A famous photograph called The Pillars of Creation is shown above.
Sunday, February 19, 2012

7 Pillars of Creation

The book under consideration is The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder by William P. Brown. Unlike the last book with a religious orientation that I blogged about this one is published by a scholarly press (Oxford University Press), and is extensively, indeed obsessively footnoted. (Over 250 footnotes for one 70 page chapter alone. The author is a professor of Old Testament studies at a major Protestant theological institute. So it doesn’t get more mainstream than that.

You’ll notice that the word “ecology” appears in the subtitle. That may set off warning bells in some people. Brown accepts the idea of global warming, or climate change, and sounds an alarm regarding the coming extinction of multiple species. Now I’m a sceptic regarding global warming, and frankly feel that the idea of “climate change” should be resisted. As you might expect though, I resist the idea of climate change for rather different reasons.

Climate change, in its current common usage, implies that there was a previous period of climate stasis when there was no change ongoing. Now it seems to me that the reality is that climate is pretty much a null concept. Robert Heinlein summed it up nicely when he wrote “Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get.” Climate is simply a set of the aggregated and smoothed out observations of people over time. Unless it’s long enough, and accounts for the numerous variables that make up the weather, it really fails in any truly descriptive sense. Weather is always in a state of flux, and it is impossible to stuff it into the concept of climate, whether that climate is static or fluid.

From top left: 1. Polio virus. 2. Smallpox virus. 3. HIV in the process of budding. 4. Bubonic plague bacillus, yersinia pestis
Brown has comments on the wonder of the microscopic world. Now I’m not going to deny that it is interesting, mysterious, and beautiful, but he goes a bit far in his cautions about exterminating species. Some species do deserve to die. Over on the left, you’ll notice four microphotographs. Let me introduce you to Messrs. Polio, Smallpox, HIV, and the heavyweight champion, Mr. Yersinia Pestis, aka Bubonic Plague or the Black Death. Smallpox no longer exists in the wild, and polio is almost, but not quite conquered, but I say that if they were to disappear, I would not mourn. Would you?

Brown, who is a Christian minister and theologian, has the unfortunate habit of using BCE (Before Common Era) instead of the politically incorrect BC. This may be the house style of OUP, but in either in case it is unfortunate, and nonsensical. BCE and CE translate exactly into BC and AD (anno domini, year of the lord) as far as dates go. So why bother with the common era nonsense. Second, it is not a common era. The Jewish calendar differs by about 3800 years. Today, February 21, 2012, is Shvat 28, 5772. The Islamic calendar says this is the year 1433. God only knows what other calendars say. So the common era is not so common. That being the case, why bother with the nonsense?

Brown also quotes Paul Ehrlich as an authority. Now Ehrlich is known for his book The Polulation Bomb, which predicted the great famines of the 1980s. You didn’t know there were famines then? Well, Ehrlich was wrong. He was also on the losing side of a bet about the demand for certain metals. So he has a consistent losing streak. Why is he taken as an authority on anything?

He offers his own translations of a number of scriptural passages. In some cases the result can be jarring. In Genesis 1:31 we get “God saw everything that he had made, and, voila, it was extremely good.” That voila jars for a couple of reasons. First, the original passage was presumably in one language only, so the voila, seems an unnecessary attempt to indicate surprise or excitement. Second, God would hardly be caught speaking French, which is after all the devil’s language.

Seriously though, what Brown proposes is that the Bible exhibits seven different approaches to creation. The first two are the most obvious. Genesis 1:1–2:3a, the Priestly narrative, and Genesis 2:3b-3, the Yahwist, or J narrative.*

* See the Wikipedia article for Jehovah for an explanation of why YHWH was thought to be Jehovah, and is now thought to be Yahweh.

You don’t get very far trying to allegorize the various creation stories of the Bible so that they square with with modern science. Brown tries something different. He tries to show that the Bible has seven approaches to creation, and he attempts to show, particularly with the two stories in Genesis, how they interact with scientific knowledge, and what light these interactions shed.

His seven pillars are:

  1. Genesis 1:1-2:3

  2. Genesis 2:4-3:24

  3. Job 38-41

  4. Psalm 104

  5. Proverbs 8:22-31

  6. Ecclesiastes

  7. Isaiah 40-55, aka Second Isaiah.

The chapter devoted to the first Genesis story is the longest and the most detailed.

People who have seen the movie version of Inherit the Wind may remember that there’s a scene in which Henry Drummond, the character modeled on Clarence Darrow, asks the Bryan character how it is that light was created before the sun. Cosmology now provides the answer that light, photons, was created at the Big Bang, and that the sun and stars came millions and billions of years after the Big Bang. Brown finds that days one through three represent the creation of domains and that in days four through six the domains are filled.

In his discussions of Psalm 104, Proverbs, and Isaiah Brown brings out the idea of God playing with creation. When I was flirting with Hinduism I read The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, an account of a 19th century mystic in Calcutta, and Ramakrishna said God created the universe out of play. There is some degree of correspondence here, and the insight of God’s playfulness is common, at least in part, to both religions.

Brown has much to say, and some of it deserves to be chewed and meditated upon. Where he falls down is in the final pages.

Here Brown rushes into a condemnation of industrialism and its evil effects upon the environment. It’s raining outside as I write, and it’s thank to industrialism that I have a roof that protects me from the rain, heat that keeps me warm, electricity to run the iMac, and electric light so that I can see to read and write. It is thanks to industrialism that that Brown’s book was printed by vast presses rather than huge wooden machines, or laboriously copied by hand. It is thanks to industrialism that we have modern drugs, and even the hypodermic needle to deliver drugs.** Thanks to industrialism I live better, and cheaper than any of the Louises who inhabited Versailles. If I want to see Don Giovanni, I can pop a DVD or Blu-Ray into the player, and I only need to spend about $30 for the performance. Louis had to arrange for the orchestra and cast to get to Versailles, put them up for the night, worry about the maids getting raped by the actors and musicians, and generally go to a lot of expense. It is thanks to industrialism, and the green revolution with its bio-engineered grains that billions of people are alive today, and that they’re enjoying the kinds of lives that they are.

** Invented 1853 by Charles Pravaz and Alexander Wood, which built on the 1844 invention of the hollow needle by Francis Rynd.

So lets hear it for industrialism.

Next up, Symmetry and the Monster, a book that will drive the feminists crazy because it proves that “Math is hard.”