The Structure of Creation

            I love the big picture. I love to see the way things fit together, the way they are linked together in cause and effect, in hierarchy, in reflection of one another. There’s something about understand all of a thing’s context and relationships that is beautiful, and reveals a little bit of its purpose.

            That’s what Genesis 1 is. It’s a portrait of the universe as God created it. The land sits on top of the sea, and the heavens are like a vault, a great dome over the earth. Sun and moon rule the day and night, spinning through the heavens alongside the stars, giving signs to those below of the passage of time, of the turning of seasons. Life fills every corner of the universe, inhabiting sea and land and sky. Last of all, the speaking beast, the creature who bears the image of God, who has dominion.

            It’s been remarked before, and I think it’s a point worth noting, that this is not a scientific explanation of how the universe came to be or how it functions. If you come at the world from an excessively materialist or rationalist point of view, you expect any explanation of something to be an account of the physical processes which bring a thing into being or keep it running. But that’s not the only way of explaining what a thing is.

            A thing is also how you encounter it. It is what you see, what you hear, what you smell. It’s how it changes over time, and the patterns you notice. These things aren’t “objective” in some ultimate sense. They’re anthropocentric—man-centered. How do people actually experience the world? Genesis operates on this level.

            We may know that the heavens are more or less endless, that some of the stars are far closer to us than they are to the rest of their starry brethren. But from the earth, it all looks like a single vault, a high ceiling on the world, with most of the stars at the same distance. We may know that the moon is actually one of the smaller objects in the sky, and so saying it “rules the night” is laughable, but so what? Viewed from the earth, it is the largest light in the darkness, the one that dominates that space.

            Expect Genesis 1 to be what we call a scientific account of how the universe is structured, and you will be disappointed. Its taxonomy, and Biblical taxonomy in general, would drive a biologist mad. But that’s not the point. The point is explaining the world as we experience it, the structure of life as we actually encounter it. Now, there is a way of over-relying on this fact in such a way that it distorts the text. Just because something is poetic doesn’t mean the thing it describes is unreal. The fact that something is phenomenological implies that it’s describing real phenomena. But I’ll save that qualification for a later post.

            One interesting aspect of Genesis 1 is the way it’s built on forming and filling. When the world is first described as “formless and void,” unless I badly misunderstand my Hebrew, the words there seem to refer to having no structure and being empty of all contents. But the first three days of creation are all the establishment of structure. God divides light from darkness, creating two spaces called “day” and “night.” Then God establishes a “firmament” or “vault” in the midst of the water, and this becomes the space we call “heaven” or “sky.” Finally, he gathers the waters below together into a single place, and up comes dry ground. He has created the spaces we call “earth” and “seas.”

            These spaces are like different houses, or different rooms in a house. Alternatively, they are separate stages. And stages are nothing without sets, props, and players. And fittingly enough, God obliges. The next three days fill these very spaces. Day four fills the spaces created in day one—day and night—with lights of various kinds. For day, there is the mighty sun. For night, the gentler moon and all the stars are hung up in the top of the vault. Day five fills the two spaces of day four—sky and sea—with flying creatures and swimming creatures respectively. Day six looks to the final space created, the green earth, and fills it with various kinds terrestrial beasts and creeping things.

            These are the two fundamental acts of creation: forming and filling. A number of my favorite Genesis commentators make a connection here that some find a bit wild and esoteric, but I find immensely interesting and fruitful. Be warned, I’m imaginative sort of person, who likes fantasy and poetry and miracles and ancient epics and rituals and mystic sayings and all the rest, certainly more than plain facts and dry numbers. If something packs a whole lot of meaning into a small space, that holds a lot of weight with me in whether I think it could be true.

            The commentators connect forming and filling to male and female. It’s kind of a weird thought, but it kind of makes sense, both in terms of how the world works, and in terms of the text. The days of forming and the days of filling are one of the few big binaries we get this early in the Bible. In the midst of it, we get male and female, and the fact that man is made male and female is very central to who we are. It’s not accident, but something that is there from day one. In fact, the only thing that is not good in all of creation prior to the fall is the idea of a man without a woman.

            So on that alone, connecting one big pair of complementaries to another just makes literary sense. But it also fits with the world. Men are built stronger, on average, physically tougher. They are more capable of projecting their will directly outwards into the world, of taking up and creating spaces. The idea that men tend to be better at abstract thinking also fits with this picture—that’s what creating spaces is all about. It’s drawing limits, defining structures, creating processes and areas in which things can take place. It’s setting the stage.

            On the other hand, women are built to bring new life into the world. It takes two to tango, but only one of them can nurture a small seed of humanity, barely in existence, to the point where it can survive in the world. I say it can survive in the world, but this isn’t quite right. Infants need protection, need nurturing, need to be feed. And again, the same half of humanity that brings them into the world can also feed them, once again, from their very body, their very self. Women are the part of humanity that is capable of filling humanity with other humans.

            Now, I am not an expert in human psychology, much less in women’s psychology. Knowing the current internet environment, I already feel like I’m treading in dangerous waters. Because I’m a guy, I feel comfortable throwing out the connection between abstract thinking and forming. I’m not going to do the same with women, although I do think similar things can be done. There are certain ways women behave that just strike me as creating and sustaining community, of filling a community with life, that I just don’t see men doing as often or with the same skill.

