A Grammar of Creation
An understanding of the visual-musical language of the Bible must begin with Genesis 1. This is fortunate, because when explaining biblical types to academics, as opposed to children, one is repeatedly forced to start from scratch.
From birth, a healthy child is attuned to rhythm and melody and image. Responsiveness to these three culminates in the understanding of human speech. But an increase in literacy meant that written text was no longer a means to an end, that is, no longer the source or record of oral communication. In language written purely for the silent transmission of data, rhythm, melody and image become optional extras.
Today, the command of a large vocabulary is all that constitutes an accomplished reader. Little attention is now paid to artistic form. Literacy training rarely reaches above basic function, so when it comes to the literary architecture of the Bible, our two dimensional skills are not up to the task.
This is an obstacle for modern Bible readers since the keys to the texts are imparted on a channel to which we are not attuned, on a frequency we cannot hear, a wavelength invisible to our eyes. For the ancients, literary structure was a means of transmitting implicit information, an indivisible facet of the communication. Moreover, for inspired literature, it was a means of sequencing images into parallel visual sentences that were intended to be compared and contrasted. The Bible has not been prohibited, but it has indeed been silenced, and this goes some way to explaining why much of it is either unintelligible or uninteresting to Christians today.
When was the last time you heard a preacher or teacher call you to appreciate the beauty of the text? The likely answer is never. Admiration for the Bible’s literary art rarely ventures outside the academy because form and function are no longer on speaking terms. Theology, like economic and political theory, has become utilitarian, so the Scriptures without an obvious moral or practical purpose are disparaged, misused or ignored. Like the hypothetical dark matter of the universe, these vast stretches of intractable literary waste account for most of the biblical canon. Here and there, familiar but isolated “fables,” “proof texts” and “life verses” twinkle in the inky blackness, and we assume that it was always so. Ironically, it was the Enlightenment which shrouded the Bible in this cloud of unknowing. The promotion of Reason discredited Sense. Sermons are dumb because preachers are deaf and blind.
To change the metaphor, these harsh, uninhabitable texts are like the “junk DNA” of the human genome, once considered to be 98% barren, dark and non-functioning, hangovers and baggage from eons of trial and error, disappointingly redundant and annoyingly unjettisonable. Interestingly, more recent study has revealed our genome to be full of activity and function, far more complex than we ever thought possible. Described by Eric Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute as an “incredible choreography,” with scientists “fashioning strings of DNA into meaningful molecular words” that they might understand our genome as a “genetic novel,” it turns out that the only junk was our science. The same goes for much of modern theology.
In Scripture, content and form are intertwined, irreversibly integrated. We distilled Scripture in search of its essence, and that essence is precisely what evaporated. In its place, a plethora of jargon creates an illusion of understanding, but classification is not knowledge. Theology gives us hypostasis, but Yahweh gives us a burning bush. The Doctrine of God quenches rather than enflames our thirst for Him. With the Divine Attributes separated from story and sealed in formaldehyde jars, safe and stiff behind timeless terminology, this long dead God boasts everything but a pulse. A child with the spectacle and tragedy of the Flood in the eyes of her heart has a better grip on omniscience and omnipotence
When theology is science, Bible reading is autopsy. Yet, it is not the case that the glory has departed. The riches of heaven and earth contained in the Word are invisible to Laodicean eyes. We have rendered ourselves dead to brilliance, and our unskilled reading is related to the death of good writing. Our fiction wears its heart on its sleeve, assembled for comprehension in a single pass, and academic writing is little more than a series of analytical propositions. Any form that does exist in modern literature is a slave to function. Rather than embodying the message, it merely organises for consumption. Instead of encouraging rumination, it serves to predigest. Our literature is flat and plain. Structure and beauty are redundant veneer.
Unversed in parallel and type, Bible academia is not only biblically illiterate, but also prophetically mute. Seminary students fed on straw cannot produce the weekly golden egg. As English historian Simon Schama puts it, all content and no form, the academy circles the wagons while the public go begging. In his lecture at the Nexus Institute in 2014, Schama claims that utilitarianism in literature has rendered academia impotent when it comes to the transmission of history. Bringing to life the documents of the dead requires an appeal to both the intellect and the literary imagination. The effective academic writer is a lightning conductor rather than a scientist. “History should sound less like newspaper editorials and more like poetry.” He quotes Richard Cobb, who “wrote with the kind of poetic intensity that burned itself into the imagination.” This was the means of the biblical prophets, and is no less the responsibility of prophets today. We are failing as links in the chain of memory, and suffering the cultural lobotomy predicted in Orwell’s 1984. The abolition of beauty is not only a loss of humanity but a rejection of the nature of truth.
