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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Fountains of the Deep, by Steven L. Ross

I've written in the past that my reading on the topic of Origins has swayed gradually from Young Earth Creationism toward Old Earth Something-or-the-other.  I even recently penned a post about my current perspective on Genesis 1, and how I don't take it literally.  And feeling that I've perhaps been giving the more Creationist kind of literature short shrift lately, I was pretty excited when I heard about Fountains of the Deep: The Creation Story and Mainstream Science.
Though he doesn't want to be pigeonholed, Steven L. Ross (no relation to Hugh Ross, by the way) reluctantly categorizes himself as an Old Earth Creationist, but he has a different take than any I'd heard before.  And that's cool.  I love getting a unique perspective on things, even if I don't agree with it.
As an Old Earther, Ross takes seriously the findings of mainstream science about the age of the universe, the age of the earth, and the fossil record.  So his task in this book is to find room in the Creation Story for what mainstream science says.  And find it he does.
Throughout the book, Ross takes the Hebrew text (making heavy use of Strong's) and writes the Science Teacher's Version (not coincidentally abbreviated STV - "Steve").  I can't say I'm entirely convinced his translation does justice to the original text, but it's not like I'm a Hebrew scholar.  I can look at inter-linears on NETBible, for instance, but that's about it.
So I'm not a Hebrew scholar.  Neither am I an expert in science.  I really know very little biology, almost no geology, and not much more astronomy.  So don't take anything I write here as scientific fact.  I'm just reviewing the book as a layman, both in the theological and scientific sense.  And I think Mr. Ross is cool with that.
I actually have a lot of thoughts about this book, and I've been having trouble organizing them into a cogent review.  So I think I'll just give some broad-strokes reviewish stuff first, and then get to a couple of things I really liked and didn't like quite so much.  I apologize in advance for my verbosity.  If brevity is the soul of wit, then I'm fairly witless today.
Overall, though, let me just say that this book is well worth reading, and just about anyone could get something out of it.
Ross has three kinds of readers in mind for this book: the literalist, the secularist, and the Old Earther.  He nicely sculpts a three-pronged introduction to the book, inviting all three groups to open their minds and learn something.  Ultimately, I think the literalist would have the hardest time with this.  And yes, that's fairly sad.
I think I'll actually just briefly summarize what each group would learn from this book.
First, the literalist.  He (or she, but he from now on for brevity) would learn that the language of Genesis 1-2 may be flexible enough to allow for the findings of modern science.  I say may be because I'm not scholar enough to really know if the STV is anything like valid.  But I admired the way Ross brought the modern findings about proto-stars and the formation of the solar system and the planets into agreement with the text.  I'm entirely persuaded that, had the writer of Genesis 1 been a spectator to the drama of creation, that the text as we have it could have resulted.
Second, the secularist.  Many modern secular folks basically throw the baby out with the bathwater, the bathwater being the traditional interpretation of Genesis 1.  Not being able to reconcile science with the text, they throw out the entire Bible, never realizing that the traditional interpretation isn't the only one out there.  The secularist would find that he should deal with the text and not the tradition, and in the broader range of this entire book, would find that the Bible has some pretty impressive credits in archaeology (but more on that later).
Third, the Old-Earther.  Since this is the closest category to my own thoughts (still decidedly undecided), I can write most intelligently about what I found in this book.  First, I found a new Old Earth interpretation.  Up to this point, I was familiar with three main approaches taken by Old Earth evangelicals (people who take the Bible seriously): Day-Age Creationism and Theistic Evolution/Intelligent Design (I combined them even though they don't like each other).
Day-Age Creationism basically takes the age of the earth seriously, but throws out any notions of evolution (except some amount of speciation), taking each day of creation as an undefined epoch.  Theistic Evolution is fairly self-explanatory.  The text is poetic or symbolic, but modern science is to be believed, with God as the motive force behind the development of life on Earth.  Intelligent Design has God intervening a bit more, usually with recourse to irreducible complexity or some similar notion.
Into this mix we can now add the Revelation Days approach.  By this way of thinking, the account of Creation is taken as being the written form of a revealed drama.  So whoever is witnessing the drama writes it down (or at least preserves the account in memory), with each new set of revelations comprising one "day."  It's evidently an approach that's been around for some time, and it makes a certain sense to me.  Because you have basically two ways God could have revealed the Creation Account.  First, he could have narrated it to someone.  Second, he could have shown it to someone, letting the witness write it down in the terms familiar to him at the time. 
