Surprised by Snow Globes

| By Daniel K. Brannan

Surprised by Snow GlobesI’ve been obsessed with snow globes lately. Snow globes often symbolize childhood innocence or "happy days." The yearning for those days is often tragic as in the 1941 film Citizen Kane where Charles Foster Kane, lying in bed while holding a snow globe, utters “Rosebud," the name of his childhood sled and the only time he had been truly happy. The globe then slips from his dying hand and smashes into all its scattered contents representing Kane’s otherwise sad but rich life. In Libba Bray's book Going Bovine, snow globes are used as metaphors for the constraints of reality and life as we know it. In the end, the key characters smash them in a heroic effort to "free the snow globes." Smashing snow globes seems to be a liberating and revealing, even if sad and unsettling, experience.

Ever since the curate, Susanna Brosseau, gave the homily for the fourth Sunday in Lent at Heavenly Rest Episcopal Church in Abilene, TX I’ve turned over and over in my mind her metaphor of the Genesis stories as little snow globes – Adam & Eve in the Garden, Cain & Abel, Noah, and the Tower of Babel.

I wished I had heard such homiletics as a child in the 1950’s and 1960’s instead of what I routinely heard in the Church of Christ of that time (a fellowship within the Stone-Campbell Restoration tradition).1 In the past, members of the fellowship preferred natural theology or concordist approaches.2 These positions were often coupled with “plain sense” fundamentalism . . . at least in my small-town New Mexico church. My grandmother’s upbringing in old-time Seventh Day Adventism reinforced the perceived need to see the first eleven chapters of Genesis as scientific and historical text. Flood geology by George McCready Price in the early 1920’s and Henry Morris in the 1960’s seemed to grant scientific imprimatur to the young earth views held by our local elders and preachers. Never mind that many of the other churches in our fellowship rejected such thinking.3

But what I heard on Sundays did not seem to fit with what I experienced of the world the rest of the week. Growing up in New Mexico in the cottonwood bosque of the Rio Grande valley provided everything for a kid to become a biologist. I roamed along the river, cooked over cottonwood fires, ate wild asparagus, watched clouds form thunderheads over the distant peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There I could listen to the lazy buzz of bees around spicy purple sage, watch horned lizards lapping up red ants, smell the fresh earth as rain quenched the alkali soil and learn to trust senses of smell, sight, touch and hearing—to never trust imaginings or emotions. Camping alone taught me that imaginings are a result of wild emotions. Demons in the night could easily be dismissed with your flashlight or a rifle shot. Emotions could be controlled; reason made wild imaginings disappear. Trusting the senses, and reason, made the world less fearful.

But by banishing demons, it seemed I no longer had need for angels. As in Carl Sagan’s book, The Demon-haunted World, rationality and skepticism truly was my candle that led me out of the darkness and fuzzy thinking of my childhood upbringing. Even my grandmother, upon seeing the cliff face at the Carnegie Quarry in Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado, exclaimed “Maybe I need to rethink this whole Noah’s flood thing.” Hearing her say that when I was an impressionable kid of ten freed me somewhat from my church’s local views.

College science classes furthered that conviction. The professors at university represented Christianity the same way my elders and preachers had—literalism requiring a young earth. They then claimed that such religious views were clearly wrong as shown by the data. I found myself needing to reject my religious upbringing entirely. Fortunately there was one significant philosophy mentor who pointed out that logic, skepticism and rationality—those things I'd come to trust—were themselves not detectable by my senses. And yet they caused those “AHA... this is IT” moments. Logic, skepticism and rationality somehow provided contentment and excitement; and yet they were also feelings undetectable by the senses. What was going on in the brain to provide that pleasure?

It wasn’t too long after that I had an English professor who taught me the power of metaphor as containing far more truth about the human experience than mere data gathered from history and science. The story, the myth, was more important than the actual accounting of what happened. She taught this concept in the context of world drama and plays; she was one of the most demanding and brilliant professors I had ever experienced. I never denigrated stories as “just” metaphors or “just” myths again.

So when the curate began speaking of the Genesis stories—Adam & Eve in the Garden, Cain & Abel, Noah, and the Tower of Babel—as metaphors in the context of little snow globes, I knew she was on to something powerful. If only I had heard such things as a child, I would not have had to think I must choose between science and religion. Snow globes are a perfect way to explain the power of metaphor and myth to a child.

