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Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering Paperback – March 6, 2014
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"A full-bore, unflinching assault on literalism in biblical interpretation, particularly in regard to the first chapters in Genesis...thoughtful and provocative...A simple assertion that anybody who believes as Osborn does cannot believe in the Bible will not do. He is too obviously a man of Scripture for that assertion to stick." (Christianity Today)
"Osborn has written a thoroughly distinctive book on the suffering of animals--the cruelty we impose on them and that they impose on one another...Highly recommended for church groups of all denominations." (Library Journal, starred review)
"Using C.S. Lewis, Job, and a theology of the crucifixion and Sabbath, Osborn offers a response to animal suffering that does not require seeing their actions as the result of a curse...This book will be of particular interest to those seeking a gentle but faithful critique of creationism." (Publishers Weekly)
"Death Before the Fallis a refreshing look at a difficult and generally ignored aspect of theodicy. Osborn demonstrates a sensitivity not only to the complexities of the theological concerns but (perhaps more importantly) to the biblical literalists with whom he strongly disagrees." (Kyle R. Greenwood, Bulletin for Biblical Research, 24.2)
STARRED REVIEW: "Osborn has written a thoroughly distinctive book on the suffering of animals―the cruelty we impose on them and that they impose on one another. His ingenious argument is that a too-literal reading of Genesis tends to make us too complacent about animal suffering, and a more nuanced, open approach makes us better advocates for animal rights and better witnesses of the proposed coming redemption. . . . This compassionate volume should speak widely to Christians, whose environmentalism can usually use a little bolstering. Highly recommended for church groups of all denominations." (Library Journal, February 15, 2014)
"This well written, thoughtful, and sensitive essay examines problematic ethical features of biblical literalism through the lens of the suffering widespread in the animal world. Questions such as the age of the Earth and whether animal predation resulted from the human fall are explored in philosophical and moral depth." (Patricia K. Tull, The Christian Century, April 29, 2015)
"Osborn offers a response to animal suffering that does not require seeing their actions as the result of a curse. . . . The book will be of particular interest to those seeking a gentle but faithful critique of creationism." (Publishers Weekly, January 20, 2014)
"Death Before the Fall is a frank, honest and wide-ranging critique of young-earth creationism, intelligent design and other science-denying movements. Sure-footed, informed and avoiding 'tidy answers,' it shines a sober spotlight on the intellectual crises within evangelicalism--crises responsible for the enduring popularity of viewpoints dismantled by science more than a century ago. Drawing on a broad range of sources, Death Before the Fall looks to the sacrificial and self-emptying death of Christ, rather than simplistic interpretations of the fall, to understand our troubled natural history, with its unimaginable reservoirs of suffering and death." (Karl W. Giberson, author of Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution)
"Death Before the Fall deals with the really big issues of what to make of Scripture in discussions of creation and evolution, and with the really tough challenge animal suffering brings to those discussions. But Ron Osborn shows that big issues and tough challenges can be addressed respectfully, insightfully, and with uncommon readability and humility. Irrespective of our views on the issues, this book represents the kind of informed and gracious conversation partners we want, and that we want to be." (Joel B. Green, Fuller Theological Seminary)
"In this book the author invites his readers to share his own profound journey arising out of melding his formative early experience of wildlife in Africa, contemporary evolutionary accounts and creationist biblical literalism. In clear, coherent and well-argued narratives he takes apart the assumptions common to scientism and creationism and draws on the Christian tradition and biblical sources in order to construct an alternative. This is an intelligently argued yet pastorally sensitive exploration of the challenges faced by evolutionary theists and creationists alike, but its implications go much further than this. For Osborn succeeds in achieving something that few authors manage, namely, a self-critical but compassionate and sometimes humorous account of the difficulties for theists in coming to terms with suffering in the animal world. It deserves to be read and appreciated not just in student courses on God and evolution, but more widely from different ecclesial traditions." (Celia Deane-Drummond, professor of theology, University of Notre Dame)
"Many Christians believe that theistic evolution is incompatible with the Bible because the former requires animal death before the Fall, while the Bible teaches that death began only with the first sin (Romans 5:12). Osborn successfully addresses this issue with a wealth of exegetical and theological insight. He further exposes the intellectual weakness and devastating spiritual consequences of the kind of literalism that leads to 'creation science.' This book is a must-read for all Christians (but particularly for pastors and other Christian leaders), especially for those who insist on a rigid literalistic approach to Genesis 1-2. It will also be an eye-opening introduction to religious ways of thinking about evolution for those nonbelievers who have assumed that the only alternative to 'scientific creationism' is the ultra-Darwinism of the so-called new atheists." (Tremper Longman III, Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies, Westmont College)
