Our Creator, the Strange Attractor

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Strange Attractor” by judy_and_ed under license CC BY-NC 2.0

I had been thinking for some time about the fractal nature of the gospel, when I came to the most beautiful portion of J. Richard Middleton’s Liberating Image. Whereas I had focused on the infinite complexity of the fractal in relation to the good news, Middleton concentrated on fractals’ unpredictability, particularly as it related to the text of Genesis 1.

Old Testament scholars and normal folks alike have long recognized a distinct pattern in the format of the creation story. Days one, two and three each broadly depict various habitats distinguished from one another. Days four, five and six, then, yield corresponding occupants for those habitats.

Another pattern: God seems to announce ahead of time his plans for the day with let-there-be’s and let-us-make’s coming prior to his creative activity. People have also noticed that God repeatedly pats himself on the back, reviewing the day’s work and calling it “good” again and again.

But Middleton digs into these and other literary patterns in Genesis 1 and finds exception after exception after exception—tiny variables in the text that keep the narrative from being formulaic. He finds changes in word order, in the brevity or length of certain literary devices, and so on.

The myriad alterations in the patterns of the text lead Middleton to consider fractals, which serve as models for making sense of the unpredictable. Specifically, he gets to thinking about strange attractors.

Strange attractors: not creepy men trying to lure children into their vans with lollipops. Strange attractors, in short, could be described as a complex of forces that affect the movement of objects without exerting absolute control over those objects.

It explains, for example, why you could never predict the path of a pair of water droplets careening over a waterfall, but you could with great certainty predict the path of the waterfall, as a whole. It is as if the multitude of water droplets plummeting from the heights are held loosely within a certain boundary, though they each maintain complete liberty within that realm.  It’s more fractals and more chaos theory.

Middleton’s imaginative and beautiful leap uses strange attractors to connect the variability of the biblical text to God’s creative act. That is, if the rhetoric of Genesis 1 is meant to reflect in any way the manner in which God went about his creative work, then the subtle shifts in the text should keep us from imagining a dictatorial Creator, making everything according to his exacting specifications.

Rather, it may be that the Lord is inviting the creation itself into the creative process, and granting it the liberty to do so. Look at the way God “creates” vegetation on day 3:

Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so (Gen. 1:11, TNIV, emphasis added).

The earth is invited to do its thing, sprouting greenery as it wills.

Likewise the earth is again asked to produce animals on day 6:

And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so (Gen. 1: 24, TNIV, emphasis added).

In a different context, God does not simply set the sun and moon in the sky to bear light. Instead, the Lord puts them there to govern the day and night (Gen. 1:16-18).

Much the same could be said of the Creator’s instruction to humankind in the culmination of the narrative. It is human beings that are placed on the earth in order to govern the creation:

Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” … God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:26, 28, TNIV, emphasis added).

The long and short of it is this: Contrary to many other worldviews on offer in the ancient world or today, the God of the Bible is not depicted as a dictatorial ruler. (Authoritative? Yes. Authoritarian? No.) Rather, God is like a strange attractor who sets certain parameters, yet is entirely unconcerned with mandating how the creation goes about operating within that sphere. The Creator of Scripture is instead one who seems quite willing to share power with all varieties of his own creation and, quintessentially, with human beings.

Our Fractal Gospel

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fractal fun” by hairchaser under license CC BY-SA 2.0

The following originally appeared at {re}fresh, a devotional blog for which I write a couple times a quarter. Please, if you have a moment, check it out, especially the other talented authors who write there.

Is there such a thing as a “simple gospel”?

I know from whence the desire comes, the beckoning for a simple gospel by which we may abide faithfully without the encumbrance of convoluted strictures. No one wishes befuddlement in such consequential and eternal matters. We wish, rather, for certainty or, at least, confidence. After all, souls are at stake.

But our longing is as the one who desires to retire alone and in peace to a log cabin in the vast open country, though he is tied to a covenanted spouse, bears responsibility for the offspring of that union and the charge of his employment. Perhaps the solitary life is simpler, but it does no justice to the complex reality of our station.