            I should also point out that although this gendered reading of forming and filling obviously fits well with a complementarian reading of Scripture, and so maps onto conservative vs. liberal cultural battles, with all the attendant drama, this type of thing is not unique to American evangelicalism. Besides those in western civilization who might see human gender reflected in the cosmos, the Taoist yin and yang obviously takes the same idea of a universal binary principles and uses it to structure both the universe and mankind. Alternatively, a thoroughly modern, western, fairly progressive, and utterly pagan worldview does the same thing—Wicca. British Traditional Wicca specifically sees the world as defined by male and female principles. All this to say, I don’t think I’m being a fundamentalist Neanderthal when I point this out, any more than I’m being a Taoist mystic or a witch. I think these are just legitimate insights.

            Now someone who has being paying attention will notice that so far I’ve only referred to six days. Indeed, people often refer to “six-day creationism.” We all know, of course, that the creation week actually lasted seven days. The last day, though, was a day of rest. Having established order, and then filled it with life, God set aside an entire day simply to enjoy what he had done. That, I think, is how that sabbath day ought to be read. It’s not just resting from labor, but enjoying the fruits of that labor. And this is fundamental to the way the universe is built—space is created, space is filled, and then the whole thing is enjoyed.

            While Hebrew storytelling, and really a lot of western storytelling, doesn’t necessarily place the most important part of the story at the end, I do think that’s a legitimate way to understand this passage. The sabbath is the crown, the pinnacle of the creative act. This was built not simply because the action of building is good, but because it is good that the thing be a complete work, and that it be enjoyed as a complete work. That day, the day of enjoying the completed creation, that is the one that was made holy—not the one on which man was created, and not any of the other days. The day of rest.

            It is noteworthy that the creation of humanity isn’t the part that’s most holy. The creation of mankind is neither the center, nor quite the climax of the story. This is striking, since it is clearly written with a human perspective in mind. When we first hear God deliberating over the creation of mankind, we are defined in terms of two things: God himself, and the rest of creation. We are made in God’s image and likeness, and we are made to have dominion over the other living things.

            Some might read this in a kind of predatory way, as if creation existed for us. I read it in something like the opposite way. I think, giving the weight which is placed on every aspect of creation, and the way in which so little of it is explicitly noted as being designed for us, that we should be understood as built for it. This is not to say we should be earth-worshipers, but that we should be gardeners. We plough, we plant, we weed, we water. There’s a reason Eden is a garden, and not just a vegetable garden. It is filled with plants which are beautiful to look at.

            My feeling that this is true only increases when it becomes apparent that we are not supposed to be eating flesh, or making clothes from animal skin. Much of what we think of as the resources nature provides for us, simply weren’t resources at the time. Add this to Genesis 2’s revelation that certain natural processes like rain and the growing of certain grasses hadn’t occurred because we weren’t there to tend things, and it just reinforces the idea.

            Now to be sure, there is a glory to humanity. We are rulers, those who have dominion. But our glory is derived—derived from the God in whose image we are made, and from the garden we are to tend. That is, from our Father and from our work. This picture of the world is not anthropocentric, even if the place we have in the order is prominent. We are not the creators of the order, nor our we the center of it. We are those who maintain it, and who represent the creator. I think that is a wonderful thing, but it’s also a humbling thing.

            To be truly human, to be what we are and to flourish in this space, means to be under authority, and to seek the good of something outside ourselves.

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Creation “Ex Nihilo”

There are three basic kinds of creation story—a god makes the world out of nothing, he makes it out of some pre-existing material, and he makes it out of himself. The first is called creation “ex nihilo,” the second is “ex materia,” and the third is “ex deo.” When reading Genesis, it can be very helpful to take a look at the contrast between “ex materia” and “ex nihilo” creation. We’ll look at ex deo in another post.

“Ex materia” is probably the most common variant in world mythologies. Often it starts with some sort of primal chaos, which the creator then brings order to. In one Chinese myth, an egg emerges in that chaos, and from it is hatched Pangu, who divides Yin from Yang and so lays the foundations for the universe. In Norse mythology, there was a great gap between an icy realm and a fiery realm, and in that gap, the fire melted the ice and uncovered the giant Ymir, and his cow, Auðumbla. Auðumbla’s licking of the ice uncovered a god, whose grandchildren murdered Ymir and crafted the world from his body. Egypt has many creation myths, but they often start with a mound emerging from watery chaos, and then a god from that mound, who gives rise to all the other gods, as well as to the order in the universe.

In this sort of myth, the creator is part of the universe. He may be the most powerful conscious being within it, but he emerges from it, and is subject to its laws. In such a world, you could conceive of all creation as a great chain of being, a hierarchy of creatures. At the bottom would be inanimate matter, then plants, the lower animals, like slugs, and then more complex creatures, like dolphins and chimpanzees. These would be followed by mankind, various spirits and demigods, then the actual gods, and finally whatever highest god or Fate stands at the top. There is a real difference between gods and men in this type of story, but it’s the same sort of difference as between men and parakeets. We’re still all part of the same world, the same category of “living thing.”

