Thinking about Genesis by Way of Opera
Andrew Finden — a world-renowned opera baritone — writes about the effects that performing and experiencing Haydn’s “Creation” oratorio have had on his interpretation and understanding of the Genesis creation account.
I’ve performed ‘Creation’ myself several times, as Adam and also as the angel Raphael who has a wonderful aria describing all the different animals, which Haydn shows off his word-painting and wit. Despite my familiarity with the piece, it wasn’t until I sat and experienced a performance as an audience member that it struck me just how right Haydn’s response to the creation story really is. I think he does something from which we moderns could learn.
The book of Genesis, and in particular, the creation account, is undoubtedly one of the most controversial issues in contemporary theology and Christianity. In many places, the lines have been drawn: faith vs science. For those who draw this distinction, they seem to be unable to read the opening of the Bible without wanting to turn it into a scientific question, asking things such as ‘How old is the earth?’, ‘Are the days literal?’, ‘Did God use evolution?’ and so forth. However, through reflecting on ‘Creation’, I get the feeling this is not exactly the right response.
We often approach the Bible — and especially difficult/controversial parts like the first couple chapters of Genesis — in a very practical manner. Because of their difficult/controversial nature, we want to figure them out. Such an approach is understandable, and not without merit. However, these passages are filled with soaring and poetic language, i.e., they adopt a more “artistic” approach. And if we attempt to decipher such passages in a more pragmatic way where we’re primarily concerned with solving them like a math problem, then it’s possible that we might miss something else entirely, i.e., their mystery and beauty, which can also illuminate, inform, and guide us.
We forget that art can communicate things that hermeneutics, interpretive frameworks, and other purely intellectual approaches — good and valuable though they be — can’t. That doesn’t make one better than the other, but rather, simply acknowledges that they’re different, and speak to different things.
Genesis is a book of theology, that is, it is primarily about God. While it includes narrative, some history, as well as a few other genres, I think it is also a book written to teach people about their place in the world as created beings. It is written as an introduction to the great biblical meta-narrative, the overarching story of God redeeming a people for himself. The creation account puts that all in perspective, showing us who God is as the creator.
In trying to determine what, exactly, those early chapters of Genesis really mean, it’s possible that we miss out on what they’re trying to tell us. Of course, deciphering that doesn’t fully resolve the tension that exists between the various interpretations of Genesis, not to mention the tension inherent to the whole “faith vs. science” debate/kerfuffle. But perhaps by being a bit more open to the artistry of Genesis, and what that communicates, we might be able to dial down some of the anxiety and vitriol that sadly typifies a lot of Genesis-related discussion, even amongst Christians.
And, as Finden concludes, reading Genesis’ creation account ought to provoke within us a sense of awe and a desire to praise and create — not just coolly rational comprehension and acceptance.