Opening Pandora’s Book: Reading the Bible in the Shadow of the Chaos Monsters

Everyone loves a good story.  From the time we are big enough to crawl into the laps of our mothers and grandmothers or be rocked on the knees of our fathers and grandfathers we are in love with stories.  We love tales of far away lands and exotic adventures.  We love the suspense and intrigue of a spell-binding mystery.  Our hearts are warmed by tales of love and romance.  Our hearts are wounded and torn by the great epic tragedies. 

But we also love stories that are closer to home.  Our homes.  Where we live. 

I can recall crawling into my great-grandfather’s bed when I was a very small boy and saying, “Papaw, tell me a story about what it was like when you were my age,”  although I could hardly believe that a man who seemed so old could ever have been so young.  He would tell me about farms and horses. He would talk about old cars and old dogs and old times.  It seemed that he was talking about a different world, but I was captivated by the stories.  I still remember them—along with the sound of the crickets outside the window and the buzz and hum of the old police scanner that was perpetually on.  Those are even part of the story now.

These stories make up our lives.  We get together with friends and family and the storytelling and yarn-spinning begins.   “Do you remember when such and such happened to so and so?”  Then the appropriate tears or laughter soon follow.  We love stories.  We love stories because we live stories.  Our lives are stories. 

Shakespeare was more right than he knew when he said, “All the world’s a stage and the people are merely the players.”  The world is made up of millions of characters, millions of chapters, and all of them intersecting to make up one enormous story.

So we must remember that history really is “His Story.”  God is the Author.  He wrote the book of the world before time began. All of our stories are connected; variegated strands intertwining and winding toward the same ultimate goal. This is because connection, or continuity, is the essence of story. This realization should inform the way that we read the grand story of the Scriptures.

Stories claim that one event, one experience, one thing, is somehow related to the next one that follows it. If there is meaning in stories that meaning is found in the links which bind the constituent parts together. The best story-tellers are able to build these links in ways that effortlessly and beautifully move from what is to what could be. Great story-telling follows well-worn paths from introductions and settings to tension and conflict to rising action and climax to peace-extending resolutions. Good stories rise and fall and rise again—like so many little births and deaths and resurrections.

It is surely these links that do give meaning to our lives. While we may occasionally ponder the relationship between events through the lens of something like Humean skepticism by which we observe chronology but never infer causality, we can never truly see the world in such an unrelated fashion. The very moment we convince ourselves that causal links in history are illusory we remember that we came to this conclusion by one thought proceeding from another. This doctrine of logical procession thus becomes the existential axe laid to the root of historical skepticism. Not only is there meaning in the in-betweenness between events, that is the only place where meaning really does live and thrive. Each link testifies of purpose, of relationship, of destiny. Story, then, is the plot which makes sense of our plight.

In a rather interesting little book entitled The Return of the Chaos Monsters, Gregory Mobley argues that the first battle in the bible—and one way to view the entire metanarrative of the Scriptures—is the struggle against chaos. The cosmic confrontation is introduced in the opening words of the bible, long before any human characters even appear on the stage of history.  There, according to Mobley, God takes on the powers of tohu wa bohu (“formlessness and emptiness”) and begins to form and fill the creation so that it will function and flourish.  But chaos is not completely eliminated, however, but is pushed to the edges of the world, ever threatening to return and wreak havoc upon the created order. Later on, when humans appear on the scene, God enlists them to partner with him in the management of chaos, giving them a test in the Garden, then the tough love of moral cause and effect, and later the Torah and the prophets. 

I mention this because Mobley states that the first weapon given against chaos was story:

Narratives create chains of events bound by cause and effect along a timeline, allowing us to pin down a story before it slips away. Once a story is told, the chaos of experience assumes a shape, direction, motive, and episodic character. This led to that which led to this which led to that…We no longer have chaos; we have meaning and order.

Hebrew stories are built on a rather plain element of syntax known as the waw consecutive, translated “and then.”  This and then that and then something else and then lo and behold, a story is born. This simple device is the genesis of what turned out to be our biggest dreams and our most moving visions. The waw consecutive gave us a future.

This is why failing to see the bible as a unified narrative is such a tragedy; in losing the waw we lose our way. To lose the storied character of Scripture and try and read the bible in some other fashion is to lose the connectedness between things. When that connectedness goes it is no wonder that things fall apart.

The bible was never meant to be viewed as a de-historicized, de-dramatized, static thing. A static thing is a dead thing. This becomes a deadness that spreads. A reading of the bible that either ignores or severs the links of meaning between the various persons, places, and events runs the risk of opening the door to chaos once again. “Timeless truths” are worthless if they don’t find their respective places within a story; if they aren’t going somewhere then they can lead nowhere. Ultimately, we will never find our place in history if we don’t ground ourselves within the larger history of the people and purposes of God. We will never be able to do that until we learn to read the whole bible as an actual whole.

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