Tag Archives: Jacob

Myths and Stories

I spent two hours of seminar last Friday with twelve honors freshmen enjoying the wonders of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the source of many of my favorite stories as a child. I was so taken with ancient mythology that I read it in secret at times I was supposed to be reading the Bible. The seminar reminded me of one of my earliest posts on this blog a couple of years ago–how stories shape our lives.

Some of my favorite stories growing up come from Greek and Roman mythology. Edith Hamilton’s Mythology was one of my regular reading companions–sort of like a mid-twentieth century Ovid–so much so that my parents must have replaced a torn and worn out copy with a new one at least three times. What’s not to like? Action, violence, sex—they were better than comic books! The Olympian deities are gigantic projections of human beings, with all of our strengths and shortcomings, likes and dislikes, jealousies and kindnesses, massive egos and even more massive insecurities. Human beings in these stories, if they are smart, look (usually unsuccessfully) look for a place to hide when the deities start throwing their divine weight around, as the fallout frequently lands on unwitting and innocent mortals. Yet occasionally mortals are able to manipulate the blundering gods and goddesses by offering the right sacrifice, stroking the right part of a divine ego, making deals that the less-than-omniscient deities fail to recognize as guaranteed to end in results that will thwart their purposes. I think the main reason I took four years of Latin in high school was simply because it gave me to opportunity to be immersed deeply in the ancient myths. I spent fourth period senior year with Ms. Thomson and one other Latin geek translating large portions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—nothing better.

My mother used to occasionally try to get me to put down Edith Hamilton and pick up my Bible. But I knew the Bible stories backwards and forwards from the hours and days spent in my home away from home, church—I’d even memorized a lot of the dialogue and plots of these stories (in King James English, of course). My mother worried that I wasn’t paying sufficient Baptist homage to the Bible stories as opposed to the pagan Greek stories. When she couldn’t pry me away from Edith, she would say “you know, of course, that these are only stories?” Opposed, that is, to the stories in the Bible, which are true, meaning that they are factual reports of things that really happened, not stories at all. As a good son, I paid lip service to the distinction that my mother, out of concern for her heretic-in-the-making son, was insisting upon.

But I never bought it. The stories in the Old Testament (by far the most interesting Bible stories to a young kid) were just too much like the Greek and Roman myths for me to make a sharp distinction. God in the Old Testament is just as arbitrary, whimsical, loving, nasty, powerful, and petty as the various Greek deities. He gets into arguments and debates with various mortals and sometimes loses. He sometimes gets into a snit and goes silent, while at other times you just wish He’d shut the hell up and leave people alone. If a skilled psychologist sought to identify all of the various, conflicting personalities of God in the Old Testament, I’m sure they would be at least as great in number as the residents of Olympus. The “truth” of the Bible stories for me did not depend on whether they “really happened”—they were true because they rang true in a deep place.

At a very young age, for instance, I resonated with Jacob in Genesis; he’s still my favorite character from the Bible. As the younger of two sons, I identified with Jacob’s preference for his mother and for hanging around the house rather than going out hunting and killing things, something my older brother did with my Dad. Jacob’s ability to regularly outsmart and manipulate his doofus older brother Esau rang true, because I was sure I could get my equally challenged doofus older brother to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I was sure that if Baptist fathers gave special and exclusive blessings to oldest sons, I could get my older brother to hand over his blessing in exchange for a can of soup. Jacob is persistent and smart, but he’s also a conniver and occasionally has a very difficult time being truthful and transparent to himself and others. He loves his family, but some of them more than others. He’s courageous at times and a total chicken at others. He wants to know God, but wants to write the script according to which that knowledge will unfold. Every time the divine breaks through in a vision or dream, Jacob immediately wants to nail it down and contain it by naming it. In other words, looking back, my original attraction to Jacob makes a lot of sense, because he’s a lot like me.

A couple of years ago, when I read Kathleen Norris’ definition of  “myth” in Amazing Grace as “a story that you know must be true the first time you hear it,” I was jerked up short. I knew this definition to be true the first time I read it. In ethics classes with nineteen to twenty-one-year-olds who are predominantly survivors of twelve years of parochial education, I lean heavily on Alasdair MacIntyre’s insight that we human beings are “story telling animals”—we understand ourselves and each other by telling stories. Through the stories we tell, we make sense of our past and do our best to recreate the world by telling better and better stories projected into the future. We are lived stories, in the middle of a “never-ending story” with themes and characters that we catch only brief glimpses of. At the outset of The Gates of the Forest, Elie Wiesel tells the story of a rabbi who confesses to a young listener that he’s old, his memory is failing him, and all he can do is tell stories. But, the rabbi concludes, “It is sufficient. For God made man because He loves stories.”

If my mother were here (and how often I wish she were), I’d try to convince her, with scholarly support from Plato through Nietzsche to Rorty, that my childhood conviction was right, that the stories from ancient mythology and from the Bible are true in the same, human affirming and life defining ways, mirrors of what we as human beings are and suggestions of what we can hope for and perhaps become. I’d end with “Q.E.D., Mom–What do you think of that?” And she’d reply, “That’s wonderful, honey, but the stories from the Bible are really true.”

