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The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder Hardcover – February 26, 2010
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"What a pleasure to read a book this calm and commanding in place of the usual hysterics about faith and science. It ends with the only call that makes sense in this moment from either source of human wisdom: a call for self-restraint, self-mastery, before we overwhelm the world of beauty and meaning into which we were born."
--Bill McKibben, author of Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
"Fresh, generative work at the interface of faith and science requires a scholar of uncommon erudition and acute interpretive sensibility, who can boldly make connections and remain resilient in the face of demanding data. Bill Brown is precisely that interpreter, who here provides what will be a defining benchmark in our ongoing work in "faith and science." Readers will be dazzled by his range and depth of discernment. This book is an inviting challenge to people of faith and practitioners of science - to all who find the interface a source of wonder beyond curiosity."
--Walter Brueggemann, Professor Emeritus, Columbia Theological Seminary
"Brown's book is the most creative book on creation that I've ever read."
--Nancey Murphy, Professor of Christian Philosophy, Fuller Theological Seminary
"Seldom does one encounter a Biblical scholar of the Hebrew texts as well versed as Brown in evolutionary biology and ecological science. Seldom does a scholar probe so imaginatively the deep sense of wonder in both science and religion, whether in Job's Behemoth or on Darwin's Beagle. Never are the two better joined in concern that Homo sapiens, 'the dirty groundling made to image God,' celebrate and save life on wild Earth."
--Holmes Rolston, III, Professor of Philosophy and University Distinguished Professor, Colorado State University
"Brown's study of the seven creation texts of the Old Testament presents exquisite biblical interpretation that destabilizes narrow assumptions about biblical creation. What makes the work unique is its deep engagement with contemporary biology and ecological science. The result is a book that calls forth praise, an ethic of responsibility and, of course, wonder."
"Brown's book is magisterial in its scope, beautifully written, and accessible to both sides in the science and religion debates."
--Englewood Review of Books
"...we would have to judge Brown's reflective work a success."---John H. Walton, Wheaton College
"Brown writes poetically, poignantly, and powerfully."--Mark E. Biddle
"William P. Browns book is one such effort and a good one at that."--James M. Childs, Trinity Lutheran Seminary
"Brown is an engaging writer and thinker whose insights are both substantive and accessible. This is an important and timely book for biblical scholars, theologians, pastors, and educated lay people who want a reliable guide into how to think about a mutually respectful relationship between ancient Scripture and modern science. Brown's study of OT creation resources will provide a crucial resource as Christians seek new ways to tell the old story for a 21st-century world."--Interpretation
About the Author
William P. Brown is Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary and the author of several books and numerous articles on the Bible and its interpretation.
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
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Brown, William P. The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 334 pp. $29.95
William P. Brown, Professor of OT at Columbia Theological Seminary, has embarked on an admirable adventure. Through his theological interpretations of seven wonderful passages of Scripture, he will engage contemporary scientific dialog.
"Wonder is what unites the empiricist and the `contemplator,' the scientist and the believer" (4). In his introduction, Brown sketches what he calls a "cohort of wonder" (4). He declares that this is no God-of-the-gaps work (17). In this adventure of wonder, the ensuing mystery of creation is "being grasped by something larger than ourselves, ever compelling us to stretch, rather than limit, the horizons of our awareness" (5).
Brown identifies seven passages of creational significance: (1) Gen. 1:1-2:3, (2) Gen. 2:4b-3:24, (3) Job 38-41, (4) Ps. 104, (5) Prov. 8:22-31, (6) Ecc. 1:2-11 and 12:1-7, and (7) excerpts from Isa. 40-55. These are the seven pillars of creation. Brown will exegete these passages and bring together "biblical theology and science" (7). His study is "aimed at engaging science in the theological interpretation of Scripture" (9). However, it is not simply a harmony of faith and science since sometimes there are "collisions" (10).
The steps involved in this conversation are Elucidate, Associate, and Appropriate (14). In elucidating Scripture, Brown is observing and describing it. Associate is setting Scripture in dialog with modern science, whether for collision, or for deeper understanding. Lastly, in appropriating these findings, Brown will follow a hermeneutical feedback loop, or spiral, to return back and forth to each subject with an "enriched understanding" (16). He promises a "science of the divine vistas" (17). These seven pillars will be arranged into a beautiful quilt of wisdom (17).
