Noah, Magic, and Poetry: What is a Christian?

Noah Magic And Poetry

I have always believed in magic. Perhaps I believe in magic because I would be bored by a world limned by quadratic equations. But more than that, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to map the complexities that arise from the simplest of rules. There will always be room for the mystery that has propelled humanity since the inception of language.

In college, I wrote a program to describe the behavior of ants. When they found food, they laid down “pheromones” as they carried it back to the hive. Other ants would follow the pheromone trail to the food, laying down more pheromones. Based on these rules, I expected my ants to behave like flesh-drugged zombies. But what boggled my mind was when the ants appeared excited by the pheromone trail. Behavior emerged from this incredibly simple system that I couldn’t explain, even though I’d coded it. I was ignorant to the complexities arising from even the simplest of rules. How much more ignorant are we in understanding the infinite complexity emerging from the human mind? Or complexities emerging from human language?

I also spent time in college with logic proofs, assigning truth values to statements and learning the rules of set theory. But what most interested me were the failures of logic, for instance, in Goëdel Incompleteness Theorum and the subsequent failures to ground number theory in set theory. These paradoxes teach us the limits of formal systems that we can understand. I learned that there is room for both magic and science in the world, and don’t ever let anyone tell you differently.

Language is like these ants and these paradoxes. Language is poetry that suggests complex connections that overflow the banks of meaning and fertilize new life. Language can be only partially described by dictionaries or any other systems because the usages of words change and expand in each cultural context. This, to me, is a form of magic. It’s as though language itself were something biological that resisted the formalization that would turn it into a mechanism.

Related: Noah, Who are the Watchers and Why the Panic?

But yet, we try. Formal systems like literalism-fundamentalism make Scripture into a function-machine that eats people in order to figure out whether or not they’re saved. They tell us about our salvation before we’ve lived our lives, despite the textual admonitions against assuming that calling Jesus “Lord” means you are saved.

When we ground the entire project of Biblical interpretation in a frame that’s too small, we don’t allow the Holy Spirit to move through the text and change us. We idolize a specific interpretation of the written word.

God, magic, and poetry are dangerous because they are unpredictable and therefore free to do things that may conflict with our human sense of justice. But our lodestar is love, and doing justice proceeds from love. God’s nature is love, and when our healing magic and our poetry proceed from God, we act in love and do not conflict with human justice. But were we to prioritize a system of justice or a system of interpretation over love itself (for which Jesus criticizes the Pharisees) we would lose sight of our lodestar, love. This is the frame of Christianity that I present to you.

Don’t let anyone, even me, tell you that their system of interpreting a wild and beautiful text is the only one. Even though you can trust my minimalist interpretation, I promise. The Holy Spirit will surprise you and change you even as you retreat into your shell of certainty. History gives the lie to any singular interpretation of Scripture: we’ve been reading it differently throughout time using the same words, but the words themselves shift under our feet like tectonic plates.

Yet despite this, we insist on asking irrelevant questions of a story that defines truth in a way that we’ve lost touch with. The pre-literate thinker sees the word as an act, like a dance or a flame. You participate with it.

And so the questions we ask aren’t really aren’t important to either the author or to us. We ask them to satisfy a formal system of interpretation that was made to control the poetry of the text (fundamentalism) or to make it conform with a rational-scientific worldview (liberalism). The Bible was never intended to be read by young-earth creationists searching for the “science” of Noah’s poetic narrative or liberals who insist because water never covered the earth that the story is “myth.” When the water “covers the earth” it seems clear to me that the text refers to the earth that the author knew, not the entire globe. We’re not listening to what the text tells us is important, we’re seeking to fall on one side or the other of a debate that assumes scientific rationalism. And frankly, this was a tired paragraph to write. There’s no life in either of these lines of inquiry.

But when in our arrogance we assume that our way of telling a truthful story is God’s way, we can’t really be faulted (that’s why they call them “blind spots”). But these blind spots in our assumptions are precisely the places where we cannot see and instead must listen.

Brave New Films

Now, I’m no scholar, but it seems to me that fundamentalism was created to slice the church in half, using the weapons of modernist rationality to create a church excluding those who wanted to explain the Bible’s miracles via science. These (liberal) scientific-rationalists had cut the magic from the miracles in the Bible, while fundamentalists responded by cutting the magic from the text. One meaning. Mary was a virgin. The loaves and fishes was a material miracle, not a miracle of sharing. Jesus was resurrected in the flesh and then his body raised to heaven. (And yes, I do believe in the bodily resurrection, something to which the text strenuously attests.)