"A beautifully written book! Ron Osborn writes not with spite and ire but with wisdom and generosity of spirit. Where literalism once ruled as the only way to honor Scripture, here the deeper dimensions of God's compassion and Sabbath rest come to light. This is the first book I've read on the evolution-and-creation debate that brought tears to my eyes." (Philip Clayton, Claremont School of Theology, author of Transforming Christian Theology)
"Ronald Osborn draws together a variety of sources and addresses key issues in this rich project. His analysis of literalism and biblical interpretation is sorely needed in many circles today. And his insights on animal suffering should prove helpful as believers wrestle with the central issues of God's grace in a world of both pleasure and pain, holiness and harrowing abuse." (Thomas Jay Oord, Northwest Nazarene University, Nampa, Idaho)
"Ronald Osborn, with an agile mind and a well-informed intellect, throws down the gauntlet concerning misreading of the Genesis narratives. Taking aim at literalists and fundamentalists, he probes the ways in which one-dimensional reading distorts. Along the way he takes up issues of theodicy as they pertain to all of creation and to the animal realm in particular. Readers can expect to be jolted, surprised and challenged by this forthright statement." (Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary)
"As religious communities struggle to make sense of their faith traditions after Darwin, they rely on thoughtful and sensitive seers to lead them beyond the shallows of literalism to a deeper encounter with new scientific discoveries. Ronald Osborn's sophisticated reflections on literalism and animal suffering will be helpful to Christians of all denominations who are troubled by the wild ways of evolution." (John F. Haught, senior research fellow, Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University)
"Death Before the Fall is personal, engaging, and has many important things to say about the scope, logic, and impact of biblical literalism." (Bethany Sollereder, Reviews in Science and Religion, May 2014)
"This text would be of particular interest to conservative Christians . . . concerned about animal suffering and death who are willing to move beyond literal interpretations of the creation story." (Donna Yarri, Religious Studies Review, Vol. 41, No. 2, June 2015)
"Readers will certainly find that Osborn thoughtfully and sincerely exhibits the potential implications involved in how one addresses these complex and highly-charged issues." (Justin M. Young, Africanus Journal, 8, 2)
"It is evident to me that Osborn had opened a dialog that is important and fascinating. Those who have an interest in hermeneutics (priciples of interpretation) in relation to science and theology should read this book. Whether or not you agree with specific details of Osborn's proposal, you will be informed and challenged by the very relevant issues he has presented." (Martin Hanna, Seminary Studies, 54, Spring 2016)
About the Author
Ronald E. Osborn (PhD, University of Southern California) is a wandering philosopher. He was a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Peace and Justice Studies program at Wellesley College and a Fulbright Scholar to Burma.
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“The lions were feasting on the carcass in the middle of the road, panting heavily as they tore into its body, their chests and muzzles soaked in blood. The air was filled with the stench of death.” (12)
This brings us to “the central riddle” (13) in Osborn’s book, i.e. the perplexing mixture of goodness and violence/suffering/natural evil in creation:
“the particular goodness and beauty of Africa’s wild places that were such an important part of my childhood were inextricably linked to cycles of birth and death, as well as suffering, ferocity and animal predation.” (13)
Osborn sees his book as providing a contribution this problem (20). And after the introduction I was anxious to learn more of his proposed solutions.
*Bait and switch?*
Unfortunately, this is the point where I observe that you can’t judge this book by its cover (or its introduction). At this point we begin Part 1 which extends for 100 pages and which only touches at a few fleeting points on the “central riddle” so tantalizingly presented in the introduction. Instead, Part 1 consists of nine chapters that cover a bewildering number of topics including hermeneutics, fundamentalism, philosophy of science, and epistemology.
Osborn does eventually get around to the central riddle in part 2 (the book’s final fifty pages). I might have been able to forgive the fact that less than 1/3 of the book deals with the stated theme if Part 1 clearly provided a cumulative argument that laid a necessary foundation for the treatment of animal suffering and evil in part 2.
Except that it doesn’t.
So let me propose a far more accurate title for this book: Polemical Musings on Fundamentalism, Science, Creation, and the Problem of Animal Suffering. I suspect I would have been a good deal happier with the book had it been marketed more in keeping with the content. With that in mind, in the remainder of the review I’ll make some observations about the book’s polemical tone and the general quality of its reflections (or musings) before turning to assess Osborn’s contributions to that central riddle which come in part 2.