Ex nihilo creation implies something entirely different. A God who creates out of nothing is not bound by any sort of limitation. He is not made of the matter with which he creates, since it is something he himself made. He is not subject to the laws of the world, since his origin is completely outside it. It, instead, everything is subject to him on a very fundamental level.

This is important to understand when comparing the Christian understanding of God, which is partially shared with Judaism and Islam, to polytheistic gods who find their origin in the universe. The gods of an ex materia creation are far more powerful than humanity, but not necessarily any wiser or more righteous. They don’t necessarily have any more insight into the fundamental nature of the universe, or a better idea of its purpose and destiny, or any idea what the best life is. They’re just doing what they can, the same as the rest of us.

Depending on the exact mythology, the gods may have for more wisdom than men, but their nature does not require that this wisdom be absolute. It always has limits, because the very existence of the gods has limits. This is why someone like Odin has to make great sacrifices to pursue wisdom, or why Thoth or Hephaestus can have skills that aren’t shared with the other gods. Each of the deities is a limited being, with limited wisdom and knowledge.

Because they are limited, their authority over us is also limited. It’s something like the authority a ruler has over a people—on the one hand, it can be very good. The ruler might be especially wise and benevolent, even if he isn’t perfect. In that circumstance, a person who knows what’s good for him and for society will submit. But the ruler could just as easily be foolish or a tyrant, in which case people only submit out of fear. Even if he is a limited being, you run into the limits of your own power long before he does.

But in ex nihilo creation, God is not just “more powerful” or “more wise.” He is what the Westminster Confession of Faith calls “the fountain of all being.” Anything that exists comes from him. Anything that can be called powerful, derives its power from him. Whatever secrets are hidden, he is the one hid them. Whatever can be called good, its goodness is judged by the standard of his character.

This kind of God doesn’t derive his authority from the fact that he is bigger than you. He derives it from the fact everything that exists is a manifestation of his will and character. He’s something like Plato’s Good, or else the Tao of eastern philosophy. He is the principle by which goodness itself is judged. If you want to live the good life, you submit to him. Not just because he said so, but because the very definition of what goodness is proceeds from him.

This is a different kind of being entirely, one that doesn’t belong on that “chain of being.” Thomas Aquinas contrasts God with all created things in several ways. One way he describes God is as a necessary being—he has the sort of existence such that he could not not exist. Everything else is contingent. That is, under certain circumstances—perhaps at a particular time, or in a particular environment, or after being overcome by something else—it could cease exist. This is something that the gods of an ex materia creation have in common with everything else in their universe, except perhaps for the primal matter itself. In these two fundamental categories, the gods of polytheism are in the same one as you and me, even if they outrank us considerably in that box.

You can see people confusing these categories when they react to things like Captain America’s view on gods. In the original Avengers movie, Cap states “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” People of the internet have trouble with this, asking how a guy who spends his days actually in the company of various gods could seriously believe there is only one. Similar objections have been brought up when other superheroes make such comments, despite their familiarity with Thor or Diana.

But Thor and Diana aren’t the same kind of thing at all. However powerful they are, even if they are immortal from our perspective, they’re still limited creatures. They have an origin in time, a point at which their powers fail, an end to their knowledge. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t make very compelling characters.

Often I think H.P. Lovecraft is better at communicating something like God’s relationship to humanity than the Marvel movies are. The God of Christianity, or of Islam or Judaism, is certainly not Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth. He is good in some sense that is intelligible to us, and he is the creator of our universe rather than indifferent to it. But that sheer strangeness, the sheer, utter otherness of Lovecraft’s gods, that’s more or less accurate. The God of the Bible comes from the beyond the walls of the world, from beyond time, from beyond any category we could conceive of. His nature and motives are inscrutable, except insofar as he chooses to reveal himself to us. That’s what makes the claim of the Abrahamic faiths to divine revelation so significant—that which is truly beyond the world came into it, and revealed himself to us. The Incarnation is a wild, earth-shattering event of cosmic significance.

So far I’ve been assuming that the Christian God is, in fact, a God who creates ex nihilo. I do think this is a safe assumption, and it’s one that has been made throughout most of the history of the Church. Genesis starts with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” We have God, at the beginning of all things, creating all things.

Now one could easily reply that the gods of the ex materia myths also created the heavens and the earth. They used matter, but they certainly did something we would call “create.” Perhaps, once could say, the Christian God is the same, giving order to a primal chaos.

But this first statement comes before Genesis 1:2, which says, “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” There was, indeed, a primal chaos, but that chaos is the result of the initial act of creation. It doesn’t pre-exist God. He first creates the “materia,” then he creates the world from it.

This is significant in that it makes the Christian God an ex nihilo creator, but it’s also notable because it makes his actions meaningful. Presumably an ex nihilo creator could just snap his fingers, and everything would fall into place. Instead, he first creates the material, and then he arranges it in a very deliberate process.

Reformed theology likes to use a word whose meaning has grown more negative over time, but was originally considered a kind and merciful sort of thing—divine condescension. In order for an utterly other God, a God entirely without limit, to reveal himself to a limited creature, and to engage in a relationship, he has to speak in a way that creatures can understand. In the Bible, we often see God behaving in ways that are quite intelligible, when we know from other passages that he doesn’t have to do that at all. It’s like an adult kneeling down to look a child in the eye, patiently teaching him something simple, or playing a game with him. This doesn’t reveal the adult’s own childishness, but instead his love for the child in question.

