Of Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax

As the Walrus and the Carpenter set out along the shore, they invited with them a little host of curious oysters. This naïve (and tasty) entourage was drawn in by the promise of a wide-ranging and mentally-stimulating conversation about the nature of the universe. The “big conversation” took place over dinner, and the curious little oysters were the main course! “Curiouser” enough, the oldest and wisest of the oysters didn’t accept the invitation to take part in the dialogue. He out-lived the young bucks of his oyster bed.

The poem of the Walrus and the Carpenter became famous independently of the book in which it first appeared. In 1872, when Lewis Carroll published Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There the “big conversation” was the recent publication of the sixth edition of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species originally printed about twelve years earlier. When he published it, Darwin was a self-proclaimed theist – a man who was very comfortable with the notion that God had made the universe and all that it contained. He did not see his work as atheist in any way, shape or form. He wasn’t really challenging God’s existence, at the time he was trying to describe and understand what God had done in light of his own observations and evaluations. Darwin’s work was a serious book, asking serious questions, and offering certain ideas for answers. Good stuff for long conversations between well-intended and thoughtful people.

Discussions around Darwin’s accomplishments offer plenty of opportunities to get into long conversations. When such opportunities arise, let’s be careful how we approach them.

I find it helpful to think about the first few chapters of Genesis by way of a mental image. Picture yourself in an aeroplane, preparing to land on a clear, bright day. At first you are high up. You see wide horizons and great distances, but you can’t see very much close detail, like leaves on trees, or direction signs, or power lines. As the plane descends, these details become clearer, and in fact become far more important, especially if you are the pilot!

For the first eleven chapters of the Bible, we see great distances and very long periods of time, but not in very much detail, like the plane when it’s high up. God has not chosen to reveal very much of the technical aspects of how He created everything. By chapter twelve, though, we have landed and are focussed on Abraham in detail. The rest of the book (38 more chapters) deals only with him, his sons Isaac and Ishmael, his grandson Jacob and how Jacob dealt with his own twelve sons. So the point here is to rest in the knowledge that the account of Creation in Genesis chapters one and two is not to be thought of as a technical document, but as a theological document that leaves us with no doubt about God’s role in bringing about everything we see around us.

It isn’t that God is keeping secrets from us, it’s that He is giving us enough information to go on, without getting us tangled up in more than we could understand. I used to do the same when I explained things to my children. If I was working on my car and my daughter asked me what I was up to, I could either give the technical version, with lots of complicated words and ideas that she could never understand, or I could simply tell her I’m working on the car so that she can get to school on time tomorrow. Both would be true, but only the simple version would be helpful.

Many fine scholars and great men of faith disagree on exactly which details are which in the creation account. This is because, as I mentioned before, the fine details are just not given to us. Sometimes we have to “let the secret things belong to the Lord” (Deuteronomy 29:29). Allowing for the small amount of text given to the topic compared to the rest of the Bible, it seems that God is less concerned with showing us precisely how it all started, and more concerned with showing us how to live in light of what He has done through Jesus. That’s the point. The entire New Testament is used to give us insight into the significance of just a brief part of Christ’s life on Earth.

I believe that, like the little oysters, many bright, curious minds have been so enthralled with the conversation, that they have lost sight of the point. Dialogue and debate is a commendable pastime. But when the conversation becomes the main thing, and the main topic is unknowable, something is lost. Time mostly.

Don’t become so caught up with the conversation that you lose sight of the point – and watch out for the walrus!

Copyright © 2009 by Dr Terry Boyle. All rights reserved worldwide.

Posted in Theology and tagged .

Dr Terry Boyle serves as Pastor for Insight for Living UK. His ministry involves teaching a weekend radio programme, hosting the weekday Insight for Living broadcast, helping with issues that come in from listeners, and providing a personal and local approach to Chuck Swindoll’s ministry.

Terry was born in Windsor, England. He moved to the United States in 1981. Although he began his professional life as a biochemist, Terry holds a Th.M. in Pastoral Ministry and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas.

Terry served as senior pastor of Skillman Bible Church in Dallas until he and his family moved back to the UK in 2007, to take on the role of pastor for Insight for Living United Kingdom.

Terry and his wife Rose Ann have been married for twenty seven years, and they have three grown children: Hannah, Emily, and Terence.