Diagram: “The Ancient Hebrew Conception of the Universe”

The first Creation story (Genesis 1) results in a Hebrew cosmology (the truly literal view in Hebrew) that looks awfully like a little snow globe complete with the sky as a domed firmament set on foundations of heaven much like what is depicted in The Truman Show complete with clouds, sun, moon and stars moving just inside. Above the firmament were the waters that flowed down when the doors of heaven were opened upon Noah. Beyond that, through the gate of heaven one might reach God in the heaven of heavens if only a tower could be built tall enough.

Under the earth was Sheol where the dead dwelled and below that were the foundations of the earth and the storehouses and fountains of the great deep ready to contribute to the flood waters of Noah. One can imagine tipping the little globe and having it fill up with liquid only to see it settle down to reveal, once more, a restored earth.

The innocence and simplicity of “snow globe Christianity”—understanding these bible stories from our childhood as literal, historical, scientific depictions of “things as they really are”—is quite attractive. We can have all our childhood stories of God neatly packaged and on a shelf ready to be pulled down and admired whenever we need reassurance and comfort that all is right with the world as God has made it.

The curate went on to describe how her experience in seminary began knocking each little snow globe off her preconceived shelves of God’s divine action in the world. The actual Hebrew used, blended with a correct understanding of genre and placement in the historical critical methods of textual study, sprinkled with a proper understanding of the philosophical and theological landscape extant when the stories were written, and finally adding a generous helping of enlightenment science tipped each little snow globe off onto the floor with a crash. Her shattered stories were gone forever. All that was left were bits and pieces that just had to be recovered.

But as anyone knows who has had one of their little snow globes shattered, there is no restoration possible. A figure or two inside might be recovered but the original character of the globe is gone forever. The only thing left to do is to try and recover the actual and eternal truth of the stories without the need of historical or scientific validation. These are times for discovering the deeper meaning of the stories and the message intended to the audience of the day. Following that, we have to discern how the story applies to us now.

The result is not as romantic and sweet and cute as the original snow globe. We have lost our childhood views and had to wrestle with the reality of the world as it is. We no longer find neat little packaged worlds that we can examine up close without becoming entangled in them. We are forced into a world where it takes all our efforts to fully understand and respond to the true message of these childhood stories.

The response requires us to get involved and realize that we must take care of the garden and protect each other from harm, to actively protect its creatures; but we have to do all this without the hubris of thinking we can do so by challenging the Creator with our own technology and achievements.

May God give us the grace to care for the garden in ways that will glorify the One through whom, for whom and by whom it was made: the Son, the Word… the Logos.


References & Credits

  1. See Douglas A. Foster, The encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell movement: Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, Churches of Christ, Grand Rapids, MI: W.B., Eerdmans Publishing, 2004. Also see: Leroy Garrett, The Stone-Campbell Movement, Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing, 1987; C. Leonard Allen and Richard T. Hughes, Discovering our Roots: The ancestry of Churches of Christ, Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1988.
  2. Ashby L. Camp, The Myth of Natural Origins: How Science Points to Divine Creation, Tempe, AZ: Ktisis Publishing, 1994.
    Robert S. Camp, ed., A Critical Look at Evolution, Atlanta, GA: Religion, Science, and Communication Research and Development Corporation, 1972.
    Donald England, A Christian View of Origins, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1972.
    Calvin Fields, Things You Never Heard, Strong and Compelling Evidence Concerning: The Bible, Creation, Christ, Evolution, Phoenix, AZ: ACW Press, 2001.
    Jack Wood Sears, Conflict and Harmony in Science and the Bible, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1969.
    Elton Stubblefield, Creation, Evolution and the Great Flood, Ft. Worth TX: Star Bible Publications, 1995.
    J.D. Thomas, ed., Evolution and Faith, Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1988. Bert Thompson, Theistic Evolution, Shreveport, LA: Lambert Book House, Inc., 1977.
    These books are authored by Church of Christ members; many of them are committed to Biblical literalism and young earth creationism. 
  3. For the way Churches of Christ rectify science and the Bible today, refer to: Brannan, D.K., 2011. “The Two Books Metaphor and Churches of Christ.” Review of Reconciling the Bible and Science: A Primer on the Two Books of God, Lynn Mitchell and Kirk Blackard. Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 63(3): 193-203.

About the Author

Daniel K. Brannan

Dan Brannan (BS 1975, Phi Beta Kappa UNM) earned the M.S. in microbiology (1977) at The Ohio State University and Ph.D. in biology (1981) at the University of New Mexico. He worked as a research scientist at Procter & Gamble Company before becoming a professor at Abilene Christian University in 1988. He has since studied science/theology interactions at Calvin College with Phil Clayton (summer, 2001) and at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University with Ernan McMullin as mentor (summers, 2003-2005), the Faraday course at Cambridge, and many Ian Ramsey conferences and presentations at Oxford.