It’s enough of a miracle to me that God gave Noah premonition of the flood without having to believe that the entire earth was covered in water.

Liberal and conservative thought both lock out the magic and poetry in the Bible, because both insist on the same set of questions rather than allowing for meaning arising from a pre-modern mind, a mind which we don’t give the freedom to be sufficiently alien.

Also by Jeremy: Is the Kingdom of God Built of Vegetables?

We have a lot to learn from pre-modern thinking. We learn, implicitly, that truth is an interaction rather than a static thing bound in a book. We learn that the text means different things as told by different people, in different places. And we learn that this in no way diminishes the definiteness of what God calls us to through listening to the text.

I’m a Christian in that I seek to follow the way of Jesus. Faith is walking this path of love.

The real question that the text asks us to ask it is, “How do we follow the God who is love?”

A lot of people are asking the wrong questions of Christianity. And they’re questions that the text doesn’t really answer. But if you ask me, or the text, how to follow the God of love, then we’ll start getting into an area I love deeply. An area with which I’ve experimented and to which the Bible speaks.

But so long as we’re talking about the annoying liberal/conservative divide, we’ll never have anything interesting to talk about.

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  • otrotierra

    Thank you for reminding us that as followers of Jesus, we never prioritize religious fundamentalists or systems of laws over the Greatest Commandment.

  • awesome thoughts, Jeremy! I think Frank Schaeffer sounds a similar theme about the Bible in his “Why I Am An Atheist Who Believes in God: How to Create Beauty, Give Love and Find Peace” which I just read and did an interview with him on it. Thank you for your great treatment here of that “playfulness” (what Frank describes as “art”) that has been removed from modern attempts at interpretation, which then themselves get turned into dogmatic insistence on “THE way to read it”, which is working from the wrong place to start).

  • Vince

    Try using this logic on your mortgage company to get out of paying, you won’t get far because words have meaning. If your right then how can you say fundamentalists have it wrong?

    • That’s right. Let’s not make the God of love into a mortgage company. Legalism is an effort to make the living word into a tool for coercion the way mortgage companies do. I’m not a relativist: I think legalism is not the way of God.

      • Vince

        Totally not what I meant. I am not a legalist. But words have meaning and you have no authority to change what the Bible says because you don’t like it.

        Do you know God is a God of hate as well as love? Ps 5:5, Ps 11:5, Lev 20:23, Hosea 9:15.

        • So, then are you arguing that the hate filled speech and communication of Westboro Baptist Church is communicating God’s revelation? Also, are you aware that in the reference you provided you are drawing from differing genre of literature found in Scripture? The psalms are poetry and are expressing things differently then the legal document of Leviticus, and Hosea is poetic prophetic speech. I don’t see the need to get into it here but the meaning of “hate” isn’t immediately clear without looking at how “hate” is used and whether or not all the 4 instances translated as hate translate the same Hebrew word (They might, but also they might not.).
          I don’t need to get into it because in God’s own self revelation it is ultimately revealed that God is love. No where in God’s revelation is it revealed that God is hate. That would be a truly monstrous thing. But also God could be as you say at moments loving and at other moments hateful, but 1 John tells us something different, that there is an equivalence between God and love. So love isn’t an attribute of God, but love is God, such that in loving we know God and if we don’t have love we show are ignorance and lack of relationship to and with God. Thus, when Scripture speaks of God hating the wicked or certain actions I need to interpret that in a way that is consistent with God being love. or else the revelation given in 1 John 4:7-11 is either contradicted or implicitly denied.

          • Vince

            I agree that God is love and not just an attribute. But the Bible does say God does hate people. However, from your comment on my other post about interpretation, how can you be sure God is love from your perspective. Or is that just an interpretation you like?

