Book Excerpt: 'Magic and Technology' by Gerhard Stübben


The following is an excerpt from Gerhard Stübben's forthcoming book, Magic and Technology: A Christian Reflection on Knowledge, Power, and the Fate of All Life.

Not long ago the Western church was confronted with a claim about the Bible that deeply startled it: Genesis 1-11 is not historical. The first waves that came crashing down on the church’s traditional hermeneutic were from the field of geology. In the 1800s geologists began to discover that rocks and geological strata pointed to a history of earth very different from what a historicizing read of Genesis might suggest, and this scientific finding caused a huge stir in Christian theology. In Britain during the period, “many… Britons who were not necessarily well versed in geologic data nevertheless believed its professional interpreters should refer to the written statements of the Creator of those data. As a result, by the middle of the 1820s a movement hostile to accommodationist geology had coalesced around the conviction that geology’s only true source was scripture.” Hostility flared from the most intellectually respectable centers of the Christian church, from the divinity school at Edinburgh to the cathedral at York. By questioning the historicity of Genesis 1-11, many were thought to be attacking Scripture’s authority.

The second set of waves that crashed on the church’s shores were from the field of biology. The history of the debate over evolution is more well-known than that over geology, since the battle wages furiously on to the present day, but some review will be helpful to gain our moorings. On November 24, 1859 the world was changed forever. On that day, Charles Robert Darwin published his landmark On the Origin of Species with John Murray. Controversy predictably swelled around the shocking theory, particularly from Christian circles who insisted on the historicity of Genesis, and the whole debate came to a head when July 1925 witnessed The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes: the Scopes Monkey Trial.

The state of Tennessee had outlawed the teaching of human evolution in public schools. The exact text of the law, the Butler Acts, reads,

Section 1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

By this time the Darwinian theory of human evolution had won the scientific consensus, and it was inevitable that the Butler Act would be challenged. John Thomas Scopes, a public school teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, stepped into this primed powder-keg. The state of Tennessee sued Scopes for teaching evolution (though the details of the case were actually a bit complicated), and one of the most notorious legal cases in American history unfolded. Predictably, one of the chief issues of the case was the precise nature of, and therefore the right way to interpret, the Bible, and after the case Fundamentalism was crucified in public consciousness. Though Scopes lost the trial, he won in the eyes of the broader American culture.

Interestingly, the dialogue of the trial reveals that the authority of the Bible hung, in the minds of the Fundamentalists, on the supposedly historical claims of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. A particularly telling line in the transcript brings this out clearly:

William Jennings Bryan [anti-evolutionist and state prosecutor] – Your Honor, I think I can shorten this testimony. The only purpose Mr. Darrow has is to slur at the Bible, but I will answer his question. I will answer it all at once, and I have no objection in the world, I want the world to know that this man, who does not believe in a God, is trying to use a court in Tennessee…
Clarence Seward Darrow [evolutionist and lawyer for the defense] – I object to that.
Bryan – (Continuing) to slur at it, and while it will require time, I am willing to take it.

A surprising amount of time at the trial was spent debating whether or not a historical interpretation of Genesis 1-11 is feasible, and Bryan calls such prodding “slurring at” the Bible. To question the historical interpretation of Genesis was, to William Jennings Bryan, mockery.

As this very brief history of the interpretation of Genesis 1-11 in the modern Western world shows, in the minds of the public the historicity of the text and the authority of the text were inextricably bound up together. This, of course, is problematic. But have we succeeded where they failed?

Narratives like I’ve just told almost always end in the same place: leave science to the scientists, leave theology to the theologians. But that is emphatically not the claim that I am making. I have no interest in a mutually beneficial partition, the Bible telling us how to go to heaven and science telling us how the heavens go. While I side with Clarence Darrow on the historicity of Genesis 1-11, I have no interest in relativizing the texts. We have lost the texts, the all-important message of these contentious texts, in the morass of historicizing debates. They have been treated as an embarrassment from Galileo on, needing adjusting to the findings of modern science, but the recasting of the texts has left us without clear interpretive moorings. We know what the first chapters of Genesis do not mean. Have we discovered what they do mean? We have rejected their historicity, but have we also inadvertently rejected their theology?

The primary aim of this book is to argue that the texts do have a word to speak to us, us “Enlightened” moderns, and one that is relevant even after the transfiguration of Darwin’s finches; a meaning that is perhaps even more relevant to us moderns than it was to its original audiences. Science has liberated us from a naïve interpretation of Genesis; might Genesis also liberate us from a naïve interpretation of science?

Magic and Technology is now available.


Gerhard Stübben

is an author, a co-host of Podcastica Patristica, and a graphic designer in Waco, Texas. He is a co-author of Divine Providence: A Conversation and Arius in His Own Words, the first ever stand-alone translation of the works of the fourth century heretic Arius.