he has “given every green plant for food,” implying that all living things were vegetarians at the time. On the seventh day of course, God rested, and “blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.”

The Second Creation Story

The second narrative is very different from the first, and is identified with J in the documentary hypothesis. It's most likely the older of the two stories. J is so-called because the writer refers to God as “Yahweh” ("Jahweh" in German), or “Yahweh Elohim”. Sure enough, Genesis 2.4 begins by saying, “In the day the LORD God [Yahweh Elohim] made the earth and the heavens...”. In this narrative, the earth begins as a place with no rain or vegetation, watered by a stream. Here, God creates humans before he creates plants and animals. Instead of creating him with a word, he takes a more intimate approach: “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breathe of life; and the man became a living being.” This first man is called Adam; a Hebrew word for “humankind”, which is also a play on the word “adamah” or “soil”.

After Adam is created, God plants the Garden of Eden, a beautiful place whose trees include the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. God tells Adam he may eat fruit from every tree except the tree of knowledge of good and evil, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die”. Only then, in this narrative, does God create the animals, letting Adam name each one. None of these are a fit “helper” or “partner” for Adam, though, so God makes Adam go to sleep, removes one of his ribs, and creates the first woman from it (some people to this day believe that men have one less rib than women).

The next part of the story is well known. The first couple is naked and unashamed at first, because they don't know the difference between good and evil. But a serpent (who really is just a serpent, and wasn't identified with the devil until later Christian thought) convinces the woman (she still doesn't have a name) that she won't really die if she eats from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He's right—she eats it, and gives some to Adam. They don't die, but they do realize they are naked, and scramble for the nearest fig leaves. Then they hear God walking through the garden “at the time of the evening breeze” (the author of this creation narrative saw God in much more earthly terms than the other author). The people hide from God, because they are naked. God says “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” Adam fesses up, and God curses him, his wife, and the serpent. He tells the woman he will “greatly increase your pangs in childbearing”, and that her husband will rule over her (Adam soon names her Eve). He tells Adam: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Then God says,“See, the man has become like one of us [there's that “us” again], knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.” Rather than risk Adam and Eve gaining immortality, he casts them out of the garden, and leaves cherubim with flaming swords to guard the tree of life. Before long, Eve gives birth to Cain (a farmer) and Abel (a herder). God likes Abel's offerings of sheep, but not Cain's offerings of grain, so Cain slays Abel in a fit of jealousy. It's the first of many, many murders in the Bible. Genesis continues with the story of the flood, which is strikingly similar to older Sumerian flood myths, down to the boat, and the bird sent out to look for land.

Biblical scholars call the section of Genesis from the creation to the flood the “primeval history”, because it's a highly mythic story in which serpents talk and people live for hundreds of years. It's not just about the ancestors of the Jews, but of all people. After the flood, people all speak one language, and start cooperating to build the great tower of Babel. God decides once again that people are getting too big for their britches, and “confuses their tongues” and scatters them. The next major character is Abram, who comes from “Ur of the Chaldeans” (a historical city in Mesopotamia). He will soon be renamed Abraham, and will become the ancestor of the Jews.

Should We Take The Creation Stories as the Literal Truth?

I could get into when these two narratives were written, and what the political currents of the time might have been, or whether the Priestly narrative was based in part on the Babylonian story of the great god Marduk creating the universe from the slain corpse of Tiamat, but this post is getting long, and those topics are controversial among scholars. So I'll get back to the reason I'm writing about this. First, I want to understand where my biblical literalist/creationist friends are coming from. Second, I want to investigate the idea that the creation stories in Genesis could be the the infallible word of God, and therefore the absolute, literal truth. I'm not going to discuss the scientific consensus on human origins. I've accepted that creationists aren't impressed by scientific evidence. Rather, I'd like to meet the creationists on their own turf, and take a critical look at Genesis itself. Does it make sense to think of the two creation stories in Genesis as the literal truth?