Contrary to the complaints of innumerable high school students, mathematics is (are?) a beautiful study. Many of us—nay, most—explored the precepts of geometry only to a point. We are familiar with the straight lines of the quadrilateral, the varying acuteness of the triangle’s points and the elegant curves of the circle.

Rarely, however, do we venture onward past the shapes of our childhood blocks and into the wilder realms of the scientific art. There be monsters; and their names are Mandelbrot, Julia and Sierpinski. I speak of fractals.

For the uninitiated, a fractal is a geometric pattern—a shape—with unique qualities. Examine the fractal from the widest vantage point and you’ll immediately spot what appear to be frayed edges—spines, perhaps, or, kindlier, fur. Now, we concentrate our attention on one branch of the pattern, magnify that portion, and something mysterious occurs. We find in the magnification not greater simplicity, but expanding complexity—in other words, more fur. Explore deeper still and it turns out the fur’s fur has fur. The fractal can do this all day. No matter how infinitely you zoom in on any portion of the fuzzy fractal, you’ll uncover only infinitesimally beautiful complexity.

But fractals are for more than just aesthetics; they bear a purpose. A lesson you’ve undoubtedly taken to heart: cause and effect. Live long enough, and you can predict that when you let go of the ball in your hand, it will drop to the ground with remarkable consistency. Another thing you’ve likely noticed: our world is complex. When the causes multiply, so too the effects. Soon, the results become increasingly difficult to predict. Thus, prophecy is rarely a profitable enterprise.

But oh yes, fractals. Fractals help us explain the compounding of causes. A butterfly flaps its wings in Africa … and produces a fractal. In short, the fractal’s endless complexity helps us makes sense of reality—hence its beauty.

Ours is a fractal gospel. Jesus was raised from the grave, announced Peter in Acts 2, and God appointed him Lord and Christ. Peter’s speech at the beginning of Acts is among the more concise articulations of the gospel in Scripture, and it culminates with this announcement: the resurrected Jesus is now Lord and Christ (see Acts 2:14-39).

What is the Christ? The Christ is the long-awaited king of the Jews, descended from David. Lord? It’s a stickier term to navigate, biblically speaking, but Peter most likely means by it king of the entire creation. (Just as Caesar would have called himself “Lord”.) Jesus is not just Israel’s king, says Peter, but the whole world’s king.

And if Jesus is now the world’s king, the fractal effects begin to spin outward, for the impact of the resurrection must be applied to every facet of our lives, every corner of our societies, every inch of creation. Further, you and I and every other person who claims Jesus as Lord, must figure out—in partnership with the Holy Spirit—just how to live within and extend Christ’s kingdom in the world around us.

Can we call that a simple gospel? I suppose we can, on a certain level. But zoom to deeper levels, and this simple gospel must be interpreted and applied with ever growing intricacy, both for the depth and breadth of its effects. Therein lies the gospel’s beauty, for it can bring resurrection life to every time and place and at every level.

The Image of Marduk; or How the Babylonians Took Advantage of the Absence of Post-Modernists and Enslaved Society

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Babylon Gate” by F. Tronchin under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Remember when all the post-modernists were shouting about the vile oppression of meta-narratives?

You don’t remember that? What, you had better things to do, like go to work and earn a living?

Well, trust me, it was a thing, and it went like this.

Meta-narratives are big, far-reaching stories we tell ourselves and those around us to make sense of life. These stories aren’t big in the life-of-the-party sense, but they’re big in the all-encompassing sense. Here’s an example: Have you heard the one about the freedom-loving, god-fearing nation set as a democratic city on a hill for the rest of the world to witness? The American story, as many of us learned it, is a meta-narrative.

