Friday, June 30, 2006

God Disappears in a Poof of Logic

Several years ago I was overseas with InterVarsity cultural exchange project. The country's public education was predominantly atheist, and so were most of our foreign counterparts. I became good friends with one of them, and had more than a few spiritual conversations with him.

Finally though, he pulled out all the stops on me. "If God can do anything," he asked, "then can he make a rock so big he can not lift it?" I was rather taken aback - had I traveled to the far side of the world to be asked such a familiar question? This was a tactical blunder on the part of the forces of darkness - the question might be decisive, but its familiarity cushioned the blow.

So, in the interest of good sportsmanship, I offer a few alternatives for the enemy's use:
  • Can God make a peg so round that he can't fit it in a square hole?
  • Can God make a woman so sexy that he can't resist her?
  • Can God make a dinner so European that he can't eat it with chopsticks?
Any other good ones?

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Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Curse in Retrospect (Genesis 11)

I’m not an expert on mythology, but I do remember a distinct attitude from a few I’ve read. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the gods are portrayed as cruel – dangling immortality before mortals’ eyes while firmly keeping us in our place. In Greek mythology, the gods are horrified when one of them slips up and gives fire to man. Ancient man seems to have envied and resented the gods for what they had and refused to share.

I see this attitude in Genesis, reinforcing the serpent’s assessment: “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” God seems to agree: “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” Apparently, God expels them to protect himself from a potential rival.

I sense this theme again in the tower of Babel incident. Seeing the construction of the tower, God worries, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible to them.” So he confuses their languages and scatters them across the face of the earth. Close call there – God 2, Man 0.

Not a flattering picture of God, and not a terribly comforting situation for us humans – if this were the end of the story. As it is, I know how the story progresses, which helps reinterpret the bleak picture that comes from taking Genesis on face value.

God did create man in his own image, and hence the desire to be “like God, knowing good and evil” wasn’t misguided (although the disobedience was). The resulting curse seems to prevent man from achieving divinization by eating from the tree of life, but this is because God has something different up his sleeve. In the fullness of time God, embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, embraces the full brunt of the curse. Jesus’ death reverses it, and brings resurrection and new creation. Man shares in this triumph by being “in Christ” – not escaping death but being united with Jesus in his death, and thereby also sharing in his resurrection and glorification – yes, even in his divinity as adopted sons of God.

Then we have Pentecost, with fascinating parallels to Babel. The followers of Jesus are united in one mind, staying together in one place. God intervenes and gives them new languages, only instead of dividing them these languages bring together people of different cultures in God’s new humanity. They then scatter throughout the Earth, building the towering kingdom of God on the rock foundation of Christ.

I think this is the key to understanding God’s actions in the Garden and at Babel. He intends man to be “like God” all along, but He knows that the road to this glory is down, not up. It is the way of suffering, estrangement, exile, hardship, and death.

Might the curse actually be, in J. R. R. Tolkien’s words, “the gift of God to man”?

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

God Gives Up On Us . . . Almost (Genesis 5-10)

Noah’s Ark is one of the first Bible stories we learn as children – probably because it involves so many animals. Isn’t it interesting how much children love animals? There’s something very primal, very deep there, though it is often quickly socialized out by modern society. I can’t help but think of how Genesis puts our relationship with the animals at the very center of our vocation as humans. Anyway, the ark is a theme for murals in nurseries, for storybooks, and my son even has a plastic Noah’s Ark playset among his toys.

Don’t be fooled: Noah’s Ark is one of the darkest and most heart-wrenching stories in the Bible.

It opens promisingly enough. After Noah’s birth, Lamech prophesies that “out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.” Man has been aching under his curse, and Noah will be a savior that helps turn things around.

Meanwhile, God is not pleased with his creation. He’s an artist who had high hopes for a painting, but after struggling with it for far too long finally decides to trash the thing. With a look of disgust, he growls,
I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.
All the beauty of creation, all the wonder of Genesis 1, all the creative energy – all for nothing. He has given up on us; the artist grips the canvas to tear it to shreds.

