Monday, 25 January 2010

the Bible: a history - creation

Howard Jacobson doesn’t believe in the Creation story but he’d quite like to. That seems to be the main conclusion of the first episode of The Bible: A History broadcast last night on Channel 4. The programme is the first of a new series and it follows the pattern of last year’s offering from C4 Christianity: A History. That series also began with Jacobson and his take on Jesus as a Jewish figure whose origins have been denied by Christians. I thought that offering was poor and critiqued it at some length, however, this programme was more accomplished.

Jacobson explored the story of creation as recorded in Genesis; its origins and meaning as Jacobsonconsidered by Jews and Christians and some of the historical and philosophical questions which the Genesis narrative raises. It was an engaging personal journey with the presenter openly sharing his own responses to the story and the issues. At one stage the programme reverted to a presentation of the battle between fundamentalists, with the literalist creationists on one side and the ‘new atheists’ on the other. The new atheists were represented by one of their high priests A C Grayling who didn’t fail to display his usual arrogance on the subject of religious belief. I enjoyed Jacobson’s response to Grayling’s argument when he stated that he found himself wanting to believe in the Creation story and what it represented.

The programme also presented contributions from Jonathan Sacks, John Polkinghorne and the philosopher Mary Midgely. It was Midgely who came out with the most memorable phrase of the episode when in response to Jacobson’s suggestion that the new atheists were presenting another form of belief she answered ‘Oh yes, but not as nutritious’. There were disappointments with the programme including the usual failing of presenting the insights of mainstream scholarship as if they are new discoveries that are being revealed for the first time. It is hardly a new idea that Biblical scholars see the Exile as pivotal in shaping the Genesis account of creation as it appears in the Hebrew canon of scripture.

By the end of the programme Jacobson ends up wanting to embrace the Genesis story, not as a story of relationship between the Creator and creation, but as an inspiring expression of the potential of creation. Doug Chaplin, who was very quick off the mark with his review of the programme, makes the following observation:

Somewhere in that elegant literary thesis, one rather important question got lost – the idea that it might be important to ask whether there actually is any meaning and purpose in the universe other than the ones we inscribe upon it. Are we the only ones capable of art, or is there a Great Artist, whose work of art we yet might be.

There is an illuminating interview with Jacobson on the C4 website in which he explores in more detail his reflections on the Creation story and his approach to the Bible. He concludes that interview with an interesting comment that deserves further consideration:

I like the idea there is this one God, not to be obedient to, although he wishes obedience and insists obedience, but to be in a perpetual argument with. One of the great scenes in Genesis is the wrestling with the angel, and I think that's how you read if you love the Bible. It's a wrestle, and you're wrestling with something that's very, very personal.

It will be interesting to see how the other presenters of the series wrestle with the Bible over the next few weeks.


Doug Chaplin said...

Thanks for unearthing that really interesting interview quotation.

Alice Smith said...

Phil, thanks for a bit of commentary on this. I'm looking forward to watching it tonight. Unlike you, I found Howard Jacobson's offering in Christianity: A History quite sound...but can't remember for the life of me why I disagreed with you at the time!! Anyhow, will probably post something myself later on or tomorrow - but not as quick off the mark as you! Thank God for freesat Plus boxes for youthworkers who work late on Sunday nights!