Genesis, Picasso, and Biblical Truth

Let’s face it: the Bible is not an easy book to understand, let alone explain. It is a complex anthology of texts that span multiple centuries, diverse cultures, and three different languages. Some of its books are historical, others are poetic, and others are prophetic. Some parts of it make sense to our modern ears, but many parts don’t. Take Genesis, for example: was the world really made in seven days? Did it really only happen 5,000 years ago? Are we all really descended from only two people?

Atheists like Richard Dawkins love the Book of Genesis because it provides them with easy targets for their anti-scriptural jabs. They point at the huge amount of evidence for evolution, then they point at the biblical account of God’s creation, and say, “Really? You Christians believe that? Are you really that simpleminded?”

Sometimes we Christians can feel a little sheepish or insecure in the face of their accusations, but there is no need. If anyone is being simpleminded, it is those who refuse to try to understand the Scriptures in their richness and complexity. Rather, they choose to limit themselves to a their own faulty caricature of the Bible. Truly open-minded intellectuals would take the time to at least understand what the Bible actually is and how Christians read it, even if they choose not to believe it.

We Christians do indeed believe that the Bible is the true, but we do not (or at least should not) believe it as simplistically as critics love to claim. We know that biblical truth is the truth that God put in Scripture for the sake of our salvation, but that truth is revealed within the limitations of human language. Just as Jesus Christ, the Word-Made-Flesh, became man in a very specific time and place, and was conditioned by that time and place, so did God’s Revelation to man become inscribed and incarnated in human language in very specific and conditioning times and places. There is an inherent polarity and tension that must always be kept in mind by whomever reads Scripture, believer or non-believer: what is revealed and proposed as universal truth and how it is revealed.

Let’s look at the creation account in Genesis, for example. On one hand, we have a proposed universal truth (which we Christians believe to be revealed by God), and on the other, we have the unique literary way in which the truth is communicated. The underlying truth is that the universe was made ex nihilo by one all-powerful Divine Being. The unique, culturally conditioned way in which this is transmitted is a seven-day cosmogony that contains elements similar to the myths of Israel’s neighbors. This is the case because, as the Navarre Commentary on Genesis puts it, “The sacred writers of Genesis sifted through these myths and selected certain literary elements suited to the mentality of their contemporaries in order to convey the message of faith that they wanted to pass on, through their writings, to the people of Israel and, through Israel’s religious experience, to all mankind.”

It is important to keep in mind what is being revealed: the universe was created from nothing by one omnipotent Being. The Book of Genesis is revealing an objective truth, but not a scientific truth. Its writers were not trying to produce scientific theory, and Christians do not turn to Genesis for scientific explanations. Yes, we believe that it is inspired by God, but just as Jesus Christ spoke Aramaic, the language of his time and place, Genesis speaks the language of the people of the time of its composition. They did not speak of the creation of the universe in modern scientific terms, they spoke in mythical cosmogonies.

The Book of Genesis, along with all of the other books of the Bible, is a work of literary art and as such the validity of its message cannot be judged and criticized within the paradigm of contemporary scientific disciplines. Although certain disciplines such as philology and archeology can enrich our understanding how the book of Genesis was composed, they cannot go beyond that in regards to the universal truth that it proposes. As a work of literary art, it falls outside of the purview of science, and this in no way compromises the truth that is embedded in it.

Let me illustrate this with an example. Imagine someone walking into the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid and walking up to the Picasso masterpiece Guernica that depicts a the bombardment of a Basque town during the Spanish Civil War. After a few moments of inspection, he begins to laugh at it, and then he begins to laugh at those around him who are admiring it: “How can you even look at this? That’s not the way it actually looked!”

"Guernica," Pablo Picasso
“Guernica,” Pablo Picasso

Wouldn’t we consider that person to be ridiculously missing the point of Picasso’s famous painting? Yet, as absurd as such a reaction may seem, it is not that different from that of secular atheists who scorn the Bible and those who believe it. Just as it would be unreasonable to despise Guernica for its lack of photographic detail, so it is ludicrous to criticize Genesis for its lack of scientific accuracy. Both Guernica and Genesis are works of art and are thus conditioned by the inherent subjectivity of art; both contain objective truths embedded within the subjective experience of their respective artists.

The universal truth contained in Guernica is that war is horrendous and causes terrible anguish and suffering. Picasso chose to communicate this truth not through a photograph, but through his own unique style, and it may be argued that his mode of depiction captures the horror of war even more poignantly than a photograph could. His personal, unscientific, artistic way of communicating the truth in no way compromises it. The same can be said for Genesis: the unscientific and culturally conditioned way in which it communicates the truth of the world’s origin in no way undermines it.

Of course, atheists will object that the divine creation is impossible in the first place, but if they wish to prove that, they cannot do so by criticizing the literary genre used by the ancient authors of Genesis. The onus is on them to find the scientific experiment that proves the impossibility of a Divine Creator’s existence.

Good luck with that.

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