Thursday, July 31, 2014

"Genesis, and the Rise of Civilization", by J. Snodgrass: Review and Commentary

(By Guest Writer - Michel Weatherall)

Like nearly all Christian, Spiritual, or Theological books I've read or reviewed, I feel it very important to understand the author's intent. If they're selling something, and if so, if they're up front about it.

It's important to know the confines (if any) or context in which the book should be viewed through; a theological lens if you will.

I do not believe J. Snodgrass holds any pretension in this regard. His intention is to explore and find the truth without any theological inhibitions, crutches, or addictions. It is best summoned up in the following lines:

"Do we read Genesis 1 as science or myth? Fact or fairy-tale? History or fiction or both? If it's not fact, can it still be true?"  pg. 86
"I would say if one must challenge the nature of physical reality in order for the Bible to make sense, then the Bible has already lost its function in helping us understand the world we line in." pg. 111
 Snodgrass readily draws from the bible, apocrypha books, Midrash, the Qu'ran, numerous cultures' mythologies, and various other author's commentaries (surprisingly interesting ones as well, such as Mark Twain and Isaac Asimov).

It is safe to say, one should slaughter their sacred cows before entering this book... and that's a good and sober thing. A prerequisite is to have already purged Bibliolatry from your system.
This is not a book for Christian Fundamentalists, 'Bible Christians', or Biblical Literalists.
But on the same note, neither is this book a stoic, academic study with intentions of discrediting the bible and reducing it to meaningless and valueless fairy-tale.

This is not a book for people selling their truths, but only for those interested in pursuit and understanding of the truth.

Ultimately, I think in this case, it would be best to let the author speak for himself. At the end of the book the author adds his Original Introduction (pg. 282). This section is well worth the read, especially when attempting to gage the author's intentions, goals, and concerns.

Now that we know what we're getting into; now that I've peaked your interest or turned or scared you off the book, let's begin.

Let's jump right to the conclusion, the gist, straight to the punchline.
The book of Genesis is a parable of the agricultural revolution, written, rewritten, and edited by numerous authors.
"With human population growth comes settlement expansion, deforestation, and a decline in wild game. Tribes of hunter/gathers have access to less land and diminishing resources. And so we read this as a narrative about a tribe on the brink of starvation being extorted into submission by settled agriculturalists" pg. 192
Esau/Jacob, Cain/Abel, Ishmael/Isaac; these narratives could be the same basic parable, as each community had its own story to explain how the herders and gardeners supplanted the hunters and gatherers.

Genesis repeatedly tells the story (told from both sides) of a progression  from nomadic tribal societies to a resource-storing agricultural civilization.

The book also seriously questions whether this Progress is truly an evolving and beneficial thing.
"A tribe tended to be around 40 people bound together by kinship, which encouraged sharing and mutual support. Put simply: nobody eats unless everybody eats, nobody goes hungry unless everybody goes hungry... The migratory nature of these nomadic tribes made accumulation of material wealth impossible (in nomadic society whoever has the most stuff falls behind). There would typically be a chieftain and a witch-doctor, but these were part-time jobs for people who could take on extra responsibilities beyond the same food-acquisition done by everyone else. Their authority would derive from respect, not coercion, and titles were rarely hereditary. (...average chieftains job discription was "First to work, last to eat")" pg. 22-23
 No elitism here. Reminds me of Lao Tzu's 4 types of society.
"...modern religions mostly focus on Salvation, being saved from animal activities like food, feces, and fornication, these earlier religions seem to have been more focused on nurture and fertility: the abundance of nature and successful human reproduction... these early religions were about integrating theology with biology, whereas Salvation religions are about segregating them into 'sacred' and 'profane'." pg. 23
Not only should the question whether this Progress is beneficial or not, it should make us take a sobering look at our modern day civilization and where we might be heading.
"In the wold, about 0.01% of naturally occurring biomass on this planet is edible by humans. On plantation lands cultivated for raising crops and livestock, up to 90% is edible. So an acre of land can feed far more farmers and herders than hunters and gatherers. But quantity is different from quality, and studies have shown that cultivated wheat has only half the protein-content of its wild relatives... The availability of more human food resulted in more human beings. Migratory nomads had to space out their births by an average of four years, so the first child could walk with the tribe while the second was carried." pg. 24
 "With increased population density comes certain side-effects: diseases and plagues from over-crowding, poor sanitation and a narrowing diet... Promising to releave these conditions by communicating with the gods, the priesthood mutated from tribal co-op to central corporation". pg. 25
 And when anything becomes an industry it becomes compromised.
This would ultimately lead to empire, armies and the feudal system as, "With additional population density also came a rise in competition and violence, compounded by diminishing wild game for hunting and finite farmland for a growing posterity". pg. 25

