Review: Translating Your Past

Translating Your Past, Michelle Van Loon. Harrisburg: Herald Press, 2021.

Summary: A guide to making sense of one’s past and how our family history, traumas in previous generations, our genetic makeup, and for many, how adoption help us understand our lives and place in the world.

For many of us, our family stories have chapters or whole parts that are opaque to us. Or some of the pages are missing. Yet our families literally have made us who we are right down to our genetic material. The stories include the good, the bad, and the ugly, and known or unknown to us, have contributed to who we are. Knowing those stories give us a better sense of our place in the world and a better self-understanding. It might be something as simple as the baldness that runs in my family to a propensity for alcoholism or particular health issues. Tragedies in previous generations get passed down and color our existence. Yet the stories are often gibberish to us. We need help “translating.” That’s what this book is about.

Michelle Van Loon shares out of her own journey including the traumas that touched her grandmother and mother. She acknowledges that we might not always want to know our family’s past but observes that what remains concealed cannot be healed and we miss out on the treasures, the gifts that have come to us through our forebears. She argues for the importance of our family histories from scriptures that make so much of genealogies and family history. In some way, the whole Bible may be read as a family story culminating in Jesus the Messiah, and leading to our eventual incorporation into that family.

She discusses genetic testing, the predispositions to certain diseases they may reveal and the surprises for those who discover their genetic heritage is not what they thought. Yet this genetic code reveals the unique way our inheritance from two different people makes us utterly unique creatures in the image of God, a source of wonder. We also receive unwanted gifts in the form of intergenerational traumas that may be transmitted in epigenetic expression, activating genes that may otherwise be silent. It can be hard to understand why God permitted this trauma, but Van Loon addresses finding hope that these need not have the last word in our lives. There are also patterns that often repeat from generation to generation. In the case where these are unhealthy, understanding is the first step, an important one of honesty. This may make sense of the unwritten “vows” we make. And this offers the chance of breaking free, of establishing new patterns. Sometimes the “gaps” reflect hard things, and the perpetuation of the family a certain resilience.

Adoption creates a unique situation as one comes to grips with both the birth families from which one arises and the family that has given a home and their love. She discusses the core issues adoptees face: loss, rejection, shame and guilt, grief, identity, intimacy, mastery and control and the options adoptees now have to relate to both families. The question of who our people are takes us as well into our race and ethnicity, and how these have shaped us.

Van Loon expands “family” to our faith communities, and doing so makes me wonder whether the physical communities that our families have inhabited also shape our stories. My wife and I grew up in the same town and have become aware of the values and outlooks that came from growing up in that town and their influence on our families and our shared family.

Ultimately, Van Loon believes our stories, even with their hard parts, may speak of the story God is writing in our lives and encourage us. I find this so. Both of my grandmothers’ Bibles sit close at hand as I write. My one grandmother died when I was very young and I have no memory of her, the other later, but to know of their faith, and to have heard stories of my one grandmother’s prayers for me from those who knew her, and to see how God has answered those is powerful–how God has worked across generations. I am not simply the genetic inheritance I’ve received from them, but I share in their spiritual inheritance as well, a source of profound thanksgiving. I’m grateful for this reminder from Van Loon’s book.

Her book includes two helpful appendices–a toolkit which may be used to discuss or personally reflect on the chapters as well as a second that provides specific resources for tracing our family histories.

Genealogy research has grown in popularity over the years. The genetic tools add a new dimension. What Van Loon offers is perspective that helps us translate information into meaning–leading to healing and growth in some instances, pride and thanksgiving in others, and a greater sense of our place in God’s world.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Guest Review: The Generations of Heaven and Earth

the generations of heaven and earth

The Generations of Heaven and Earth: Adam, the Ancient World, and Biblical TheologyJon Garvey. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2020.

Summary:  This book presents Jon Garvey’s views of the positive theological implications of a scientifically credible historical Adam and Eve who could have lived in the Ancient Near East around 6,000 years ago and been the genealogical ancestors of everyone living since the time of Christ.

