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Check Your Filters

The church’s man-made interpretations have caused serious harm.

Many current controversial ethical issues lead back to Genesis. Climate change. The role of women in church and society. Treatment of Black and Indigenous peoples. Who should be allowed to get married. The problem is not the text itself. Christians so often find themselves having to apologize for harms done because of the filters used to interpret Genesis without realizing they are dirty filters. My life story illustrates some of the harm done. I wonder if we will learn before we do more serious harm, especially for the next generation within our community.

I am not a theologian. As I reflect on decades of contradictions between sermons and church lessons about Genesis and what I have learned elsewhere, I have many questions. I feel cheated out of what could have better equipped me for my calling in society and occasionally I feel righteous anger about limits put on my life that were not what God intended. Mostly I feel sad about the great loss for the cause of Christ’s mission in the world. All I can do now is caution against repeating the same mistake again, this time for children born as inter-sex and adolescents with minority sexual orientation or gender identities.

Dominion or caretaker

I was in college before I was taught that Genesis was written to counter other creation stories. “In the beginning” signals this is an origin story, not a news report about what happened on the first day that ever was. The kind of story Genesis is matters for how we learn from it.

I’m sure God can live with my unanswered questions. It’s easier than repairing the harm done by playing God in the lives of others.

As another example, I now close my ears when I hear more sermons about man’s dominion or stewardship over creation, based on Genesis 1: 28 without equal attention to Genesis 2 which portrays humans serving and caring for God’s creation. The ethical implications are different; one leads to using the world as resources for men, wisely or not-so-wisely, in a hierarchical relationship; the other leads to caring for creation as equally loved and valued by the Creator, more like a gardener than a master. Genesis comes up when I try to explain to young people why so much of the church seems to present obstacles instead of being allies when it comes to protecting their right to also have a healthy environment. The cloudy filters of man-made interpretation get in the way of responding to the beautiful Genesis vision of a loving God creating a good world and inviting humans to be co-creators to care for all God’s creatures.

Why was I never told that there were alternative interpretations of the Eve story, as far back as the fourth century, instead of being told that I was wickedly being influenced by evil secular feminists, and too stupid or weak as a young woman to understand that God could not possibly be calling me to be anything other than a housewife and mother? Thanks to the work of Amanda Benckhuysen (The Gospel According to Eve) and others, I hope no girl gets the same Bible education I got in Sunday School, Church and Christian School. Much of my Bible education did not serve me well – and I have come to doubt it served God well either.

First, do no harm

Now another constipated interpretation of Genesis threatens to do harm for children born as intersex, with some female and some male features. By insisting on a rigid binary approach to the terms male and female in Genesis, a new report to Synod labels inter-sex children as “disordered sexual development.” It does harm to children to grow up with that designation, more than I was harmed by false teachings about women. There are other ways of interpreting the poetic portrayal of male/female relationships in Genesis. I recently learned about merism, a literary device in Hebrew poetry that uses polar extremes to convey everything between them as well. God created day and night – and dawn and dusk. We see rich diversity throughout God’s creation. Might the reference to male and female be an example of similar poetic language instead of a prescription that sees any variation as disordered and subject to moral judgment as inferior or sinful? In my view, labelling people is playing God in the lives of other people – the one sin that seems clear to me in the Genesis story. Doing good and not unnecessary harm to what God created, a central principle throughout Scripture, raises a caution sign for me to check whether we might be using cloudy filters to interpret Genesis again.

Rethinking hermeneutics

I hear those who express fear that more open-ended interpretation may lead to rejecting the authority of the text itself. In my experience, the central message about who God is and what God desires for Creation remains a strong core; multiple layers of interpretation add richness to my understanding of what it means. It is the damage that is repeatedly done by trying to box God within the boundaries of what we see through cloudy filters that alienates my children and others. I’m sure God can live with my unanswered questions. It’s easier than repairing the harm done by playing God in the lives of others. God’s mission in our world today would be well-served by rethinking how we practice hermeneutics, including the interpretation of Genesis, before we do more harm to more people.

  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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One Comment

  1. Kathy, I appreciate your words here. I often think about the pain people sometimes endure because of interpretations of scripture. I am comfortable with leaving some things open-ended. I have learned that I simply do not know everything. I take what I know God said and I don’t add anything to it. Like others, I hold certain viewpoints or opinions. However, I recognize them as such. They are my viewpoints, not God’s. That leaves room for me to love others well.

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