The God of Genesis appears to be an ex nihilo creator, but one who has more on his mind than just getting the job done. He is acting out a drama in Genesis one, a drama full of meaning and significance. He is revealing himself to us, and revealing things about the nature of the universe he has created. And when a necessary being, an unlimited being, a being from beyond the walls of the world, who is the very fountain of all existence—when that being tries to tell us something, it behooves us to listen.

Why Did God Create?

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

–Genesis 1:1

            One of the first things that confronts us in reading the book of Genesis is that God created the universe. It’s easy to take for granted, since this has been the default position of our culture for so long. But that’s not at all how the story had to go. Many cultures have taught that the world itself is eternal and uncreated. That was even considered a live possibility by modern science until the Big Bang became the established theory. Others have taught that time is cyclical, always returning in the end to the same place where it began, and passing once more down the same path, again and again, through all eternity.

But Genesis says God created. Creation is something that once did not exist, but now it does. And this act of bringing into being was the active decision of a personal Being, a God described as having purpose and intent, as interacting with his creatures. Which leads us to an important question—why did God create?

The classical understanding of God is that he is all-sufficient. Indeed, a creator God almost by definition does not need anything in his creation. One verse that makes this point is Acts 17:25, where Paul argues that God does not dwell in temples, nor can mankind offer him anything he needs, since he is the source of all creation. Psalm 50 applies a similar line of reasoning to sacrifices, pointing out that the Lord owns all creation, so why would he need our bulls and goats? The very idea that he can create whatever he wants implies that nothing in creation is truly necessary for him.

But the classical understanding of God goes even beyond this. It’s not just that individual parts of creation are unnecessary to him, but so is the entirety of creation itself. God existed in eternity past without creation, so how could we say that creation is necessary to him? So much of the Bible pushes the idea that God is not simply “very powerful,” like a glacier that carves through stone, or exploding stars, or the volcanism that gives birth to mountains and tears them apart. God is all-powerful, the source of everything that has power or authority or significance in creation. Saying that he is somehow missing something if he does not create undermines that idea.

But if God does not need to create, then why do it at all? The Psalms are certainly full of the idea that the earth sings his praises. God derives glory from the mountains, the seas, the sun and stars in their courses, the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. All creation, from mighty Leviathan to the flower that is here today and gone tomorrow, testifies to the wisdom and power of its Creator. I think this is as good a suggestion as any—God made the world to express his character, and so to glorify himself.

At one point I think people might have taken this as a bit egocentric. I would have responded with some sort of appeal to the fact that God is something like Plato’s One—the ultimate good, the very definition of goodness, and the source of all that can be called good. Good glorifying itself is hardly egocentric, and honestly does a favor to everything else in creation, which is striving to reach The Good.

But I’m not sure that’s as much of an issue as it used to be. This generation seems to have an intuitive sense that creativity and self-expression is an inherently a good thing, and so I don’t think as many folks would begrudge God that activity. My tendency would still be to emphasize the differences between God Almighty creating to bring glory to the very standard of all that is worthy of glorifying, and a guy who writes slam poetry to work out the tangled emotions that have been trapped inside since the last time he set pen to paper.

One interesting angle on this problem looks at creation from a trinitarian perspective. Sometimes I think people can try to draw too many lessons from the doctrine of the Trinity, especially considering how much of the doctrine is only left implied in God’s Word. If you really want to understand the strangeness and wonder of God, you might start by talking about him the way he talks about himself, rather than emphasizing a construction, however true and good and necessary, we use to explain the way he talks about himself. Anyways, grain of salt.

The thinking goes like this: God, being trinitarian, is indeed self-sufficient, but he also exists as something like a community. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit dwell in eternal fellowship and perichoresis, each living in and for the other through all eternity. Our God is a God who loves the other. Creation is therefore an expression of something already present in God from all eternity—that love of the other. He creates the other, that he might love it.

This view is then contrasted with that of a unitarian deity, usually the Allah of Islam. Allah truly does not need creation, but neither can he love it. Love of the other is inherent in the Trinity, but in Allah there is no such thing. Creation, and love of creation, is consistent with the character of the former, but not the latter.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. There’s a certain appeal to the idea, as it does offer a good explanation for why God would want to create. It also takes the Trinity and uses that teaching to probe deeper into things that our fathers before Christ could not have. I admire that spirit. But at the same time, I worry that it’s playing with something a little too deep for such speculation. The Word doesn’t make that point, and the Trinity is a doctrine notoriously easy to abuse. Does this bend the doctrine of the Trinity into something not quite orthodox? Not to mention that it creates a flattering contrast with someone we disagree with, which always a little too convenient to be true. But perhaps I’m too cautious.

So what can we take away from this? We started with classical theism, appealed to the Psalms, alluded to Plato, made speculations based on the doctrine of the Trinity, and none seemed to give a fully satisfying answer. At least, I am not fully satisfied.

