Caught Up in Contradictions
Sep 6, 2015
Just back from our vacation, I brought with me something for show and tell! This is a piece of pink granite we found on an island in Maine. There are many things I love about the coast of Maine and the islands along that coast, but rock formations are really spectacular. Mount Desert Island is one of the most fascinating geologic features on the East Coast. Most of the East Coast shoreline is sandy and flat, like one would see at Rehobath or Ocean City. But there are features on Mount Desert Island that tower 1500 feet above a rocky shore, with no fewer than 26 mountain peaks that can be seen 60 miles out to sea. Those mountains formed in a fascinating saga of erupting volcanoes, glaciers, and many other splendid catastrophes that formed (to my mind) the most beautiful islands in North America.
500 million years ago, Maine was covered by an ancient ocean that pre-dated the Atlantic. Over time layers of rock formed on the floor of the ocean, these layers moved as tectonic plates shifted. Colliding land masses pushed up a massive mountain chain that caused huge pools of magma to rise up. Around 360 million years ago some of this magma cooled into granite. Maine is known for its coastal quarries because of the large granite formations. The further down from the earth’s crust is the magma and the slower it is cooled, the stronger is the granite. Maine granite is very hard, and forms the backbone of many of our largest cities and urban structures. In pre-concrete days, granite was used for building foundations, sidewalks, etc.
So, Contained within this granite is a very long story. And yet even this granite, at 400 million years of age, is but a youngster when it comes to the age of the earth. Scientists estimate that age at several billion years. Yet, not everyone believes that. Many hold a religious conviction that the passage we read from Genesis, subsequent passages about the age of the patriarchs and their genealogy, and other historical references in scripture—indicate an age of the earth to be around 6000 years old. I don’t mean to mock that conviction, but I do seriously wonder if folks holding that belief have ever been to Maine.
There is a museum in Kentucky, operated by Christians that hold to very literal beliefs about scripture, that presents what they see as evidence for a young earth. They have dioramas that depict biblical scenes in tandem with their version of geologic history. For instance, Adam and Eve are shown with dinosaurs in the background.
From Wikipedia: The Creation Museum’s displays and exhibits portray a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative, the Young Earth creationist viewpoint advocated by Answers in Genesis (AiG), the creationist apologetics ministry that owns and operates the museum. It says that God created the universe and everything in it in six 24-hour days, approximately 6,000–10,000 years ago. This contradicts the current scientific consensus that the Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old and that living organisms descended from a common ancestor through evolution. According to the AiG web site, the purpose of the museum is to “exalt Jesus Christ as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer”, to “equip Christians to better evangelize the lost”, and to “challenge visitors to receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord”.
While the museum’s displays contradict scientific consensus, a Sunday Independent columnist said in 2007 that “there are plenty of Americans ready to embrace Ham and support his museum”, citing the fact that the $27 million museum was entirely privately funded, and a Gallup public opinion poll showing that almost half of Americans agreed with the statement “God created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” AiG Executive Director Ken Ham said, “I want to make it clear that we don’t want to be known primarily as Young Earth Creationists. AiG’s main thrust is on biblical authority. Believing in a relatively young Earth is a consequence of accepting the word of God as an infallible revelation from our Creator.”
I do not agree with that point of view, as much as I appreciate its conviction. How can Christians see things so differently? Apparently, there was not even agreement about the origins of the earth and the order of creation at the time scripture was written. Let’s face it, the Bible is a very long book, written over several thousand years and it has some serious contradictions. If this is to be a scientific account of the origins of the world, we’re in trouble right off the bat. Not only does it not square with what science tells us today, this account is followed in chapter two, verse 4b, with an entirely different account.
Scripture is comprised of many types of writings, especially the Old Testament. There is poetry, like the psalms. There are folktales like the stories of Jonah and Job. There are priestly writings about how to live a holy life, what is pure and what is impure. There is history like the accounts of Israel’s rulers in I and II Samuel, I and II Kings. There are angry words spoken by prophets. There are stories of the way in which God intervened in human affairs, or refused to intervene. There are legal documents. There are words of healing spoken to encourage a downcast people , as in Isaiah. Expressed in this magnificent document we call Holy Scripture, is the sacred story of the People of God and their relationship to that God. And that experience was seen then, as now, in a myriad of ways. It is not of one whole cloth…but more like this piece of granite….forged of many different elements over millennia.
In these two stories about how the world came to be, we should see something very important. As Rev. Barbara Crafton points out– they are both in this sacred book, without any explanation or apology as to why in the world two such disparate accounts exist side by side. Apparently our ancestors in the faith were comfortable with that! I wouldn’t be—would you? I’d have this sorted out long before it ever got printed. But we have here an unabashed contradiction, and many have tried to explain it away to support a literal interpretation of scripture. But if the original authors were content to not choose one over the other, and instead indicate that both contain essential truth about God and the way God chose to order creation…why can’t we be content with the contradiction as well? They didn’t throw anything out. They left it like it was to stand for the ages.
As one writer points out, time and time again the Bible says one thing and just the opposite thing someplace else.  We don’t have to look any further than the birth accounts in Luke and Matthew. In Matthew, the holy family is living in a house in Bethlehem when Jesus is born. In Luke they were living in Nazareth and traveled to Bethlehem for the census…Mary delivering the baby before they could get back home. In Matthew the holy family flees to Egypt to escape Herod’s jealous wrath. In Luke the family goes back home to life as usual in Nazareth. Both stories contain essential truth. Scripture doesn’t have to be factual to be true.
We can’t become the people of Moses’ and Abraham’s time and understand what they heard when told these ancient stories. Actually, Moses’ generation would have heard it differently than it was heard by their ancestors who lived in Abraham and Sarah’s time. We honor these ancestors in the faith, but we do not become them. That is why scripture is interpreted by and for each subsequent generation. We can certainly comprehend this when scripture advocates (or at least condones) something like polygamy, slavery, or the brutal treatment of an enemy—things of which we do not approve today. And we do things today that would be not be approved by an earlier sacred code of conduct.
The bible is an evolving story that shows God’s people faithfully trying to understand what God wants from them . God rarely speaks in simplistic ways. Even as simply stated as are the Ten Commandments, there is room for movement. What does thou shalt not kill mean in light of the death penalty? And is it not a contradiction to all the biblical accounts of enemies that were killed in brutal ways, yet seemingly according to God’s plan?
And the people of the bible are caught up in contradictions, faithful, yet flawed. If we are looking for role models we can be obedient like Mary, fierce like Moses’ sister Miriam, brave and smart like Joseph, cunning like Jacob, wise like Elizabeth, a warrior and poet like David. But Jacob used his cunning to trick his brother out of his inheritance, Miriam exalted over the death of innocent Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea, David lusted after a woman not his wife. We are all caught up in a net of contradictions. But God needs all of us. God does not throw out any of our stories just because they are contradictory. God holds them all together in a story that is still being told.
Next week we will have an opportunity to share our perspective on same gender marriage. As I look out on you who are here today in worship, I see a people who can sit with the tension that debate engenders. Like the original editors of the bible, you know that God speaks in ways that are not always smooth and easy to hear. Those editors did not throw out one creation story in favor of the other story. They could sit with the tension and believe that God spoke through both. It made for a stronger and more vibrant account of God’s movement in the world. So it will be with us. God is speaking through our varied points of view.
Those wonderful Maine rocks were formed from the earth and are comprised of everything that went before them—as are we. There may be many versions of the creation story, but there is only one Creator. In the beginning, before even the rocks were formed, in all and through all, was the Word.