Those of us who no longer live in oral cultures may have
lost respect for storytelling as a vehicle of moral authority. Just give us the
facts, ma'am. We're data people, and we like it in writing. For us the
parabolic arts may be fine entertainment, but they're an unnecessarily messy
way of getting at the truth.
In C. S. Lewis's Studies in Words, the best book of his that you've never heard of, he describes the original meaning of the Latin term natura as something like "sort, kind, quality, or character." "When you ask, in our modern idiom, what something 'is like,'" he says, "you are asking for its natura."
The dream of a ladder linking earth to heaven is surely
among the most familiar images of biblical literature. From "We are Climbing
Jacob's Ladder" to "Stairway to Heaven," the idea has been deeply embedded in
our collective consciousness.
You, Jacob—the one fleeing from that seriously peeved and smelly galoot of a brother (whose face will eventually resemble God's face). You rushed toward that as-yet-unmet sweet cousin of your mother. Your birthright was bought and paid for, your blessing slyly played for. Make no mistake. The Trickster will be tricked, for every round goes higher, higher.
Amos was one prophet who knew how to afflict the comfortable. He seemed to have it in for those who had done all right for themselves. His theological motto could well have been: If it feels good, God doesn’t like it! Amos skips from warning to judgment to condemnation with a kind of zealous glee. Thus says the Lord, “You’re all going to Sheeeoooool!” What a downer.
Habakkuk has a complaint. There is violence. There is wrongdoing and trouble. Ruin and strife and contention are in his face. He cries out for help, but God doesn’t seem to be listening. He sounds the alarm, but God does not show up to make things right. As a result, the institutions of law are paralyzed and justice is intermittent.
Many of us have vivid memories of teachers who changed our lives. Whether or not we can say exactly what they did to nurture us, we recognize the hallmarks of transformative learning. One of the turning points in my own development was the result of a course for which one of the texts was Van Harvey’s The Historian and the Believer.
Isaiah faced a challenge. How was he to awaken an exiled community from the lethargy of despair? The people’s confidence had been shattered; their entire worldview was drained of its mimetic properties. Former glories lay in ruins. Now the people lived in the land of the dreaded enemy, a people who goaded them with “Sing us some of those songs of Zion, miserable losers!"
Holy Moses! The first surprise in this passage from Deuteronomy is that the biblical lawgiver par excellence is also the prototypical prophet. In 21st-century America, prophets ares not so easily disguised as senators and members of Congress.
Many human encounters with the divine word are fraught with irony: Balaam's talking ass; the promise of a patriarchal heir so long overdue that the child is named for the ensuing hilarity; the messianic Savior born in a hovel and killed like a common criminal. The mutant ministry of the prophet Jonah is another case in point.
I don’t carry a beeper or a cell phone. The services of professional biblical scholars rarely require that level of immediate access. No emergency calls to interpret an obscure passage. No rushing to the scene of a textual corruption. Yet it could happen. We are rapidly becoming a society “on call.” Technology provides us with a constant flow of information.
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