This chapter examines Mesopotamian and Egyptian creation stories. While these are helpful for understanding ANE cosmology, I felt as though including additional texts such as Adapa, The Eridu Genesis, or the Sumerian Deluge would have helped illuminate the anthropology of chapter four, "The Ground of Being."
Chapter Three -- The Imago Dei
Emphasizing its priestly origins, Brown finds significance in the literary structure of Gen. 1 which identifies creation as a temple. "What took Solomon seven years to complete (1 Kgs 6:38), God took only seven days, and on a cosmic scale no less" (40). Gen. 1 links man to God's image in four ways: (1) The essentialist link is that human beings "bear something of God's very nature" (42). (2) The functional link connects this image with man's "role and place in creation" (42). (3) The status link recognizes the dignity and royalty of man as created by God (4). And (4) The gender link suggests "that humanity's relational and reproductive capacities reflect in some attenuated way the communal and generative dimensions of the divine" (44).
Brown notes the "mythological reduction" (49) evident in Gen. 1 and how congenial this is for his project. However, rather than a three-tiered cosmos filled with water above, space is filled with dark matter (50). But the recognition of Gen. 1 of structure and variety in the universe is everywhere echoed in modern scientific studies. Similar to cosmological science, Gen. 1 reveals a creation unfolding "on the `edge' between chaos and order" (68). Since Gen. 1:3 understands light as a domain (that the later luminaries inhabit, Gen. 1:14-19), it agrees with modern scientific understanding that space and time "constitute an interdependent whole" since "space and time emerge together" (55). Just as God's breath was "suspended above the dark waters" ready to issue the divine word of creation, so the Big Bang burst forth with dramatic energy (57). Since Gen. 1 frequently has God commanding earth and water to perform some work of creating, this "co-opting" is compared to the chemical and biological processes observed in science related to life's origins (70). Further, the ability of creatures to fit their environments through evolution and speciation, demonstrates God's wisdom in making a creation that is "good" (73).
Chapter Four -- The Imago Terrae
"In contrast to creation by magisterial word in Genesis 1, this story charts a distinctly dirty creation" (81). In Gen. 2-3, man is made in the image of the earth, and God is seen as a "divine farmer" (81). The truth of this is remarkable "in ways that the ancient author could not have imagined" (94). Planets are formed from interstellar dust (94). Exploded stars spill their nutritious dust throughout the universe, which brings to formation "everything from planets to people" (95). Further, man is connected with the animal kingdom through mutual connection with the earth. Indeed, biological evolution declares that man evolved from animals.
Brown finds a collision between Scripture and science regarding the Fall of man (106). There is no evidence of an original harmonious state of creation in science (107). The creation of man, then, is consequently reread as the evolution of a child to adulthood, with the evolutionary arrival of moral consciousness, among other features of homo sapiens, of great significance (111). Lastly, in perhaps his most valuable insight of the chapter, Brown finds a connection between the tree of life in Gen. 2-3 with the "phylogenetic tree" of biological researchers (114). His artistry is frequently remarkable.
Chapter Five -- The Imago Terreo
The taxonomic character of Job 38-42 is artistically compared to Darwin's HMS Beagle voyage, which sailed around the world. Like Job at the end of God's frightening whirlwind tour, Darwin reflects, "The map of the world ceases to be blank; it becomes a picture full of the most varied and animated figures" (132). The terrifying creation presented to Job, chief of which is Behemoth and Leviathan, is compared with the extremity of the environments in which life began (136). Job has discovered that "creation is characterized by wildness and spontaneity, stability and revolution, waste and resiliency, death and life" (134). Creation in this chapter is terribly fierce and unapologetic.
Chapter Six -- The Creatio Continua
The doxological Ps. 104 "delineates the broad structures or domains of creation before proceeding to detail various life forms and their habitations" (144). Creation in Ps. 104 "is not so much a beginning point as it is an ongoing process" (158). It is creatio continua. "The world is sustained by God's love and joy for creation" (158). The emphasis in Ps. 104 on the domains of living animals is cast alongside the recognition in science of the complex relationship between animals and their habitats. This "niche" is the animal's interactive place in the biotic environment (155). Creatures and their environments, then, act upon eachother.
