Holding Together: Teaching and Worshipping Through Genesis in the Local Church
Today's entry was written by Kevin Marks and Dean Smith. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what BioLogos believes here.
Our little community of faith in California has never been one to shy away from the critical cultural questions that come up daily in the life of the Christ-follower. Back in the 1990’s we directly addressed issues like ‘new’ media, the exploding dot-com universe, and President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Our aims were not sensational, but rather an acknowledgement that these were the issues raised at the water cooler, the backyard barbeque, and in the grittiness of everyday life, so why not in church?
Of course this approach was abused in the postmodern context, with books written about “The Gospel According to ________” (fill in the blank with the leading character from your favorite television program). Our senses are still attuned toward God’s truth being revealed in culture, but we have learned to make that more about the practice of our worldview than just messages from the pulpit.
Three years ago, we wanted to unfold a Genesis series in which would take an honest look at humanity’s spiritual and natural beginnings in the scriptures, and see what current developments in science had to say about origins, human evolution, creation, floods, monkeys, etc. As we researched the topic, the Christian books and materials we found reflected, for the most part, a young-Earth creationist perspective on Genesis and the human story.
Something felt off to us. The choices in ministry are often not between right and wrong, but between better and best, and we were unsatisfied with the ideas of the YEC position, which were what we’d all been taught to believe were the proper explanation of origins. The teaching staff tabled the series, and hit the New Testament instead.
In the interim, a few things happened. A prominent scientist member of our community became involved with a documentary film project directly addressing the creation / evolution debate. Furthermore, Dr. John Walton published his great book The Lost World of Genesis One. Through both of these events, we began to see the question of origins as a source of inspiration, not of discord.
Rather than focusing on answers, literalism, or evidence for or against the age of the Earth, we began to see the great hand of God revealed in the expanse of the universe, and described in science. We began to understand as ministers what spiritual scientists have long seen in their laboratories—that the reach of God is immeasurable, incalculable, and represented intensely in the fibers of a scientific worldview. We met a NASA astronomer Jennifer Wiseman, who helped us see God’s signature writ large in the cosmos. Genesis became for us not a twist of contention, but a constant, pressing example of a loving creator-God at work, literally everywhere among us.
From this vantage point, we felt a response from the church was necessary and possible. We crafted a series in which we celebrated the glory of God revealed in nature. We looked closely at his construction of the universe and our Earthly home. We wrestled lovingly with the idea that, as His image-bearers, we had failed Him so severely so soon after entering into relationship with him. We came to appreciate Genesis 1-3 as an account of God bringing functionality to the cosmos but not an account of material origins. The Scriptures don’t address the scientific questions we have today, but leave room for a variety of explanations, and we found a liberating openness in this approach. The grand theological statement from Genesis is that God did it. Exactly how he did is something we’re still figuring out.
Some in our community and on our staff became involved in the documentary project directly, in which great minds like N.T. Wright and Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne unpacked a fresh understanding of Genesis, and a renewed appreciation of God’s lordship over us. Again, these inspirations weren’t couched as right or wrong, just the genuine reflections of honest truth-seekers. We challenged our community to think openly about what the natural world perpetually reveals to us about our spiritual leanings, without delving into minutiae. Some of us even downloaded and used star-finder apps for the first time (gasp).
There was, of course, opposition. The Highway Community began as a church plant from a fundamental Baptist church, so there was some fear of the dreaded “e-word.” But, we have also long been a right-brained church, utilizing a heavy dose of the arts in our truth-seeking, both in and out of the worship gathering. We continued that leaning by digging into Gungor’s great album Ghosts Upon the Earth, and harnessed it to ‘teach’ the human relationship to God in Genesis through song. We also looked at glorious deep-space photographs of expanding galaxies and astronomical goo. As a Silicon Valley community, we began to think like the engineers among us, and saw the intricate grace in patterns and systems. We even made a short film on the meditative beauty of math and numbers, and how in God’s economy, the equation continues to unfold. In short, we fired up the left side of our brains, and saw great things.
This whole process was incredibly important for our church community. Highway is a missional community. We are aware that many folks within our church are involved in the sciences but have felt marginalized by the classic YEC understanding. As a result, due to their belief in an evolutionary process as an explanation for how God created all that there is, they felt like outcasts at church; and, as a result of being Christ-followers, they felt like outsiders at work. Our series in Genesis allowed them to find a place to stand holding both the book of Scripture and the book of nature as revealed through science.
Finally, the documentary film project, which became From the Dust allowed us to see how we narrow the rule of God by merely accepting what tradition has said to be ‘Christian.’ Christ himself came and opened a new understanding of the Scriptures, and told us that as His church, by the Holy Spirit, we would do the same. We must always be honest with our faith, even as it evades us on certain dark days, and we leap to catch it, caress it, and release it anew. The process of making the film showed us that our first-grade teacher wasn’t wrong—there is power in questioning. A Rabbi interviewed in the film perhaps said it best; “I will always prefer a good question to a good answer, because a question gets us talking. A good answer stops the conversation.”
That, ultimately, is why we should study Genesis and the other difficult narratives of Scripture. How many times did Jesus answer questions with deeper lines of questioning? What truths and beauties lay in an open mind, in a landscape where, in the words of Augustine, all truth is God’s truth? What invigoration of faith awaits the Christ-follower unafraid to ask the serious questions of an omnipotent God? At The Highway Community, we have found that those serious questions may lead to more questions, but ultimately always back to the promise in Colossians 1, that “in Him, all things hold together.”
Kevin Marks studied English and Screenwriting at UCLA. He is the Creative Director of HIghway Media, and has been the Creative Arts Director of The Highway Community since 2001.
Dean Smith is lead pastor of the Highway Community, a multi-site church reaching Postmoderns in Silicon Valley, Calif. Smith holds a bachelor’s degree from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif.; a Master of Divinity from Western Seminary in Portland, Ore.; and a Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. Smith has ministered for 30 years and presently serves as an adjunct professor in pastoral ministry and spiritual formation at Western Seminary in the Bay Area. In addition, Smith serves as president of Highway Media, a non-profit company dedicated to helping the church tell stories, start conversations about the Gospel and seek truth.