I think the biggest takeaway is just to acknowledge that the text does not directly answer this question. We are not given an easy answer to it. This reminds me of Job, where we get a peek into the workings of the heavenly court, but by the end of that story the heavenly courts are forgotten. What is important is not precisely why God does what he does. In a serious way, we can never really know that. But we do know what God has done, and what he has said to us. Whatever his purposes in creating the world, the fact remains that he created. As a starting point, at the beginning of the story, that’s good enough.

Genesis Project

            There are many ways people can express devotion to God. Some take great joy in singing, and so singing his praises seems like the best way to glorify him, the ultimate match of a glorious art to a glorious subject. Others study what they love, and this tendency applied to love of God tends to create theologians. Still others associate love with obedience, and they go searching for things God asks of them, eager to please him through their behavior.

            Not all ways of expressing devotion are equal. Devotion is always good, but there are certain kinds of devotion God asks us for on a regular basis in Scripture, and certain kinds that go almost unmentioned. Some are even pointed to as potential distractions, ways of behaving towards God that obscure his character. That said, I think part of Christian discipleship is learning how you most readily express your faith, and then nurturing it and pushing it in the right direction.

            I’m a literary guy. I like stories, on the page or on the screen or piped through the radio. I collect those stories, and I study the worlds they are set in, digging deep into the lore. This has always effected the way I live out my faith, although perhaps the influence actually runs the other way. If I am living in obedience to God, if I am coming to him in thanksgiving, if I am turning from wickedness towards ways that are pleasing to him—if everything is right—then I am studying the Bible. I’m digging deep into the story, to its implications and allusions, the world its set in. I’m treating the Bible the way I treat epic fantasy or good TV. I’m devouring it.

            This fact has been brought home to me over the last several years. I need a lot of Bible in my diet, and I suffer spiritually if I don’t. Reading it and discussing it teaches me to love God and love others, and encourages me in the old, literal sense of the word—it fills me with courage. Life is a thing I can handle when I can see what it is and where its going, as written in the Word of God.

            As I was mulling this over the other day, I realized that one particular book I have spent a ton of time digesting, probably more than any other, is Genesis. I don’t know the minor prophets very well, or Isaiah, or the letters and life of Paul, but poke me and I bleed Genesis. I have read and listened to so much about it, chewed on it, speculated, watched movie adaptations of the stories, written my own midrash, on and on. But however much I’ve chewed on it, I’ve never really had the chance to share that with other people, to get a real conversation going. At least, not to the degree that would satisfy me.

            The likelihood of being able to join a big Genesis Bible study right now is pretty low for me. Besides, in that format, you have to keep a pretty steady clip going if you’re going to make any progress. I wouldn’t get to dive as deep as I’d like. But here, on a blog, I can take it apart bit by bit, throw it out there, and see what others have to say.

            Now I’ve been all kinds of inconsistent with this blog. I’ll write consistently for months, then disappear for months again. I’ve never quite figured out what I want to use it for. This, though, seems like a constructive use of my time, and something that might edify others. As certain other things develop in my life, my use of this blog might be changing. This is one thing, though, that I think I want to do here.

            So for the foreseeable future, when the urge strikes me, I will be posting on Genesis. I’ll try to keep the posts in order, and maintain some sort of continuity, but my plan is to get as much from the text as possible. This doesn’t quite mean doing a study on every word of the Hebrew text, but I think I’ve got an easy dozen post topics lined up on Genesis 1. These range from broad thematic overview, to really interesting individual verses, to major structural stuff, to random theological questions the text brings up, but doesn’t really address in detail.

            But while I’ll be diving in somewhat thoroughly, I’m not going to pretend like I’m a systematic theologian while writing this. I’m a layman. I’ve got some good resources, and I’ve taken classes, so I hope none of the reasoning is too shoddy, but I also am not aiming to create a new systematic theology. These will be the thoughts and questions of a guy who likes stories, and likes to dive deep into them, not of a serious academic.

            One thing I also hope to change with this is the way I interact with my readers. I’ve had a consistent core of a dozen or so readers throughout the years, and occasionally bring in a lot more on a movie review. Most of these are people I’ve known in real life and still interact with on social media or face to face on a semi-regular basis. You read because we know each other, and this is one way of keeping up. And you’re also probably the same kind of weird as me.

            But while you guys have remained faithful readers, this has not exactly been a discussion-in-the-comments kind of blog. I know people that are good at that, but I’m not one of them. I’d like that to change. If you find something interesting, or outrageous, or just have a link to share, please do. I’d love this project to be more than just my semi-public devotional. I’d love for it to be a conversation.

            So there’s my invitation to you. Come be a nerd with me. Love God by treating his canon the same way we treat our favorite nerd canons—dive in, take it apart, and see how it ticks. Ask the big questions, ask the small questions. Let’s read Genesis, and see what we find.

Hitler and the Devil

Once I tried explaining to a friend who was raised abroad why calling someone Hitler was probably a worse insult in American culture than calling him the Devil. It was attached to this whole discussion of the importance of WW2 in America’s mythos/self-image. Nazis are the archetypal bad guy, world-conquest and genocide the archetypal crimes, and fascism (or at least authoritarianism?) is the archetypal political heresy.

