A Universe Less Expanded

When Matthew’s Gospel was first read aloud to the fledgling Christian congregations, the experience must have been like seeing the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” appear afresh on cinema screens in 1999. Yet, unlike The Phantom Menace, the New Testament did not disappoint. Why?

Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus Christ was the “opening crawl” of a brand new iteration, familiar in form yet new in its content and purpose. Although we have grown dull to its audacity, it was designed to take one’s breath away. Its Jewish audience had survived for four centuries on the stale crumbs of second-rate fanfic — uninspired Rabbinic commentary, fanciful Jewish apocalyptic, and the oppressive Oral Law. This new canonical work would not only have delighted (or enraged) its Jewish hearers, it would have had a similar effect on Gentile believers, the burgeoning army of latecomers to the cult, fans who had immersed themselves in the Hebrew Scriptures thanks to the faithful ministry of the synagogues scattered like holy seeds across the empire.

The texts of the Torah — their rhythms and images, visceral brutalities and miraculous delights — memorized in childhood as Moses had commanded (Deuteronomy 31:14-23), were the “movie dialogue” recited and exchanged knowingly by those who had hidden the Word in their hearts. To now hear of a son born not from a barren womb but from the womb of a virgin, who then not only proceeded to recapitulate the sacred history of Israel in His baptism and temptation in the wilderness, but also to suffer voluntarily at the hands of the powers of the day and then rise from the dead, would have immediately garnered a Rotten Tomatoes score of 100%.

Producing a sequel that was in many ways also a prequel — as indeed the New Testament is — that not only honored and expanded upon the previous episodes beyond all possible expectations, but also entirely transcended them, was no small feat. The scribes who had rigorously studied and meticulously copied the texts for hundreds of years could never have seen this coming. Here was someone who reprised the genius of all that had gone before but did it in a work so original that it would split fandom in two.

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the land. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)

Jesus not only spoke like no other man, He threatened the power of the incumbent gatekeepers and the succession of their masters. As Jacob, who was wise as a serpent, understood, “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” In God’s eyes, there is nothing wrong with theft and false witness if your intention is to rescue the innocent. And there is nothing wrong with offence as long as you are offending all the right people.

Jesus’ comprehension of the Old Testament, as displayed in His public sermons, made the teachers of the Law and the Prophets look like children in their understanding. As with physicist Richard Feynman, of whom biographer James Gleick writes,

“..there was no physicist on earth who could match his exuberant command over the native materials of theoretical science. It was not just a facility at mathematics… Feynman seemed to possess a frightening ease with the substance behind the equations, like Albert Einstein at the same age…”

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this Jesus of Nazareth demonstrated an unsurpassed mastery of the internal logic of the Scriptures. Yet it was not His mastery but the authority at the root of it that was the reason for the mounting opposition and violence against Him and then against His followers.

And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. (Mark 1:22).

He not only drew from the fragrant texts as a bee visiting flowers in bloom, He turned them inside out and upside down, and finally tore them apart to make something new. His use of the texts was so novel that it was shocking, and yet somehow, it was not abuse at all. As He gathered pollen from the gardens of God and poured out His teachings like honey — complete with a sting for the enemies of God — the faithful understood that this had been the purpose of those texts all along. The external law was now an internal law, and everything that preceded Him in history was merely a series of backwards echoes anticipating the incarnation of the Word.

Indeed, Bible teachers two millennia later still struggle with what is known as the “apostolic hermeneutic.” The New Testament writers demonstrate the same masterful ease in their citations of the Old Testament that Jesus did, frustrating even modern “scribes” and driving them to distraction. However, this was in fact not an apostolic hermeneutic at all. Their mastery of the text was a gift from Jesus.

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”(John 16:12-13)

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)

As He did with Job in the denouement of the book named for him, God simply revealed the significance of things with which the believers were already familiar. This hermeneutic of the Spirit, the One who formed and filled, divided and conquered, tore down and built up, continually doing new works throughout covenant history, is neither the literary whimsy nor typological anarchy that cautious moderns warn us about. There is a method to the madness, and it is hidden in plain sight.

A comparison of the Bible’s literary and historical sequences reveals its internal logic, making perfect sense of the apparent shambles. The assertion that the New Testament writers were aware of this “systematic typology” is verified by the fact that all of them, without exception — like those prophets who went before them — employed the patterns established in the Torah to govern the composition of all their works. But more importantly, they were aware that Jesus Himself fulfilled these patterns in His life and ministry on earth, and then in His government from heaven in the events leading up to the Jewish War.