Chapter Seven -- The Imago Sapientia
Wisdom is characterized in Prov. 8 as a playful child before creator God. Within the context of Prov. 1-9, where the path toward wisdom is one of growth and maturity, at the time of creation wisdom is seen as a playful child. The cognitive maturity of humanity in evolutionary science is seen as the growing up of wisdom (172). Other connections in this chapter are drawn between the rational order of the universe and wisdom, and the maternal nature of wisdom, which can be observed in the animal kingdom when mother's teach their young (174).
Chapter Eight -- The Imago Futilitatis
The cyclical and the mundane nature of life leads Qoheleth to the depressing notion that, because God is indifferent to creation, a world without meaning is the only answer, try as he might. Life is paradox. The incessant cycles of time are wearingly predictable (184). But the world is also woefully unpredictable (184). It is time and chance. It is entropy. The dying sun as revealed by science, black holes, the death of the universe, etc., each resound the futility of creation (192-94). What else is there except to eat drink and be merry?
Chapter Nine -- The Image Novae Creationis
Isaiah's imagery of new creation is full of passages that describe the heavens as a fabric (Isa. 42:5). Like a fabric the heavens are said to stretch out, which is comparable to Einsteinian physics that describe space and time as warped and curved (210). "As the universe continues to expand, the fabric of spacetime continues to stretch" (211).
Somewhat of a Lack of Symmetry
Scientific data is sometimes presented which may or may not have any comparison, or contrast, to be made with Scripture (this is particularly evident in the science pieces of chapters three and four). while this is inessential to the success of the author and the book itself, it did create an imbalance. The book is also more sympathetic in mood when discussing science, but occasionally narrow, or unfair in its treatment of Scripture. As an example, Brown clearly has no reservations expressing his distaste over certain passages, such as the judgment of the wicked closing Ps. 104, where he labels this passage a damned imprecation in an otherwise perfect psalm (144). There are no such statements directed toward science.
There are irreverent statements made toward God, such as his plans failing (83, 92), or that he must return to the drawing board due to a failure of creation (112). These parts of the book are not necessarily couched in an irreverent attitude, but they remain so. In a singular distasteful part of the book, its claimed that the theology of the Yahwist's creation account is tainted by his patriarchal background. This by itself is not uncommon, this can be read in many books, but this thought represents Brown's theological conclusion coming on the heels of his scientific analysis of predatory male primates (105-6), which explicitly connects the sexual savagery of such creatures with the patriarchal leaning of the creation narrative! "It is as if the Yahwist had drawn from humanity's primate roots" (106). I found this whole section to be incredible.
Environmental concern figures ubiquitously in the book (47, 159, 232-40). Brown goes pretty far in chapter four to connect man with the animal kingdom through their mutual reliability on the ground. He even emphasizes that each is given "the breath of life." This effort is to show that man and animal are on level ground. Man was never created to be an environmental dominionist. The noticeable concern for environmentalism and its pressure evident in his writing stirs some distrust for his exegesis and theological interpretations.
For me, "cohorts of wonder" sounded like water-falls, sunsets, and the like, and not necessarily nature's red tooth and claw (106), fierce bacteria (136), or the uncharitable competition for survival in nature's animal kingdom. Surely Brown is cognizant of the miraculous occasions of lions laying down with lambs in nature, at least in principle. Some animals exhibit, instinctively, care for other defenseless animals and not predation. Brown suggests that Scripture never claims a creation such as this (235). But many lifeforms on earth do exist peacefully with others. An animal that eats another is just one type of creature. Some eat plants. It seems it would have been more congenial to the Scriptural material to find and emphasize these aspects of the creation, over the intimidating, although relevant, savage aspects.
From the Mount Everest that is set up in the Introduction, where creation's mysteries "inspire awe and inquiry" (5), the descent through the rest of the pages becomes noticeable, although there are occasional peaks revealing a beautiful panorama along the way, such as the notion that God's breath, hovering over the waters, is waiting to burst forth in creative decree, like a Big Bang (57). This theological interpretation delivered on the promises of divine vistas for myself.
The reader also encounters distracting discussions of patriarchy (83-84, 88, 105, 231), environmentalism, and an emphasis on the fierceness (imago terreo) and futility (imago futilitatis) of creation. This material was never forecasted in his Introduction. And this created a journey of pessimistic realism instead of the romantic vistas imagined in the Introduction. But what was sketched in the Introduction was the book I wanted to read. Brown closes the book discussing environmentalism: "It is only fitting, then, to conclude our journey with a discussion of humanity's responsibility to creation" (234). Mankind is imago deletoris, "the image of the destroyer" (234).