The Fertility of Silence

This may sound odd coming from a person who started this blog a few weeks ago, but over the years I’ve not been a fan of social media, electronic readers, and the like. A year and a half ago, a couple of good friends and I were conversing about a topic that had been on everyone’s minds for a few weeks—the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. In short order, however, the conversation turned into a rant (from me) about the generally self-absorbed quality of online communication. The earthquake/tsunami topic arose because one of my friends said “I have something I want to read to you,” then proceeded to start reading from the top a multi-entry exchange on an acquaintance’s Facebook page about the disaster and subsequent tragedies in Japan.

Is anyone else struggling with how to feel about all the suffering in Japan? None of the usual feelings—anger, sadness, empathy—seem right. So I just feel numb. Am I the only one? Can any-one help me out? 

I know what you mean. I’m usually a very sensitive, caring person, but I’m numb too. How am I supposed to feel? 

I haven’t been able to sleep because I’m so upset.

We’re watching one of the most culturally developed countries in the world disintegrate in front of us. I turn the TV off but I can’t stop thinking about it. 

I know—I’m at a loss.

And so on. My blood pressure started to rise. My friend never got to his own contributions twenty or so more slots down the line, because I interrupted him with more force and annoyance than was probably warranted.

This is why I hate Facebook, blogging, chat rooms, and all that e-crap! This whole conversation has turned a great and profound tragedy into yet another obsessive round of “Me Me Me”! How should I feel, tell me I’m okay, do you think I’m right, how fast can I get this to revolve around me? It’s still all about me, isn’t it?”

Well!, my friend replied, I didn’t read it that way at all! These are good people—What do you want them to say? 

“NOTHING!! Let me read you something from a book I finished today. Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows: “There are times when any word is the wrong word; when only silence can prevail.” This is one of those times! If I posted on that Facebook thread I’d say, in my son’s words, “Let me serve you a large helping of shut the hell up!”

Oh my. I’m glad my friends love me, because that was not only rude, it was definitely a conversation stopper. Where did that come from?

Actually, I know exactly where that came from. This conversation took place while I was back in Minnesota during Spring break, getting my every-six-month Collegeville fix. I was staying with these friends in their apartment at the Ecumenical Institute where all of us had been resident scholars during the spring of 2009. At morning prayer on this particular day, the closing prayer had included the petition that God would assist us during the Lenten season in being responsive to “the fertility of silence.” An evocative phrase, “the fertility of silence,” especially in a world in which the white noise of television, radio, the internet, and just plain old daily life threatens to make silence into nothing more than a fossilized reminder of something that human beings used to have available. Some claim that “God is in the details”—I’m learning, rather, that God is in the silence. I’m reminded of a couple of lines from a beautiful Advent song I heard a few years ago at an Advent Lessons and Carols service: “As we await you, O God of silence, we embrace your holy night.” In response to our frequent complaints that God never says anything, perhaps we need to embrace the fertility of divine silence.

This should not be surprise to anyone who takes stories in the Bible seriously. Consider Elijah, for instance. In First Kings we find the prophet exhausted, fearful for his life, hiding in a cave from Queen Jezebel. Elijah has just scored a major victory over the forces of idolatry and for Yahweh by destroying the prophets of Baal on top of Mount Carmel. And Jezebel wants him dead.

Exhausted from running, Elijah eventually collapses and wants to die. After an angel makes Elijah breakfast while he sleeps and gets his batteries recharged, Elijah still feels very mistreated and sorry for himself. With what must have struck Elijah as a cosmically stupid question, the Lord quietly asks him “What are you doing here, Elijah?” “WHAT AM I DOING HERE?” Elijah sputters—“I’ve been the only one in the kingdom seeking to do your will, I’ve torn down their altars, I’ve killed the priests of Baal just as you told me to, AND SHE’S TRYING TO KILL ME!” Is that any way to treat your favorite prophet? In response, God says “come over here on top of this hill—I want to show you something.” In succession, Elijah experiences a rock-shattering wind, an earthquake, and a fire—perhaps similar to the fire that brought the victory on Mount Carmel a few days earlier. Elijah probably thought, “There you are! It’s about time! Now drop some of that on Ahab and Jezebel!” But—amazingly—“the Lord was not in the wind,” or the earthquake, or the fire. All of these are followed by “a still small voice,” or as another translation puts it, “sheer silence.” And in the midst of that silence, Elijah knows what he is to do.

Silence is divinely fertile because it shatters our expectation that God is transactional, that if we ask for X properly, we’ll get it. The transactional God is a projection of our human need to find at least a small part of reality that we can control. This is understandable, since the obvious truth that we are small fish in a large ocean of reality is never far below the level of consciousness. A wise person recently wrote that it’s a pretty good sign that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you hate, likes all the same people you like, and holds the same values that you do. There’s a reason why the first commandment is a prohibition against graven images—human beings are incurable idolaters. The ancient Israelites found Baal attractive because they thought they had him figured out. Elijah in the cave was upset because he thought he had God on a leash and found out otherwise. God is not transactional—God is indwelling. God is with me wherever I go, but never in ways reducible to formulas. As Jacob said after encountering the divine in a dream, “surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.”

I came out of my sabbatical three years ago with a mantra from Psalm 131: “Truly I have set my soul in silence and in peace; As a weaned child on its mother’s breast, so is my soul.” Silence reminds me, as a first grader told Kathleen Norris once, “to take my soul with me wherever I go.” When I remember that God is in the space of silence and peace within, I realize that the divine’s response to my need is something entirely unexpected but absolutely God-like. In an encounter with divine reality we do not hear a voice but acquire a voice; and the voice we acquire is our own.