On Emperors and Paper Houses

There’s something about fictional stories that I simply adore.

I think it’s the ability for a story to teach us about ourselves without feeling intentional. We’re far enough separated from that alternate reality that it’s not personal, but it still affects our thinking and feeling.

For example, you can tell a story about a young boy on a desert planet. A boy who farms moisture, and takes care of self-aware robots. A boy whose estranged father is an evil ruler who chokes people to death and cuts them in half, and whose sister is the princess of a planet that gets destroyed. A totally bizarre story!  And yet, we can feel connected to those characters.

I’ve been reading through the Dune series by Frank Herbert over the last couple years. (I highly encourage everyone to check them out.) I just finished the third book: God Emperor of Dune.  It has mazingly fleshed-out characters, but there was one in particular that sticks to my mind… Moneo.

Moneo was the second-hand man to the God-Emperor named Leto. He obeyed Leto without wavering, and invested decades of his life in the service of his master.  But he had one major character flaw that revealed itself time and time again… He was unable to question his beliefs.

It’s not that he was not allowed to question his beliefs in the God-Emperor (the ‘center’ of worship throughout the universe of these tales), but that he simply could not cognitively and emotionally handle his own suppressed doubts. Throughout the story, he encounters moments of dissonance; times when his ideas about the God-Emperor are challenged, and his mind begins to crumble as he scrambles for understanding – that all-too-elusive solid ground upon which his mind can stand.

Several characters in the story surpass Moneo in terms of their personal growth. His own daughter, for example, becomes the choice person for succession for the God-Emperor Leto as time goes on. Even the character who is expected to attempt an assassination of God-Emperor Leto is shown more favor as Moneo sinks into the background.

Many times, and especially towards the end of this entry of the series, God-Emperor Leto becomes frustrated with Moneo and his lack of mental/(spiritual?) flexibility. Moneo is so set in his thinking that he is unable to grasp the significance of his place, and his lackluster future is lamented by his ruler.

What is striking, however, is that Leto eventually reveals how much potential Moneo had; the intended purpose of his life, all the grandness that was laid out for him, and the majestic nature of Leto’s leadership.  And yet, he was so stuck in his rigid thinking that it wasn’t until his dying breath that he finally broke through his naïve shelter of paper walls and saw with clarity the true nature of his life and that of his master Leto.

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I find that Moneo is a good example of many believers. I, myself, remember living in paper houses. Following a rigid system of beliefs and a worldview that I neither understood nor cared to explore. I feared leaving those places – afraid that my life would crumble at the mere presence of an idea juxtaposed to what I believed to be true.

One of my greatest joys is seeing people leave paper houses. I remember those shining moments when someone is able to actually ask a real question; is able to truly reflect on their own notions of reality and challenge what they have thought to be true for so long. They take their first steps into a beautiful new world, full of danger – yes – but full of potential as well.

 

It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ imagery in The Great Divorce. The ghost-like people are new to the world of reality, and even their own feet cannot bend the blades of grass in this strange place. They walk on what feels like needles; they cannot lift even a single apple in this land. Strength comes with time, however, as they learn how to walk and their bodies become more solid.  So many visitors, however, abandon this world of reality as cruel and inhumane. They opt, instead, to return to the world of grey, where empty houses cannot even keep out the rain.

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On the Bible and Tradition

I distinctly remember sitting in my ‘Introduction to the Old Testament’ class one day, during the Fall of 2010. We were discussing ancient creation myths and other Mesopotamian mythologies that seemed eerily similar to the accounts in Genesis 1-4. I don’t recall what exactly we talked about regarding the 1st or 4th chapters of Genesis, but I do remember talking about Genesis 2-3.

I was absolutely awestruck. Dumbfounded, even.

We were exploring the views of ancient Egyptian stories, Canaanite religion, Babylonian myths, and Sumerian epics. It was incredible the amount of similarities between these narratives and the Scriptural accounts. What struck me, however, was that all of these stories predated the Hebrew texts. Some by several thousand years.

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Marduk vs. Tiamat in the Enuma Elish – just before Marduk creates the expanse called “Sky” to separate the waters, and creates dry ground

I simply didn’t know how to handle what I was studying. Surely if the ancient accounts of Scripture were to be historically true, as I had assumed, then the earliest chapters of Genesis should predate every other telling of the stories.  However, if traditional interpretations are to be correct, then Moses wrote down the texts. But, therein lies a problem… Moses didn’t exist until around 1450 BCE, with the oldest surviving copies dating to around 400 BCE. These other ancient accounts existed well before 1500 BCE, with the earliest surviving physical copy of a creation myth dating to 1600 BCE (The Eridu Genesis of Sumerian origin). So, either Moses didn’t write parts of Genesis, or oral traditions survived hundreds (if not thousands) of years without change, or there’s something else going on here…

I want to pause for a moment, because I don’t want to get into interpretive methods of Genesis 1-4. That’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is that I struggled, for years, on how to reconcile the authority of the Scriptures with the fact that the Scriptures mirror ancient mythologies.