*Anti-fundamentalist polemics, for better or worse*
Let’s start with the polemical side. Osborn talks about the fundamentalism he faced growing up in the Adventist tradition. And at times his book seems like a personal attempt to exorcise some of the personal demons that linger still. For example, Osborn often indulges in broad generalizations about literalists/fundamentalists, some of which draw rather freely on armchair psychoanalysis. For example, he writes:
“Many literalists … live with a visceral terror, thinly veiled behind their statements of dogmatic certainty and superior faith, that the entire religious edifice they have dedicated their lives to constructing could at any moment come crashing down upon their heads. Theirs is a theology conceived as a high-stakes game of Jenga. Whatever you do, don’t touch the bricks at the base of the tower.” (45)
I want to pause on this passage as an illustration of this type of analysis. We can start with the strategically vague qualifier “many”. No doubt “many” literalists live in visceral terror just like “many” liberals disavow the free market and “many” atheists really hate God and “many” pre-teen girls are devoted Beliebers. Once you offer a suitably vague qualifier, one can engage in all sorts of speculative psychoanalysis that effectively tarnishes an entire group including those in the group who do not conform (because they don’t love Justin Bieber or hate God, or disavow the free market or live with a visceral terror).
I will grant Osborn this much: he is effective at lampooning pained fundamentalist attempts to defend flat “literal” readings of various biblical passages. Consider Leonard Brand from the “Geo-Science Research Institute” who suggests that God could have created the illusion of an extended day (recorded in Joshua 10:13) by using a system of giant mirrors (70). You don’t even have to satirize an argument like that. You just have to cite it and stand back.
Even more effective is Osborn’s reductio ad absurdum of young earth creationist readings of Genesis 1-2. As Osborn points out, these two separate accounts cannot be mashed together into one unified account. And any attempt to do so results in, among other things, a very busy day six. We join the day in progress:
“Adam commences tilling the land but is, apparently, immediately filled with feelings of ennui and loneliness. God decides it is not good for just-created Adam to be alone (Gen 2:18). At once a massive stampede of animals (until then apparently hidden from Adam’s sight as he worked the Garden) comes crawling, flapping and galloping past the no-doubt-bewildered man who only came into being hours (if not minutes or seconds) before.” (54)
Next, Adam names the creatures (no problem right? After all, there’s only a few million of ‘em). Then he gets lonely again and is put into a deep sleep so God can operate and bring a new companion into being. As Osborn observes, “It is imperative to the life of faith, creationists admonish us, that we accept that all of the above occurred within twenty-four hours and not a minute more.” (54)
Osborn is most effective at this parts of the book where he draws out the absurdity of fundamentalist positions. But I was left dissatisfied with his penchant for speculative armchair psychoanalysis and sweeping polemical broadsides against his fundamentalist foes. If one really wants to understand fundamentalist views of biblical authority, inspiration and interpretation, one is better off reading the more sober and academic analysis of historians like George Marsden and Mark Noll.
*Musings, both profound and problematic*
I suggested including “Musings” in the title because the book reads more like a collection of self-contained literary units connected to the wider whole with only a thin thread (consider the extended discussion of philosophy of science in chapter four and Gnosticism in chapter seven). In other words, the book reads like it originated as several independent literary units and one question: “How can I fit all these articles into a single book?” This impression is confirmed early on when Osborn notes that the book grew out of a series of online magazine articles published in 2010-2011 (18).
As you are no doubt aware, magazine articles are not the place for rigorous depth, and so it is here. Osborn has many interesting thoughts spanning a wide range of disciplines, but rarely does he engage in depth with the academic literature on a topic. This is disappointing for those looking for more rigor and systematic consistency.
But even worse, it sometimes gets Osborn into trouble. For example, he talks frequently of “foundationalism”. But he shows no real awareness as to how the concept of foundationalism is understood in contemporary epistemology. Instead, he seems to get his understanding from Nancey Murphy. (His analysis also calls to mind F. LeRon Shults and J. Wentzel van Huyssteen.) Unfortunately, this results in a strawman in which foundationalism is conflated with a type of Cartesian strong foundationalism, and which allows Osborn to offer a “postfoundationalist” coherentism in its place. Alas, Osborn shows no real grasp of concepts like “noetic structure”, “epistemic justification” and “proper basicality”. And this renders his entire epistemological analysis little more than a misleading distraction that detracts from the overall value of the work.
