“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
So begins the Book of Genesis. And so begins, for some, a book of contradiction.
“From science, we know that the heavens, our universe, was created 10 billion years before the Earth was created, so they weren’t both created in the beginning,” said Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation in Madison. “Unless the beginning is a 10-billion-year period of time.”
It’s a simplistic example, Barker said, but one of the many scientific, archaeological and internal contradictions he points to in the book more than a billion people, including myself, encounter as Scripture.
On Sunday, Barker will participate in a debate called “The Bible: Fact or Fiction?” with Mark Chavalas, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, at 7 p.m. in Valhalla, Cartwright Center, UW-L.
The event is sponsored by the La Crosse Area Freethought Society, Campus Crusade for Christ and Secular Student Alliance.
Barker, 59, was a Christian preacher for 19 years before his conversion to atheism. Some of the songs he wrote in his Christian days, including those for a musical called “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” are still performed today.
The lyrics embarrass him now.
“I spent 19 years preaching. Now it’s been 23 years anti-preaching, so maybe I’ve done my penance,” he joked. “I can get into atheist heaven.”
His book, “Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists,” includes a foreword by famous atheist Richard Dawkins.
Barker’s counterpart on Sunday, Chavalas, does not see the event as a debate but rather a “congenial exchange of ideas with time constraints.”
Chavalas said he’d like to approach it like Paul the apostle, who in Acts 17 finds common ground when confronted by Greek philosophers.
He also is uncomfortable with the idea that the Bible is either fact or fiction.
“It assumes there’s an either-or,” Chavalas said. “When I look at the Scripture as a historian, it’s a much more complicated issue.”
Chavalas, 54, teaches a course on ancient Israel and evaluates the Bible as a historical text.
As with any ancient text, he said, you have to determine something about the type of literature you’re reading, the intent of the author and other factors. He also noted that evaluating the historicity of an ancient text can involve asking questions the writer was not interested in answering.
Chavalas is Christian, attends First Evangelical Free Church and espouses divine origin to the Bible.
“Like the Israelites, to me, God is a given,” he said. “The purpose of the intellect is to more fully understand that which you have willed to believe, rather than to be the basis of my belief.”
Barker says that while some stories in the Bible might be useful, the book is not reliable as a source of truth.
I asked him if he meant fact-based truth, and he said he wouldn’t qualify it: Truth is truth.
A member of the Lenape tribe, Barker finds both American Indian myths as well as Christian myths to be remnants of a more ignorant time.
“There’s actually no coherent definition of God,” he said. “Why would somebody believe in something that’s undefined?”
I found Barker’s question rich fodder for prayer, even though I find experience to be married to a sacred reality, to a ground of being I call God.
And Barker’s description of one of his experiences that led him to atheism inspired me, even though I find the stars lead me somewhere else.
Lying on a cot one night in Mexico, Barker found himself.
“I realized for the first time in my life that I was alone,” he said. “There is no big eyeball judging me. There’s no demons or spirits or angels or ghosts or gods. It’s just me on this planet, and I’m going to burn out like those stars someday. When I realized that, it was so exciting. It’s like knowing something for real.”
Joe Orso works part time for the La Crosse Tribune and the Franciscan Spirituality Center. Opinions in this column are his own.