After introducing his approach, Ross walks through the narrative, showing how the Hebrew text can be made to fit the science behind the increasing complexity of Earth's biosphere.  Certainly, the beginning of the account fits nicely with this approach.  Based on what I just watched on Wonders of the Solar System (the episode "Order Out of Chaos"), the birth of the solar system out of a collapsing nebula can fit pretty well with the STV translation of Genesis 1:2 "And darkness wrapped a turning sphere deep in a surging mass."
Of course, you've never heard of translating "darkness was on the face of the deep" as "darkness wrapped a turning sphere deep in a surging mass," and that could be with good reason.  The problem for me is that I generally trust translators (as long as their philosophy is to be as close to word-for-word as possible), but I also trust scientists to honestly report their findings.  So I trust the old KJV translation and I also trust scientists when they tell me the age of the universe and how the solar system formed (though scientists can only describe mechanism and not the intent or intelligence behind it).
And here's where I have to take everything the STV says with a grain of salt, because I have a hard time not calling Ross's translation a kind of linguistic gamesmanship.  I have the distinct impression that Ancient Hebrew is flexible enough to fit around any conclusions of modern science.  Which means that if the science changes, the STV could change to accommodate it.  I'm not saying that Ross is dishonest or even inexact with his translation.  I have no authority to do so.  I just have a hard time reading modern science into the Hebrew.  I've seen similar things done with modern science and the Arabic of the Koran.  And I certainly don't put much stock in the Koran's validity.
One of the more interesting things Ross points out in the text certainly doesn't fall into any kind of linguistic games:  The text doesn't say that God specifically created anything except the heavens and the earth, the great sea monsters, and man.  In the other cases, the text has life beginning to teem in the oceans, and the earth bringing forth vegetation and animal life, descriptions which could easily fit life developing through natural processes (set in motion by God, of course).
I'm still a bit fuzzy on Ross's idea of the creation of human life, because his STV has a distinction between "mannish beasts" and "man."  By this I take Ross to be indicating that while humanlike beasts account for the fossil record, humans themselves were created.  I'm pretty sure that mainstream science doesn't agree with this, but again I could be mistaking either Ross or science.  But his survey of the fossil record here is quite fascinating.
So again, the bits about the actual creation account are quite thought-provoking, but Ross doesn't stop there.  He also spends a fair amount of time on the Flood, which is where the title of the book comes from.  He takes the typical Old Earth approach, looking for a local flood rather than a global one, and I don't have any issue with this.  His investigation of the archaeology and science behind what might have happened was really insightful.
Also very interesting is Ross's discussion of the literary structure of Genesis, showing how it fits into a chiastic system, lending credence to the idea that the creation account should be taken in its literary sense rather than literally.  (He also discusses the chiastic structure of the entire book of Genesis and beyond.  Good stuff.)
I'll have to investigate a bit, because I'm not sure the Revelation Days approach is always taken exactly in the same way, because Ross has it that God revealed the Creation Story to the Israelites during the original Passover.  And I'm just not sure where this idea comes from.  Certainly it can't be shown by straight exegesis of the text, so I'm not sure what's gained by believing it.  But Ross takes the opportunity to dwell somewhat too long on the Exodus and the archaeology and history behind it, particularly focusing on who the key players might have been.
And here's where I come to my one major gripe with the book.  But first, I'll say that the Exodus information was extremely helpful and interesting.  Ross takes on some of the nonsense notions behind the Documentary Hypothesis and shows how archaeology has propped up the Bible far more than is generally known.  And he nicely surveys the various attempts to date the Exodus and place it in historical context.
I'm just not really sure why the Exodus material was in this book.  In fact, if it hadn't been there, Fountains of the Deepwould have been an unqualified "highly recommended" title for me.  Nice, short length, informative, concise, all that good stuff.  I still recommend the book, but it strays a bit off topic at the end.  I understand that there's an Exodus connection in there somewhere, but I just still don't see it.  So Mr. Ross, if you want to email me about it, I'd love to pick your brain.
But the real gripe isn't that the material was there, it's the fact that the material suffered from a major misstep: Ross decided to translate all the Egyptian names.  Hatshepsut becomes "Lady Noblest,"  Moses becomes "Born," Aaron becomes "Concept," and Thutmose becomes "Lawborn."  Umm…what?  This just took me right out of the text.  I kept having to look back to remember who was who.  I just can't see any good reason to do this.  It's a minor gripe, but it really bogged the last chapters of this book down for me.
On the whole, though, this is a useful book for anyone interested in the topic.  I'm certainly glad I got to read it.

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