Truth and genre

When I posted recently about David Attenborough  I mentioned that I mistakenly thought I’d blogged about science documentaries before. But my intention, had I actually done so, would not have been to criticise their truthfulness, but to use them as an example of the inescapability of genre considerations.

This post is prompted by a comment of Roger Sawtelle, always to be relied on for controvertible one-liners, at BioLogos. Commenting about abortion (of all things) he said:

If the words found in Gen 1 are absolutely true, which is the theological position of many evangelical Christians, then evolution is wrong.

I take it he means “if it is taken literally”, by which he would actually mean “if it is taken as a factual material account” … but even those rewordings don’t do justice to the fact that no human writing is “absolute” in any real sense. There is always a layer of convention and metaphor present. Or that’s so in any sentence of more than about three words.

That’s why science documentary seems a good example to examine. Of all the TV formats available to explain universal truths, you’d think the science documentaries to be the most straightforwardly factual – the most absolute, if you like. They are, after all, the means by which scientists and responsible broadcasters hope to educate the intelligent public (the ineducable are watching “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out off Here” instead) into the wonders of our world.

Yet in practice they are full of artistic conventions. “If I’m going to find out about Akhnaten I need to take the desert road to the Valley of the Kings.” Well no, actually – you need to read the published literature, which is of course how you developed your theory before the TV guys approached you. “At that time it was thought that X was the case, but Dr Pangloss suddenly realised that the truth was Y  – but how was he going to prove it?” Actually, they mean that Pangloss had been part of a dissenting minority from a loose consensus for years, but his reasearch assistant was the first actually to stumble on some good evidence for his position when he was looking for something else, and Pangloss made sure his name was at the top of the paper. And so on.

In other words, given that in most cases the actual science you learn from a documentary is accurate enough, the framework used to explain it uses all kinds of conventions like exotic locations, imaginative graphics and stylised human story-lines. You don’t actually hear a crash at the moment you see a planet explode a million miles away. Come to think of it that journey through the cosmos with the stars flashing past like a Windows screen-saver breaks the laws of physics they’re trying to explain. And very few of those laws really require to be explained from the top of a mountain to a passing helicopter, though Brian Cox is famous for it.

All these things are quite legitimate, though. Talking heads make for poor TV, and an animation of a dinosaur’s disembodied lower leg stumping along because that’s all that’s actually been found takes scientific accuracy further than educational needs warrant. But one does need to be in the know about the conventions. A distant descendant whose only knowledge of science came from such a documentary could be seriously misled.

Yet the same is also true of the science literature itself. If the same descendant’s fragment of a science book contained only a brief reference to the “flatness of the Universe”, his view of our cosmology would be severely distorted. “Black holes” are also more mythic than truthful without an intellectual context.

But perhaps a better example of misleading literature is the prevalent teleological tone of much evolutionary writing. I can imagine a future civilisation being overjoyed to discover a cache of, say, one hundred complete papers on biological science, and coming to the conclusion that the one certainty is that our scientists were united in believing life was directed towards a purpose. “This may have evolved in order to exploit that feature of the environment.” “This mechanism is finely adapted to maintain the homeostasis of the organism.” And so on. None of these papers has a disclaimer saying, as my haematology lecturer used to, “Of course, one should not speak teleologically, but it is convenient in explaining things that are actually undirected and purposeless.” Though of course, for completeness they ought to.

One might even imagine that the future scholars who found a copy of one of Richard Dawkins’ books denying purpose would conclude that he represented an aberrant sect, given the pervasive teleological language of the actual research. My point is not that the teleological talk is illegitimate (though there are significant issues surrounding that for us), but that the convention is considered, by the authors, to be just that – the reality has not been stated in “absolute” terms, but according to literary custom.

Exactly the same thing applies to Genesis, of course. For a Fundmentalist to suggest the creation narratives to be “absolutely true” denies, in effect, that they are written literature at all. For the skeptical atheist or TE to say they are not true, without being able to say with authority in what sense they mean it, is no less misguided. Once again, regarding Genesis 1, I refer you to John H Walton’s work. I think we can now have a reasonable degree of confidence in the kind of literary conventions it uses, and even its genre as a functional cosmology and temple inauguration text, with shatteringly original theology.

Genesis 2-3 pose greater problems, because although there are clear comparisons with other ANE texts, we have little authoritative idea of their real purpose. We know, for example, that the Eden story is not an allegory, for the simple reason that that genre did not exist then and there. Adam cannot be an Everyman figure, like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, because no such literary convention had been conceived then. Adam may well be considered an archetype of all men, but that leaves matters of historicity wide open.

For example, Gilgamesh (of Epic fame) appears on the king lists and is very likely to have been an historical figure. His quest for immortality in the epic is usually considered pure legend, and it certainly is not “absolutely” true if only because the gods who assist or hinder him don’t exist. Literally – but one has to understand in what sense the gods were considered real, which may not be as straightforward as it seems. Einstein’s dice-playing God was a metaphor, even to him. So who is to say that a historic King Gilgamesh did not in some way philosophise about or look for immortality, and that this ultimately futile search was not subsequently recorded truthfully according to the literary conventions of the time? How could we know from the fragmentary clay tablets that are all that remain from that distant time?

In the case of Adam, the believer has the additional consideration that this is an inspired text. That does not obviate genre considerations, but should give us a sense that this story is true, as a good science documentary is true … or conceivably as a good novel is true. We cannot get inside the minds of the ancient writers – though ANE studies like Walton’s are a big help. But we can see the context in which the story sits and accept by faith that its setting in the Torah is not mere human error of historical accident. We can also see the use that people like Paul and Jesus himself make of it eslewhere in the Spirit-inspired Bible. That too requires faith that they were led by the Spirit of God rather than led astray by the cosmology of man, but there are still some of us for whom that is no problem.

Given all that, and the help of the Holy Spirit, I believe we can come close to the truth these stories are intended to tell us. It may not be possible for us to be completely au fait with the subtleties of their genre. But then I suspect many of us get by quite nicely though we think that Brian Cox really does need to go up mountains to talk about physics.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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