          • I can’t be “sure” as in absolutely certain. However in my view faith isn’t about being sure but a confidence that comes from trust. However, I do trust the Scriptures as God’s self revelation, and trust in the work of the Holy Spirit to lead into all truth. Also, it’s true that when I read 1 John the whole text resonates with me and resounds as deeply true. You seem to imply (or you believe) that “interpretation” (as I outlined it) means picking meaning without reason or connection to anything,except what one wants something to mean. Rather what I presented is that meaning is relational, because its about communication, thus meaning isn’t static, not because I choose to say what you mean by your words, but because we are in dynamic process of saying what we mean and seeking to understand what the other means. Thus meaning isn’t random or infinite possibility. Yet at the same time the meaning of a word isn’t contained in the word or fixed by the word. Rather the meaning of a word is dependent upon its relation to other words and how that word is used and the context in which the whole process of communication is taking place.

          • Vince

            I am a big believer in context you can’t load every meaning of a word into an interpretation, that does not make sense, but the Bible is a one way communication from God to us. I am not saying God can’t talk to us, but the bible is not a dynamic conversation between us and God. So how do you interpret the Bible? You say 1 John deeply resonates with you so you believe it to be true. Do other parts of the bible not resonate so you don’t think it is true?

          • Ah, here we have a difference in our understanding of the Bible: on one level the Bible is only the record of God’s inspiration of various human authors who lived in various times and cultures, and who wrote about this encounter with God. But that doesn’t exhaust the reality of revelation we encounter in reading the Scriptures. The Bible is a bit of a mystery: it is both human words and the Word of God. The words were written down centuries ago yet still have power to speak to us. Also I believe it is closer to the truth to say that the Bible contains the Word of God than that it is the Word of God, though neither way of speaking is adequate to the reality. There is a dynamism between the words on the page and the Word of God, and it has to be this way because the Word of God isn’t a dead word record in ink on pages, but is living and active. Ultimately To hear the Word of God, to hear God speak to us in pages of the Bible we need the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Since God used a variety of cultures and context in the process of Revelation another part of the dynamism is to look for the various possible meanings of the words. The first Christians believed that in every text of the Bible there were at least 4 levels of meaning, interpretation for them was the practice of unlocking all 4 meanings for each text, but the most important was the Spiritual meaning.
            Well I said that 1 John resonates with me and that it resounds as true, I meant those as two distinct things, one wishing to admit my bias and the second to say something beyond my bias was going in in affirming what 1 John says about God.

          • Vince

            I agree the Holy Spirit helps you discern Gods word. Could you explain what you mean by living and active?
            Do you believe that if someone picked up the bible and read it that they would understand how to be saved?

        • I drew out the idea of legalism because your analogy for scriptural interpretation is to the interpretation of a mortgage, a legal document. Perhaps that wasn’t your intent, but it certainly came across that way. Legal documents are exactly what they are because they’ve had all the ambiguity, poetry, and interesting bits stripped from them in order for a judge to interpret them as having a single meaning. And that is exactly the project of fundamentalist interpretation. When you say “words have meaning,” for better or worse, I hear a coded appeal to a singular interpretation of scripture that cuts the mystery, poetry, magic, and, ultimately, I believe, the Holy Spirit, from the text.

          • Vince

            What do you believe the main point of scripture is?

          • I’m feeling like you’re trying to give me some sort of litmus test so that you can dismiss my perspective.

            But I’ll answer, despite my suspicions, with brevity. To point to the risen Christ and teach us how to follow him.

          • Vince

            Maybe I am asking for a litmus test. It just seems to me that from your answers we have a different take on Christianity and so we do not understand each other very well.

            I think the only singular interpretation that matters is what it says about how to be saved which is very simple and brief. Any other interpretation about other aspects of scripture can vary from Christian to Christian. Such as you can be a Christian and be an evolutionist, gay, believe the bible is not inspired, believe the earth is 6.4 billion years old etc. But you cannot be a Christian if you don’t believe Jesus is the son of God, he died on the cross to take the punishment for your sin and you have put your trust and faith in Him.

            I am not saying you are not my brother in Christ, but only that I disagree on your interpretation of scripture and your embracing of mystery surrounding the gospel. You seem to equate certainty with legalism which I disagree with. What is the point of scripture if we cannot know for sure what it says?

      • I think you missed the opportunity to point out why the statement struck you as legalistic. Vince was using a legalistic document as an analogy of God’s communication to us in Scripture. Such an analogy may apply to certain genres in the Bible but it isn’t adequate for the Bible as a whole nor does it get at the heart of God’s revelation to us.
        Then there is also that The Word isn’t just the Bible, and ultimately God’s full revelation was in a human person who lived 2000 years ago, Jesus of Nazareth whom we call the Christ. These two together show that the analogy of a mortgage and one’s relationship to a mortgage company is a poor analogy for God’s self communication to God’s creation.