But it occurs to me that while all that might be true, the simpler explanation might be that while most of us believe in Hitler, we don’t really believe in the devil.

That feels like a point C.S. Lewis could make a lot out of, were he around. But Lewis was pushing back against naturalism, and I don’t think that’s really the philosophy du jour. We’re not a nation of Dawkinses, or Hitchenses, or whoever. The vast majority of people, perhaps especially the “nones” of religion censuses, believe in the supernatural, and perhaps even in more or less malevolent entities out to get us.

What we don’t believe is that it all makes sense. The idea of “the Devil” comes from a God vs. the Devil binary, where there is some sort of moral system that applies across the whole universe. That, in turn, implies that the universe itself has some sort of coherent structure, and follows some sort of narrative where God and the Devil battle it out until the end, or perhaps continue in some eternal cycle of mini-conflicts, neither emerging ultimately victorious.

That picture is a step down from genuine Christianity, but it also has some faint traces of the beauty of the world Dante or Aquinas believed in. And America as a community doesn’t believe even that anymore. We believe everyone gets their own mythos, everyone gets their own system of ethics, everyone gets to call one thing sacred and another profane, and so what if they all conflict?

It’s not that everybody is a principled pluralist, so much as that’s the world we all live in. Practically speaking, we treat all these different accounts of the universe and the supernatural and good and evil as if they were more or less equally valid. They become just so much lore we can draw on for kitchen-sink type games and TV shows about the spooky. (I’ve been watching Supernatural lately, which is probably part of what generated this thought.)

If everyone has a different account of both good and evil, and of the supernatural, “the Devil” as a figure doesn’t really have much of a place. He’s provincial. In the big scheme, he’s a rube from some religious backwater, and who knows what other religious entities from the big city might teach him a lesson?

But Hitler… well, Hitler’s undeniable. He killed people. A lot of them. And you were dead whether you were a Jew or Polish Catholic. Our fight against him put us on the world stage in a big way, just when all the other powers were losing their grip. We have thousands of hours of History Channel documentaries on him, a million conspiracy theories, and endless pop culture references. Whatever you think about the details, you can’t deny that he existed, and he was the enemy.

So, in that context, for this couple of decades in the history of the United States of America, we believe in Hitler a whole lot more than we believe in the Devil. And that’s weird.

Revoice

                There’s been a lot of hullabaloo in certain circles lately over something called the Revoice conference. You can hunt it down yourself for greater detail, but I’ll summarize it in a way I think may be helpful.

                The loud, vocal response of the majority of orthodox evangelicals to the LGBT movement has been “God says that’s sinful.” Believing this to be a true statement, and fearing the Lord, a number of folks who are tempted in this way declared that they would not be pursuing gay sex, or gay romance, and that however strong their desires were, Jesus was better and they would follow him. These people were left with the puzzle of how to live given these desires, which they saw as disruptive both of living an ordinary life and of their sanctification. Nevertheless believing that God would provide a way, they organized a conference to talk about what they thought that way might look like—while loudly and vocally saying that gay sex and gay romance was sinful.

                Or something like that. This portrait is at least as fair as much of what’s out there.

                It’s that “what’s out there” that concerns me. A lot of orthodox, evangelical people who believe they are speaking the truth in love have raised a ruckus over the Revoice conference, asking why we don’t celebrate rapists and pedophiles and racists as long as we’re celebrating other sins. I won’t link to them, especially since if you’re reading this and care, you likely already know exactly what I’m talking about.

                Some have noted, rightly, that a lot of this looks like a twelve-year-old boy trying to score points with his classmates by being as lewd and crude as he can be. Shock is entertaining, it’s polarizing, it’s great for rousing the troops. My concern is that Jesus didn’t come to rouse the troops, to save the already saved, he came to save the lost. This tactic preaches to a certain kind of choir pretty effectively, but it drives away the lost.

                (Of course, Jesus did preach to the “choir” occasionally, but mostly when they became self-righteous, with little grace for others and expecting much from God.)

                This is bad evangelism and worse apologetics. Who wants to believe the claims of Jesus’ mercy and grace, of the possibility of forgiveness for even the worst of sinners, when the people preaching it act like spoiled brats who forgive nothing? If people need a reason to stay away from Christ, to stay away from the Church, to flee it like the plague, then this behavior certainly provides it.

                But it’s not just bad evangelism, it’s also hypocritical. The same crowd criticizing Revoice and comparing it to the celebration of pedophiles also took a very vocal stand in favor of the idea that Jesus would forgive even pedophiles. They didn’t do this like fools, either. They knew that such sinful desires are difficult to get rid of, and that such people need some pretty serious accountability, for others’ sake as much as their own. Which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like the angle the Revoice people are taking on their own sin. But y’know, you got to own the libs, even if it requires sacrificing a little principle here and there.

                Now I say all this not because I think the people involved in this sort of criticism are totally worthless. I respect some of them very highly, and they have been a blessing in my life personally, and in the lives of others. I don’t really even question the motives of most of them. I know they believe they’re taking a stand for the Gospel, and that’s why I rarely call them out on their tactics, much less in a tone so similar to their own. I believe that I owe them as much grace as I’m telling them they owe other people.

