UMC pastor calls Genesis ‘poetic, not scientific’; is that a knock on God’s Word, or the perfect way to understand it?

I attended a funeral this past weekend at a United Methodist Church. That is not the flavor of worship I’m used to, and I know the mainline denominations have their own way of looking at things. But I like to think we have more in common than otherwise, and I certainly didn’t go to the service on the hunt for doctrinal controversies.

The UMC pastor who preached the eulogy – which was lengthy, to say the least – generally wove some heartwarming tales about the deceased, and for the most part did so in a noncontroversial manner. (I did think that at one point he wanted to start railing against the Trump tariffs, but he let it go.)

But he really got my attention with one statement he made – a statement that got my hackles up initially, but when I thought about it later, made me wonder if he hadn’t just found a perfect way of expressing what’s pretty much my own belief on the issue.

He was talking about Genesis, and specifically the creation story, and as soon as he mentioned it – but before he want into his main point – he sort of stopped for an aside and said to the audience, “That’s the poetic story of what God created. It’s not scientific. You know that.”

Wait a minute. What did he just say?

My first reaction was this: By calling it “poetic” and emphasizing that it was not “scientific,” he was basically calling it allegorical, and not to be taken literally. I took it as if he said, Come on, you know it didn’t really happen like that. Science proves that it didn’t! It’s just a way of expressing with verse something that’s really much more sophisticated than that.

There certainly is a lot of poetry in the Bible, and some of it is clearly symbolic and not literal. Song of Songs is almost entirely symbolic (and if we’re to be honest, pretty darn erotic), while Revelation is a mix of literal information and symbolism and it’s sometimes hard to know where the one stops and where the other stops.

But when the Bible is literal, it sounds literal. When it’s metaphoric, it sounds metaphoric. Genesis sounds literal, so if it’s not, then it would be a break from the Bible’s usual approach to presenting us with information/verse/symbolism.

I didn’t like what I thought was the implication here, and I scrunched my face a bit at what I thought he was implying.

But then I thought about it some more, and on the way home I told Angie how I had reacted initially, but also that I was starting to lean toward a different understanding of what he meant.

Remember, he said it was “poetic.” He didn’t say it was false. He said it was “not scientific.” He didn’t say it was counter to science.

My own belief about Genesis is that God told us the essentials of what He did, but that He didn’t give us all the scientific details because they are beside the point.

Take the formation of Adam, for example. Genesis says God formed him out of the dust and breathed life into his nostrils. That’s all it says. It doesn’t say there’s more to it, but it doesn’t say there’s not either. For all we know, the process of forming Adam out of the dust could have taken millions of years. It could have even involved some of the evolutionary processes that secularists think happened instead of creation. If it started with dust and culminated with Adam, then it’s consistent with the creation account in Genesis, regardless of how long it took or what else was involved.

People tend to picture this as happening almost instantaneously. God gathers up a bunch of dust, and quickly forms into the shape of a man, God blows into the nostrils . . . and whammo. You have Adam. It could have happened that way. But it doesn’t have to have happened that way for Genesis to be true. The way it’s written leaves lots of room to speculate about the details.

So if this is what he meant, then the UMC pastor was basically saying what I believe – that Genesis tells the story in a certain way, with an emphasis on certain things that were crucially important, but doesn’t go into certain other details because they weren’t the point of telling us the story. God seems primarily concerned in explaining Adam and Eve’s relationship to Him, and to each other, and to the rest of creation – and not how He worked the atoms and molecules and whatever else to make all this work.

What do you think? Based on how I’ve worked this out, do you think the UMC pastor’s meaning was the first or the second?

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