I’m sitting on floorboards with an eager-eyed group of children around me. We’re in the middle of the story of Samson (from the Old Testament7). Some of the boys in the audience are rapt, other children look incredulous, and others a bit wary. What on earth is Mister Vol telling us this story for? they seem to be thinking. The story concludes.
‘Why is this story in the bible?’ someone says.
‘Good question,’ I say. ‘Why do you think it’s in the bible?’
There’s a long silence and we leave it there for the moment.
‘Where did he go wrong?’ I ask them.
‘He played up,’ someone says.
‘And he broke his promise,’ another says.
‘But he didn’t cut his hair and he didn’t get on the grog,’ I say.
‘What’s “grog?”’ another voice says.
‘Alcohol,’ someone explains.
‘So,’ I ask again. ‘How come it all went pear-shaped?’
We talk for about the fact that there were actually three parts to Samson’s vow: to guard his soul, to not cut his hair and to stay off the grog. Samson failed on the inside I explain to them. We conclude the session by singing a little song …
‘Keeping the rules is a start.
But what’s in the heart?’
To be fair on Samson—in his efforts to defend an oppressed minority tribe—he did some pretty heroic stuff: tearing a door off a city and walking away with it, killing a lot of Philistines with the jaw bone of an ass and (at the last) caving in the roof of a palace on his enemies. The story is worthy of inclusion in any Home And Away episode.
But you can’t read it without feeling for Samson’s mum and dad. The baby boy was marked out to be a great ruler according to prophesy and it leaves you wondering about many other part successful/ big-part failed rulers. Did Mao Zedong’s parents, for example, secretly pray for him? What if he had made some different choices and hadn’t given in to the urge to liquidate millions?
Books on leadership tell us that there is process and there is task. History is littered with leaders who failed on one side or the other. Historians and historical commentators keep these two aspects in mind whenever they evaluate leaders. But there are some who don’t.
In his book Atheist Manifesto8, Michael Onfray certainly doesn’t when he attempts to critique monotheism. He describes the monotheistic religions as being ‘religions of the book’9, suggesting that they are all on about the same kind of stuff: keeping rules and regulations to keep God happy. What he doesn’t tell us is that it was Islam that coined the phrase, ‘People of the Book’.
Jesus, on the other hand, would never have used such language. “You search the Scriptures,’ Jesus said, ‘because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!’10 In another place, the Apostle Paul says, ‘The plan wasn’t written out with ink on paper, with pages and pages of legal footnotes, killing your spirit. It’s written with Spirit on spirit, his life on our lives!11
Onfray’s misrepresentation of Christianity and the bible goes on and on … He talks of the prohibition against eating from the ‘Tree of Knowledge’12 to suggest that Christianity has a bias against science. The fact is that Genesis says it is the ‘Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil’13. Science has never been about the study of good and evil. And anyone who reads James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers’ can see that this is unfounded. Hannam makes an overwhelming case for medieval Christianity laying a deep foundation for modern science.
Onfray goes on to say, ‘Genesis says that God created the world in a week.’ It doesn’t actually. Onfray has reached this conclusion by refusing to recognise the literary genre, which is clearly poetic, mythic language. Genesis has no problem—for example—in telling us that the sun was created on the fourth day. The majority of Christian teachers agree that the word ‘day’ being used here is to be interpreted as a ‘period of time’. One commentator even suggests that the author/s of Genesis recorded a series of visions whereby the words, ‘there was evening and there was morning’ represented a kind of curtain call.
We will miss the point of these early chapters of Genesis if we don’t appreciate the genre. What we have here is a remarkable example of ‘inspired myth’ and as such it is laden with phenomenological language (describing things as they appear), drama and poetry. We use phenomenological language every day when we say things like, ‘the sun rose’. How much more lovely than saying ‘the earth turned on it’s axis’.
But Onfray won’t be told. He says, ‘Genesis teaches that there cannot be multiple worlds.’ Where exactly it teaches that he fails to explain. He goes on to to say, ‘Christians insist the world is 4000 years old.’ What he doesn’t tell us is that this statement is not to be found anywhere in the bible. Onfray has simply chosen to substitute orthodox ‘Christian’ teaching with that of a minority group who read this entire library of 66/73 books the same way he does: without any recognition of genre. What would it be like hearing Onfray’s interpretations of Shakespeare?
Not satisfied with this, he tells us the bible teaches it ‘Was all Eve’s fault.’14 No wonder some people are up in arms about Christianity. Unfortunately they are misled—happily misled—because anger is impatient with process, with facts, it prefers convenient untruths.
When this lens of bigotry and prejudice is put away, it’s not hard to see a delicate process of God becoming incarnate and joining the sister/brotherhood of humankind. These early chapters of Genesis give us an unfolding drama which—rather than being some literalist/science text attempting to explain Carbon atoms and the Big Bang—is a telling account of the deep sense of broken-ness and wonder we humans live and wrestle with each day. It’s why many of our greatest artists and composers have painted it and composed symphonies about it. It’s why it fills art galleries and theatres all over the world.
As a case in point, we find a brilliant artist’s interpretation of another kind of ‘Genesis fall’ in the novel Phantastes.
“I looked around over my shoulder and there on the ground lay a black shadow, the size of a man. It was so dark that I could see it in the dim light of the lamp, which shone full upon it, apparently without thinning at all the intensity of its hue.”
“‘I told you,’ said the woman, ‘you had better not look into that closet.’
“‘What is it?’ I said, with a growing sense of horror.
“‘It is only your shadow that has found you,’ she replied. ‘Everybody’s shadow is ranging up and down looking for him. I believe you call it by a different name in your world: yours has found you as every person’s is almost certain to do who looks into that closet….’”28
In this story, the awful moment of shadow attachment is followed by a long quest, which in-part answers the question our society has put to Western Christendom:
“Is your collapse proof that you guys have been wrong all along?”
“No,” the voice of the ancient muse seems to say. “It is as it always has been: the blood of gods courses in the veins of men and there will be no apologies, great joy and great trouble.”
There was a time when I feared that the cold, dark churches were right: God was the stern cook and cop of civilization, the gate crasher on all flesh and fun. But the more I looked into it, the more it seemed that this idea came not from God but from a bent vision of spirituality. At one point, having finished reading the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita, I was relieved to find myself reading an Old Testament psalm29 in which a man and his God were celebrating loudly with wine and oil and bread.
“Yes!” God seemed to shout back at me “This world is a mess, but I love it!”30
“This is my kind of God,” I thought. “The true mother-father of us all.”
This picture of a God who delights in human flesh makes so much sense when you read the words of John 1:14: “The word became flesh.”31 The very idea of God joining the human race feels so theatrical, so romantic and so right. No wonder it has inspired a never-ending fountain of music, paintings and wars.
7 Judges 14 – 16
8 Michael Onfray, Atheist Manifesto, Arcade Publishing 2005,
9 ibid. p.95
10 John 5:39
11 2Cor 3:6
12 ibid p.68
13 Gen 2:17 NIV
14 Michael Onfray, Atheist Manifesto, Arcade Publishing 2005, pp:90-91
28 Phantastes, George MacDonald, 1971, Pan Books/Ballantine, 63
29 Psa 104:15
30 A thought inspired and provoked by a Reinhold Niebuhr comment in Neibuhr and His Age: Reinhold Niebuhr’s Prophetic Role and Legacy by Charles C. Brown. Reflecting on the gloomy prospects of the world, Niebuhr said, ‘It’s a mess … but I like it!’ which apparently brought the house down.
31 Joh 1:14