                But they do owe that grace to other people. They don’t owe it to sinners to affirm their sin, or to celebrate it, but they do owe it to them to correct them lovingly. They don’t need to pretend sin is not sin, or to cease preaching the passages that identify it as such, but they need to offer the same grace and forgiveness that was offered to them. The fact that they don’t, the fact that they come across as screeching harpies when I know they can be such a blessing, such a light of the Gospel to people they count within their tribe, that fact makes their at least apparent hypocrisy so much more tragic. They demand repentance, and say we should give grace to those who repent, and rightly. But when people with wrong kind of sinful desires repent, and they can score points from not giving grace, then that goes out the window.

                But that’s enough of my own ranting. I’ll end with a qualification, and with a suggestion on how we can do better.

                The qualification is this: there is definitely something to criticize about Revoice. Just as I can love the critics, but hate it when their tactics misrepresent Christ so badly, so I can acknowledge that the Revoice folks are doing their best to follow Christ, but that they get some serious things wrong.

                Which leads to the suggestion. Tone matters. A community devoted to rhetoric knows this, and they’re being disingenuous when they pretend otherwise. The problem is not the criticism, but how it’s couched. If you grow up in an aggressive, snarky community, perhaps aggression and snark is the best way to get a point across. For most people, that doesn’t work. For most people, they take that as insulting and ungracious, not as funny and edgy and cool. Shocking, I know.

                During the time Revoice has been A Thing Online, I’ve seen several criticisms of it that strike a much better tone. These criticisms are careful to actually listen to what the speakers and organizers at Revoice have to say, to have the grace to take seriously the sacrifices they are making in pursuit of Christ. Their tone is respectful, and their criticisms are courteous and lovingly stated, and yet both specific and firm.

                I think we can learn from these criticisms, so I will be linking a pair of particularly exemplary ones by Steven Wedgeworth:

https://mereorthodoxy.com/critical-review-spiritual-friendship/

https://calvinistinternational.com/2018/06/25/more-thoughts-on-spiritual-friendship-gay-christianity-unpacking-basic-confusion/

                In addition, Mere Orthodoxy, which hosts the first essay, is often pretty good about tone, and that while presenting multiple perspectives on an issue. For example, here is something of a defense of the perspective Revoice is coming from:

https://mereorthodoxy.com/augustine-concupiscence-friendship/

                This is where I wish the rhetoric in my little corner of the Reformed world actually was. I wish I didn’t have to hear the language of snark, much less speak it. On occasion, it certainly has its place, but by and large I think it’s soul-destroying. God rebukes the scoffer not because nothing is ever worth scoffing at, but because a man who scoffs at everything soon losing reverence for anything. And there are things in this world worth revering.

Serial Killer Fiction and Why We Watch It

            For about as long as I can remember, I’ve been watching crime shows—Law & Order with its spin-offs, CSI, Castle, Bones, NCIS, Criminal Minds, and all the rest. My dad studied criminal justice in college, which probably had something to do with the frequency with which these shorts of shows were playing in the background of my early life. On top of these, we watched a lot of true crime as well. Through it all, one type of criminal has always held my attention, inspiring a fascination that I find half as disturbing as the crimes themselves—serial killers.

            Serial killers are horrific. They are defined by the pleasure they take in the fear, pain, humiliation, and ultimately death of others. A person with that sort of psychology not only kills, but often kills in a way that is truly sick, truly cruel, truly awful to consider. However much the drama of television and restraints of polite society might tone down the evil to a level viewers can handle, it does not erase the terrible nature of what these people do.

            Over the years, I periodically come back to TV shows and movies centered around serial killers. Most recently, I found myself caught up in the hunt for the Zodiac Killer, which is still quite an active case with online amateurs, even if it has stagnated with the actual police.

            Every time I return to something like this, I ask myself why I find it so fascinating. Some critics write as if people find pleasure in the gore, the violence, the sheer disturbing nature of what is done. I can grasp on an intellectual level that this might be the case, but I don’t understand it on a gut level. I have never been able to derive pleasure from negative emotions or situations—I don’t even understand the thrill of a rollercoaster, much less how something that horrific could be pleasing to someone in their right mind.

            For years I thought maybe it was the desire to understand evil. I don’t believe in the naïve vision of the world that says people are basically good and want to do the right thing. A lot of people don’t. Rather than shield our eyes to this reality, it would be better for us to understand evil, so that we know how to stop it, to restrain it, even to prevent it—to whatever degree that’s possible.

            So I told myself that’s probably what it was. I was interested in how their minds worked, what drove them to become so disturbed, and to commit such depraved acts. More than that, what let them do it with so little apparent guilt, with so much composure afterwards? The cold-bloodedness with which some of these guys discuss their crimes in prison interviews is chilling.

            But you can only watch so many of these movies and TV shows, only imbibe so many true crime documentaries, only read so much on the internet before you begin to get a sense of what’s going on. It’s not terribly complex, once you figure it out. There’s a bitterness, a feeling of humiliation rooted in some childhood trauma. There’s an alienation from the world, a lack of empathy. They strike out to feel powerful, to feel in control, to feel like other people don’t matter. That, at any rate, is the basic story with most of them.

