Book Review: In the Beginning, God

Title: In the Beginning, God
Author: Marva J. Dawn
Publisher: IVP Books

“The Bible is all about God,” writes Marva J. Dawn in the opening paragraph of her latest work, In the Beginning, God. “That might seem an overly obvious point with which to begin a book on character formation, but if we consider the mater seriously, we discover that we often read the Bible imagining it is about ourselves.”

Dawn wants readers to understand the enormous shift in perspective that occurs when we stop asking, “what does this text say about me,” and start, instead, by asking, “What is God doing in this text?”

That is the big idea behind In the Beginning, God. The book primarily is a study of Genesis 1-3 and how their focus on God as the principle transforms our attitude toward faith, Scripture and worship from self-improvement to adoration.

What’s Good

There’s actually quite a bit to like in this book. Dawn’s suggestion of reading the creation account of Genesis 1:1-2:3 as liturgy emphasizing the poetic aspect of the chapter is intriguing. It’s an approach that I’ve never come across before. Her reason for emphasizing this point: to emphasize the beauty of creation and the Creator. “The point of beauty is to display the glorious creativity of God. The point of pondering it is to heighten our worship,” writes Dawn (p. 25). She continues:

The purpose of noting it in this chapter on liturgy is to prevent silly fights or scientific debates over Genesis 1-2. Science does not disprove praise, nor does the Bible’s beginning claim to be an explanation—rather an exultation. The opening liturgy draws us into wonder and adoration because in the darkness of void and emptiness the Trinity continues to be present and to speak to create, to cause brilliant beings to appear.

I really appreciate her emphasis of the beauty of the creation account as it’s something that is well worth pointing out.

What’s Great

The big idea behind the book is actually my favorite thing about it. Dawn wants to remind us that the Bible is, in fact, all about God, and to be made in the image of God means that we must care about the things He does. Beauty, art, stewardship of creation, justice… These are really important and it’s wise to recover a biblical foundation for the pursuit of each of these.

What’s Curious

As much as I enjoyed the big ideas, I did find that sometimes Dawn goes a bit too far in her arguments and her language can be extremely confusing. For example, she writes that the creation of man is not the culmination of creation based on the liturgical structure of the text. “Since all the main nouns in this first account occur in multiples of seven and some of them have not occurred yet in such a number, we are clearly shown that the culmination of God’s process and design has not been reached with the human beings” (p. 56). Rather, the culmination of the creation is the Sabbath.

[W]e wait until the seventh day to encounter the pinnacle of God’s design, the Sabbath day. The Jews celebrate her preeminence by calling her Queen Sabbath and by welcoming her with songs and solemn rituals, festivities, and special foods. (p. 62)

That surprised me, not because I don’t see what she’s saying about the liturgical structure; in that sense, she’s right. The culmination of the creation account would be the seventh day. But when I read the statement quoted from page 62, I was immediately reminded of Mark 2:27, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

Now I’m not sure if she’s advocating the above as a good thing. She does, rightly in some sense, remind us that it is to our peril to ignore the gift of the Sabbath. It is to our benefit to enjoy rest and enjoy God in our rest. But I’m concerned that she might be making it an idol, just as the Jews of Jesus’ day did (see Mark 2:23-28). Even in observing the Sabbath as the gift from God that it is for us, we must remember Paul’s admonition in Colossians 2:16, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.”

I’m also really not sure how to take the following:

The word being gives us a better sense of one into whose nostrils God would breathe His breath or Spirit of life. We are filled to saturation with God’s wind! And it causes us each to be made in God’s image. Of course, God is immeasurably beyond us…so we can each bear only a wee dab of the Trinity’s image. It takes every single person throughout time and space to tell us all that God wants to say about Himself.

[…] Imagine that just a miniscule flake of God is enough to fill us to saturation with individuality. Ponder what delight that gives to each of our lives. We do not have to pretend anything to be special. We only need be ourselves with all the God-image we channel to the world.

Immediately, as I contemplate the itsy bit of God that is mine to transmit to others, I muse about the meager but magnificent Godness in everyone. It would change the way we treated others if we kept remembering the Trinity in each one we meet… (pp. 75-76)

There’s some stuff that just doesn’t sit right in this passage. It doesn’t take every single person throughout time and space to tell us all that God wants to say about Himself. It takes one Man, the God-Man, Jesus Christ (cf. Hebrews 1:3; John 14:9). As for “God flakes” and “the meager but magnificent Godness in everyone…” This is language that is just too squishy and open to unbiblical interpretation. I’m not sure if she’s saying that God’s Spirit dwells within all people (which is false) or, is simply affirming that all humans are created in the image of God (albeit with some rather confusing language).

There are a number of other passages that left me concerned in a similar manner, including an assertion that God didn’t curse us (p. 95), although Romans 5:18 strongly suggests otherwise saying that all have been condemned because of Adam’s transgression.

Conclusion

In the Beginning, God is a book with a wonderful premise, but one that I found severely flawed in its execution. My hope is that the things that concern me in the book are merely issues with the way I’m reading them, or that perhaps Dawn is writing exclusively to an audience she assumes is Christian. But despite the great premise and first chapter, as well as some good bits scattered throughout, I don’t know if it’s one that I could recommend. I might need to read it again to see if my opinion changes or if I can get a better read on what the author is actually saying.

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