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.

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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.

A New (Old) Gospel

I don’t know for how long my antennae have been tuned to this frequency, but there’s a rumbling about in the world of Western Christianity. The station is playing gospel all day, every day. Sounds pretty sweet, but there’s dissonance in the tunes, if you listen carefully.

When I was growing up in an Evangelical Baptist church, the gospel could be boiled down to a mathematical proof:

  • We are all terrible sinners;
  • God cannot stand sin;
  • God sent Jesus to take our punishment for sin;
  • Now we are saved and can join God in heaven.

Now, that’s a gross caricature, but it’s essentially what was typically presented in many of the youth events I attended. In fact, when I interned for a youth pastor in college, I was encouraged to memorize a formula like this so that I could quickly walk others through this proof on demand.

I’ve never particularly been a fan of this version of the gospel. I mean, it’s true, as far as it goes. Everyone, when it comes down to it, is corrupted by sin. God is a holy God. I have some issues with the imagery with the whole Jesus-as-God’s-whipping-boy thing—it doesn’t make God look so great—but I can stomach it. And yes, Jesus’ sacrifice is our salvation.  The heaven thing? Well, yes. And, no. (That’s a different post.)

I first became aware that I might not be alone in my frustration when I was given Dallas Willard’s magnum opusThe Divine Conspiracy right after college. His premise is that Jesus’ work is meant to open up to the world the advent of God’s kingdom on the earth. In other words, the gospel cannot simply be about going to heaven when we die, but must have everything to do with the believer’s life now, in this world.

Much later, while in seminary, I was working my way through N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, written just before Willard’s great work, when I caught a glimpse of a similar perspective. There Wright poses the question regarding Evangelicalism’s failure to deal adequately with Jesus’ life, so concerned were we with his death. If we were going to adequately articulate the gospel, we had to incorporate everything Jesus was doing prior to his crucifixion.

Several years later, Scot McKnight issued his displeasure with this oversimplified gospel in The King Jesus Gospel. There he cited an experience he had as a teenager, in which he was sent around the neighborhood with an elder in his church to evangelize people trying to eat their dinners. He wasn’t psyched, even as a teen, about weaseling a fellow into saying The Prayer and calling it a success. To McKnight’s mind, we needed to get back, somehow, to what the New Testament writers had been saying was the gospel, which, he says, is a story, not a proof. Note that 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 (the only place where Paul actually says, “This is the gospel…”) is actually a brief narrative.

Shortly afterward, Wright brought out his own articulation of a fuller gospel, doing his best to bring to light the various ways the gospel writers saw Jesus’ work. How God Became King suggested that the church had become filled with inadequate caricatures of the gospel: Jesus came to show us how to get to heaven; Jesus came to teach us how to live rightly; Jesus came to live as a perfect example; Jesus came to be the perfect sacrifice (this is similar to the articulation I had heard so often); Jesus came to show that he was God or to show just who God was.

No doubt each of us reading through that list nods our heads at some and drops our jaws at others. Of course, that’s not the gospel! Or, what do you mean that’s not the gospel?! The point is that each has been taught as if it were the whole thing, when in reality each only points to a portion of the gospel.

(By the way, I wrote a series of reviews of The King Jesus Gospel and How God Became King a few years ago, the sum of which is here. It was good times.)

Now, I just recently joined a little group that’s working its way through Michael Horton’s Gospel-Driven Life, which came out a bit before McKnight’s or Wright’s work. Horton goes the same route that McKnight had—and having written first, I suppose he ought to get the credit, though I’m only reading it now—and insists that we must get back to the story. Yet his insistence is to continue to return to what Wright would have called a caricature, that the gospel is all about how we are saved from our sins.

Again, true enough, but not the whole picture.

Re-enter Wright. His latest work—at least, I think it’s his latest; he probably published another book last night—is Simply Good News, and it’s an attempt to articulate, in plain language a more comprehensive gospel, simply. Therein he again is adamant that the forgiveness of sins, while an essential part of the gospel, is only a fraction of what Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplish. But if we make it the whole thing, we distort it. Distort the gospel, and you’re left with distorted Christians. It’s high time, he writes, we get a clear picture of God’s work and our place in it.

"Gospel Graffiti II" by Peat Bakke used under license CC BY 2.0
Gospel Graffiti II” by Peat Bakke used under license CC BY 2.0

Now all this is to say nothing of the myriad churches around the world that have been exploring the implications for the gospel in real time and without the luxury of contemplating it in the ivory tower. Rather, their concerns are pastoral. They’ve got real hurting people in their congregations and they’re reading a New Testament that seems to have a lot more to say about life and about the afterlife.