Well, back in the day, post-modernists were grousing that these types of stories oppress people by forcing them into certain singular ways of thinking, governing them with an iron fist—or iron tongue. Instead, they argued, we had to emphasize local stories, the stories of the neighborhood or family unit or, to the extreme, individual stories above all others.

Naïve.

Meta-narratives, the old t-shirt goes, happen. We cannot deny them. We all carry deep in our psyche worldviews—basic ways of interpreting the world around us that answer very basic questions about our core identity. Shout all you want about the “oppressive” nature of a meta-narrative, but we still have them, even when we’re not attempting to impose them on anyone.

But the post-mods were right about one thing. (Well, two things, really. They were right to say that individuals’ stories matter … deeply.) They were right to point our attention to the oppressive potential of meta-narratives.

You see, when we buy into certain overarching stories, we do so to our own detriment. This is one of the big lessons from Middleton’s Liberating Image.

Way back before the post-mods, you had the ancient Babylonians, and boy did they have a story to tell. Their big story, at least one of them, detailed how the gods conspired to create human beings and why. The long and short of it is that the gods were tired of doing the backbreaking labor of agriculture. Sure, the gods needed to eat, but did they really need to do all that hoeing and weeding and harvesting?

So the gods fashioned humans … as slaves. Let them do the hard work of maintaining irrigation ditches. Let them do the hard work of sowing the seed. Let them do the hard work of bringing in the ripe harvests. And let them bring that food for sacrifice to the temple, so that we the gods can eat.

But these humans can be unruly. They’ll need a master. Thus, the gods created someone in their own image (sound familiar?): a king. Yes, the kings of Babylon were shaped in the image of Marduk, the dominant god, and thereby given authority to rule over the people. And they, in turn, were to continue their toil in the hot Mesopotamian sun.

That’s a meta-narrative. And unless you happen to be king of Babylon, it’s an oppressive one. Buying into this story puts you in your place, saying you’re no better than a god’s slave and you never will be. Your only purpose is to supply the gods with food. There is no rising to a higher calling.

Contrast this with a biblical notion of humanity’s purpose—a competing meta-narrative. In this story, God creates all of humanity in his image. He places on all humanity the royal purpose of governing the earth. So it says in Genesis 1:26-28:

26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

So, the post-mods were right about this: meta-narratives matter. And we should be careful of the stories we buy into.

But there are—and this is really the point of Middleton’s study—liberating meta-narratives out there. In fact, from a biblical point of view, we should say there is one liberating meta-narrative out there. There is a foundational story that, should we buy into it, would lead to freedom, to life, to shared responsibility and, ultimately, to the flourishing of the earth itself.

You are going to live within a great story one way or another. Make sure its a good one.

The Image of God: Israel vs. Babylon

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So I finally got around to reading J. Richard Middleton’s Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1, and I’m moderately ashamed it took me so long. You see, I’d been seeing citations to this text in other books for years. I should have picked it up ages ago.

I expected, based on said citations, to find fundamental support for the notion that the Image of God—I only feign Latin proficiency to look smart—is effectively a statement about humanity’s commission to govern the earth. That’s not what I found.

It’s true that “image of God” is a statement about human authority on the earth, a commission to act as God’s representative governors. In fact, it seems nearly every Old Testament scholar out there believes as much.

But Middleton offers so much more than that, since his primary goal is to set Genesis 1-11 in contrast to ancient Babylonian myths about creation and their implications for Babylonian culture and societal structure. (His conjecture is that Genesis at least took its final form in response to Israel’s exilic experience in Babylon—a real possibility.)

So here’s a nugget to nibble on: in ancient Babylon, just one person was made in the image of the dominant god. That person was their king. The king bore the image of Marduk, thereby giving the king the authority to rule the people and to have the people serve him.

Were normal blokes made in their god’s image? No way. The hoi poloi—I actually do know some Greek—were made so they could grow food and offer sacrifices, thereby feeding the gods—something the gods either could not do or did not want to do themselves. That puts the masses in a crummy spot.