What is truth? The Bible is true and the Bible is literature, but our scientistic masters have inclined us to regard all that smacks of design as potentially false. For the self-styled spawn of primeval chaos, history cannot be poetry. The two are mutually exclusive.
When Christianity’s brights, both good and evil, resort to terms like “fact-fiction” and “true myth,” they invite us to believe that truth does not have to be true. God’s Word becomes all parable, heavenly wisdom disconnected from earthly reality, aloof from the rigors of its worldly critics and safe from the demands of unsophisticated sucklings. Literature merely contains truth, since truth itself is not dramatic, not layered, not shapely, not alive. Information is impersonal, devoid of character, history and beauty, anything that might affect or transform us against our will. We observe it ensconced in a lab, safe from infection, or affection, and it becomes our tool.
Since character and beauty are ornamental, contrivance, no truer than lies, source code promises sovereignty, dominion over the earth without submission to heaven. More than one modern film culminates in the transfiguration of the hero into what is perceived as humanity’s ultimate form: data. This is the gnosticism of the information age, where Neo and Lucy rule creation by hacking and hijacking it. Like Adam, in the process of becoming sovereigns they became formless and void.
Jewish magic promised power through knowledge, and the shem hammephorash, the name of God, was used in various forms to command nature and fortune. Adam supposedly communicated with the seen and unseen in all Creation, and Moses used these magic words to part the Red Sea. The power resided in the words, or the names of God, but not in knowing God. Not much has changed. Even moderns resort to mantras, affirmations, power words and “fortune cookie” Bible verses.
Grasping disembodied truth is always an attempt to grasp the scepter. Through sorcery, the “de-created” Man claims equality with the Uncreated God. Israel assumed God’s protection and their “magical” Ark was stolen. Even we who claim the name of Jesus are prone to treat Him as a talisman, a commodity, and subsequently flee naked and wounded like the seven sons of Sceva (Acts 19:11-20). Here is the difference between incantation and incarnation.
If we are to make sense of the whole Bible and not merely its pikestaff propositions, we must come to understand that truth is not data. Truth is always a person, one who has not only character and beauty, but also a shape, the relative dimensions of which we see repeated over and over and over throughout the Word of God. Content forever possesses form, is always embodied in some way, because it was spoken. Truth resonates, acts, modifies, satisfies, glorifies, never returning void. Truth bears fruit. The word becomes light. The tree becomes a sanctuary. The man becomes a father. The woman becomes a nation. The land becomes a ministry. The vision becomes a temple. The priesthood becomes a kingdom. The prophet becomes a storm. The scattering becomes a harvest. The Lamb becomes a city. Like the word “love,” truth is not intransitive. It always has an object, since the Father has a Son. God Himself, by His very nature, “bodies forth.” Creation itself is the language of love.
In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus ridicules the poetry of lovers as lies and lunacy:
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact…
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven.
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy…
Hippolyta replies (and here I quote a modernized text):
But the story that these lovers are telling, and the fact that they all saw and heard exactly the same things, make me think there’s more going on here than imaginary fantasies. Their story is bizarre and astounding, but it’s solid and consistent.
Hippolyta is correct in her observation, and its application to biblical typology and literary structure is helpful. The annoying thing is that the charmless modern paraphrase clarifies her point for modern readers. Note the musical quality of the original text, the iambic pentameter shared with the easily-memorized King James translation of the Bible. All English is beautiful, but some English is more beautiful than others.
However, the rhythm-and-image modus of Scripture constitutes a wider bandwidth than that of Donne or Milton or Shakespeare. Its terrible beauty is the child of a union of form and function in structures every bit as precise as DNA. Its “grammar of creation” requires the death of the rivals, science and art, and their resurrection as systematic typology, a school of reading which equips the preacher as a world builder for God.
Mike Bull is a graphic designer in the Blue Mountains of Australia, and author, most recently, of Inquiétude.
Image: A section of Damien Hirst, I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds.