In the Beginning
A CultureMap®
by James Waller
Published on 7/10/13

Ever since the first “I am,” human beings have wanted to know where we and the world around us came from—a trait shared by devout religious believers and science-minded atheists alike. Scriptures explain our origins (or purport to), physicists theorize about them, and fantasy writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis let their imagination carry them back to what might have happened in the beginning.

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Genesis 1–3
to  Cosmological Argument

The creation account in the biblical book of Genesis is presented in two consecutive and very different stories. The first (Gen. 1–2:3) recounts God’s making of the universe and everything in it over six successive days (on the seventh day God takes a break). The second (Gen. 2:4–24) narrates God’s forming the first man “from the dust of the ground,” his planting the garden of Eden and making the animals, and then his fashioning the first woman from one of the first man’s ribs, extracted from his sleeping body. There are numerous inconsistencies between the stories (in the first, for example, the man and woman are created together), but one thing strongly links them. In both, God is presented as a person: He speaks, breathes, rests, sees and renders judgment on each of his accomplishments (“it was good”). As such, the God of Genesis is a very different sort of entity from what 17th-century scientist Blaise Pascal pejoratively referred to as the “God of philosophers and scholars”—that is, the abstract, anemic being one encounters in classical ontological, teleological and cosmological arguments for God’s existence.

Cosmological Argument
to  Big Bang

The so-called cosmological argument purports to prove God’s existence on the basis of causal necessity. The argument has many variants, but one of the cleverest was offered by 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, who thought that, because the universe is contingent (i.e., it conceivably might not have existed), there must be a necessary being—a noncontingent, “uncaused cause”—to which the universe owes its existence. Another version of the argument is more familiar: Because everything we observe has a cause, and because a causal chain that extends back infinitely in time is inconceivable, there must have been a first cause—a “prime mover” that originally set everything in motion.

On its face, the cosmological argument resembles the scientific theory of the Big Bang, put forth in 1931 by Catholic priest and astronomer Georges Lemaître, who posited that the universe came into existence at a particular instant in the very distant past. The theory, however, says nothing about a first cause, only about a first event from which all other events have flowed. In other words, accepting the Big Bang (as most physicists do) doesn’t require that you believe in a God who lit the fuse.

Genesis 1–3
to  Big Bang

Young-earth creationists, who somehow take Genesis’s two contradictory accounts of creation as literally true, base the age of the universe on the chronology found in the Bible. Their calculation? Five thousand years, 10,000 at the most. People who take scientific discovery seriously beg to differ. Scientists estimate that the Big Bang brought our universe into being about 13.7 billion years ago. Those worldviews are obviously irreconcilable, but they have something in common: Both the Bible and modern theoretical physics hold that creation occurred ex nihilo—that is, “out of nothing.” Well, not exactly. In the Genesis text, as in other ancient creation stories that may have been sources for the Bible’s authors, along with a “formless void” there seems to be some inchoate primeval stuff (the “face of the deep,” Gen. 1:2) that preceded God’s first creative act. Whether anything preceded the Big Bang is a brain-frying question, since time itself appears to have begun with that event. The question’s obscurity, however, hasn’t deterred physicists from speculation about what might have come before—including, for example, the conjecture that the Big Bang might have resulted from a collision of parallel universes in an infinite, bubbly “multiverse.”

Genesis 1–3
to  The Tree of Life  (Terrence Malick (dir.) | film | 2011)

In Eden God planted many trees, but the Bible mentions only two by name: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In Genesis 3, after Eve, then Adam eats the fruit of the latter, God banishes them from the garden so they won’t also gobble the fruit of the former and live forever. The idea of a life-bestowing tree is archetypal, its roots extending through many cultures. And it’s closely related to another widespread religious idea, that of a “world tree” that structures the cosmos (Yggdrasil, in Norse mythology, is one such). The two ideas—life source and cosmic architecture—are wedded in the towering Hometree of James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar, which both houses and sustains Pandora’s Na’vi population. The title of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life points to yet another related conception: tree as metaphor of connection between past, present and future and between the living and the dead. The sap profoundly flows in Malick’s ambitious film, which picks up at the beginning of the universe, drops in on the dinosaurs and concludes in a beachfront afterlife, but not before pausing for a protracted (and welcome) layover in 1950s Waco, Texas.

