Monday, 10 November 2014

Book Review: Robin A. Parry, The Biblical Cosmos

Robin A. Parry, The Biblical Cosmos: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Weird and Wonderful World of the Bible, with illustrations by Hannah Parry (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014)

I am grateful to Wipf and Stock Publishers for a review copy.

Anyone who reads the Bible carefully is likely to notice that its authors presumed a cosmology quite different from that of modern science. The Bible contains many stories and motifs that are strange to a world ostensibly lacking sea monsters, clapping mountains, and star deities. But, as Robin Parry ably shows, only the foolish person would dismiss the biblical account of the universe entirely. While its cosmology, literalistically understood, is untenable, the Bible still has much to teach its students about the heavens and the earth, and of humanity’s place within them.

The Biblical Cosmos is divided into four main sections. In the first (which is preceded by a brief introduction sketching the cosmologies of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Israel), Parry explores how the biblical authors understood the earth. He discusses how the earth was thought to be flat; how the universe was thought to be geocentric; the chaotic nature of the sea and of its fiercest monsters; the importance of mountains, deserts, rivers, and the Promised Land; and of sheol/hades, the realm of the dead under the earth. This opening section is compelling, and, by elucidating several obscure passages from the Old Testament in particular (e.g. ‘the circle of the earth’ in Isaiah 40 and the static sun of Joshua 10) in his often playful prose, Parry establishes himself as an experienced and charismatic guide for those trying to make sense of the fantastic world of Scripture.
In the second section, Parry moves upwards from the earth to the heavens. Of particular interest in this section are the discussions of the divine council and the biblical depiction of astral bodies. Parry does not shy away from difficult issues such as the relation of Jehovah (which Parry prefers over ‘Yahweh/YHWH’ as a ‘helpful pseudo-name’ (p. xi)) to other ‘gods’, the possibility that the stars are in some sense divine, and the role of ‘the satan’ in Jehovah’s rule – all of which add colour to the Bible’s portrayals of heaven as God’s house and throne room. Parry notes that while the boundary between earth and heaven is fixed and (mostly) impenetrable, the future promised by the closing chapters of Revelation envisages earth and heaven as an extraordinary unity.

This leads logically to Parry’s third section, an account of temples in ancient Near Eastern thought. Temples were regarded as the intersection between earth and heaven, between the realm of humans and the domain of the gods. Parry shows that the ancient Israelites, too, adhered to this belief, which included the conviction that the Jerusalem temple (and, before that, the tabernacle) was a microcosm of the whole created order. Christology also plays an important part here; Parry picks up on the New Testament’s language of Christ’s descent from heaven to earth, and from earth to beneath the earth (that is, from life to death in hades), and then on his resurrection and high priestly ascent to rule from heaven. Parry demonstrates that the theology of the New Testament presupposes the Old Testament’s cosmology. Consequently, New Testament Christology is illuminated by an appreciation of this universe, even if later scientific discoveries appear to have made it redundant.

The crucial word here, of course, is ‘appear’. Parry recognises that the biblical world cannot easily be made to correspond to the one mapped by modern knowledge if taken literalistically. But he is certain that God communicates divine truth in and through Scripture’s outdated cosmology. Thus the final section of The Biblical Cosmos is Parry’s attempt to show the continuing importance of temples, stars, and monsters for the twenty-first century. Here, Parry draws from classical Christian (and Christian Platonist) metaphysics to discuss, among other things, the concept of divine presence, the present location of the embodied Jesus, and creaturely participation in the being of God. Not every perspective Parry offers will convince, but the various theological connections he makes are more than enough to suggest that the Bible’s universe should be taken seriously on its own terms and not immediately dismissed as obsolete.

The Biblical Cosmos is a fine and engaging read. Parry has an enviable ability to take difficult biblical texts and ideas and make them meaningful for present-day Christians who inhabit a very different place to the authors of Genesis, Job, and the Psalms. Criticisms are few and minor: some of Parry’s colloquialisms are unexpected and therefore jar a little, and, as stimulating as it is, perhaps the final section should have been longer and many of its ideas fleshed out in more detail. And those who are looking for a summary of creation–evolution debates, or a fresh contribution to them, will be disappointed; this is simply not that sort of book! But Parry’s warm style, analytical insight, and pastoral sensitivity, along with daughter Hannah’s charming and often evocative black-and-white illustrations (some of which are posted within this review), ensure that The Biblical Cosmos is of real benefit to the Church, which very often struggles to know what to do with the Bible’s weird and wonderful world.


  1. Does any of that enable anyone to live with Real Intelligence in the quantum world of the "21st century"?
    A quantum world in which everyone is instantaneously inter-connected.
    Please find a reference which gives a unique esoteric understanding of Adam & Eve in the Garden of Indestructible Light:
    Plus a set of references on the paradoxical nature of Quantum Reality

  2. Don't s'pose I could borrow your copy could I Terry? ;)

    I'm intrigued - how does he elucidate the static sun of Joshua 10? And what (in Parry's view) is the current location of the embodied Jesus?


  3. Well, you could borrow my copy, but it really is worth owning (and I wouldn't want my generosity of lending dent Robin's sales!). :)

    The static sun, if Robin's to be believed, is quite straightforward to explain: in a geometric universe, the sun moves round the earth, so it's nothing for God simply to stop it progressing. In modern cosmology, the earth would need to stop spinning in order for the sun to appear standing still, which leads to all kinds of problems!

    And the embodied Jesus was resurrected into the future, but his presence is mediated to us here and now by the Spirit through the bread and the wine, and in the Church. To be honest, I don't think this idea is unique to Robin - I'm sure someone like T.F. Torrance or Robert Jenson has said something similar, and the whole idea of Spirit-mediation is pure Calvin.

    1. All right, I might think about getting my own copy!

      I take the point about the static sun... but does that mean that we (with our completely different cosmology) have to view it merely as a symbolic idea rather than something that could ever have happened?

      Wow, resurrected into the future - that sounds very Doctor Who! Given that I don't think I believe the future exists, that's a hard one... I also wouldn't limit Jesus's mediated presence to the Eucharist and the church... but interesting stuff.

    2. The static sun: I think a case could be made for seeing this as a symbolic story, though I'm not sure what that case would be. I'm not a Joshua expert!

      The question of Jesus's mediated presence is an interesting one. I wouldn't want to say that Jesus's presence is limited to the Eucharist or the church; but on the other hand, the New Testament seems to indicate that he's specially present in them. I guess it's a bit like Solomon's temple: "Thank you, God, that you've chosen to live in this temple, even though we know nothing - not even the heavens - can contain you."