Understanding Genesis and Science: Why Educators Should Give Students the Freedom to Question
What students truly desire, when it comes to God and science, is the freedom to acquire new knowledge and ask tough questions.
Lindsay is a Christian who teaches biblical literature in a rural public school not far from my own community in Indiana. I’m so pleased to feature Lindsay’s story because we don’t often get to hear from teachers in her situation. She’s chosen to use a broad and innovative approach to the study of Genesis in her class, and it’s bearing fruit in wonderful ways among Christian and non-Christian students alike.
This post was originally published on January 15, 2016.
In the Christianity-saturated environment in which I grew up, questioning a traditional reading of the Genesis story was unthinkable and unacceptable. This was particularly true in the conservative private school I attended. Giving credence to modern science—particularly as it relates to evolution and the age of the earth—was seen as challenging the inerrancy of the Bible and the very essence of God’s Word. Even though I had many questions about the Genesis story and how it fit with modern science, I felt unwelcome to ask.
I was taught that anything other than a literal reading of Scripture was at best ridiculous and at worst heretical: Adam and Eve lived in the garden a few thousand years ago when the earth was created and that was that.
During my high school years, the weekly chapels and daily Bible classes I attended reinforced those ideas. At the time, I was so frustrated with what seemed to be a stubborn resistance on the part of my teachers and Christian mentors to even discuss alternative interpretations of the Genesis story. Looking back at that lack of discourse, I am now even more aware of how harmful it was; it failed me and many of the people I went to school with once they went to college, especially if they attended a secular school.
As an undergraduate, I majored in secondary English education. In my freshman year, due to my increasing interest in other religions, I took an “introduction to religion” course. It was there that I learned many things that seemed directly in contrast to my childhood education. Genesis may not have been written by Moses? There are other ancient origins stories with clear similarities to Genesis? Who is Gilgamesh? How do we explain the links between Genesis and other ancient flood stories? I realized then that, despite the fact that I had grown up in a Christian household and attended a Christian church and school, I was incredibly ill-equipped in my understanding of the Bible—especially in regard to the early chapters of Genesis.
I eagerly searched for answers. Theologians and scholars like C.S Lewis, N.T. Wright, and John Walton became my mentors; I read everything I could get my hands on. During that time of questioning, I came to know God more than I ever had previously. Despite the chapels of my youth, the endless church services, and the youth group retreats, what led me to a greater and more incredible understanding of God was the act of allowing myself to question and challenge my understanding of the Bible.
After graduating with a major in English education and a minor in religious studies, I took a job as an English teacher at a small public school. A few years into my teaching career, I was given the opportunity to teach a biblical literature course to juniors and seniors. I jumped at the chance to teach a subject I love in a way I hoped promoted discourse and understanding.
I had been warned by many that teaching biblical literature to high school students in a very conservative community was risky. They recommended that I should stick to a literalist reading of the Bible, especially Genesis—even in a public school setting. I am so glad I didn’t follow that advice.
Though there are only twelve weeks to teach the class, we spend about three weeks on Genesis 1-3. We start off the term discussing other ancient Near East creation stories, which is a shock to my students because most of them are completely unaware these stories exist. I then hand them a story I wrote about our own town. In the story, I intentionally use local slang and locations to describe a football game. After reading the story, I have them answer these questions: How would this story be interpreted today by people who live in our town? How would this story be interpreted in a few thousand years by people not from our town? The interpretations are shockingly different. In the present day interpretation, our football team—the Lions—defeats the opposing players in the game. In the future interpretation, the readers believe that literal lions devour enemies in a bloody war. My students quickly get the point: the true meaning of the text can only be understood once the culture and vocabulary of the people group is understood.
I base the rest of the term around that idea—we must attempt to comprehend the intent of the author and the original culture in which the text was written to properly understand its meaning. We talk about Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One and watch From the Dust. We talk about young earth creationism, old earth creationism, intelligent design, theistic evolution, and atheistic evolution. While I don’t (and legally can’t) push any particular viewpoint, I allow them to discuss and ask questions as many questions as they like, and try to provide the best and most thorough answers I can.
After the unit is complete, I ask the students to give feedback. Many students from a Christian background admit that they had been confused by the Genesis story in the past. What most had heard in church about modern scientific theories and discoveries ranged from ignorance to total silence. A lot of them believed in evolution, but didn’t know how that could work with the Genesis story. They had never been told that there are Christians who accept both modern science and the Bible as the inspired Word of God, or given the framework to reconcile these views.
The students who haven’t grown up in a Christian environment overwhelmingly respond in a positive manner as well. Though many of them start out feeling adversely toward the Bible, when they are given different tools to understand the text, they can no longer so easily dismiss Christianity.
What the feedback tells me is what students truly desire, when it comes to God and science, is the freedom to acquire new knowledge and ask tough questions about the Bible. That freedom opens the Genesis story up to new possibilities, that allow science and religion not only to meet, but to complement each other. Science reveals who God is; it is a glimpse into his character and his omnipotence. It helps us both understand his depth and complexity and causes us to be amazed by it.
Teaching biblical literature is a challenge, but an enormously enjoyable challenge. I am so encouraged that students are increasingly aware that questioning a certain reading of Scripture doesn’t mean we are dismissing God’s Word, but instead seeking to expand our understanding of God. What I hope for myself and my fellow Christian teachers—especially as it relates to science and Genesis—is that we are always open to exploring, discovering, discussing, and questioning, because the end result is to be ever more in awe of our Creator God.
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