All that is to say, I want to spend some time the next few weeks exploring a more complete gospel and what that might mean for the Christian for this life and the next. Stay tuned!

Finally, Faith and Science Make Friends

There are three big takeaways from John H. Walton’s Lost World of Adam and Eve. All three are positive developments for the church, though one will be controversial with many quarters.

1. Authority of Scripture

The first strong emphasis from Walton comes from his affirmation of the authority of Scripture. This has been a central tenet of Christianity at all times, but especially since the Reformation and its emphasis on sola scriptura, which came out of Luther’s insistence that the Bible ought to have the last word in matters of faith and practice.

Sola scriptura is a key for all Protestant traditions (except Anglicanism and Methodism) because it ostensibly provides a definitive test for all church doctrine. That is, if someone comes up with a wacky belief, we ought to be able to compare it with the Bible and judge whether it fits or not.

Sounds good in theory. But in practice, it’s a little tricky.

The Bible, it turns out, is not a depository of doctrinal proofs. Rather, as Walton reminds us, the Bible is a collection of ancient documents that are intimately tied to their original culture, as all writing is. This is not to say that the Bible is somehow irrelevant to contemporary cultures. Far from it. It simply means that if we are to properly understand and apply the authority of the sacred texts we hold dear, we need to do the hard—and ever evolving (oh no! I said it!)—work of understanding the ancient cultures in which they were written and read.

Here’s an illustration: I remember in high school being assigned A Tale of Two Cities for summer reading one year. Dutifully, I read it and understood hardly a word. That is, I knew the meanings of the individual words and sentences I was reading, but I didn’t really get the story. Fifteen years later I picked it up again and gave it another shot. Having learned a bit more about the French Revolution and its horrors, along with some of the English critique, Dickens’s masterpiece suddenly came alive to me. The lesson? I needed to know something about the culture in which the book was written in order to properly understand its full meaning.

The Bible is no different in this sense, and Walton is keen to remind us. Genesis—along with the rest of Scripture—is an ancient document, and we will best understand it the more we grasp ancient cultures. Without that understanding, he warns, we are making our own modern interpretations of the Bible the authority, rather than the Bible itself. And that is dangerous business.

2. Focus on Function

Another of Walton’s great achievements in this book is his persistent focus on function. Whether he is discussing the creation account of Genesis 1 or the various aspects of Adam and Eve, Walton again and again brings us back to the central question for an ancient culture? What are we here for?

Just this weekend, my pastor made this statement: The two most important days of your life are, first, the day you were born, and, second, the day you figure out why.

Think about it. Every person ever has wondered at this fundamental question. Every last one. Why? Because it has massive implications for how each of us will pursue life. Or, if we find that our answer to this central question turns negative or meaningless, we quickly find that the pursuit of life no longer seems worthwhile. Defining humanity’s purpose sounds like a subject of biblical importance.

Where all the stuff came from? Well, that seems like a distant question, in many ways. Whatever your theories on material origins, the stuff is all here and we need to figure out what we’re supposed to do with it. Discovering purpose is a far more primal question, appropriate for the beginnings of ancient Israel’s foundational stories.

3. Faith Makes Nice with Science

"Science and Faith" by Ryan Tracey is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Science and Faith” by Ryan Tracey is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This last point is essentially a derivative of the first two. Once we begin to take the Bible on its own terms and once we concentrate our energies on the kinds of questions the Bible is keen to answer, we discover we have fewer and fewer reasons to quarrel with scientific inquiry.

Let the geologists continue to explore Manson Crater, a dimple in the earth 24 miles across, thought to have come from an asteroid whacking into the Hawkeye State 74 million years ago. It’s fascinating stuff and could teach us wonders about our own planet and the wider galaxy. But it won’t fundamentally alter the story of Genesis 1-3, intended to teach why we’re here.

Let the biologists continue to dig into the human genome. It may lead to medical advancements or clearer understanding of our biological ancestry. But it won’t touch the fact that Adam, as the ancient Israelites understood him, was the first person uniquely called by God to a special task, presaging both Israel’s and the church’s own calling.

Science is not the Bible’s enemy.

I hasten to add a pastoral note to this last point. When our churches pit the Bible against science, broadly, we place the scientifically minded among us into a potentially impossible choice between their vocational calling and their faith commitments. In effect, we hang a sign on the doors of our churches reading, “We Don’t Serve Scientists”. Ew.

Anyway, all this is to say that The Lost World of Adam and Eve is a worthy addition to the church’s ongoing rediscovery of these ancient narratives. If we are wise enough to grapple with Walton’s study, we will all be the stronger for it.