When understood as typological sequences, it becomes clear that there is nothing random or accidental about the use of the Old Testament in the New. It flows from an almost musical awareness of the ways of God in history, and the correspondence of matching steps in similar inspired patterns. One simply needs to learn the tune.2 A prime example is the use of Jeremiah 31 by the writer of Hebrews. Bible teachers quote this passage as though it refers directly to the events of the first century, but even a cursory reading of the chapter reveals that this is not the case. The author clearly understood that God works in layers: He divided mankind into Jew and Gentile, then divided Israel into north and south. Since God reunited Israel by slaying the old kingdoms and raising them united from the dead under a “new covenant,” it was obviously His intention to reunite Jew and Gentile by slaying the old divided order and raising it from the abyss once again under a “New Covenant” with a global scope. Hebrews is, after all, a warning to first century Jews not to return to a Judaism that was on death row.

In hindsight, the seeds of every work of God are apparent in what came before. Every fresh work of the Spirit was entirely dependent upon the rich soil of the old, every new development growing out of previous events in a way that was entirely natural and yet also completely surprising. That is the nature of resurrection — every new house of God in history was a more glorious “bridal” version of the previous one. And that is the secret to writing a good sequel. The audience wants to relive the experience of watching the first movie for the first time. This means that the story has to be entirely familiar and yet entirely reborn, recognizable in character yet more glorious in nature, constructed from a “rib” of the original as a suitable counterpart. The features of the old need to be interpreted in new ways, but in a fashion that complements the old rather than replacing or violating it. The best recent example might be Blade Runner 2049, a story that is a truly “bridal” development founded upon the original “brotherly” rivalry.3

Achieving this in literature or cinema is quite a task, and it requires that the author draw upon sources of inspiration outside of the original. In biblical history, whenever Israel became stale, God brought in new blood through marriages with faithful Gentiles (such as Tamar, Rahab and Ruth, listed in Matthew 1), or through the riches offered by Gentile sponsors towards the construction of the house of God. These were incorporated — grafted into — the existing tree to create a something better, stronger, more resilient, and of course, more fruitful (Romans 11:17). The same can be said of any church, which either thrives through faithful witness or shrivels and dies.

What made the works of the Inklings so captivating was the loamy undergrowth comprised of years of exposure to the Bible, of a familiarity with the literature of classical antiquity, and the resulting wisdom that served to interpret contemporary events in the light of all that had gone before. Tolkien and Lewis were original thinkers, but their new works grew out of old works. They took everything that was old, threw it on the chopping board, and put it together in new ways. That enabled their works to be comfortingly familiar and yet fresh and surprising at every turn. But Western culture’s rejection of the Creator who is revealed to us in the Bible has led to a quest for complete originality — the artistic expression of Man as the ultimate author of reality, his own first cause. Seeking to originate ex nihilo, Man inevitably becomes nihilistic, and his words return to him void. George Steiner writes:

No art form, it can be argued, comes out of nothing. Always, it comes after. Modernism can be defined as an exasperation with this cruel fact of posteriority. Ezra Pound bids poets and artists “make it new.” An oedipal revolt against the “father” — in this case the given world — is as vital in aesthetic modernity as it is in psychoanalytical theory and deconstructive play.

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A denial of cultural succession that eschews any kind of derivation from the past accidentally severs the imagination from the future. If one has come from nothing, then logically there is nowhere to go. One of the reasons that Star Wars: A New Hope was such a success is that it hit the cinemas after a series of nihilistic postmodern films. These were bleak and depressing because they broke every possible rule. Hope was unfashionable. Happy endings were shunned. Virtue was despised. Audiences were alienated. Then Star Warstold some very old stories but pimped them up in new clothes. On paper, it was a sophomoric mongrel of well-trodden genres: cowboys fighting alongside medieval knights against the Third Reich — in space — with some Shakespearean royal family intrigue and just the right amount of wisecracking humor thrown in for good measure. But it worked, and how. A film about aliens touched the heart of humanity. This new hope was the old hope polished up in unconventional ways and presented in a dazzling, unprecedented glory. It broke all the rules and yet kept every one of them perfectly. It picked heads of grain on the Sabbath because it understood that the Sabbath was made for man. It fulfilled the Law because it perceived the Spirit of the Law. That is the mastery that God desired for Adam, and still desires for us. The trainer wheels of the Law in Eden and the Laws of Sinai were only temporary measures designed to furnish us with the wisdom required for freedom. Tethered to the past, yet unfettered by it, Star Wars was exhilaratingly free.

