Iain Provan taught Old Testament at Regents College Vancouver for 25 years, and I first met him at a conference in Canada many years ago. (We went under the Niagara Falls together!) Iain has written a fascinating book, Cuckoos in Our Nest: Truth and Lies about Being Human. I had the chance to ask him about it.
Ian Paul: You open by talking about the times of crisis that have faced the Christian church in the past—relating to issues around the person of Christ, the nature of salvation, and authority of Scripture, and so on. We are now facing a crisis of understanding what is means to be human. What has led you to believe that we are in such a crisis? Why is the question of what it means to be human so important?
Iain Provan: There are significant disagreements on this question in our post-Christian culture at large, in terms both of what a human being is and how we might gain reliable knowledge about this matter. Are we essentially minds unfortunately currently trapped in physical bodies, for example, as in the transhumanist vision? Does our biological sex have anything fundamentally to do with our human identity? Do we find the answer to the human question by consulting Nature at large, or our own intuitions and desires? Or do we simply make naked choices about how to construct reality?
The Church has never been immune to the cultural currents swirling around it and has often become seriously compromised in its witness because of an unwillingness or inability to stand firm on the foundation of biblical truth. The current moment is no different. The Church is in many ways already compromised by lies about what it means to be human – a question that lies at the very heart of the Gospel.
Ian Paul: You begin by exploring issues around how we know things, and in particular the role of science in our knowledge of the world, a question to which you return several times. Why is this question of knowledge so important? How does Christian thinking both welcome and set limits to the place of science in our thinking?
Iain Provan: If we wish to know reliably the answer to any question, we need to decide how best to approach that question – what will our chosen sources of information be on this or that aspect of it, and why? Science offers us answers to many questions, including some concerning our humanness – but science is limited to its own “domain.” This is the world of what Aristotle called “physics.” Science aims to explain the properties of the physical world by means of empirically testable theories.
It is set up, then, to discover only certain kinds of truth about reality, using methods appropriate to its goals. But many of the important questions about our existence, having to do with things like purpose, value, vocation, and destiny, can only be answered in the realm of what Aristotle called “metaphysics.” Our primary authoritative source here, as Christians, is Jesus Christ.
Ian Paul: The central idea of the book—which actually unfolds gradually—is that of a cuckoo in the nest. What does this idea mean, and why does it illustrate the situation we are in? How does it help our thinking?
Iain Provan: The European cuckoo does not raise its own young, but instead places its egg in another bird’s nest. The host bird then raises the cuckoo chick believing that it is one of its own. Unfortunately the cuckoo is an assassin. It systematically destroys the other eggs or chicks, taking over the nest and filling it by growing to two or three times the size of the adoptive parents.
Unbiblical anthropological ideas are like cuckoo chicks in the Christian nest – smuggled into it by birds whose natural habitat is elsewhere. If they are not removed, they can grow to such a size that they take over the entire habitat, destroying the host community.
Ian Paul: In considering the question of what it means to be human (anthropology), you draw extensively on the creation narratives. Why are these foundational—and where do we see them shaping later parts of the biblical story?
Iain Provan: Each human being inhabits a “story,” whether consciously or not—a narrative the makes sense of who that person is. The beginning of each narrative (as in fictional literature) is crucially important for what follows. This is true of the Bible as well: the creation narrative provide the foundation for everything that follows, identifying all humans as image-bearers of God, describing our vocation as rulers and priests, explaining our fallenness, and describing our destiny.
All these ideas are intrinsic to the biblical story as it unfolds, describing the restoration of our broken image as our fallenness is overcome, and our eventual reign as kings and priests in the new creation.
Ian Paul: Throughout the book, you seem to move in quite different directions—at one moment considering the implications of biblical anthropology for the life of the disciple in community, the life of the church, but the next moment considering issues well beyond the life of the church in work, art, and wider culture. What is the connection between the two? How does shaping of the first affect our engagement with the second?
Iain Provan: If the biblical idea of humanness is true, then that truth affects everything, and we need to consider how it does so – in the Church and in the world; in science and in art; in work and in play; and so on. We are called to be integrated beings loving and worshipping the Triune God with our entire being. My book tries to outline something of what that looks like.
Ian Paul: How does getting our anthropology right shape our engagement with the current debates in the church about sexuality and marriage? Do we really have a better story to tell to wider culture? Can this be done with credibility?
Iain Provan: One aspect of the question, “What a human being?,” is: “What is sex for?” Where does it fit into the Story? And the biblical answer to that question is: “Sex is for a lifelong marriage between one man and one women, with the primary (but not sole) purpose of fulfilling the human vocation to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’” How credible one finds this proposition will depend on many factors, not least how dysfunctional one finds the world to be on sexual matters when it is not governed by biblical faith.
It is interesting and encouraging in this respect to find considerable evidence at present that GenZ folks appear to be much less enamoured of so-called “sexual freedom” than many of their predecessors.
Ian Paul: You portray the implications of getting our anthropology right—or misunderstanding it—very widely. It seems obvious that it will have an impact on questions of sex and marriage. But why does it also affect issues about justice, culture, and the environment?
Iain Provan: The “big story” of life that we inhabit inevitably affects every individual aspect of life. A Marxist will inevitably see “justice” in terms of class conflict, for example, rather than in terms of doing right by individuals. A gnostically-inclined “Christian” will see material culture only as something to be escaped from – not something to be redeemed. A Romantic will not understand care for the environment as “Creation care,” and may well view humans as the main problem to be overcome rather than the dominion-wielding heart of the solution. Every idea about what a human being is – true or false – has a street value when it comes to how we behave and what we strive for.
Ian Paul: How can people use the material in this book most fruitfully in the local church?
Iain Provan: The chapters are short (four pages), and people can read the book individually as the equivalent of Bible-study notes. They can also use it for Bible-study groups, and for broader educational initiatives in church. For all of these, you can also go to my website and find study-guide questions to help you.
Iain Provan taught biblical studies for 35 years in the UK and Canada before retiring in 2022. He now runs The Cuckoos Consultancy, which aims to help Christian individuals, churches, and other organizations reflect on a biblical and Christian theology of humanness.