Villains and Sidekicks

Human beings, from the beginning, have been tasked with the all-important mission of transmitting the Creator’s glory—and thereby bringing life and order and abundance—to the entire creation. That’s we discovered last time in the pages of the creation narrative of Genesis 1-2.

As we explored earlier, however, every good story has a villain who seeks to thwart the hero’s efforts to accomplish her objective. The Opponent threatens the whole endeavor and brings drama to the narrative.

Who is the Opponent of humanity in the creation narrative? As the Bible begins its saga, who threatens humanity’s job of governing the earth of God’s behalf?

It’s among the most well known tales in all the world: Adam and Eve and the serpent.

Will the first couple succeed in extending the order of creation beyond the borders of Eden? Will they continually eat of the Tree of Life—a symbol, not only of the free-flowing life of God to them, but to the whole of creation?

The serpent has other ideas. He’s out to reassert the realm of chaos, to bring disorder back into the peaceful space the Creator has carved. Agent and Opponent are in a fixed struggle in the early verses of Genesis 3.

A fulfilling tale, however, does not leave the Agent to her own devices. Typically, the Agent receives some kind of Helper. In fact, an audience generally knows this to be a necessary component of a good drama.

Playing in the backyard with the neighbors, we might regularly invent for ourselves superhero identities and enter into pitched battle for an afternoon:

I call out, “My guy can fly!”

“Yeah?” says Greg, indignantly. “Well, my guy shoots lightning bolts. Kapow! You’re dead!”

“Nuh-uh,” I retort. “My guy has an invisible Faraday cage around him at all times. Electricity has no effect!”

No fair! Why? Because it’s cheep victory. My guy has overcome without any real struggle. Indeed he was never in danger from the lightning bolts.

So in a good story, including the biblical story, there must be an external Helper who enters the scene to aid the Agent in accomplishing her goal. In the superhero example, if my guy is to over come the lightning bolts, the help must come from outside himself. He needs a lightning absorbing Helper, a sidekick.

What Helper do Adam and Eve receive to overcome the serpent’s wiles?

In this case, the help has come prior to the serpent’s introduction. The first couple has received help even before they’re tempted. In fact, their help comes from the Lord himself, in the form of instruction. They’ve been pre-warned:

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Scripture’s initial storyline. © 2016 Michael McKinniss

“But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2:17, NRSV).

God’s commandment, his word of warning is their Helper to combat and overcome the serpent’s crafty temptations. If Adam and Eve—if humanity—rely on God’ word, defeat their Opponent, the serpent, and proceed to delivering God’s life-giving glory across the entire world. The future hangs in the balance.

Humanity: God’s Agent

We’ve been looking at the skeletal structure of the biblical narrative, not because it’s our intention to bore the internet to death, but because getting at the core story will provide clues to God’s agenda for creation and humanity’s role in that drama. Whittle away the myriad details of the scriptural story, and perhaps we can focus on the main point.

So we found on a broad level that the very simple storyline of Genesis 1-2 is that God is attempting to send his life-giving glory to the entire chaos-ridden earth.

Yet, as we had seen previously, we should expect another layer to the story, namely an Agent, Opponent and Helper.

The all-important Agent: this is the figure, in most tales, who becomes the main character. Other figures are important—critical even—but the Agent is the one on whom our attention is fixed. This is the figure chosen to deliver the goods. Will he accomplish his task?

In the creation narratives of Genesis 1-2, as we saw, God had effectively erected a natural temple from which to rule the planet. His seventh day rest is all about taking up the task of making the earth run as it should.

Curiously, however, he seems to have also told someone else to govern creation:

Then God said, “Let us humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” … God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen 1:26, 28).

This is the dynamic of agency. The Lord’s intention is to run the earth by bringing his glory to bear upon it, but he has simultaneously created agents to do this on his behalf.

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Humanity as the Agent in the biblical story. © 2016 Michael McKinniss

The story the creation narrative lays out selects humanity as its main character, acting on God’s behalf to accomplish the goal of bringing order and peace to the entire creation. Humanity is the Agent in the story.

This is not to dismiss God by any means. Throughout the Bible, of course, the Lord is there, ever present, if not always in the foreground.

Yet human beings are his priests, made in his image. Humanity, at every turn, is on center stage. People are the main characters in every tale. Why? Because human beings have been created—and this is too often forgotten in the biblical story—as God’s Agents in accomplishing his life-giving goals.