And then he sees one tiny corner of the painting that really did embody the vision he had when he started the project. Everything else is a mess, every other bit is absolute garbage, but “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” The artist takes a deep breath, and resolves to give the painting another try.

However, this involves painting over everything else but the little corner and starting almost from scratch.

I’m continually struck by how the fate of creation is bound up with the fate of humanity. God says, “cursed is the earth because of you,” over and over again. First it was thorns and thistles, then utter fruitlessness, and now the earth is engulfed by the crushing chaos of the sea. Back to day one. The only memory of all the previous work drifts precariously atop the waves: a lone ship in an eternal ocean.

On the seventh month the ark rests on the tops of the mountains, and on the third month after that earth is again seen rising from the waters. It’s a type of new creation. The dove Noah sends out brings fresh hope, and he and his family and the animals leave the ark to replenish the earth.

God looks again at his fledgling creation, and commits himself anew to the project. He puts the rainbow in the sky and says “this is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” He acknowledges that “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth,” but that’s just something that will need to be dealt with. God intends to mold this thing into what it was meant to be, and he’s not going to destroy it again.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

From Stealing Fruit to Killing Brothers (Genesis 4)

The story of Cain and Abel: the first brothers and the first murder. Abel is a sheepherder and Cain is a farmer. Both are good honest professions as far as I can see. Perhaps there is a bit of a shadow on working the ground from the curse, while supervising the animals was Adam’s first divinely appointed task. At any rate, God likes Abel’s offering and shuns Cain’s.

Cain is understandably upset, and God, with a surprising act of tenderness, gives some fatherly advice: “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” Very well. Now that man has the knowledge of good and evil, he must rise to the task and “do well.” God warns him that this isn’t easy – there will be a struggle with sin that he must master.

Cain doesn’t do so well, and Abel’s blood seeps into the already cursed ground. In a stroke of poetic justice, the ground will never produce a thing for Cain now (you thought thorns and thistles were bad) and he is exiled from his livelihood. Cain’s story is like Adam’s – the same pattern of disobedience, curse, and exile – only the stakes are higher and the consequences more severe. Yet God spares his life, as he did with Adam, both of which seem strange to me.

Then comes Lamech, Cain’s great great great grandson, who kills a man and evokes God’s protection from any reprisals. Things seem to be getting worse and worse throughout the generations, ‘til we finally arrive at God’s assessment that the “wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

Despite knowing good and evil, man isn’t doing very well.

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Saturday, June 24, 2006

Let Us Do Good, That Evil May Abound (Genesis 2-3)

Now to the second creation story in Genesis. In this one, God makes the man first, then the plants and animals, and finally the woman.

The story is familiar – God tells the man not to eat from the tree of “knowledge of good and evil” on pain of death, but the serpent, being “crafty”, tells the woman that it will give her new wisdom and insight, and it won’t hurt her. She and the man eat, immediately realize their nakedness, and cover up. God shows up, curses everyone, and kicks them out.

There are a lot of interesting things about the story, but the thing that grabs me the most is this whole notion of the expulsion from the garden being caused by a desire to know “good and evil”. Isn’t this knowledge a good thing? Why would God forbid it? Why would such knowledge bring death?

I can’t help but think of this passage in Romans:
If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.
Here is the irony: man eats the apple to obtain the knowledge of good and evil, yet upon eating it he suddenly becomes aware of his own shame. Man now knows good and evil, but only after choosing to disobey his creator – choosing evil.

But the choice didn’t cause the nakedness – a.k.a. shame. That was there all along. The man and the woman just didn’t know it was a problem to run around naked.

There are all sorts of behavior that is OK for animals, but is absolutely “beastly” and “brutal” for humans. It seems like unfallen man was a happy, but ignorant creature. The fruit brought him to a higher plane of potential, bringing with it a host of new responsibilities that he was nowhere near able to meet.

What an interesting thought: man became sinful by acquiring a good thing.