Now compare that notion with Genesis 1:26-28. The first mention of the forming of humanity, and the Creator has an idea: “Let’s make all human beings to be like kings, to act as my representatives in protecting and cultivating the earth.”

It’s a lofty bit of theology embedded in a tiny piece of Scripture and set squarely against a dominant rival culture. In fact, Israel’s concept of humanity is a drastic reversal of what may have been the most dominant worldview in the ancient world for centuries. We are all kings on this earth.

Could Jesus’ Humanity Mean More Than We Allow?

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And that’s just the first couple pages.

I know you know this, but the Nicene Creed, a core statement of faith for many churches, says that Jesus was “begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father.” Maybe you’re more of a Chalcedonian man—and who doesn’t aspire to be?—and you go for the more concise “truly God and truly Man” when describing Jesus.

Ascribe to either, and you’re saying what orthodox Christians have said for almost as long as the gospels themselves have been around. The Council of Chalcedon met in 451; the First Council of Nicaea over one hundred years earlier in 325. That’s a long time for believers to be saying, in essence, Jesus is God.

On this issue, the science, as they’re saying now, is settled.

But here’s an interesting question: When did the science get settled? If you go back beyond AD 325, were Christians saying “Jesus is God” before then? And if we go all the way back to the actual gospels, is that what they were saying about Jesus?

Well, when it comes to John, yes. He more or less settles the science on the first page. There’s no question John’s Word is Jesus, and John is reasonably explicit: “The Word was God” (Jn 1:1).

Still, it only takes a minute to see that the other gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—are of a different sort than John. None of these Synoptic Gospels (so called because they tell very similar types of stories about Jesus) makes the same kind of outright attribution of divinity to Jesus. Was Jesus God for Matthew, Mark and Luke?

Enter J.R. Daniel Kirk, who just a few months ago released a substantial study asking this interesting question: What are the Synoptic Gospels trying to say about Jesus on the humanity-deity spectrum?

I thought we said the science was settled? What kind of heresy is Kirk trying spread in A Man Attested by God?

Well, none heresy. Kirk isn’t questioning whether Jesus is God. Rather, he recognizes things the gospel writers say about Jesus that we have typically taken to mean “Jesus is God”—walking on water or raising the dead—but maybe they weren’t meant to. Perhaps they meant something different to the Jewish Christians who first heard and read these stories.

In short, perhaps saying Jesus was a human being meant a lot more to Jewish Christians in the first century than we allow today. I suppose we could say, biblically speaking, we’re not giving humanity as much credit as God does.

Or, we should say, we do not give enough credit to what Kirk calls “idealized human figures”. His words:

“Idealized human figures” refers to non-angelic, non-preexistent human beings, of the past, present, or anticipated future, who are depicted in textual or other artifacts as playing some unique role in representing God to the rest of the created realm, or in representing some aspect of the created realm before God (3).

Say it plainly, Mike. OK. There are plenty of instances throughout Jewish literature—both biblical and otherwise—where Jews could conceive of people doing Godlike things without themselves being God or God’s authority being usurped or compromised. More, it may well be that this is what human beings were supposed to be like all along.

Applied to Christ, we again turn to Kirk’s own words: “Human Christology can be divine Christology, without imputing inherent divinity to the human in view, because God creates humanity in God’s own image and likeness, to exercise God’s sovereignty over the earth in God’s stead” (4).

Now that’s interesting.

Skipping Israel

Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command to refrain from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and so were banished from his presence. That, in short, is the sad ending the opening narrative of Genesis.

Similarly, many Christians are taught, have we all sinned against God and have, by our own actions, banished ourselves from God’s life-giving presence.

Therefore, we need Jesus. In particular, we needed his death and resurrection on our behalf to bring about a renewed offer of humanity-in-communion-with-God.

It’s a familiar painting, if you grew up in some variety of the evangelical church. On a personal level, the picture portrayed is that I have sinned, therefore I need Jesus. From a scriptural perspective, the sketch is Adam and Eve sinned, therefore they—and all humanity with them—needed Jesus.