God Sends *blank* into the World

When we consider the narrative framework for the biblical story, a handful of questions come immediately to mind. Who is the Sender, Object and Receiver in the biblical story? Who is the Agent, the Opponent and the Helper?

We might be inclined, given the way we’ve often told the biblical story, particularly the gospel story, to put it something like this: God sent Jesus (the object) to the world (receiver). No doubt many of us who grew up in an Evangelical church heard it something like this implicitly, if not explicitly.

If we did understand this to be the narrative structure of Scripture, what is the role of humanity? We are simply the passive receivers. We play no active role. Pastorally, at least, this kind of worldview becomes problematic if you want your congregation to do anything. What is there to do? God has done it all through Jesus.

And if this is the proper framework for the biblical story, who is the agent, the opponent or the helper? We’ve got God giving Jesus to the world—a perfectly biblical notion (Jn 3:16)—but is there anything working against God the Father? Is there anything at risk? In other words, where is the actual drama?

Further, with a brief narrative like God sent Jesus to the sinful world, we’ve entirely left out two-thirds of the Bible itself. This narrative has no real use for an Old Testament, except, perhaps, to highlight the necessity of Jesus in the first place. But that makes the Bible read like one of those old Russian novels (good as they are) that spend 500 pages on character sketches and background before anything substantive actually drives the plot forward.

No, the Bible is richer than this. God is more dynamic than this. The stakes are higher than this.

Perhaps, if we’re to sketch the narrative skeleton of Scripture, we can begin at the beginning. What kind of plat does the creation narrative set up?

People have read Genesis 1-2 in all sorts of way, with all sorts of conclusions drawn. I rather like certain aspects of John H. Walton’s interpretation in his recent works, The Lost World of Genesis One and The Lost World of Adam and Eve. Walton is keen to place the stories of Genesis 1-3 into its ancient context. That is, if the ancient Hebrews who originated these texts were, in fact ancient people living in the Near East, shouldn’t we expect them to think like other ancient Near Eastern (ANE) peoples, even if we also expect some key differences? In any event, we should not expect the ancient Hebrews to think just like modern (or post-modern, or post-post-modern) Western people in the 21st century.

So from Walton’s perspective, God is trying to do something very specific in the act of creation. In fact, we could say that the Creator primarily does two things in Genesis 1-2.

First, God is bringing order to the world. He is establishing peace in the midst of chaos. Consider how the story starts: “Now the earth was formless and empty…” (Genesis 1:2, NIV). Careful words studies of the Hebrew behind “formless and empty” (tohu and bohu) suggests that the implication is not a cosmic nothingness, but rather a chaotic, uninhabitable condition (for a quick analysis, you can see chapter 4 of Walton’s Lost World of Genesis One). Over the first six days of creation, then, God is reversing that chaotic and destructive state.

The second element to God’s creative activities is that he is establishing a temple for himself. This may be less obvious at first glance, but it’s perhaps the most clear when Genesis is compared with other ANE creation stories. For Walton, any ANE person, including the ancient Hebrews, hearing a story about a seven-day creation would have immediately communicated a profound fact: This is a temple creation story (Genesis One, 88-91).

Further, says Walton, when God rests on day seven, he’s resting in the way we might after we’ve moved into a new home and unpacked all our boxes. He’s taking up residence, not taking a nap (Genesis One, 71-76).

Lastly, the Garden of Eden, as so many scholars have recognized, greatly resembles the later tabernacle and temple still in Israel’s future. Eden itself is a natural temple for the Creator (Adam and Eve, 116-7).

What does all this tell us about the potential storyline for the biblical narrative? It begins to hint at God’s purpose in the story. In other words, we’ve found our Sender, Object and Receiver.

Actually, we’re quite close to where we began this post. God is indeed the Sender. The world is receiving something from him. But what is the Object? Genesis 1 makes no explicit reference to Christ, so I don’t think we can slot him in. What is being delivered to the world? Order, peace, shalom, a state of flourishing—in a word, life.

But I suspect even this Object (life, peace, order) ought to be subsumed within something even greater, something implied in the construction of a natural temple.

The temple in Eden is there in the midst of creation in order to house God, his presence, his glory. Consider, as a parallel, what happens when, later, Moses completes construction of the tabernacle, a mobile temple (Ex 40:34-38), or when Solomon consecrates the temple (1 Kgs 8:10-11). God’s glory rushes in to fill the place. I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that the Garden of Eden, as a natural temple, would house God’s glory in the same way the Holy of Holies would.