Dr. Brown and I discussed, back and forth through email, my criticisms of his book. I found him professional, welcoming, and very Christian. In the end we agreed to disagree, but we did narrow our disagreement to the meaning of "wonder." Because of the romantic portrait setup in the Introduction I had anticipated, as a thoughtful reader, a wonder that was more harmonious and pleasant in nature. Brown's own view, if I understood him correctly, was a wonder characterized by awe, even if frightening in virtue, commanded by his exegesis of the relevant passages of Scripture and suggested by the scientific data he engages. It remains my opinion that the Introduction Brown has written betrays his understanding of wonder. And I believe it remains Brown's opinion I remain misunderstood. Perhaps Brown's familiarity with the scientific data allows him to more readily attach romantic notions to even the fierce virtues of nature. The reader of Brown's book is free to decide for themselves who is right. Despite these criticisms it remains a very good book. Four stars.
The seven pillars refer to the seven perspectives he chooses:
Genesis 1:1-2:3, the "Cosmic Temple"
Genesis 2:4-3:24, the "drama of dirt"
Job 38-41, "Behemoth and the Beagle"
Psalm 104, the "passion of the Creator"
Proverbs 8:22-31, "Wisdom's World"
Ecclesiastes, the "dying cosmos"
Isaiah 40-55, the "fabric of the cosmos"
Each is allowed to speak in its own voice, without the typical Christian attempt to merge them into a single, coherent account of creation. Consequently, Brown highlights their differences with each other in celebration of the Hebrew Bible's diversity of voices. The author even revels in the conflict between Ecclesiastes and Second Isaiah, imagining the two shouting at each other across the divide of years and of the canon.
I was particularly taken with his reading of Job and want to pursue competing interpretations. Brown imagines God calling Job into the wilderness to realize himself the brother of Behemoth. Typically, we preachers see Job humbling himself before the power and creativity of God, whose thundering "Can you...?" questions knock Job to his knees in repentance. Brown instead sees God teaching Job perspective on his own humanity by the awareness of his kinship with the rest of creation, particularly the monstrous Behemoth. Verse 42:6 is typically translated, "Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes," but Brown renders it, "Therefore, I waste away, yet am comforted over dust and ashes" (p. 124). The author is aware of the controversial nature of his translation, and explains himself well; he must do so, because this verse is key to his understanding of Job's experience of God's oration.
Persons without a background in Hebrew or in Old Testament criticism will find parts of the book difficult. For example, Brown translates Genesis 2's "adam" as "groundling" (p. 80), with little explanation of his purpose in doing so. One could easily miss the point of the wordplay of "adam" (human being) and "adamah" (ground), which follows the translation. We are so accustomed to the word rendered as the proper name "Adam" that more explanation may be necessary. Still, these difficulties may be simply fussy and can be skipped over by the reader who wants to focus on the ways natural science illuminates these texts.
That same section includes an example of one feature of Brown's writing that will appeal to some and annoy others: the love of English wordplay. Contrasting Genesis 1 with Genesis 2, he writes, "If in the Priestly account God is King of the cosmos, in the Yahwist account God is King of the compost" (p. 82). These wordplays keep the text grounded (as it were) in our ordinary experience, and no doubt reflect the author's own experience of the playfulness of Hebrew writing.
Since, like the author, I am not a scientist, I am not qualified to evaluate his use of science. From my outsider's perspective, however, I find it appropriately evaluated and applied to the text. He uses popularizations of difficult scientific concepts to illuminate the Hebrew text and suggest interpretations appropriate to our age, as well as to revel in the ways ancient writers anticipated realities we live with. If the earth exists for God, not for us (as his reading of Job and Proverbs suggests), then it is not ours to use up, damage or even destroy. Ecclesiastes' sense of a dying cosmos imaginatively prefigures entropy.
I have contended that the theologian must be aware of modern science in order to speak sensibly about the work of God in the world that we know. Brown shows that the Biblical scholar also can benefit from becoming scientifically literate. It used to be said that theology is queen of the sciences, which I take to mean that theology needs to take advice from the natural sciences and change her policies and procedures accordingly. Biblical scholarship, likewise, takes good advice from the natural sciences, and Brown's book beautifully fills the bill.
Robert A. Keefer, President
Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian Faith