        • You’re right, Larry. Also, Torah translates as both “way” and “law,” but probably “guide” would be more accurate in our hyper-legal, hyper-literate culture. It’s hard to understand a semi-literate culture through our lenses. Nothing like our conception of “law” would have existed.

    • Vince your analogy of the mortgage is flawed. Yes words have meaning but the words in a legal and financial document will mean differently than those same words in a comic book. Some of the words used in a mortgage would never be used in other contexts. Also, the legal and financial jargon used in a Mortgage and the structure of such legal and financial documents are intended to restrict and lessen the possibility of polyvalent meaning that is inherent in language and signs in general. The author isn’t claiming that words have no meaning, he’s claiming that all communication, including the revelation of God collected in what we call the Bible, requires interpretation and relationship.

      For an example let’s take the sentence “You’ll pay for this!” what does that sentence mean. and specifically what does “pay” in this sentence mean? Perhaps one may think that “pay” here means an exchange of legal tender for a particular object or service. So the sentence would mean that the person addressed will be the one to use legal tender as the exchange for a particular item, perhaps this was said at a restaurant and the speaker of these words is telling someone that they will be responsible for their meal. That is a reasonable conclusion about the meaning of that sentence. Yet, “You’ll pay for this!” could be also taken in a colloquial way which is essentially communicating that the speaker will get revenge upon the person addressed for a particular deed. Thus while “pay” has meaning it doesn’t always mean exactly the same thing. The meaning of “pay” has related meanings, but it really does mean something different to use “pay” to talk about an exchange of legal tender for an item or service and to use “pay” to mean exact revenge. One could argue that the link between the two meanings is the idea of “exchange” even so even applying “exchange” still leaves us with the polyvalence for in revenge “exchange” means a response to an offense or harm received, that is seen as equivalent or justified. Where as exchange in terms of legal tender is to give an object X that is agreed upon to have a certain value that is the equal to the value of object Y.

      More to the point words mean things, technically they don’t *have* meaning. “Pay” means certain things, yet it doesn’t *have* a meaning in every instance of its usage. What a word means requires us to know where it is at in relationship to other words to the speaker and to the addressee, and requires us to know the language being used and whether the words have been translated from an other language in which they were first uttered.

      If fundamentalist are wrong it is because the expect and then enforce a singularity of meaning upon words without regard to context, genre, colloquialism and the problematic of translation, all of which are required to rightly interpret the Word of God.

      Lastly to admit the polyvalence of meaning of words does not mean that all interpretations are valid, it simply means that there can be more than one valid meaning and possible interpretation. Some interpretations simply don’t work. that is to say that the English phrase “You’ll pay for this!” means “I’ll be coming over in 30 minutes for a visit.” would be nonsensical and wrong. The phase may have more than one possible meaning but it can’t mean anything.

      • Vince


  • Jonathan starkey

    I’m a Christian in that I seek to follow the way of Jesus. Faith is walking this path of love.

    I’m going to knit pick.

    Karl Barth when asked, when he became a Christian?, said, I became a Christian in 30AD (When Christ died.)

    I became a Christian… when Christ died.

    There is a ‘blind-spot’ in our Christian vocabulary. Barth also said, every Christian principle needs to have a Christology.

    So, I’m picking on, the words ‘path of love,’ and ‘seeking to follow the way of Jesus.’

    There is a universalism in this way of thinking. To love like Jesus loved, or walk like Jesus walked as being the way to the Father. It states as long as you have love, and as long as you try and act like Jesus then you gain access to the Father. Is that kind of like going to the wedding without wearing the wedding clothes, or like the thief who tries to get into the pen, but not through the gate.

    Isn’t this what the ‘Pharisees’ were doing?

  • Frank2918

    Yes let’s follow the God of love but we must understand what love is first.

    • 1 John 4 tells us what that is, “This is how God showed…” and This is love…” Ultimately we know this by knowing Christ and the the 4 Gospels. To quote the title of Tanner’s excellent book “Christ is the Key”

      • Frank2918

        Yes. Love is action, love is obedience.

  • Widge Widge

    Love is seeing from the other persons perspective. Not just following our interpretations.

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