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Opening Theme (Genesis 1-2:3)

I suppose I am a full-fledged member of my media-saturated generation. I read over the first creation story in Genesis and immediately saw it play out in my mind like it was on the big screen. This may be a little cheesy, but here’s my storyboard for filming the creation.

First, watch the teaser trailer for Superman Returns. It’s a fairly christological script in its own right, but listen again and try to zero in on just the music. After a brooding hum, there is a simple theme that grows as it repeats (I count) seven times.

Now imagine you are hovering through a thick mist over a large body of water. It’s completely dark and the fog is so heavy that you can’t tell where it ends and the ocean begins. The first theme begins and you see a soft glow straight overhead beginning to saturate the mist, lighting up around you like headlights on a foggy night. Everything around is now blazing with light, which softly dissipates into the thick dark blue of the sea. The music fades.

A second theme begins, different than the first, and a billowing wind pushes the mist upward, and suddenly you see the huge dome of the sky above and the sea stretching off into the horizon in all directions. The music subsides.

As a unique third theme begins, the waters start roaring and rushing downward, like a giant whirlpool, and suddenly huge rocks rise out of the ocean. Now the sea is to your back and you stare in awe at a vast landscape of giant mountains and craggy cliffs, with the last drips of the water trickling down. The third theme fades.

You hear the first theme again, but louder and richer than before. Looking upward into the clear sky, you see a tiny pin prick of sharp light slowly moving into place, followed by a billion other stars sweeping across from east to west. Then, with a flash, the crisp white outline of the moon appears. Finally, in the east, comes the blinding yellow light of the Sun. The fourth theme fades.

The second theme resumes, but with more depth and power. Looking back over the ocean you see schools of fish of every variety swimming all around, and whales and dolphins crashing about. Now flocks of gulls and ducks and every kind of bird soars overhead, and their singing and squawking echo back across the mountains. The fifth theme fades.

The third theme comes again, booming and deafening, and the landscape is now green with grass and trees and every type of flora, as thick as a jungle. Insects crawl and buzz, and now small animals scurry about the fields. Then herds of buffalo and horses thunder over the hills, and a mountain lion roars at the edge of a cliff. Finally, in the center of it all, a man and woman walk into view, their perfect nude bodies glistening in the sunlight, and all the animals in the sea and the land turn to face them. They are the signature of the artist. The sixth theme fades.

The last piece of music is a majestic combination of all three, and you gaze upon the brilliant sky with its countless stars, the expansive sea with the myriads of fish below and birds above, and the towering landscape teaming with plants and animals, and the man and woman watching it all in wonder. You take it all in and then give up trying to take it all in, just resting in the moment. The sun sets, the animals quiet, and the man and woman lay down to sleep. The music fades.

God is a master artist, and so is the author of Genesis.

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Monday, June 19, 2006

Mommy, What's a Myth?

I'll go ahead and start this Bible blogging stuff with a doozy: are the first chapters of Genesis meant to be interpreted literally? It seems to me that it's hard for a modern reader to get to first base without wrestling with this, and I'm aware that this is a debate far beyond my ability and experience. I am no Old Testament scholar or an expert on literature of the time, and I'm sure any real professional will see me as blundering between several well labeled paths. My only defense is that I am compelled to read the Bible, and in reading it I must use the little knowledge and experience I have in engaging what I find.

Perhaps I can see my own path better by describing two flaming pits of lava I'll be steering around. On the one hand is the Creationist literalism that I grew up with in church and Christian schools, which (in some forms at least) pits Genesis against modern science and demands that a person choose between the two. Against this I insist that the "Book of Nature" is written by God, and a healthy faith involves loving God with all the mind. On the other hand is the "metaphorical" interpretations of modern liberal Christianity, which allegorizes everything tainted with the "supernatural". Against this I insist that if faith is not grounded in things that actually happened, then we really are just daydreaming and tailoring things to our whims.