In a word, no. The two stories were obviously written by different people, and they are completely divergent; even contradictory. The first says plants and animals were created before people. The second says people were created before plants and animals. Which is it? You can believe one is literally true, or that the other is literally true, but you can't logically believe both any more than you can believe a square circle is possible. They can't both be true at once. There are other difficulties, too. It's obvious that the writer of the first narrative thought of the world as flat, and at the center of the universe, and thought that the sky as an actual, solid dome. I don't mean to belittle that author. The earth looks like it's flat, and if you watch the stars turn, it really does look like they're embedded in fixed places in a great cosmic dome that arches over the earth, spinning around the axis of the North Star. The sun and moon really do seem to orbit the earth. So, it's understandable that the author was mistaken, but he was mistaken nonetheless. If you are truly going to take the Genesis creation story literally, then you would have to reject Copernicus as well as Darwin. You would even have to reject Ptolemy, and declare that the world is flat. Hardly anyone believes that these days, of course, and that's a good thing.

Even the most ardent fundamentalist doesn't take the Bible absolutely literally, though he might claim to. You can't take every word of the Bible literally, because it contradicts itself, and some of it, like the idea of the solid dome of the sky, has turned out to be undeniably false. Everybody who follows the Bible has to pick and choose which verses to follow, and which to ignore, otherwise every Christian, Jew, and Muslim today would follow every rule in Leviticus. I've never met anyone who doesn't interpret at least some part of the Bible metaphorically. Once I went camping with an ardent young-earth creationist. We were talking about religion, and I brought up the story in Matthew 19 where a rich young man tells Jesus he has followed the law, and wonders what else he should do to be assured of eternal life. Jesus tells him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. The man goes away, dismayed. Jesus then tells his disciples—twice--how hard it is for a rich man to get into heaven: 
“Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle then for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 
When I asked my creationist acquaintance about this, he started telling me how the “eye of the needle” was really a narrow gate into Jerusalem. Here was a guy who was a literalist when it came to Genesis, but was only too happy to give an uncomfortable saying--from the mouth of Jesus himself--a metaphorical spin. It's true that Jesus did like parables, but there's no evidence for a gate called the "eye of the needle" in Jerusalem, and good reasons to think that this time, Jesus meant exactly what he said. But some people don't want to believe that, any more than they want to believe we came from monkeys.

My point is that nobody is a true biblical literalist, and it's a good thing, because if they were, we would still be acting like an ancient, violent, Iron Age tribe—stoning people to death for things like homosexuality and suspected witchcraft, owning slaves, wiping out rival peoples (like Joshua did at Jericho), and sequestering women in their “unclean” time of the month. Humankind has gotten, well, kinder since then, and less superstitious. At most, stories like the ones in Genesis should be taken as allegories, not seen as literally true. It's not clear that the even the original authors thought they should be taken literally, or they would have tried harder to iron out the inconsistencies. People like Karen Armstrong claim that people then were more comfortable thinking in mythic or allegorical terms than they are now. I don't know, but it's true that early Christian figures like St. Augustine and Origen thought Genesis should be seen as allegory. Consider the words of Augustine:
“It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are.”
This sounds a lot like the lament of many progressive Christians today, who are embarrassed by the literal-mindedness of their brethren. But we need to be careful even with allegory. St. Augustine, for example, based the idea of original sin on the fall of Adam and Eve. For hundreds of years, people pointed to Genesis as evidence that, not only are people basically bad, but it was women who got us into this sinful predicament in the first place. No wonder so many people have used the Bible to justify the subjugation of women. Even today, there are weddings where women are told to obey their husbands. Women still can't be priests in many denominations. Why? Partly because of the stories in Genesis.

We should know better these days. We've made a bit of progress in the 2,500-3,000 years since Genesis was written. Science has shown that men didn't come before women, and there is no reason to think there ever was a tree of knowledge of good and evil, much less a talking serpent. These stories read like mythology because they ARE mythology. That doesn't mean they are useless. They are actually rather beautiful in places, and they give us vital insights into how our ancient forebears thought; and where we came from culturally--just not biologically or cosmologically. The creation stories are valuable, but they should be taken with many, many grains of salt if we want to relate them to modern life. The Bible was written by many people, over many hundreds of years, in a violent and superstitious time. There's a great deal of wisdom in the Bible, but there are also innumerable horrors and hurtful superstitions. The Old Testament remains the most violent book I have ever read. Nobody takes it absolutely literally these days, even if they claim to. And that's a very good thing.