U.S. Congressman Paul Broun of Georgia recently noted in a speech at Liberty University that evolution and much else he was taught in college were "lies straight from the pit of hell." These were "lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior." He went on to note that he believes that the earth is about 9,000 years old and was created in six days because this is what the Bible says. He noted that the Bible is "the manufacturer's handbook" and "it teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in our society."
Congressman Broun is not alone in his views. Forty-six percent of Americans in the latest Gallup poll reported believing human beings did not evolve but were created as they are today less than 10,000 years ago. A large number of earnest Christians reject evolution, believe in a young earth, see the Bible as the "manufacturer's handbook," and believe that it gives solid advice for public policy today.
I love the Bible. I read it every day. I spend 10 hours a week studying it. It has affected my life in profound ways. I am inspired when I read it. In its pages I find the truths that guide my daily life -- truths that represent my highest ideals and greatest aspirations. I am a follower of Jesus Christ. The Bible is my primary way of knowing him and what it means to follow him. And I am a pastor and I teach and preach the Bible to my congregation every week. But the Bible is not a manufacturer's handbook. Neither is it a science textbook nor a guidebook for public policy.
The creation story is placed at the beginning of the Bible not because God felt we needed a science lesson as a preface to the rest of the Bible. Instead it is a lesson in theology. The story is archetypal -- it is intended to teach us that there is a Creator, that life is a gift and that we were created in God's image (with the capacity to love, to make conscious decisions, to transcend our instincts, to reason). In addition it teaches that human beings were created for companionship, that sex is a blessing from God, and, in the most tragically compelling part of the story, that we human beings are drawn to do the very things that separate us from God and others (we are drawn to eat the forbidden fruit). When we do this, paradise is lost.
The story likely drew upon the best thinking of the time regarding the origins of the physical universe, but that is not the point of the passages. It is not meant to teach cosmology, or biology, geology or physics. It is teaching theology and, one could argue, anthropology, sociology and psychology. But to suggest that the creation story was intended to teach science, and that any scientific theory that contradicts these accounts is a lie "straight from the pit of hell" is to misunderstand and misrepresent these chapters.
Likewise, looking at the Bible to teach us "how to run public policy and everything in our society" is a frightening notion. Written over a period of more than 1,000 years, the biblical authors include much that today we would suggest was drawn from cultural practices and which does not reflect the "manufacturer's" will. For instance, there are more than 300 references to slavery in the Bible. In nearly every one it is assumed that slavery was acceptable to God. Slave owners were permitted to beat their slaves with rods, provided they did not kill them or permanently maim them. Women were considered worth half the value of a man, were required to marry their rapists if their father insisted, and, in the New Testament, were to remain silent in the church. Homosexuals and disobedient children were to be stoned to death, along with adulterers.
Learning to read the Bible in the light of the times in which it was written is critical. Reading it uncritically, without understanding the cultural and historical setting of the text, leaves us forced to accept scientific and sociological norms of the ancient Near East from 3,000 years ago.
In many ways the Bible can and should act as a guide for Rep. Broun's conscience and decision-making. But it is not as simple as saying, "the Bible says it, that settles it" (he did not say this, but many adopt this view). The words of Micah to "do justice and love kindness" are among those guides we should follow. The Golden Rule and the command to "love your neighbor as you love yourself" should shape our ethics and political views. Jesus' Parable of the Good Samaritan and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats each call us to show mercy and compassion for the person in need. Jesus' own witness of sacrificial love and forgiveness, and his work to heal the sick and care for those in need represent God's ways and vision for us.
Reading the Bible carefully, critically in the light of its historical circumstances, recognizing its humanity while hearing God speak through it, we find that we can turn to its highest aspirations and its most profound and beautiful directives while still being able to appreciate and value the insights from science and other fields of study.
Adam Hamilton is the author of 'When Christians Get It Wrong' (Abingdon Press) and the Senior Pastor of the 18,000-member Church of the Resurrection in the Kansas City area.