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The Creator’s purpose at the beginning is to send his glorious presence into creation. © 2016 Michael McKinniss

And it’s from that glory, from God’s presence, from that temple, that the life, peace and order emit.

So now we have the top portion of our narrative diagram. God is attempting to send his glory (and thereby life) into the world.

But we’re not done, of course. There is a bottom half to complete. From here our drama comes.

Everyone Loves a Good Story; Not Everyone Knows How They’re Made

The other day I said I was going to concentrate this blog on theological anthropology. In other words, this blog is for everyone who has ever asked, “What in the world am I doing here?” It’s a big subject with a lot of different nooks and crannies to explore. But we’d better start looking at the forest before examining the trees.

Asking the question about humanity’s purpose presupposes a narrative frame of reference through which we view the world. If we believe we have a purpose—which I prefer to the alternative—we have essentially said that our collective existence begins with “Once upon a time…” After all, every (good) story has a goal.

With that in mind, it’s worth taking a look at the basic shape of stories. Of course, every story has a beginning, middle and end, but not every tale with a chronological sequence is worth telling. A three-year-old can tell you the story of her day, but it’s not going to be worth optioning to Warner Brothers. Real compelling stories have drama, conflict.

Narrative Framework
© 2016, Michael McKinniss

There is a basic shape we can draw that highlights the elements of a good, purposeful narrative, and these apply to nearly every good tale. [1]

A sender wishes to deliver an object to a receiver. To do so, the sender employs the help of an agent, who becomes the main character in the story. That agent is inevitably obstructed by an opponent. There’s your drama, the question raised by the audience: Will the agent get the package to its intended recipient? Typically, the agent cannot do this alone, and so a helper enters to get the agent back on track.

That’s your basic narrative structure, but let’s make this less stuffy.

Let’s suppose you are at home visiting your parents when everyone’s cell phones buzz all at once. It’s your tech-savvy grandmother. A spry 87, she’s been hiking in the back country and she’s texted to alert you all that she’s been bitten by a rattlesnake. Would anyone be a dear and run some antivenin out here right quick? Your mother, distraught, assigns you the task.

We’ve just filled in the first four pieces of the diagram. Your mother is the sender; the antivenin, the object; your grandmother, the receiver; and you are the agent who will deliver the object.

Dutifully, you steam out in your Hummer toward your grandmother’s location. (She’s activated Find My iPhone for your benefit.) You’re making great time until you get to the turnoff that heads into the wilderness. Fifty protestors, covertly funded by the EPA, have gathered—picket signs, bullhorns and all—to demonstrate against gas-guzzling off-road vehicles being permitted into the natural undisturbed wild. Seeing you attempting to enter the untouched lands in your monstrous SUV, the crowd recognizes its archetypal nemesis and concentrates its ire on you. They surround your vehicle, all the while spewing their tree-hugging slogans in your general direction.

Ah, an opponent. The plot, as they say, thickens. Will you get through to grandma in time to save her? Will you survive the environmentally friendly epithets of the eco-mob?

Then, what’s this?! A limo, flanked by patrol vehicles with sirens blaring, emerges over the crest in the road ahead and races toward you and the protestors. The caravan screeches to a halt just before the crowd and out steps a well-dressed, well-coiffured man in a dark pinstriped suit, along with a quartet of police officers. Calmly the man steps into the center of the crowd, between your H2 and the bio-degradable leader of the pack. He reaches into his Armani jacket and pulls out a slip of paper.

“Court order,” he says. “This protest is being disbanded as an unlawful assembly. You didn’t file the proper paperwork with city hall.”

Dazed by the irony of being funded by a government agency, then thwarted by government bureaucracy, the environmentalists trudge sullenly to the Priuses. You are free to proceed into the bush. Perhaps you can make it to grandma in time.

Antivenin Diagram
© 2016, Michael McKinniss

A bit more exciting, if unlikely, perhaps. We’ve demonstrated the various roles in a good narrative. We’ve had a sender (your mother), a receiver (your grandmother) and an object (the antivenin). To accomplish the task of transmission, an agent (you) was assigned. The agent had an opponent (the protestors), which made things dicey for a time, but a helper (the lawyer) arrived to thwart the opponent so that the mission could proceed.