That was a serious crisis point in my life. My faith was built upon the notion that the Scriptures are wholly unique, and stand unopposed by any other religion or anti-religious movement. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I have come to see as a very weak foundation for my faith.

It’s a funny irony, I’ve noticed, that Protestant traditions tend to look down on catholic practices. We – speaking as a generic protestant of the American variety – say, “Look at those catholics and their traditions! They worship ancient practices that serve… what purpose? Don’t they know that traditional practices for the sake of traditional practices is pointless? Our faith isn’t built upon the Church! They need to stop worshipping tradition!” And so, when we explore new thoughts about church practices, we tend to embrace them.

At the same time, we stick to our own traditions. Mainly, traditional interpretations of Scripture. We can apply the same criticisms to our hermeneutical methods: “Look at those protestants and their traditional interpretations! They worship the church fathers, and even figures of the Bible, and what they said about Scripture! Don’t they know that clinging to traditional views of Scripture for the sake of those traditional views is pointless? Our faith isn’t built on the Scriptures! They need to stop worshipping traditional interpretations!” And so, when we explore new thoughts about Biblical interpretations, we feel threatened by them. Oh, wait…

And here I want to make my first point: If the Bible is what we believe it is – the inspired word of God – then we shouldn’t feel threatened by scientific, anthropological, or archeological findings. Could these discoveries have an impact on our Scriptural interpretations? Absolutely! Would studies in language, ancient cultures, and biblical criticisms challenge our traditionally-held beliefs about Scripture? Quite possibly, yes. But why should we be afraid of that? Just like we shouldn’t be afraid to switch-up the practices of church, or explore alternate structures to a worship service, we can apply the same logic to our treatment of the Bible. After all, our church services and Scripture fulfill the same role: to be a vehicle for communicating the Gospel.

Now I want to awkwardly shift to my second point.

About a year ago, I was asked if I believe the Bible to be true. My response needed clarification, so this was how I answered: “Do I believe that the Bible is true in that it points to Jesus Christ, and accurately portrays his character, and accurately tells of the necessity of being in right relationship with our Creator and how we do that? Yes! Absolutely!  But, do I believe that the Bible is true in that every claim it makes about every subject is 100% scientifically, historically, and philosophically accurate? No.”  (I’m paraphrasing, but that was essentially my answer. And I stand by it).

The truth is this: The Bible contains contradictions. It even points some of them out (see Daniel’s conversation with Gabriel in chapter 9, where Daniel asks, ‘Hey, you told Jeremiah “70 years until Judah’s restoration.” It’s been 69, so what’s going on?’ and Gabriel says, ‘um… that was a mistake. It wasn’t 70 years. It’s actually 70 times 7 years.’  Jeremiah’s scroll autocorrected, I guess.).

In all honesty, I’m not concerned about how anyone interprets the Bible for themselves. If you want to read everything literally, and treat it all as historical, political, scientific fact – go right ahead! If you want to believe that the Bible has no contradiction and interpret your way around ‘supposed contradictions,’ be my guest. I won’t question your faith, nor would I want to. What I struggle with, however, is the historic failure on the part of clergy and church leader to help us develop solid views of Scripture that do not devolve into worship of the 66 books.

I know this, because I experienced it. I experienced having a relationship with God that was based on words instead of the Word (and I don’t mean the Bible with that, I mean Jesus Christ).  I experienced having a crisis of faith because of challenges that were posed to a book – not challenges that were posed to my Creator himself. Yet, I had intricately woven the two together. I had confused the medium with the message; the Scriptures with the point of the Scriptures; the Bible with the Lord. Our faith isn’t built on the Bible. Our faith is built on Jesus Christ, whom the Scriptures point to. But the Bible is not Jesus Christ.

It was a long road to unravel and differentiate the two, but it was a road well worth embarking upon.

 

End note:

This is something I’ve been meaning to write on for a while, but unfortunately this type of conversation is one that can quickly get a minister ‘black-listed,’ either by members of a local church community or  other clergy.

Some may wonder, then, why I chose to write on this when it poses some risk. My answer is simple: I have always seen it as a responsibility of the minister to not simply maintain a status-quo of beliefs. If we are to grow in our faith, we need to face challenges and experience dissonance. What I try to do, then, is help people encounter those dissonances and process their way through them. What they conclude is up to them. This is one of the functions of my blog, after all.