Richard Holloway writes a letter to the author of the book of Genesis
You started with these words: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” And that’s how your book got its name, Genesis, Beginning. Then you went on to craft a great poem describing how God made everything in six days and rested on the seventh. That’s where the trouble started. I wish you had added a little note inviting your readers to take you seriously but not literally. In fact, I wish you had written a prologue on the art of reading. I wish you had reminded us that you were an artist responding imaginatively to the wonder of the universe, not a reporter taking notes on something happening in real time. But that’s how some people started to read you. Not as a glorious fiction that prompted their wonder, but as an accurate news report of a tumultuous week about six thousand years ago. You won’t believe this, but there are people alive in my time who insist on reading you that way. We could dismiss them all as endearing eccentrics, if it weren’t for something else they get wrong, something they again take literally – and this time it’s had consequences, very serious consequences.
On the sixth or last “day” of your narrative, God creates all the living creatures on earth, the grand climax being the emergence of humanity, God’s special favourite.
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
Then come the fateful instructions to these human beings about how they are supposed to live:
“And God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
I want to pause for a moment to reflect on what you thought you were doing when these words came to you. Great writers don’t tell us about something. Their writing becomes the thing itself. Is that what you were doing here? Were you writing with a premonitory sorrow over the meaning of these words? In a single sentence you captured humanity’s arrogance, its belief that it owned or had dominion over the earth, and could do anything it liked with it. And that’s what we have done. The planet is marked with the smudge and ugliness of our abuse of it. It is littered with the debris of our greed.
To be fair to us – or to some of us – we have begun to realise what we have done to the planet in our arrogance, and we are trying to make amends. We have started cleaning up the rivers we polluted. We are trying to purify the air over our cities we have saturated with toxic particles. We are even beginning to worry about the effect of losing the species we have rendered extinct. But now some of us are beginning to wonder if it might all be too little too late. A bit like deciding to spring-clean a house on the edge of a cliff that’s about to plunge into the sea because of coastal erosion. It’s the earth, our home, that’s now on the edge of that cliff. All because we didn’t know how to read what you had written. Because we read your words not as a warning, not as a fable that required interpretation, but as an instruction manual to be followed to the letter. Look where it’s got us.
It gets worse. There are literalists out there who believe this is what God actually wants. And because they don’t know how to read, they’ve come up with a god who hates the world so much he is coming soon to destroy it and everything in it.
Except them, of course. They’ll be saved as the planet combusts. That’s why they welcome its extinction. “Use it before you lose it, the end is nigh,” they yell, believing their divinely chartered spaceship is standing by to take them to safety. How could I sum up their attitude for you, dear author of Genesis? “F**k the planet, we’re gonna be OK,” is probably as close as I can get.
So I hope you understand now why I am writing to you. It’s not that I wish you’d been a bit more careful in how you wrote your parable. It’s just that I wish you’d made it clearer what you were doing when you started composing your great fiction. On the other hand, it’s hardly your fault there are so many humans who completely lack imagination. But why do so many of them claim to be religious? Don’t they understand that religion is the oldest art? And that its stories are to be read seriously, but never literally? Enough already.
The good news is that young people everywhere are rebelling against humanity’s God-given right to destroy the earth, their home. Their religion is love of the little blue planet that bore them and sustains them. And they are fighting hard to save it. You’d admire them. You’d want to write something to help them. Or maybe you would just point to something another writer from your own family of artists would say hundreds of years later. His name was Isaiah and these are his words:
‘The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.’
And you know what, old friend? I’m tempted to read that poem literally!
Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis introduced by Emma Thompson and edited by Anna Hope, Jo McInness and Kay Michael is published by William Collins, priced £10.