Like storytelling, musical composition has rules, but only the masters know those rules well enough to breakthose rules within the rules. This is a principle that is inherent not only in the ministry of Jesus, but also in the works of the best writers, artists and musicians. Some Christian critics condemn composers such as Debussy and Wagner as the heralds of deconstructionism, those who opened the doors to ugly music. Yet although their works push the boundaries, they do so in ways that still resonate in the human soul. They are carefully crafted, internally consistent, and extremely enjoyable. That is why their popularity endures. The whole tone scale is still a scale. Employed by a master, it is thrilling to hear. Dischord — used wisely — is the expression of dramatic tension. The famous (or infamous) Tristan chord is indeed a work of genius. However, the same cannot be said of the music of American avant-garde composer John Cage, which is a descent into chaos, a deliberate rebellion against the nature of the world. David P. Goldman writes:

After decades of philanthropic support for abstract (that is, atonal) music, symphony orchestras have to a great extent given up inflicting it on reluctant audiences… The ideological message is the same, yet the galleries are full while the concert halls are empty. That is because you can keep it at a safe distance when it hangs on the wall, but you can’t escape it when it crawls into your ears. In other words, your spontaneous, visceral hatred of atonal music reflects your true, healthy, normal reaction to abstract art. It is simply the case that you are able to suppress this reaction at the picture gallery…

To be taken seriously in the twentieth century, artists had to invent their own style and their own language… To be an important person in this perverse scheme means to shake one’s fist at God and define one’s own little world, however dull, however tawdry, and pathetic it might be. To lack creativity is to despair. Hence the attraction of the myriad ideological movements in art that gives the artists the illusion of creativity.

In their urge toward self-worship, the artists of the twentieth century descended to extreme levels of artlessness to persuade themselves that they were in fact creative. In their compulsion to worship themselves in the absence of God, they produced ideas far more ridiculous, and certainly a great deal uglier, than revealed religion in all its weaknesses ever contrived. The modern cult of individual self-expression is a poor substitute for the religion it strove to replace, and the delusion of personal creativity an even worse substitute for redemption.5

While there is no reason that our taste in music and art must be as conservative as that of Goldman (the logic and order in many works by the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock do speak to the soul in a novel way), he is correct in his identification of the reason why so much modern artistic output is unnatural. It is surprising, certainly, but who wants a nasty surprise? God, however, manages to shock and awe and surprise at every turn — but in all the right ways. Just look at the natural variations in animal kinds throughout history!

Pushing the boundaries while honoring the rules is exactly how God managed to be completely consistent throughout biblical history and yet also gobsmackingly revelatory, culminating, of course, in the incarnation. One greater than Solomon is here. He builds upon what already exists, often subverting it, but without destroying it. As noted, Jesus does this in the Sermon on the Mount. He takes the laws of Moses regarding external behaviors and applies them to the heart. He describes the characteristics of a faithful response to the Law — the response of the Bride to her Bridegroom. “You have heard it said…” did not make Moses wrong. “But I say to you…” simply took things to a more mature, and more glorious, level. In contrast to the Pharisees, Jesus understood the Law as being motivated by love, rather than a weapon to be used against the helpless as their spiritual father had done in Eden.

Jesus “broke” the rules by keeping them in a way that perceived the core of their genius, and this explains why many sequels — especially those in the Star Wars franchise — have been so disappointing. Where Star Warssucceeded because it necessarily drew upon sources outside itself, the sequels drew upon nothing but Star Warsitself, drinking from its own cistern. This has resulted in a sort of “dramatic inbreeding,” regurgitations of previous ideas and plot lines whose innovations are little more than a veneer. Even worse, a lack of craftsmanship in storytelling produced scripts that were “inorganic,” that is, more haphazard collections than they were compositions. Old elements were included merely as boxes to tick rather than elements to explore, butted up against each other without much effort to link them as true, logical developments, one to another. The stories are servants to the parade of accoutrements rather than vice versa. Dissociated from careful plotting, even the tragic death of a beloved character becomes a mere device and thus loses its sting.

The prequels did introduce some original and exciting ideas, but the interpersonal relationships were contrived, the story arcs unconvincing, and the dialogue lacked the larrikin humor of the first films. The strength of George Lucas was his talent for world building, and that alone is what shines in these movies. He took one of the elements that made Star Wars so fascinating and expanded the old universe in ways that were not only truly astonishing, but also made logical sense within the make-believe world he had created.

There is nothing like that redeeming feature in the most recent films. The Force Awakens was paint-by-numbers Star Wars, a collage without much sensibility concerning what actually made the first films great cinema. It had all the trappings of Star Wars, but bereft of their innovative genius, twinkle-eyed literary pilfering, and dramatic depth, it seemed an insincere assemblage of gimmicks. It was all recycled “squee” moments without anticipation, payoffs without any planting, or, to put it crudely, all meaningless orgasms without any emotional investment in foreplay. In contrast, The Last Jedi — perhaps in response to criticism — deliberately subverted expectations. Rather than mindlessly repeating elements of the original films as did The Force Awakens, it inverted, destroyed, or undermined the very things that made Star Wars unique. It is unnatural, atonal, chaotic. As one reviewer quipped, “What did I just see?” The enterprise was as vacuous and vandalistic as the futile release of the space-racehorses from space-Mar-a-Lago. Next to The Last Jedi, the Gospel of Thomas’ account of the infant Jesus making clay birds and breathing into them to bring them to life seems almost canonical. Disney Star Wars escaped its self-referential ennui through self harm, an act of screenwriting akin to John Cage’s “prepared piano.” Despite its renewed sincerity, the combined failure to understand and honor the legacy upon which it stands and its nutty “progressive” propagandizing made it truly alien, that is, foreign to the human soul. It is a contrivance that fails the Turing Test, and for this there is no excuse. Hollywood is replete with “script doctors,” and even a cheap one will tell you that “there are rules for breaking the rules.”

