Friday, January 30, 2009

When Genesis Is a Story

Most Sundays you can find me in one of two churches and occasionally meandering from one to the other. One is the Catholic student parish here at the University of Michigan. The other is a small Anabaptist community consisting of Mennonites and Brethren. The one hour I hate to miss is the one in which a group of my Anabaptist friends work their way through the Book of Genesis.

It's a diverse group with different understandings of the Bible, and it includes someone who can read the Hebrew text. My approach from the outset has been to let the language of the day become the language of the night. I don't worry about history. I simply let stories--the language of the night--go where history cannot, where creed cannot. Deep into paradoxes, for instance.

Paradoxes of character: Abraham, the patriarch-to-be, seems detached from possessions, almost Buddha-like. You want to go right? I'll go left. You want to go left? I'll go right. I don't want the spoils of war, I only want my nephew back. I crave an heir but I'll give up my son. Here, take my wife. The mission of this non-possessive man? To father a people who would possess a land. Why does his detachment suit the mission?

Even more, paradoxes of culpability. Cain, responsible for the world's first murder, evoked sympathy from our group. He was set up. His anger was understandable, maybe even justified. Yes, he made a choice, but God made one first. He deliberately rejected Cain's offering in favor of his brother's. Is Cain alone at fault?

That story reaches deep into my experience of life. Who is really at fault here? Have circumstances, has "providence" even, led me into the wrongs I have done? I am free but I am also fated. Somehow, I collaborate in my destiny and I cannot tell you how.

When a sacred story becomes a story again, when its images enlighten experience, it is no less Revelation, no less the Word of God. It still delivers messages. At the end of many episodes--and especially at the end of Cain's--I always received the same one. Gertrude said it first, almost under her breath, but I was close enough to hear. "Carry on."

No matter where you are in life, no matter how you got there, no matter who's at fault, carry on. There will be consequences--"punishment"--but there will also be provision. When God expels Adam and Eve from the garden, it's with clothes of skin that he has made for them. And (did you notice?) he accompanies them. When he condemns Cain to be a wanderer, he gives him a mark of protection. Carry on.

And if you cannot, your seed must. At the end of the remarkable story of Lot ("adult" fare, to be sure), his daughters get him drunk so each can lay with him and conceive his child. Incest? The thought never occurs. The only thing that matters is descendants. Carry on.

And that, for me, takes one more story. It was added to the Genesis collection late in the day, but it was put where it could command the landscape: in the beginning.

Genesis 1, of course, lies at the heart of the American creation-evolution controversy. But that's because creationists want to make it what it isn't. If you let it be a story, it becomes an oasis at dawn. It carries you to a time when all is still again, when the sun's rays run the length of a valley and hold it in a moment of hope. The beginning: "And God saw that it was very good." No creed can get me to that place or evoke that hope. Unless I find it deep within, I cannot carry on.




Anonymous said...

John, Have you read Genesis: The Beginning of Wisdom by Leon Kass at University of Chicago? One of my all time favorites. Ken Wilson

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ken. The book our group is using is a translation and commentary by Robert Alter. Its title, too, is simply "Genesis."

Anonymous said...

Yes, to read the texts in an open manner is most revealing. Would that each of us were so liberated. We'd then read far more than we'd been taught that the text expressed. We'd also be shocked at times.