The “Self-Aggrandizing Fairy Tale” Upon Which We All Depend
Earlier this week I turned the last page of Joseph Boyden’s highly acclaimed third novel, The Orenda, recent winner of CBC’s Canada Reads and, to the great consternation of many, long listed, but not shortlisted, for the prestigious Giller Prize. It is, as many have said, a remarkable book about the seventeenth century Huron-Iroquois wars in what is now Eastern Canada, and the French Jesuit colonial missionary enterprise that inserted itself into the mix. It is gripping, insightful, heartbreaking, and, yes, at times almost unspeakably violent.
The Orenda figures prominently in The April 2014 issue of The Walrus that also arrived on my doorstep this week (this issue isn’t yet available online, so I can’t provide any links). There is a fascinating piece on Joseph Boyden himself. Part Irish, part Scottish, and part Anishinaabe, Boyden is an interesting amalgam, and an intriguing figure who has enthusiastically and admirably embraced his role as an advocate for justice and equality for aboriginal peoples. Equally fascinating, if for different reasons, was John Macfarlane’s editorial a few pages earlier in the magazine. Macfarlane has a bone to pick with the book of Genesis—specifically, with its claim that human beings are made in God’s image and given the imperative to “have dominion” over the earth. Pointing to the contrasting worldviews in The Orenda—the aboriginal understanding of living lightly on the earth vs. western ideas of ownership, cultivation, and exploitation—he offers a stirring call to embrace the wisdom of our aboriginal neighbours and reject the “colossal conceit” of the western, Judeo-Christian tradition.
The editorial ends with these words:
Perhaps it’s time we acknowledge Genesis for what it is, a self-aggrandizing fairy tale, and rediscover the wisdom of the peoples Joseph Boyden, a descendant, wants us to know again.
So there you have it. Get rid of that silly story from the book of Genesis and all shall be well. White and western = bad; aboriginal = good. Full stop. Bible = justification for destructive, rapacious dominion; rejecting the Bible = harmony, balance, ecological salvation. As far as diagnoses go, it certainly has simplicity to commend it. But is it true?
Well, it certainly is beyond question that the book of Genesis has been and continues to be used in profoundly harmful and destructive ways. It is certainly true that good bible-believing folks have found justification for all kinds of unsavoury behaviour in the founding narrative of our origins and role in the world. It is also unequivocally true that white Westerners have a great deal to learn from our aboriginal neighbours (and others) about how to live well in the world (we also have a lot of repenting about how we have used the bible to destroy culture and demonize the other, but that’s another post for another day). Macfarlane will certainly get no quarrel from me either over the fact Genesis has been used very, very badly throughout history or that there is deep wisdom to be found in aboriginal worldviews.
But the narrative strikes me as too simple. The book of Genesis and the ways in which it has been understood is a bit more complex than Macfarlane seems willing to allow. We could read on in Genesis to discover images of human beings being placed in a garden to “till” and to “keep it.” We could probe the semantic range of words like “dominion” and “subdue.” We could investigate the prophets and the gospels and explore the biblical justification for earth-keeping. We could rehearse the many and varied ways in which people have historically found in Genesis and beyond a solid basis for understanding ourselves as grateful stewards of God’s good creation not domineering, centre-of-the-universe exploiters, always greedy for more. Macfarlane might dismiss such claims as little more than an imaginative bit of reverse engineering—trying to get the Bible to legitimate the values we have obtained from other sources—but he ought at least to acknowledge that the story is a little bit more nuanced than he is portraying it.
But what if we leave aside the earth, for a minute, and focus on other things. Things like our convictions about the worth of the human individual, or our prized institutions of education, the rise of science, or our principles of justice and equality. If we were to do a bit of historical digging, what we would find is that a great many of the things that we enlightened, tolerant, determinedly secular twenty-first century dwellers most cherish and depend upon wind a long, meandering path to the book of Genesis with its “conceited,” self-aggrandizing” “fairy tale” of human uniqueness and the imperative to play an utterly unique role in stewarding the garden.
Again, Macfarlane might dismiss this as yet more reverse engineering. He seems to prefer a tidier narrative. But neither the origins of the virtues we prize nor the etymology of the evils we decry are as unambiguous as Macfarlane would have us believe. The world rarely comes to us in terms either that black or that white. In my view, it is simply impossible, on any fair reading of human intellectual, cultural, and social development, to come to any other conclusion than that the Bible, with its fairy tale story of human uniqueness, has played an important (which is, again, not to say “unambiguously praiseworthy”) role in leading us to where we are today. The Bible has, in many ways, built the walls of the edifice from which we now proudly ridicule and dismiss it.
In an essay called “The Human Spirit and the Good Society” in When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson muses about our current confusion about human nature:
John Macfarlane would like to excise the book of Genesis from our cultural imagination, to rid us of the cancerous conceit of this fairy tale that puts “exceptional” human beings at the centre of all things. But the question is not, and has never been should human beings have dominion but how will we exercise this dominion. Will our dominion be characterized by selfishness and greed or by reverent care and respect for the nonhuman creation? For both, clearly, are forms of dominion. The very call to care for the planet assumes that we alone, of all the creatures on this planet, have this capacity and obligation.
We are wildly exceptional, whatever else may be said about us. We would be better served by marshalling wisdom from all sources to be exceptional in the right ways than by ignoring, condemning, or explaining our exceptionality away.