Monday, April 30, 2007

mount carmel

When Kurt Vonnegut died a week or two ago, the book I thought of wasn't "Slaughterhouse Five." It was "Cat's Cradle."

"Cat's Cradle" gave us Bokononism, a satirical religion whose adherents knew that it was a satire and were in on the joke. Its founding prophet, Bokonon, acknowledges that everything about the religion is foma, lies that serve a good purpose; and views God with a sort of bemused contempt. His message: God is useful if he gives your life and purpose, but don't take the old bugger too seriously.

I read "Cat's Cradle" back in 1990, as part of James Woolley's class "Satire and the Comic Absurd." My eventual conclusion was that Vonnegut looked into the void, saw nothing there, and walked away with a bitter laugh and a view much like his prophet's. If it makes you a better person, knock yourself out and believe, but keep it real.

There are times I feel I have a lot in common with Vonnegut. I also looked into the void, saw nothing there, laughed, and have decided to believe anyway. Navigating between the two poles is impossible; the only solution is to grasp both of them at the same time.

Welcome to my world; this is where my faith lives, and here it is in this realm of shadow that I have followed for years.

Alas, where to turn for illumination, the Bible? Perhaps if we view the Bible as having talismanic qualities. But if you've studied its history and how it may have been compiled, the Bible only illustrates what I'm talking about.

Several months ago, my older daughter asked me why God doesn't speak as clearly and audibly to her when she prays as he did to men like Moses or Job. As I once noted, Job never got a direct answer to his complaint, but he did get some tremendous poetry out of the deal.

A friend of mine who's a pastor, when I told him about this, groaned and started rattling off some of the big theological explanations. I told him I had a simpler answer: the biblical authors were writing in a story their perception of what God's statement had been, much like we will say today things like "I prayed about this for a long time, and God has told me not to buy the stereo" even though we never actually, literally heard God say any such thing.

We believe instead that he speaks into our hearts, and we translate that into speech we can share with other people. It wouldn't surprise me if some of the fantastic miracles in the Bible are of the same sort; literary devices used to convey an important lesson about God's authority, his purposes, and his plan for his people.

I'd lump the story of Jonah into this category. It's a story about God's love for the Gentile nations as well, even vicious ones like Assyria, a story that was included in the canon not for its historicity but for the divine truth it carries. The same principle would apply to the book of Esther, although there aren't any miracles per se in the story it tells.

The Truth of a story (as opposed to its truthiness) belongs more to the author of the story than to the reader. Authorial intent is key.

We don't have much in the way of biographical information about the biblical authors, but we do know that the Hebrew culture that produced the biblical texts was big on storytelling as a means of teaching. It's also evident from other stories that they told that it was not a requirement for the stories to be real (i.e., actually to have happened) in order to be true (i.e., to communicate something important).

Sometimes a rabbi would use a familiar story to make a point, as Jesus did when he used the story of the anscension of Herod Archelaus to the throne to illustrate something about the Kingdom of God, or when he took the familiar story of the wounded man on the road to Jericho and surprised everyone by making the hero of the story a Samaritan instead of a Pharisee.

And sometimes they just made stories up, as Jotham did when he told a story against his brother Abimelech, about the trees of the forest looking for a king.

Given the far-fetched nature of the story of Jonah -- a man is swallowed by a fish, stays in its belly for three days, and then is spit out, alive? -- I have a hard time believing it's describing an actual event. (So do serious Bible scholars.)

I also am hard-pressed to believe that the book of Esther describes actual events either. There is no extrabiblical record of King Ahasuerus of the book of Esther, to begin with, nor of a minister of Persia named Haman, nor even of a Jewish queen of Persia for that matter.

As Esther is the Aramaic name of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, and Mordecai means "worshiper of Marduk," a pagan deity of order who created the world by defeating the chaos goddess Tiamat, the book of Esther likely represents a fusion of a couple pagan myths, retold and assimilated into the culture of the Babylonian exiles.

It's evident from the texts themselves that the authors of the texts knew they were writing "Scripture"; that is, they were writing about God and about their history, and they intended to communicate certain truths about him in their writing.

Some, like the book of Esther, wanted to communicate the special place that the Israelites had in God's plans, and so their stories are all about Israel kicking Gentile butt. Others, like the book of Jonah, depict God not as a tribal deity who delights in kicking Gentile butt but as a transcendent deity who is too big for Israel alone and who wants all peoples to know him.

So does that mean the people were growing in their understanding of God and his nature, or does it mean that they're simply filling an existential void in their lives in a more enlightened way?

Given the number of other things that have evolved in some really unusual ways -- the growth of ha-Satan from an agent of God, his prosecutor, so to speak, who helps to sift the hearts of men, into a decidedly evil being with an entire extrabiblical mythology about how he fell from heaven -- well, it does give the "made it up as they went along" view some credence, doesn't it?

Where does this leave me?

No comments: