Sin and the City, Stories from Genesis
Every good story has to have conflict, otherwise it’s not a story.
I remember many years ago when I was a student at Columbia College Chicago studying fiction writing, we sat in semi-circles in four-hour class sessions practicing all sorts of visualization and verbalization exercises to fertilize our imaginations, to develop our abilities to describe, on the fly, what we saw in our imaginations. What I always found lacking in Columbia’s method, however, was clear teaching about how to generate and resolve conflict. Surely, if you can’t write dialog, if you can’t set a scene, if you can’t immerse your readers in the world of your fiction, your fiction won’t be good. But if there is no conflict, then there is only description, which ultimately leads to boredom. I wrote many hundreds of pages describing characters, engaging them in dialog, showing their surroundings, and so on. But at the end of the day, I often asked myself, as did my teachers, “So what?”
So what was my writing about? What was the conflict? Why should I/we care about the characters I was creating? Where were they going?
Fast forward several years when my sister and I rented an apartment together in Palatine, the town in which we grew up. We lived together for nearly four years before Eun-Hye and I got married, and during that time, through my sister, I became a viewer of a TV show similarly titled with this sermon. The lead character of the show was a writer who wrote about her and her friends’ romantic relationships and life in the big city. Each episode of the show was set up by this character writing her column.
Perhaps for the first time in television history, this show featured only female leads and treated men, at best, as secondary characters and, often, as mere pawns in the lives of the female leads. This is what made all of the various conflicts so intriguing in the show, because they smartly played off old, tired, male-centric conflicts in stories and their typical resolutions with “winners” and “losers,” with “good” guys and “bad” guys.
The show did not shy away from the irony of the displacement of men as central since over and over again the four lead characters struggled with the apparent conflict between their power to self-determination without men and, still yet, their longing for men to be in their lives. This conflict, this struggle of longing for another as an imperfect healing of loneliness is one of the oldest struggles known to humanity and is one of the key conflicts in the first chapters of Genesis.
As we encountered last Sunday, the Bible has a conflict-less and gender-balanced beginning. Chapter one of Genesis is a beautiful poetic rendering of creation as, at once, logical and sequential, as morally and aesthetically “good,” even “very good,” as harmonious, as life-affirming, as fruitful, as hopeful. Chapter one of Genesis is all of these positive things and more.
If we were to just read chapter one, we would ask ourselves, “So what?” OK, God created all of this stuff and plants and animals and people. So what? It doesn’t explain one thing about why things are the way they are, and we know that things are not right in this world. So what? So where did conflict come from?
This conflict, this struggle of longing for another as an imperfect healing of loneliness is one of the oldest struggles known to humanity …
That’s one story of the primary conflict afflicting humanity. There are other interpretations, however, and I’d like to share one with you that may help you see these early stories and, in fact, the whole Bible in a new light.
We need to go back to the very beginning of Genesis. You may want to open your Bibles to the first chapter and first verses there and contemplate them as I move forward: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Most English versions of the Bible begin this way. God created. In the last few hundred years, and especially after the big bang theory of the 20th century, we have been saying that God created from nothing. If that’s the case, then God is responsible for everything because God created everything, and there’s a conundrum: where did evil come from, then?
As it turns out, there may be a better way to translate these ancient Hebrew texts. Harvard PhD and Hebrew Scholar at Berkeley Robert Alter translates these verses this way: “When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters,” and then begin verse three, “God said, ‘Let there be light.’” The Hebrew implies that God created from chaos, “the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep;” God did not create from nothing. This is an ancient idea and one that was dominant at that time and in the region where these early Hebrew texts germinated. The universe is a product of the struggle between goodness and order and evil and disorder, in a word: chaos. The new thing that Genesis brings to this idea is that there is one God, not many, and this one God is extremely powerful over chaos, and this one God shapes chaos creatively as a sculptor sculpts clay for good purposes. Therefore, in chapter one, as God creates from chaos, God judges his artistry and declares it “good.” This can be moral good and artistic good.
In this understanding of God creating from chaos, the central conflict is between God and chaos and God’s desire to shape chaos for new, diverse purposes that transcend the disorderly nature of chaos. The central conflict for humans, then, is not over our obedience or disobedience to God (obedience to God is, of course, important, but as we say in the confession part of our communion liturgy, “free us for joyful obedience”), the central conflict is over whether or not we will join God in God’s creative endeavors to shape from chaos something beautiful, something good, something very good.
At the end of the first creation story God rested. Why did God rest? Maybe God had to rest because bringing order out of chaos drains one’s power. And then, perhaps, when God rested on the seventh day, that gave chaos an opening to creep into the creation God created. This would explain why God did not want the humans to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God tried to keep humans ignorant of evil and thus tried to keep them safe from the ever-encroaching, disorderly power of chaos to disrupt and tear down. Scientists have a word for this: entropy.
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.” This is how the scriptures re-introduce chaos into God’s creation, through the mysterious serpent, “more crafty than any other wild animal the Lord God had made.” The serpent is a personification of chaos, of disorder coming back into the story.
The central conflict is over whether or not we will join God in God’s creative endeavors to shape from chaos something beautiful, something good, something very good.
From this point on, the scriptures are one complex narrative of God’s ongoing creative work, bringing order out of chaos, and how God variously enters into covenants with humans to enlist human help in ordering chaos. Of course, however, as we heard this morning, God basically gave up on humans because he saw them as too complicit with chaos: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart … But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.” God thought, I’ll start over and try this grand project with humanity again, and this time I will train up key individuals to be self-aware of their status as created co-creators with me to bring forth order from chaos. This task is underscored by the repetition of the “be fruitful and multiply” language at the end of chapter one in chapter nine after Noah comes off the ark. God seeks again the harmony of chapter one but God realizes that harmony was short-lived and that by making humans in God’s image and likeness means that he must let the humans discern for themselves, as much as possible, how they will use their knowledge of good and evil to be co-creators with God and not self-serving creators of their own hell on earth, as it were. And through God’s partnership with a multiplying humanity, a much greater, more diverse order will emerge from chaos.
We are playing our small part in this grand story of civilization. We are citizens of this world, filled with enough chaos to make us feel dejected and devalued, but as Christians, we are citizens of the new heaven and the new earth to come, God’s realized Kingdom where chaos will be completely quarantined from the Crystal City of Revelation chapter twenty-two. The Judeo-Christian story of civilization is the story of the grand dance between God and chaos as God seeks to bring more and more order out of chaos for good purposes. In the least, what we can call “the good” is whatever is the antithesis of “disorder,” “dissolution,” and “death.” This is why the resurrection is the pinnacle of human history. Instead of trying to control chaos through brute force, as in the early chapters of Genesis and the plagues of Egypt in Exodus, for example, God submits his own eternal power in the incarnation of Jesus Christ to the eternal forces of chaos in order to transform chaos into something radically new and life-giving. This is a bitter pill to swallow because it means that for this entire creation to be renewed with God’s power it must be renewed by inverting the disorderly power of chaos through death. This is what the Apostle Paul wrote about in one of the most profound chapters in the whole Bible, in Romans chapter eight:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
As you read through Genesis, please read it and contemplate it within a cosmic framework such as the one I have outlined this morning. Please do not get bogged down chasing conflicts with modern science, modern psychology, ancient cultural practices, questions about God’s goodness and why God didn’t do this or that, or why God did do this or that. Look for the grand story going on. Look for what appears to be the grand conflict behind all of the stories. And keep your minds and hearts on the grand resolution to the conflict, God in Jesus Christ, reconciling the world.
In one episode of the TV show I mentioned previously, Carrie writes: “I got to thinking about fate. That crazy concept that we’re not really responsible for the course our lives take. That it’s all predestined, written in the stars … I couldn’t help but wonder, can you make a mistake and miss your fate?” That may be an interesting question for another sermon, but to conclude this sermon, it is an appropriate question to ask ourselves as we read Genesis. Paraphrased: “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but will you master it?”
Enjoy the wonderful video below by Jason Silva, which compresses some of the above themes into three minutes of existential ecstasy and “bummer,” as Jason calls it.