*What then of animal suffering?*
This book purports to be about animal suffering. So what does Osborn have to say about that problem when he finally gets there in part 2? In keeping with the style of the book, these final five chapters offer five separate treatments of the topic including three literalist dilemmas (chapter 10), a vague Lewisean reading of natural evil in midrashic terms (chapter 11), a reflection on the Book of Job and its embrace of predatory animals as part of God’s good creation (chapter 12) a theology of creation as kenosis (chapter 13) and a reflection on Sabbath rest with only a tenuous relationship to the topic of animal suffering (chapter 14).
There is definitely some interesting material here, though frustratingly much of it is of a cursory nature. And since these are just reflections, Osborn avoids going any deeper into a systematic explanation. A cynic might retort that just as two half-baked loaves don’t add up to a single edible loaf, so a collocation of half-baked ideas doesn’t add up to a satisfactory treatment of evil. But then Osborn does warn us at the beginning that he offers “few confident answers” (20) to the problem. Thus, his real goal is “to provoke honest even if unsettling conversations” (20) about the problem. I’d say that part 2 does succeed to some degree in that regard. However, I think small group discussion questions after every chapter would have been a valuable addition to furthering those conversations.
At the same time, I can’t help but feel that to a certain degree Osborn’s indecisive approach is not as much a sign of intellectual courage and rigor as a failure to follow through any of the ideas he explores in cursory form with greater rigor and attention. It certainly would be good to have some more decisive replies than he provides. For example, his discussion of creation as kenosis is frustratingly vague and lapses into poetry precisely when analytical precision is to be expected. Osborn writes: “the creation is best seen as an improvisational theater or musical performance in which the director invites the actors–and not human actors alone–to join in the writing of the script, with all of the danger and all of the possibility that this implies.” (162) The language of “danger” and “possibility” is language that calls to mind open theism. So is Osborn endorsing open theism as a solution? He never says. As for the “actor” metaphor, if one must be an agent to be an actor, then there are no non-human actors. If, however, a rock rolling down a hill constitutes an actor then the metaphor is potentially pushed beyond the breaking point. Whether the metaphor is a defensible heuristic is never really explored.
Many people reading a review are looking for a simple, decisive analysis: good or bad? Thumbs up or thumbs down? I can’t offer such an analysis here. Instead, my assessment must be adjusted to expectations. If one is looking for a rigorous, focused treatment of the problem of animal suffering, they won’t find it here. Instead, I would direct those interested to read Christopher Southgate’s The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil or Michael Murray’s Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering. One should also check out Trent Dougherty’s forthcoming book The Problem of Animal Pain: A Theodicy For All Creatures Great And Small. Dougherty is a great younger philosopher with some really interesting ideas on animal pain and compensatory resurrection.
However, if one is looking for a lively collection of polemical musings on topics like fundamentalism, hermeneutics, science, creation, Genesis 1-3, and the problem of animal suffering, then this will be a valuable addition to your library.
It should be noted that the author was raised in and continues to find Christian fellowship in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which shows up in his positive comments on the Sabbath, the amount of space in the book that he devotes to discussing biblical literalism (two-thirds), and in the very gentle way in which he disagrees with biblical literalists.
“It is strict literalists themselves . . . who have most clearly subjected the theological authority of Scripture to the authority of modern scientific rationalism with their insistence that Genesis be “scientific” in order to be divinely inspired. . . . Believers ought not to be so in awe of modern science as to assume that Genesis is only authoritative so long as it is scientific or historical.”
The author makes no attempt to survey all of the available positions on animal suffering and animal death before the fall, as, for instance, Christopher Southgate did in his book “The Groaning of Creation.” He wishes to “demonstrate to biblical literalists that one can be a thoroughly orthodox Christian and embrace evolutionary concepts without contradiction.”
He offers no tidy answers to the theodicy dilemma of animal suffering, but suggests that the problem is less severe for those who accept biological evolution than for those who accept “scientific” creationism. He suggests that there is an analogy between speaking of moral evil as resulting from human free will and speaking of natural evil and animal suffering as “emerging from free or indeterminate processes, which God does not override and which are inherent possibilities in a creation in which the Creator allows the other to be truly other.”
The author disagrees with those who insist that without a historical Adam the life, death, and resurrection of the historical Jesus would be devoid of meaning, because this claim amounts to a denial of the centrality of Christ, since it gives the fallen Adam of Genesis an interpretative primacy over the Jesus of history.
I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in biblical literalism and/or the problem of animal suffering, even though it was a bit rambling at times.
Unfortunately, not only are there endnotes instead of footnotes, but the text is identified at the top of each odd-numbered page by chapter names, and the endnotes are identified only by chapter numbers, deliberately making the endnotes even more difficult to find.