So, for starters, what sort of literary genre is the first twelve chapters of Genesis? I think the answer is mythology. The creation story, the huge lifespans, the naming of all the animals, the worldwide flood and the Ark, the building of a tower to reach heaven - these are not the sorts of things you find in biographies or court histories, but are exactly the things you read in myths. The problem is we use the word "myth" today when we mean "lie", which means we're battling prejudice in our own minds before we've even read a single page.

OK, so I'm wading into deep waters here. Let me hop on the shoulders of a few giants and see what I see. G. K. Chesterton, in his friggin' awesome but rather dense book, The Everlasting Man, has a fantastic chapter on "Man and Mythologies". Here's how it starts:
All this mythological business belongs to the poetical part of men. It seems strangely forgotten nowadays that a myth is a work of imagination and therefore a work of art. ... But for some reason I have never heard explained, it is only the minority of unpoetical people who are allowed to write critical studies of these popular poems. We do not submit a sonnet to a mathematician or a song to a calculating boy; but we do indulge the equally fantastic idea that folk-lore can be treated as a science. Unless these things are appreciated artistically they are not appreciated at all. ... If any student tells me that the infant Hiawatha only laughed out of respect for tribal custom of sacrificing the aged to economical housekeeping, I say he did not. If any scholar tells me that the cow jumped over the moon only because a heifer was sacrificed to Diana, I answer that it did not. It happened because it is obviously the right thing for a cow to jump over the moon. Mythology is a lost art, one of the few arts that really are lost; but it is an art.
But we aren't the only ones who have had trouble reading mythology. St. Augustine, writing about Genesis, talked about the arguments of the Manachees who taunted the Christians
for believing that man was made to the image and likeness of God. They look at the shape of our body and ask so infelicitously whether God has a nose and teeth and a beard and also inner organs and the other things we need.
Augustine was initially swayed by their arguments, but then changed his mind:
It struck me that it was, after all, possible to vindicate Ambrose's arguments. I began to believe that the Catholic faith, which I had thought impossible to defend against the objections of the Manichees, might fairly be maintained, especially since I had heard one passage after another in the Old Testament figuratively explained. These passages had been death to me when I took them literally, but once I had heard them explained in their spiritual meaning I began to blame myself for my despair.
I actually think that Augustine sometimes overuses this type of reading - seeing only allegories in passages that are clearly meant by their author to be historical - but the point is that in Genesis we're faced with a type of literature that we don't write anymore. To interpret a myth with wooden literalism is to misinterpret it.

In Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis thinks about what it means to have divinely inspired mythology:
I have therefore no difficulty in accepting, say, the view of those scholars who tell us that the account of Creation in Genesis is derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical. We must of course be quite clear what 'derived from' means. Stories do not reproduce their species like mice. They are told by men. Each re-teller either repeats exactly what his predecessor had told him or else changes it. He may change it unknowingly or deliberately.

Thus at every step in what is called—a little misleadingly—the 'evolution' of a story, a man, all he is and all his attitudes, are involved. And no good work is done anywhere without aid from the Father of Lights. When a series of such retellings turns a creation story which at first had almost no religious or metaphysical significance into a story which achieves the idea of true Creation and of a transcendent Creator (as Genesis does), then nothing will make me believe that some of the re-tellers, or some one of them, has not been guided by God.
And he writes in God in the Dock:
As to the fabulous element in the Old Testament, I very much doubt if you would be wise to chuck it out. What you get is something gradually coming into focus. If we could sort out all the fabulous elements in the earlier stages and separate them form the historical ones, I think we might lose an essential part of the whole process.
I totally agree. The opening chapters of the Bible are some of the most important passages in the whole thing - giving us priceless revelation of who we are and who God is. If we write it off as "just fairy tales", we lose some of the deepest insights about humanity, and will fail to understand later on the most important historical events the world has ever seen.

With all this swirling around in my head, I'm gunna dive into Genesis.

The discussion of myths in Genesis continues here.

