Tuesday, August 16, 2016

God, the Chaos Monster, & the Walking Dead

I don’t know about you, but the last few weeks, months – years perhaps?! – of news reports have been devastating to watch. As I listen to the horrifying details of the most recent shooting/massacre/killing spree and then hear the opinion of pundits and other talking heads, I shake my head and weep. I suppose bad news has always been what gets reported, but never before in history have so many details of so many acts of violence, crime, and natural disasters been so readily available to us. Certainly technology has done a great deal to propel us forward into a bright future as a species.

But it also reminds us of just how far we have yet to go towards that bright future. I know some who doubt there is even a bright future ahead of us. Tragedy after tragedy have struck us like mighty waves, tsunamis of shock, doubt, fear, uncertainty, and outrage have left us shell-shocked. One response I’ve had is to do some studying and reading the Bible. I’m a Christian and a Chaplain, so reading and studying the Bible is kind of “my thing.”

But you can try it too. we won’t arrive at the same conclusions, but differences in opinion and interpretation make for fertile ground where really interesting discussions and debates can happen. That’s how we learn and grow and evolve. So keep an open mind!

Recently I’ve been reading about Noah and the Flood. In case you’re wondering why, there’s an attraction that’s just opened down the highway from me: the Ark Encounter. It’s a life-size replica of Noah’s ark as described in the Old Testament. I haven’t been yet, but it looks really impressive. Now, I don’t agree with much of what Ken Hamm and his “Answers in Genesis” organization says is true about the Bible, human evolution, the earth’s age, carbon dating, etc. But he has got me thinking and reading and studying and digging deeper for answers for myself. And that is a good thing.

What have I found? Plenty actually. And really none of it has to do with the claims that dinosaurs existed alongside humans, or that the Earth is less than 6,000 years old, or that Noah’s ark really could float.

 In fact, I think those claims are really child’s play compared to what I’ve been discovering.

It’s actually fairly complicated but here it is in a nutshell: There are actually not one, not two, but THREE stories of creation in Genesis chapters 1-2.

The first is perhaps the most well known and covers all of chapter one and the first few bits of chapter two. This is the famous “7 days” of creation, with God resting on the 7th as a pattern for humans to follow.

 The second is the rest of chapter two, where more details are given about the creation of humans in the image of God. You know the story: Adam found himself alone, and God said “This is the only thing about my creation that’s NOT good!” So he created Eve. And after Adam woke up from this little out-patient procedure of having his rib removed, he looked at Eve in all her God-given glory and said, “Whoa! Man! Now THIS is the best idea yet!!” And that’s how we got the name “woman.”

The third story? It’s actually deeply embedded in the text of chapter 1 verse 2 which says, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” This verse actually hearkens back to an ancient mythology shared by pretty much all ancient near eastern people: the gods did battle with the monstrous primordial forces of chaos, and won, destroying them and creating the world from their dead carcasses. That’s a pretty rough summary, but there it is.

There are plenty of other references to this story sprinkled throughout the Hebrew Bible. We get glimpses of it here and there, but never a full telling. Why? Because everybody kinda knew it already; they didn’t have to explain it. It would be like explaining the history of the American Revolution every time somebody mentioned the Constitution.

The ancient Israelites took this story and ran with it, saying, in effect, ‘Yes, that monstrous primordial force known as Chaos was/is real, and our God – btw, the only true God and his name is Yahweh – subdued Chaos and established an orderly, sensible creation where life could flourish.’ Notice the text doesn’t say God destroyed Chaos so that it’s no longer around to mess with us. Chaos is still present. And active. And oh how active it is!

Now predictably, this raises some tough theological questions, such as….
• Where did Chaos come from in the first place?
 • Did Yahweh create it? If so, what was he thinking?!
 • If Yahweh didn’t create it, then who and/or what did? (And what were they thinking?)
 • Did it always just exist as Yahweh does?
 • Was it just by chance that Yahweh won this primeval battle?
 • Could it have played out in other ways with Chaos being the winner?
 • Perhaps Chaos actually did win – or at least is winning now – and this explains the current national political environment?!?!?! (I intended that to be funny, but…)

[Please note: None of this is original with me! I’m slugging my way through the work of scholars like Greg Moberly, Jon Levenson, John Walton, Walter Brueggemann and others who aren’t afraid to dive deep into the text and sift it for its hidden treasures.]

Of course, there’s A LOT of other stuff there in the text, and I’m just starting to scratch the surface, but the central idea for now is this: Chaos is alive and well – though subdued by the Creator – and it has been a part of our world since the beginning. Perhaps, and this is where my mind continues to exponentially explode: perhaps Chaos is even a necessary part of our world.

Necessary? Maybe “necessary” is too strong a word right now. Perhaps the biblical authors are simply saying Chaos is an inherent part of our world. That it’s simply one part of the created order, which God declared over and over again to be “good.” (See Genesis 1)

So maybe the essential message here is NOT “Why is Chaos present?” or “Why is it allowed to be so active?” Maybe the biblical writers just took it at face value that Chaos was part of life on planet Earth. And what the Bible calls “sin” is humans rebelling against our Creator and unleashing Chaos into our lives and our world.