It’s all true. But if that’s the story, why does the Bible include so much more in the story? I don’t know about your Bible, but mine is, like, you know, a long book with several hundreds of pages of text after Adam and Eve’s story before you get to the New Testament.

What I’m trying to ask is why, in our summation of the Gospel, do we skip from Genesis 3 to Matthew 1? In short, our Gospel has had no need of Israel.

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Old Bible by Felicia Atkinson under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In my estimation, it’s a grave mistake to remove so vital a piece of God’s history with his people. It’s like tearing a great big hole in your Bible. It’s bound to elicit the wrath of … or at least blind us to things we ought to be seeing.

So we must ask, what was God trying to do with Israel for all those pages?

When we looked at the basic narrative of structure of Adam and Eve’s story, we found that the Creator had a goal of sending his life-giving presence into the whole world. And we saw that he had chosen humanity, represented initially by Adam and Eve, to be the agents through whom God’s governance was administered on the earth. The story crumbed, of course, in Genesis 3.

But is that the end of the story? Is there a possibility the narrative of Genesis 1-3 may be rescued? Is there a chance the heroes God had chosen to govern his good creation on his behalf may be redeemed and the Creator’s purposes renewed? In short, does the Lord close the book at Genesis 3 and move on to a better tale? Or does he continue writing?

You know the answer, naturally. Among the great and beautiful truths about the God of the Bible is his relentless persistence. God never stops doing good and he never gives up when something goes wrong.

But his salvation for humanity does not move directly to Jesus, as our shorthand Gospels have taught us to think. No, God moves to rescue humanity and continue the story begun in Genesis 1 with another humble individual.

Abraham is sent now to save what Adam and Eve had fumbled.

Genesis: 1970’s Melodrama or Act I of an Epic?

During my senior year of high school The American Film Institute released their top 100 movies of all time. When I saw the list, I immediately started checking off flicks I had seen over the years. I was surprised, as an 18 year-old, how many I could check off the list, but many still remained. I had myself a challenge.

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1.22.11 – “The French Connection” by Movies in LA under license CC BY-NC 2.0

Little by little I would see one or another movie on the list and keep inventory. Over time, I began to see a disturbing pattern, particularly with films from the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Deer Hunter, The French Connection, Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Chinatown: Depressing. Even solid gold, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—spoiler alert—they die!

Now, fairy tales, for the most part, have relatively simple plot lines. Part of their allure and longevity is a result of their brevity, while still containing powerful, widely applicable lessons. They are, nevertheless, straightforward: one hero with one objective, one cruel villain and one major crisis before a happy and satisfying resolution.

But what happens when the hero of the fairy tale does not win his battle? What happens when we don’t get “happily ever after”?

It means one of two things. It means we’re either watching one of those myriad depression-fests of the 1970’s, or it may very well mean we’re simply in store for a longer, more complicated story than we had anticipated. Following the initial failure, a new layer of the story is introduced, with a goal for redemption.

The initial pages of Scripture may outline a fairy tale at the beginning, with God the Creator employing humanity, the pinnacle of his creation, to administer his life-giving glory throughout the creation. An enemy arises in the form of the serpent to threaten this endeavor, but the Lord supplies the tempted humans with a clear command with which to combat the snake’s charms.

But, as we all know, there is no “happily ever after” in Genesis 3.

Rather, Adam and Eve fail. The first couple, humanity’s archetypes, are given one simple task: trust God and don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Easy, right? But the serpent’s wiles gets them to question their Creator, to pluck the forbidden fruit and partake.

As a result, the creation itself is cursed and the Lord’s first priests are banished from the beatific natural temple of Eden. Humanity—meant to be God’s representatives pushing back chaos on the earth—is severed from the life-giving God.

So, what sort of story are we in for? Is the Bible a 70’s melodrama? Or could it be we’re embarking on a longer journey toward redeeming God’s first objective?