by James Linville
NAASR Notes is a feature with the Bulletin where we invite members of the North American Association for the Study of Religion to describe books they are reading and/or research and writing projects that will be of interests to scholars in the field. For previous posts in this series, follow the link.
The Creation of Myth and Meaning Among Young Earth Creationists
Numerous studies exist of Christian Young Earth Creationism’s (YEC) history, political strategies, impact on public discourse on science and education. My new research project intends to supplement these with an in-depth study of YEC’s symbolic and mythological repertoires and the different contexts in which adherents generate and employ creation mythology. Creationists are not simply foisting an iron-age mythology onto a scientific and rational world. Rather, they are engaged in a complex process of ritual and mythic resistance in which the Bible is but one tool in the continual generation of a meaningful mythology.
Ancient creationist thought was contextual: depictions of how the god created depended on the institutional, political, social, and personal circumstances addressed by the mythmaker or storyteller. Similarly, the Bible contains a diversity of creation mythology that offers multiple portrayals of the deity, and his actions and relationships to humanity, social institutions, and nature. Genesis begins with a seven-day creation and rest cycle, and then begins again to tell of the creation and the expulsion of humanity from a primal garden. Poetic and prophetic literature often imagines the deity as a cosmic warrior, violently bringing order to the primordial (and hence contemporary) world. Yahweh defeats the serpents Leviathan and Rahab, and asserts his power over “sea and river” (e.g. Habakkuk 3, Psalm 74, 89, Isaiah 51). In reflecting on the nature of divine wisdom, scribes personified feminine Wisdom as God’s co-worker (Proverbs 8). Christians would displace her with the masculine Christ in the guise of the Greek concept of logos (John 1). It seems as if different writers had access to, or generated, a multiplicity of views on creation and divinity to serve different ideological, literary, and religious purposes. The early collectors of this literature do not seem to have been much concerned with harmonizing it all.
Consistency is a major issue for modern creationists, however, who need to address the accusations that the Bible is contradictory and therefore to be dismissed as a source of information. The Creation Week account bears most of the burden in modern creationists’ arguments with scientific cosmology, while the Garden story is used to explain the world of death and sin. Other biblical references play little apparent role in modern creationist cosmologies and are often regarded as “poetic”, non-literal descriptions. Modern creationist myths have a rather different cosmos than that of the ancient Israelites. The earth is spherical, there are no pillars holding up the heavens, no underworld beneath or solid firmament (at east not anymore) above, and space is really, really big.
There is more to this than simply reducing the variability of “bible based” creation mythology in response to demands for science-like logical consistency in divine revelation. Scholars studying YEC typically do not look much beyond the creation narratives that are given as “biblical” alternatives to scientific cosmologies and the theory of evolution. Nuances within this repertoire are not well studied. Moreover, there is a large body of YEC material not immediately concerned with the struggle against secular sciences. My research is directed towards providing a fuller picture of how and when different YEC views on creation appear, including the use of the “figurative” passages to create—in various contexts—different conceptions of the deity and the nature of creation and the proper human responses to this. The purportedly “historical” mindset of scripture is not a position exclusive to creationists. Indeed, it is a central part of liberal Western Christianity’s (and Judaism’s) self-perception, and part of the wider Western cultural biases that validate “history” to the exclusion of “mythology”, and narrative over poetry. Critical scholarship of the Bible has yet to become fully aware of this cultural baggage.
YEC creation mythology exists not so much in the Bible but in the paraphrases, retellings, and adaptations in narrative or poetic form, or alluded to in other kinds of verbal or written communication, or represented in image and sculpture and performing art. Creation myths are only part of a wider body of mythology though which YEC adherents create their personal and social identities. Some scholars have already noted how creationists seem to be motivated by key cultural myths, wrapping themselves in the discourses of the frontiersman, striking out into new intellectual and scientific lands a moribund mainstream science fears to tread. What my research hopes to uncover, however, is something of the depth of the creationists’ symbolic universes, in which biblical and non-biblical stories, motifs and symbols provide a rich and complex repertoire through which myths are constantly rewritten, reapplied and generated anew. I tend to follow J. Z. Smith, see myth-making as a kind of “play” in which various models of the world are juxtaposed, provoking opportunities for deeper levels of social thought, and in turn, new juxtapositions and new mythic variants.
In following this line of thought, my new research project will involve interviewing creationists and examining the different contexts for the generation of myths of origins, and the use of origin stories for diverse social discourses. This will include attending debates and conferences, surveying children’s literature, sermons, homilies, etc., and visiting a number of the so-called creationist “museums”. There are a few dozen such installations in North America along with a number of travelling exhibitions of replica fossils and similar wares designed to affirm YEC. A few more can be found in Europe and elsewhere. A number of new facilities (some quite large) are under construction or in the planning stages. There are also some groups who regularly offer tours of sites such as the Grand Canyon. My as yet incomplete map of these institutions can be found at http://tinyurl.com/mwlg289.
Dept. of Religious Studies
University of Lethbridge
4401 University Drive
Lethbridge AB, Canada