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Building a Stairway to Heaven

I don't know why exactly, but this article about a space elevator really captivates me. The basic idea is that we would need a big satellite in geosynchronous orbit (always staying the same place in the sky) with some long cables attached to it. A series of elevators would then climb up and down the cables up into space - reducing the price of getting people and stuff into orbit from $10,000 to $100 a pound.

The article continues to describe what riding one of these elevators would be like:

The first five miles would seem familiar to air travelers, but at the seven-mile mark, Earth's curvature would become noticeable, and by 30 miles the sky would turn black and the stars would become visible, even in daytime, on the climber's shaded side.

At 100 miles, Earth would clearly appear as a partial sphere. By 215 miles, gravity would drop by a noticeable 10 percent; by 456 miles, it would drop 20 percent. And at around 1,642 miles - roughly 13 hours into the trip - it would drop by 50 percent.

At the 22,000-mile-high geosynchronous orbit stop, Earth would appear the size of a baseball held at arm's length.
If this is as feasible as the author thinks, it really could put a trip to space in the budget of an ordinary civilian in our lifetime. Imagining this sends shivers up my spine - the absolute grandeur of the Earth in all its glory - slowly seeing more and more of the entire thing unfolding before your eyes. Any votes for scrapping the silly Mars project 'til we get one of these up and running?

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Blogging the Bible

One of the reasons I started this blog was to blog the Bible. I got the idea from David Plotz over at Slate. As a nominal Jew, he describes his experience at a cousin's bat mitzvah. Being bored out of his mind, he picks up a Bible from the pew in front of him. Arriving at Genesis 34, he is soon engrossed in the sordid story of the rape of Dinah and the revenge of Jacob's sons.
So, the tale of Dinah unsettled me, to say the least. If this story was strutting cheerfully through the back half of Genesis, what else had I forgotten or never learned? I decided I would, for the first time as an adult, read the Bible. And I would blog about it as I went along.

I want to find out what happens when an ignorant person actually reads the book on which his religion is based.
I've enjoyed David's writing so far - it's refreshing to see someone take the story on its own terms and wrestle with it. I've known many devout people bending over backwards to justify dreadful things in the Old Testament, but he's not afraid to decry parts that seem horrible to him. I've also known unbelievers who read the Bible simply to mock and criticize, but David doesn't let his difficulties blind him to the deep and wonderful things.

Now, what does this have to do with me, a lifelong Christian? Blogs about reading a book I've read all my life don't sound too exciting. And maybe it isn't exciting, and I don't really expect that many readers. However, it does seem like a really good idea for any Christian - to read the entire Bible, reflect on it, honestly write what comes to mind, and welcome conversation from others.
  • I want to engage the text - to not shy away from the parts that jar and even disgust me, and to see the parts I've always loved with new eyes.

  • I want to focus on more than individual passages or stories - to let the grand sweep of the narrative carry me to places further up and further in.

  • I want to invite others to come along with me - to show me things I'm missing, and to tell me what thoughts resonate and which ones don't.
To be honest, it's probably not something that I'd actually finish if I didn't have some sort of public face and accountability. So, to those of you who are interested, thanks for joining me. I appreciate the company.

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Friday, June 16, 2006

Who is Oyarsa?

The title of this blog is taken from C. S. Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet. Oyarsa is the name of the guardian spirit of Malacandra (the planet Mars). The premise of the book is that Earth is under quarentine, and no messages have gotten in or out before. Through the course of the book, an earthling named Dr. Elwin Ransom eventually finds himself being questioned by Oyarsa about what Maleldil (the creator of the universe) has been doing on the Silent Planet.
All that afternoon Ransom remained alone answering Oyarsa's questions. I am not allowed to record this conversation, beyond saying that the voice concluded it with the words:

"You have shown me more wonders than are known in the whole of heaven."
This is not because of Ransom's great wisdom or insights, but because of his simple knowledge of his own tradition - a tradition based on shocking and unrepeatable events. It is these mysteries that I intend to probe on this blog, hoping not to take for granted the wonders of the story we humans inhabit.

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