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the Beginning, God: Creation, Culture and the Spiritual Life
Author: Marva Dawn
On a recent trip to the Vancovuer Aquarium, my family and I found ourselves standing in front of a tank holding a large, redish-purpleish-orangish octopus. Its eight long snaking arms were suctioned tightly to the glass, and its large, dark eyes stared balefully at us out of a wrinkled, velvety-red head. As we watched, it released its grip on the glass and floated gracefully downwards, landing on the bottom of the tank in a pile of arms, head, suckers, mouth and eyes. “Wow,” my husband said, his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, “Doesn’t that just make you want to sing a hymn of praise to Darwinian evolution?”
I doubt that even the hardest of hard-core materialists would contemplate the octopus and then burst out singing: “How awesome are your works, Evolution! How wonderful are your deeds, Science and Biology!” And yet, when each of us considers the world, its marigolds and maple trees, its octopuses and iguanas, its eyeballs and isotopes, we will find ourselves worshipping something. In her book In the Beginning, God: Creation, Culture and the Spiritual Life, prolific author and popular teacher Marva Dawn points out that there is in the world a “Law of Worship” at work, which says that all human beings are in worship of something. The question is, “Whom do we worship, and with what condition of heart?” (16; quoting Dr. Harold Best). The purpose of Genesis chapters one through three, Dawn claims, is not to describe the logistics of creation or to set up a scientific explanation for the way the world works: “As we look closely at Genesis 1-3, let us keep constantly in mind that the issue is worship. Many people who read this passage fail to keep this issue central and therefore ask the wrong questions, for the biblical accounts of the Creation and the Fall are not meant to be a science textbook. They are not intended to ask the What? and How? of biology or astronomy or the When? of prehistory. No, these chapters are meant to ask the Why? – and the answer is, for the glory of God” (17).
The purpose of Dawn’s book is to present a liturgical reading of the first three chapters of the Bible, beginning at the beginning, with God Himself. “The Bible is all about God,” Dawn says at the opening of the first chapter. “That might seem an overly obvious point with which to begin a book on character formation, but, if we consider the matter seriously, we discover that we often read the Bible imagining it is about ourselves” (9). Dawn claims that the traditional Bible study method which encourages readers to approach Scripture using the three questions “What does the passage say? What does it mean? How does it apply?” actually begins in the wrong place. Our starting point ought instead to be “What is God doing in this text, or What is God revealing about one or all of the Triune Persons in this passage” (9). The purpose of her book, she says, is to “[pay] particular attention to what Genesis 1-3 tells us about God so that we will respond with adoration” (13) and later she states that “This book is just a beginning to try to get Christians not to fight about Genesis. I pray that you will go beyond it to ask new questions about the texts and their implications, to develop a Christian community that nurtures godly character in all of us, to offer hope to those drowning in our society’s toxic milieu. Most of all, may everything bring glory to the Trinity and draw us into unceasing worship” (33).
Toward this end, Dawn examines several different aspects of the Creation/Fall narrative, interjecting her exposition with analysis of Hebraic poetry and language and first-person prayers, written by the author on behalf of her readers. She examines what Genesis one through three can teach believers about subjects as diverse as human sexuality, Sabbath keeping, ecological care, and the importance of justice. Dawn is passionate about her subject and adept at drawing readers into praise of the Creator, while avoiding arguments about the scientific or technical implications of the Bible’s creation narrative: “The point of beauty is to display the glorious creativity of God. The point of pondering it is to heighten our worship. The purpose of noting it in this chapter on liturgy is to prevent silly fights or scientific doubts over Genesis 1-2. Science does not disprove praise, nor does the Bible’s beginning claim to be an explanation -- rather than exultation. The opening liturgy draws us into wonder and adoration because in the darkness of void and emptiness the Trinity continues to be present and to speak to create, to cause brilliant beings to appear” (25).
While In the Beginning, God fairly bursts with Dawn’s exclamations of praise and adoration, it seems that she often gets side-tracked from her originally stated purpose. The subtitle of her book, Creation, Culture and the Spiritual Life, suggests that she is not as single-minded in her intent as the first sentence of the book would indicate. It is here she runs into trouble because this secondary purpose is, in reality, too large for one 121-page book. The territory Dawn is attempting to map is so vast (what Genesis one through three has to teach about the nature of God, the nature of people, the nature of the universe, plus its implications for culture, and spiritual formation) that it seems she has a hard time deciding what her focus actually is. The book is full of side remarks and digressions which some readers might find charming and enlightening (as windows into the mind of Dawn herself), but I which I found distracting. For example, in her discussion of God’s grace in response to man’s sin, Dawn writes, “In Genesis 3:11 the Lord God demonstrates enormous patience to create an opportunity for the man to confess, and he has been patient with His people and with the earth ever since. Right now, when the United States is using its money and power for destructive purposes rather than to aid the poorest people of the world, I’m quite amazed that God continues to be patient, rather than calling the nation to account. Meanwhile, however, the Lord is raising up countless people to participate in His ongoing work to reverse the attitudes and actions that bring such injustice” (105).
This is particularly unfortunate when one takes into account the length of the book. Many of the eighteen chapters are four to six pages long, hardly adequate to even begin a serious examination of such complicated topics as the creation of men and women or the nature of sin. While her purpose may have been to provide the most general of outlines, a reader interested in more fully exploring, say, the topic of creation and Justice will get little help towards a next step from Dawn, who relies primarily on her own insights and experiences as resources. She makes many statements that seem to beg for more thorough explanation, but which are left dangling, without sufficient support. For example, she states that the notion of a man leaving his family and cleaving to his wife suggests a specific Jewish ritual and then says that “if such a rite is involved, that has enormous implications for our lives today” (82), without any explanation of what those implications might be. She also touches briefly on the concept that the phrase in Genesis 1:26 which is usually translated “have dominion over” might more accurately be translated “have dominion with”. This is a really fascinating suggestion and one that requires some fleshing out, but Dawn confines herself to one paragraph of very brief analysis (46).
Dawn’s passions for justice, for creation care, for a harmonious and equal relationship between the sexes, for the communication of God’s grace, and ultimately for a more worshipful attitude toward our Creator enliven In the Beginning, God. It is unfortunate that she felt compelled to deal with so many of them in such a short amount of time.