The job is to push the envelope, not incinerate it. The tricks pulled in The Last Jedi were lazy, illogical, and confusing, and although there were a couple of fascinating ideas presented, they were fecklessly squandered. The brilliance of The Empire Strikes Back was that its dark developments subverted elements of the preceding film without betraying them. Not only was the story entirely logical both thematically and emotionally within its own established fictional bounds, it introduced surprising new characters that deepened and expanded the plot and further engaged us in the overall arc. Moreover, the employment of a seasoned science fiction writer saw the incorporation of repeated symbolism that magnified the trials that tested and transformed the main protagonists.6 In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke is repeatedly hung upside down and he mystically faces his own dark side in a cave. In The Last Jedi, however, Rey merely sees an extrapolation of her own reflection, implying (along with Yoda’s statement that she needs no Jedi books) that she is already perfect in every way. In reality, it says that she has nowhere to go but into the nothing. Worse, the subtle misandry is the exact opposite of biblical feminism, where the Woman begins as a possession, a chattel, and becomes a co-regent through the faithfulness of the Man. This is the plot of Mad Max: Fury Road,7 and also of the book of Esther, which blatantly steals archetypes and plot points from the stories of Joseph and Daniel and wonderfully turns them upside down and inside out, all without betraying the original narratives. The result not only pierces the heart with its message of humility as the way to exaltation, but has us in stitches if we are in on the literary jokes.8 It is a literary-historical fantasia that breaks all the rules while it keeps all the rules, because it understands the heart of the Law, and the hearts of men and women.

“A bigger Death Star!” is not the sort of unimaginative development that you would find in a George Lucas sequel, and neither would you find anything so predictable in the Bible. When the opening scene of John’s Apocalypse of Jesus Christ hit the screens in a limited release around Asia Minor in the late AD60s, it was clear that this was in some way the book of Ezekiel all over again, pushing all the same buttons, and serving the same purpose — the destruction of the Temple and the construction of a “new Jerusalem” out of Jews and Gentiles. And yet the Revelation is nothing like the book of Ezekiel. It takes all the old elements and reworks them in meaningful ways, not merely stylistic ones. The hearer is challenged to observe not only what is the same and what is different, but also why. Instead of a menorah there are seven lamps, indicating that worship on earth was now decentralized. Instead of the “kingly” Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar, the writing on the wall condemned a spiritual Babylon whose serpentine deceptions were far more subtle than anything previously encountered. Not only did the challenges facing the people of God require greater wisdom, what was at stake this time was not an earthly inheritance but a heavenly one. God had moved the goalposts — expanded the universe — once again. 

Yet, the final book of the Bible is extremely faithful to the patterns established in the Torah, in ways that often make them far easier to identify than those in the Old Testament prophets.9 The result is a “cinematic” masterpiece as the culmination of the Bible’s final installment, one that continues to delight, inspire, instruct, equip, and warn its readers after two thousand years. The New Testament is forever new, and it is still garnering positive reviews from around the world.

Five stars. Even better than the original.

Mike Bull is a graphic designer in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney in Australia, and author, most recently, of “Schema Volume 1: A Journal of Systematic Typology.” This post originally appeared on his blog, HERE.

References   [ + ]

1. James Gleick, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman.
2. For more discussion, see What Is Systematic Typology?
3. See The Artificial Resurrection: Genesis and Genetics in Blade Runner 2049.
4. George Steiner, Grammars of Creation, 24. For more discussion of this theme, see “A Twofold Shadow” in Michael Bull, Dark Sayings: Essays for the Eyes of the Heart.
5. David P. Goldman, It’s Not the End of the World, It’s Just the End of You, 115-122.
6. For more discussion, see James B. Jordan, “The Empire Strikes Back,” Open Book Newsletter No. 35.
7. For more discussion, see Mad Maxine: Redemption of the Female Eunuch.
8. For more details, see “The Bible is Fun” in Michael Bull, Reading the Bible in 3D.
9. For a summary of the structures that govern the composition of the book, see Michael Bull, Moses and the Revelation: Why the End of the World is Not in Your Future.