Jon Garvey’s book is a companion volume to S. Joshua Swamidass’s book, “The Genealogical Adam & Eve” (GAE). It is not necessary to have read GAE first, because Garvey includes a summary of the scientific side while presenting the theological implications of an historical Adam who lived around 6,000 years ago.

GAE’s claim is that it is scientifically plausible that a historical couple living in the Ancient Near East, among an existing human population around 6,000 years ago, would almost certainly be common ancestors of everyone living since the time of Christ. This claim is based on detailed computer simulations that consistently showed that our probable most recent genealogical ancestor lived two or three thousand years ago, and that anyone living more than 6,000 years ago, who left any descendants, is a common ancestor for the whole human race.

Garvey has attempted to integrate a genealogical Adam and Eve into a coherent biblical theology without any radical revision of traditional Christian theological doctrine by examining its consistency with a number of issues, including the two creation stories in Genesis, the conflict of good and evil, original sin, atonement theories, and the metanarrative of the Bible. Garvey thinks of this as restoring the plausibility of older teaching which had been made to give ground progressively in the light of the “assured results” of science.

Garvey’s contention is that “Genealogical Adam is not just another concordist theory, attempting to find a fix for the incompatibility of the Bible account with other sources of knowledge, but instead as a means for recovering the original intention of Scripture” (p. xv), which is that Genesis 2 introduces the theme of a new creation that occupies the whole of the rest of the Bible.

Genealogical Adam implies some kind of distinction between Adam and those outside the Garden of Eden and the gradual merging of those distinctions through interbreeding as Adam’s genealogical descendants spread across the world. Garvey concludes that “there is no longer a scientific argument against the existence of the biblical Adam and Eve, provided we are willing to embrace the evidence that other, fully human, people existed “outside the garden” before and alongside Adam.” (p. 250) “If we take Genesis 1 and 2 as sequential, and chapter 1 as describing the creation of mankind en masse, including those who lived before and alongside Adam, then we have a human race created in the image and likeness of God which possesses all the intellectual, artistic, and cultural attainments that scientific and historical research has revealed to be ubiquitous from prehistoric times.” (pp. 116-7)

Garvey proposes that cultural inheritance can be as pervasive as genetic inheritance, and it is quicker and does not depend on any genes becoming fixed in the whole population: just on the spread of a strong idea or a habit.  It is culpable sinners who are formed through sinful communities. “[I]t is only possible to become human at all through the absorption of our parents’, and community’s, culture. Our nature is not exclusively “from our genes,” and in fact genetics has a relatively minor role in the inheritance of complex behavior.” (p. 184)   “If Adam were indeed the first person to have a true relationship with God, it would have affected every subsequent relationship of his.”  (p. 185)

Garvey notes that at some stage the apparently chronological narrative of the Bible has to become history. A Genealogical Adam within history solves the problem of where one places the division of allegory and history by placing it with Adam.

Every chapter ends with a short section titled “Conclusion relative to Genealogical Adam.” The book includes a nine-page bibliography, a general index, and a scriptural index.

It’s going to get really interesting when theologians react to this book and to Swamidass’s “The Genealogical Adam & Eve.” Perhaps those theologians, pastors, and Christian philosophers and scientists who had already come out publically for an historical Adam who was not the first human (e.g., Denis Alexander, Kathryn Applegate, Gleason Archer, Craig L. Blomberg, Roy Clouser, C. John Collins, Gregg Davidson, Darrel Falk, Gary N. Fugle, Daniel M. Harrell, Carol A. Hill, Tim Keller, Kenneth W. Kemp, Derek Kidner, Gavin Ortlund, Alvin Plantinga, Harry Lee Poe, John Polkinghorne, Jeffrey Schloss, John Stott, John H. Walton and N.T. Wright) were on the right track after all.

The book’s strength is that it enables the traditional doctrines associated with Adam to remain intact, while maintaining consistency with secular findings on history, archaeology, and various evolutionary understandings of creation.

I can recommend this book to anyone interested in the issues surrounding a historical Adam and Eve. It is a fresh look which should elicit much commentary in the near future.

This guest review was contributed by Paul Bruggink, a retired technical specialist whose review interest is in the area of science and faith.