Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Genesis 1) transports me to a smoke-filled room circa 1969, filled with six or seven men contemplating the fate of the world. No, it’s not a sinister meeting of powerful politicians or a corporate cabal making back room decisions. It’s my living room, and the men are my dad and several of his brothers, who come over every Sunday afternoon to visit Ma’am, aka Granny, and to talk over the finer points of that morning’s Sunday School lesson or the sermon or some other biblical topic that hasn’t been settled in someone’s mind. One uncle, Tony, was also a singer and guitar player, and he would often be called on to play and sing a number in the midst of the discussions. The women always gathered around the table in the kitchen to do their talking. I was the ashtray boy, and heard the call many times whenever a long ash was about to fall to the floor, Stanley, how about finding me an ashtray? I remember several things about those living room dialogues. One, there was rarely any agreement on those finer points; everybody had an interpretation and they could argue their perspective vehemently. Two, there was rarely any hard feelings or calling into question the validity of anyone’s faith journey, just because they didn’t agree on interpretations. Three, these conversations taught me to love and find wonder in the mysteries of the faith. Here was a group of men, a tv repairman, a lineman for the power company, an insurance salesman, a retired mill worker, all contemplating matters far beyond the mundane concerns of day to day life: How can people who have never heard the gospel be saved? What are the signs of the end times? And an issue that came up many times – Are the six days of creation literal days? That questioning of biblical literalism, and having people of deep faith entertain the possibility that the Bible could speak in some way other than literal, and still be the Word of God, and that this other way of speaking did not diminish the awe and wonder of what God was doing in creation, was, to say the least, pivotal for my faith journey.
I don’t know what kinds of living rooms the ancient Hebrews had, where they gathered to contemplate the mysteries of the world, or what they smoked. I do know, from my study of the beginning chapters of Genesis, that they did not all tell the creation story in the same way. While these ancients were all part of the same family of faith, all born of the same Ma’am, there were varying views on the finer points of the story. Hebrew Bible Scholars give names to these distinct perspectives, the Jawists, the Elohists, the Deuteronomists, and the Priests, JEDP for short. I like to think of these as the ancient Hebrew versions of a tv repairman, a power company lineman, an insurance salesman, and a retired mill worker, with each of them thinking and speaking a bit differently about the wonder and mystery of how it all began. None of them, it’s important to note, are speaking as scientists. Scholars tell us that Genesis 1 is actually a hymn, composed by the Priestly source, so I can imagine the Priest being the uncle called on to take up a lute in the middle of their debates and lighten things up with a song. What came out was something majestic and beautiful, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form and void, and darkness covered the face of the deep. . .
We don’t gather in living rooms much anymore. I do more talking to family from the solitary confines of my own living room, via computer and Facebook, which does generate smoke in its own way when questions like the beginning of the universe come up in long threads of discussion about creation and evolution. One of the problems of this venue is that we don’t have the visible presence of Ma’am right there in the room with us, monitoring our conversations, and somehow this frees us up on occasion to lose our tempers and question the basic validity of one another’s faith journeys. And we don’t have Uncle Tony right there to tune up his guitar and lead us in singing an old hymn when the heat gets a little too intense. I guess the next best thing is ITunes, so before I check on the latest additions to an ongoing Facebook debate, I think I’ll listen to some Genesis, from their first album that came out in 1969 when I was emptying ashtrays: Ocean of motion squirming around and up and down, pushing together, scattering mountains all around you, that is the sound of a new born world and the light from a curious sky. It has begun.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.