The Tree of Life  (Terrence Malick (dir.) | film | 2011)
to  Cosmic Egg

In constructing their cosmologies and cosmogonies, prescientific peoples fashioned ideas about how the universe is ordered and how it began based on close-at-hand observations of the natural realm. Thus a tiered universe with heaven at the top, earth in the middle and an underworld below finds a natural analogue in the tree—branches reaching skyward, trunk standing firmly on the earth and roots burrowing underground. Terrence Malick plants this metaphor in his Tree of Life. Equally naturally, several cultures trace the universe’s beginning to what scholars of comparative religion term a “cosmic egg” that hatches and grows to become the present world. (In some stories a creator crawls out of the egg, as in one myth about the Egyptian sun god Ra.) This archetype has persisted, at least in popular culture, into the scientific era, as illustrated by its presence in sci-fi comics like DC-Marvel’s Justice League of America/Avengers crossover series, whose villain Krona is ultimately imprisoned in a cosmic egg from which a future universe will be born. But notice that the cosmic egg idea also resonates with the Big Bang theory: Isn’t there something egglike about the “singularity” from which, according to contemporary theoretical physics, our universe sprang?

Genesis 1–3
to  J.R.R. Tolkien  (1892–1973 | English writer)

Some creation stories—including the Judeo-Christian one—explain not just how the world came to be but also how evil entered into it. In Genesis 3, the fall is an all-too-human affair: Eve (egged on by the serpent) and Adam furtively disobey God’s command not to eat the fruit of a certain highly tempting tree. There’s not a whisper in Genesis—nor elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures—of any primeval “war in heaven” pitting God’s good angels against wicked insurgents. That story doesn’t appear until Revelation (12:7–9), which connects the rebellious “dragon” Satan to the “old serpent” of Genesis. This New Testament tale influenced the cosmology of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost (1667) and of British fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien’s creation narrative appears in The Silmarillion (1977), a posthumously published collection of writings that provide deep—cosmically deep—background for the more popular (and enjoyable) stories of Middle-earth told in his Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy. In Tolkien’s mythology, the universe is created as music made disharmonious by the off-key rebellion of the angel-like Melkor—later Morgoth, the master of the Dark Lord, Sauron, who forges the malevolent ring so central to Tolkien’s hobbit saga.

J.R.R. Tolkien  (1892–1973 | English writer)
to  The Chronicles of Narnia  (C.S. Lewis | novel series | 1950–1956)

“Why would anyone do it, we keep asking as we read…. Why write a mythic history, a Bible?” wondered novelist John Gardner, reviewing J.R.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion for The New York Times soon after the book’s 1977 publication. Gardner was exasperated by the enterprise, but the simple answer to his question may be that it’s what fantasy writers like to do—imagine entire, internally coherent universes from their beginnings onward. When they do it well, interweaving “ancient” myth with compelling, character-driven narrative, as Ursula K. Le Guin did in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), the effect can be spellbinding. But reading stand-alone mythological narratives like those in The Silmarillion can be as stultifying as listening to somebody else’s dreams. Tolkien’s colleague C.S. Lewis (they were both Oxford dons and members of the Inklings literary society, which also included fantasy writer Charles Williams) chose the more reader-friendly route in his own fantasy-adventure series of children’s books, The Chronicles of Narnia. That the creator of the Narnian universe—Aslan, the Great Lion and Christ figure extraordinaire—is an interesting, multidimensional character helps keep most readers from dozing off.

The Chronicles of Narnia  (C.S. Lewis | novel series | 1950–1956)
to  Genesis 1–3

British writer C.S. Lewis (1898–1963) was an outspoken convert to Christianity. His autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955) and his apologias—including The Problem of Pain (1940) and Miracles (1947)—remain perennial best-sellers among evangelical Christians. Evangelicals likewise embrace Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, reading it as Christian allegory. As do some non-Christian detractors: The 2005 release of Walt Disney’s Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe begat a flurry of outrage from those who accused Disney of pushing Christian propaganda on kids. But to interpret the series as a simple retelling, in fantasy drag, of the Bible story not only contradicts what the author said about Chronicles, it also misreads the books—which, while chock-full of Christian themes, show influences from many other sources. Further, Lewis’s cosmology in the Narnia books differs from the Bible’s. The lion Aslan’s singing of Narnia into being (in The Magician’s Nephew) may resemble the activity of the Spirit of God in Genesis 1 and God’s “breath of life” in Genesis 2, but that parallel neglects the larger picture: that Narnia is a multiverse of interpenetrating universes—a light-year’s cry from the standard Christian model.