Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Stories the Witless Tell

I pity Joe Carter.

A Spanish proverb observes that "Wit without discretion is a sword in the hand of a fool."

Want an example? See the ill-advised and lame "When Nothing Created Everything." Joe Carter at First Things decides to riff on a mis-interpretation of a statement by Stephen Hawking, "the universe . . . create[d] itself from nothing." Carter turns this into a basis for a satirical creation myth. Here's a taste of it:
In the beginning was Nothing, and Nothing created Everything. When Nothing decided to create Everything, she filled a tiny dot with Time, Chance, and Everything and had it expand. The expansion spread Everything into Everywhere carrying Time and Chance with it to keep it company. The three stretched out together leaving bits of themselves wherever they went. One of those places was the planet Earth.
The misrepresentation lies in Carter's taking "Nothing" as the subject actor instead of what Hawking had stated, the universe. Had Carter wanted to do his mock myth right, he would have posted, "In the beginning, the universe created itself from an extremely dense and massive singularity." Instead, Carter combines the opening verses of Genesis and John with a narrative form akin to the creation myths of ancient and aboriginal cultures. Carter's is not a particularly clever piece, and it actually reflects poorly on the myths of Genesis and John.

Here, for one point of comparison, is Genesis 1:1-5:
In the beginning of God's creation of the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water. And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. And God saw the light that it was good, and God separated between the light and between the darkness. And God called the light day, and the darkness He called night, and it was evening and it was morning, one day.
And here's John 1:1-5:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Both Genesis and John are unmistakably better crafted than Carter's new creation story. Yet their rhetorical superiority highlights that they are themselves tales borne from human imagination. The God of Genesis is a twiddler on earth. He lifts and separates here, gives other things names there. He's not so much creating as cooking and decorating. In contrast, the God of John is far away. John's myth is about the "Word," Jesus. He tells the legend of Jesus, the hero who rode into town to face down the local gang.

Carter's purpose in his pseudo-myth is further undermined by the fact that it obviously holds much greater knowledge and understanding about the universe than either Genesis or John. Carter's use of abstract concepts, references to inflationary cosmology and the composition of the far solar system, psychological and philosophical terms, and so on all show that Genesis and John knew relatively little (and perhaps cared little) about their larger world. Theirs was the most rudimentary understanding of the earth, its physical make-up, and its physical history.

More than this, however, Carter's piece is boring. Apart from allusions to the Scripture it truly vaunts, it draws upon little of actual myth and choose instead an allegorical bent (allegory, the refuge of the literary minded pedant). Carter surely stays away from the Genesis and John exemplars deliberately, away from the anonymous precursors who wrote the scriptural texts, because a well-wrought mock myth would have reminded us that Genesis and John are myths too. Had Carter followed his biblical models faithfully, he would have underscored their status as myths. And more jarringly, he would have focused attention on the unpleasant fact that they would surely be thought of as myths except for the efforts of tax-aided preachers, television pundits, and tradition-addled parents.

By the way, here's a fuller quote--no ellipses!--from Hawking, his statement as reported in many news outlets worldwide:
Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist.
The verdict on Carter's effort? No points!


  1. Hi "Larry",

    Only a fool would think that the universe could create itself from nothing. And even a bigger fool would say that laws like gravity "just are (the way they are)"- and Hawking has done both.

    The bottom line is your position is nothing but a myth...

  2. "Joe,"

    For the sake of argument, let's agree that it's foolish to "think that the universe could create itself from nothing," even though Hawking's quoted statement suggests that there is a valid scientific reason accepting this thought.

    Can we also agree that it's pretty foolish to think that a magic invisible being came from somewhere/nowhere to poof this universe into existence?

  3. Anonymous11:47 AM

    Good post here, Larry, though I disagree at most points.

    It seems likely that you have missed Carter's point, or at least not done justice to it. In taking aim at Hawking he is saying that the Genesis and John accounts become absurd if their foundational cosmology is a causeless universe. Now I doubt that Carter's point is to bring credence to the creation accounts of the Bible. Rather, Carter rightly understands the underlying point of Genesis 1-2 and John 1, that it is God who made the first move. And for Carter, John and Moses are far more rational than blokes like Hawking who say that the world could have arisen on its own. In other words, Hawking's assertion of a causeless universe is absurd not just within a Christian framework, but within any framework.

    Now as far as your concluding jab, "Had Carter followed his biblical models faithfully, he would have underscored their status as myths," it seems that you have shown your hand, your seemingly inherent bias. It is so easy to say dogmatically, with great dependence on numerous presuppositions, that the Biblical accounts are "myths." Unfortunately for you, it is far harder to prove that. And so I wonder that if you had been a tad more open minded you wouldn't have brought out Mr. T. for the smackdown.

  4. Anonymous,

    Thanks for the comment.

    You say: "Hawking's assertion of a causeless universe is absurd not just within a Christian framework, but within any framework."

    Yes, I realize that this is Carter's point. My criticism is that (a) he has not made the point artfully and (b) that he has overlooked the patent absurdity of the Christian framework.

    As I show at the end of my post, Hawking's is no baseless assertion. It's an argument. We are free to look at the argument and the evidence and support used to justify the conclusion, but we are intellectually irresponsible simply to dismiss Hawking's conclusion on the grounds that it seems wacky.

    Does this make sense?

    I have documented my argument for concluding the mythical status of texts such as Genesis and John. I hope I don't need to rehearse this argument here and now, but if you want me to, I will. A good place for you to start is with the following posts of mine:

    I don't know what your argument is about the biblical accounts, but perhaps you'll share.

    Mr. T was brought out to tie into the opening quote. My point is mainly that Carter's pseudo-myth doesn't reach the level of wit. Mr. T just helps make this point with some humor.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.