The point is hammered home with these sobering lines,

"Civilization did not arise in response to famine...
Famine arose in response to Civilization" pg. 32

But this "mutated" priesthood goes further.
The feminine divine had been overwritten by a male god.
Snodgrass even make mention of the often conveniently forgotten divine Wisdom,  Sophia. (my favourite)
"I'm probably the only person who's ever wondered this, but... What would Biblical Creation have looked like if there was a woman involved? And I'm not talking about a Pandora-character who messes everything up for everyone forever. I mean a feminine creation partner, a mother-goddess. Could anything like that exist in the Bible?
 "Actually yes, in Proverbs 8, which is centuries older than Genesis 1... This creation story stands out from its Biblical surroundings in that it is told from a feminine perspective." pg.'s 103-104
"More and more archaeological, anthropological and mythological research points to a male mutiny against a cooperative matriarchal culture. (It must be stressed here that this is not a dominating matriarchal culture -  it's not our current gender roles with women beating their husbands (though that's how patriarchal culture represents it with mythological symbols of sorceresses and sea-monsters and such). It's a cooperative culture with grandmothers as referees)." pg. 34

(There's a good and humorous analogy on pg's 100 & 101).

There is also an interesting theme at one point, basically Gnostic in flavour; specifically of rival and competing Gods. Although the word Gnostic isn't used (wisely) the gist is there.
I don't believe the point is to say that there is more than one God, but that the people of the time, through the cultural lens they wrote through, perceived it that way. And when their written works were rewritten, revised, and edited through the new lens of monotheism... a lot of confusion ensued.

Abraham's near sacrifice of Isaac is a theologically difficult story. A God who demanded the sacrifice and the same God who prevented it? (pg's 174-175).

Yet Abraham is allowed to haggle with God over the wholesale slaughter of Sodom. So which is it? Does God want his followers to be absolutely unquestioning slaves ("sacrifice you son, Isaac - just shut up and do it!") or equal partner ("What's your thoughts about wiping out Sodom?")? How can one reconcile this Coercing God with this Covenant God? (pg. 182). (Another example includes pg. 205).

All these issues are questioned and explored through various and numerous parables throughout Genesis in an honest, easily readable, and enlightening way, with a light peppering of humour.

Snodgrass does not come off as condescending, pretentious, lecturing, or preachy, but simply as a fellow student in search of the truth.

To the religious, this will be a book to pick at; to debate, to analyse, and rebuke, and an opportunity to perform theological gymnastics.

To the spiritual, this will be a wondrous journey; emancipating, freeing, and eye-opening. This book might very well reclaim the truth of Genesis from the clutches of Fundamentalists and Literalists, and maybe even bring its wisdom home.

Too long have we been told that only two choices exist. A Creationist, literal, historic truth, or a scientific falsity.
The Christian Fundamentalists and the Secular Atheists (scientism) do not own these truths. This book is our opportunity to reclaim them.
This is a paradigm-shifter. This book isn't about Belief, it's about understanding.

To the seeker of spiritual truths, be they Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Agnostic, Taoist, or unlabeled, "Genesis and the Rise of Civilization" is a must read.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network  I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255.

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