But maybe, just maybe, the message is much deeper than we might imagine. Or want to imagine. Maybe the message is this: we should not bemoan and lament the presence of Chaos as much as we should actively join forces with Yahweh and participate with Him in keeping Chaos bound in its proper place.

After all, Yahweh said, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Ruler over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground…” (Genesis 1:28, NIV)

What?! What are we supposed to do to the earth? “Fill” it for sure. (That’s the fun part!) But also “subdue” it? Wait a minute! Isn’t that what we said Yahweh did to Chaos – he “subdued” it? Yes! Exactly! As Yahweh subdued Chaos, so we are to “subdue” the earth. Yahweh only said creation was “good.” He didn’t say it was perfect, as if it needed no improvement, as if there were no work to do, as if we were designed to just lie around in the buff and eat grapes and oranges and watermelon and pineapples without a care in the world. (And bacon. Bacon for sure!)

Creation was “good,” but the earth wasn’t yet subdued. The rule of the Creator had not yet been established everywhere. It wasn’t free from danger, and the possibility of violence or injury or death was, perhaps, very real. Yahweh was essentially saying. ‘Guys and gals, proceed with my blessing, and also with caution. But please do proceed…’

As one paraphraser of this verse has written, “Be fruitful and have children, filling the earth with your life so that you can have power to fight against everything in it that leads to death. Rule with care and fairness over the natural world, over the myriads of My beautiful creatures – from tropical fish to soaring eagles to dogs and cats – every creature that is a part of this living world.” (Christopher Brown, https://christopherbrown.wordpress.com/2009/01/03/Genesis-128-to-subdue-and-have-dominion-over-creation/)

“…fight against everything in it that leads to death.” I like that. It sobers me, though, that there is far too much that “leads to death” in the world, and far too few humans – myself included! – who are actively opposing it.

It bears repeating: Chaos is alive and well today.

And though it is “subdued,” (Can you imagine if it were running unchecked and without restraint? In some parts of the world it is!) it continues to wreak its random havoc and senseless destruction and unpredictable death. In Baton Rouge. In Dallas. In Baltimore. Orlando. Newtown. San Bernardino. Fort Hood. South Carolina. Colorado. In thousands of villages and hamlets and communities and cities that never get any attention. This list is too long. The bad news is it’s just getting longer. The worse news is this is just the United States in the last couple of years. We’ve got work to do. A lot of work to do. What God has created is good, but it is being threatened from every side. And it has been threatened by the forces of Chaos for a LOOOOONG time now. What we are seeing are just the latest battles in a war that began “in the beginning.”

I mentioned bad news and worse news. How about some good news? The good news, I think, is captured in what the psalmist wrote:

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore, we will not fear,
though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.

Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. (Psalm 46:1-7, NIV)

Though Chaos wreaks havoc around us, Yahweh is with us. That’s good news. The One who defeated and subdued Chaos in the beginning is with us now. He knows how to do it. And he has not left us powerless. He has not left us alone. He has not left us to figure it out for ourselves by trial and error. He came as one of us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and showed us the Way. That’s how Yahweh did it: through a love so passionate that it sacrifices itself for others so they might be saved. That’s how Yahweh continues to do it. And will continue to do it, because that's who he is.

I conclude with a nod toward a modern cultural phenomenon, and what might be, perhaps, one way our culture manifests or understands the Chaos monster: The Walking Dead. I’m a HUGE fan. And yes, I think Glenn is toast. (Ok, really mushy toast :-o) The words we need to hear are spoken by the most appropriate character to speak them, the cowardly priest Father Gabriel.
Here is the setting: The walls keeping the hordes of walkers out of Alexandria have been breached. Our heroes are cowering in their homes, leaderless and fearful of what to do. Rick, their leader, has left the infirmary and in a dazed yet furious rage over his son’s injuries and possible death; he starts killing walkers. One by one they being to fall. There are thousands of them, and it seems Rick will be overwhelmed and eaten alive. But he is joined by others. Now the walkers fall in twos, and threes, and fours. But still they are overwhelmed.

Meanwhile, another small group has sought refuge with Father Gabriel to pray for salvation and deliverance. At one point, Father Gabriel gets up, grabs a machete, and goes to leave the building. One in the group asks what he is doing. He responds with words we desperately need to hear and take to heart:

“We’ve been praying together,
praying that God would save our town.
Well our prayers have been answered!
God will save Alexandria.
Because God has given us the courage
to save it ourselves.”

How prescient. I wonder how many of us realize God has given us the courage to save this world ourselves? I find myself gazing heavenward too often, in hopes that God will miraculously intervene and make things right again.

But he has already intervened.

And he is intervening. He is working diligently to reconcile a wayward creation to himself by loving us even when we can’t love ourselves. He is working through Love to put Chaos back in its rightful place.

And he wants us to join him. So lament and grieve the loss of life. That is very appropriate. But we’ve also got work to do. Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth with goodness and peace and love.

Remember: though this world is good, it’s not safe. So proceed with caution.

But, for the love of all that is good and life-giving, PROCEED!

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