We understand the concept now. Next time, we’ll have to apply the theory to the biblical story. What is the narrative structure and goal of the biblical story? And where do humans fit?

[1] I first came across this diagram in N.T. Wright’s New Testament and the People of God (71), but it’s based on the work of A.J. Griemas’s Sémantique structurale (1966) and Du Sens (1970). Now, where did we leave off?

At Last We Have Seen a Man

Sometimes, a product that has been successful for years undergoes a substantive transformation, but the brand is too powerful to warrant changing the name of the product.

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The Many Versions of Batman” by Digital_Third_Eye under license CC BY_ND 2.0

I think of the immensely popular Michael Keaton Batmans (Batmen?) of 1989 and 1992. When the franchise shifted to the likes of Val Kilmer (1995) and George Clooney (1997) and their gawdawful one-liners, the Batman character embedded within our imaginations was strong enough to carry (or should I say, “drag”) the films. It was still Batman, after all.

Other times, an alteration in substance requires a fresh name to match. Coca-Cola messed with its long-standing formula in 1985, and introduced the bubbly abomination New Coke or, later, Coke II. You just couldn’t have called the newfangled drink “Coke”, as the public made clear.

And so with this blog.

“The View from Here” was a fine name when it simply served as a depository for rather random musings about whatever the heck I might have been entertaining at the time. Granted, there was some level of coherence, because all the posts were coming from a single source. But now with a new focus, I’m eager to put a fresh label on the product.

“At Last We Have Seen a Man” may sound dated to some politically correct ears. We are, collectively, no longer “man” or “mankind”, but rather the lengthier “humankind”. The new title, however, is not a protest against gender inclusive language. (I’m generally fine with it, as long as we can stay away from the ineloquent “he or she” or “s/he” or the mind-bending singular “they”.)

Instead, the title is a phrase from a tidy mid-century volume by missionary and Anglican bishop Stephen Neill. Exploring the question of humanity’s nature, What Is Man? investigates the biblical point of view on our species—our sinfulness, our offered redemption and our potential this side of the cross.

Writing of Jesus, the true and perfect human, Neill writes from the creation’s perspective a passage that has haunted and thrilled me since my first reading. “When Jesus died, something happened that had never happened before in the whole history of the world. A man had lived the whole of his life in perfect and complete obedience to God. … This the universe had never seen, and so it had lived on through all the centuries in frustration. Now we know what the machine was made for. At last we have seen a man” (37, emphasis added).

It’s a neat summation of the person of Jesus, from a human perspective, and a key, I believe, to viewing the whole of humanity’s calling.

It has long been said, on the basis of at least Colossians 1:15 and Hebrews 1:3, that if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Neill writes (and I think Scripture backs him up) that if you want to know what a person should be like, look at Jesus.

The cross-section of this pair of assertions is simultaneously shocking, exhilarating and humbling. Thus has Neill’s turn of phrase sent me to worship and to wonder, to hope and to pray.

At last we have seen a man. I seek to gaze on him, question him and explore him, and so, somehow, to learn and become my true self. That’s what I hope this blog will be about going forward.

Changes Afoot

Changes are coming to The View from Here.

It’s been some time since I’ve written regularly on the blog, and for a number of reasons. Having swapped coasts, entered marital bliss and begun a new job; there simply hasn’t been the time to write as I might like to (though I’ve just barely kept up contributing regular devotional blogs at {re}fresh).

At any rate, I’m committed to renewing my focus on this corner of the interweb and with it will come a handful of updates. For one, I’ll be reviewing the overall look and feel of the site. Things have gotten a little shabby in my absence. Certain parts have begun to sag. Our digital hair has gone unwashed, uncombed, unkempt. The belt around this blog’s center needs to be tightened. In short, we’ve let ourselves go, but it’s going to change.

Appearances are important, as far as they go, though far more important is the actual content. For the foreseeable future, I’m hoping to concentrate my attention on a theme I’ve been thinking about off and on for years: human purpose.

As long as there have been people on the earth, there have been people wondering why on earth they were there. It’s big question deserving of a big answer. And sadly, various cultures—even Christian ones—provide too small a response. Yet from a biblical perspective, as best as I can tell, people are a big deal. I’d like to explore why and to what end.

My musings on this topic have been more like meanderings up to now. It’s time I corralled this beast.