            Another explanation I’ve considered is that I like to see justice done. Human beings have a basic sense of right and wrong. Even the serial killers often know quite well that what they are doing is wrong. In part, that’s where the thrill comes from. At any rate, when we see injustice, when we see the world go off-kilter, we like to see it made right. We like to see the culprit caught and punished.

            I like this explanation. Seeing them be captured is what most movies with serial killers are about, more or less. But it also explains my response and the response of others to seeing a killer get away with it—solve the puzzle. There are people dedicated to figuring out who the Zodiac is because the Zodiac can’t be allowed to do what he does and get away with it. We need to prove that there is justice in the world by making it happen. That, and solving puzzles is fun. Which could be an explanation in itself.

            But that’s something you can get from any cop show, with any kind of crime. Why serial killers? Why people that hunt people? There are plenty of terrible crimes out there that take as many lives, that are just as calloused, that are just much of a menace to society. Really, things like organized crime are much worse in terms of the damage they do. An insightful point was made in the Zodiac movie that more people die every year driving in LA than the Zodiac killed across his entire known career. Serial killers are scarier than other things, and devastating to individuals and families, but they are still pretty small scale compared to other injustices in the world.

            And perhaps that’s the answer. Maybe serial killers are fascinating because they are so much more terrifying. For so long I bought the “I want to understand their minds” explanation that it never occurred to me that I might view them exactly as what they are often called—monsters. I wouldn’t use that language. To call them that would be to dehumanize them, to create distance, and so to erase the terrifying insight that people can be truly evil. It would be to hand-wave away the fact that injustice often comes from us, not from distant, abstract institutions or the nature of the universe, but from our own choices.

            But I think that’s a mistake, too. The serial killer movies often do dehumanize them, however interested in getting you inside their minds they pretend to be. They are not interested in letting you understand how they justify themselves, just in showing you how sick they really are.

            And really, the nature of these serial killers is that they are people who have dehumanized themselves. What that kind of pathology means is that you no longer feel what healthy people feel, and no longer act how healthy people act. The people around you are no longer human beings, but objects to be used and manipulated, and ultimately discarded. You have separated yourself from the human race.

            So a serial killer movie is, in a very real sense, a monster movie. A threat comes from outside, one that is entirely negative and more deadly than anything we face in daily life. The hero tracks it down and puts a stop to it, rescuing someone—perhaps a damsel in distress, or perhaps a city or a nation gripped by terror. It’s classic. Beowulf, St. George, Dracula, James Bond—it’s one of Christopher Booker’s “Seven Basic Plots.” Jordan Peterson could explain it easily—chaos invades the hero’s world, and he has to rise up and defeat it.

            In other contexts, I certainly enjoy these kinds of movies. I think they have a very basic, very broad appeal across time and across large sections of humanity. It even fits in a specific variation on that theme, one very popular in our culture—the sharp-minded detective who defeats the criminal by discovering a clue in his one mistake. Serial killer stories are Sherlock Holmes with a darker, grislier antagonist.

            Of course, there is another explanation, one final possibility among all the other attempts to explain an obsession. What a serial killer does is kill. These are stories filled with death, with lives cut short. In our plush and comfortable lives in modern America, it can be easy to ignore our limited time on this earth. It can be easy to think we have everything and always will, or at least enough that our biggest worry is that we want more, not that we will starve.

            In that world, a serial killer story is a memento mori. The killer is death, stalking us. We are reminded that everything passes, that everything dies, that everything fades from memory. It is inevitable. There’s a way of dwelling on this that’s morbid, but it’s also something that can focus your priorities, that can remind you to live in the moment in the best way possible. And it can drive you to look beyond death, to look beyond the veil of this world and ask what deeper reality lies behind it. A story like that can shake us out of our petty discontent and drive us to pursue what is good while we still have time.

            Each of these explanations is good in its own way. They all capture a facet of what might be attractive, what might be fascinating in such a gruesome sort of tale. But none of them quite explains everything. And that, I think, is significant.

            Sometimes people have a tendency to seek a single, simple explanation for things. We are trained to think logically, or at least to aspire to think logically. We want to see a chain of reasoning that is sound. But if the logic works, that implies an inevitability to the course of events. But perhaps the fact that we got here is not inevitable.

            I don’t want to dive into the deeper mysteries of predestination. I am speaking here purely from a human level, from a perspective trapped inside of time, inside of cause and effect. Perhaps sometimes we love a certain kind of story not for any particular reason, but simply because we do. Perhaps we love it because we were exposed to it, we spent time with it, and we learned to find that things in it that made spending that time worthwhile.

            Perhaps the activity came first, the habit of watching, then came the fascination, and something like a justification for it only came later.

            Stories are not something that exist suspended in thin air. We pick them up from being around people. We are told them, or we are shown them. Perhaps I am fascinated by these stories, and return to them again and again, for the simple reason that I was raised with them. That explanation can sound so shallow and simple, but perhaps it’s more insightful about the way people actually work than all the other explanations I can offer. Habit shapes heart, practice shapes theory, action shapes reason.

            And community introduces us to habits.

            A few months ago, my parents dug out a box of my grandmother’s old books. They were mostly Stephen King, including first editions of some of the novels that made him famous. As I began to read them, I felt an instant connection with the world he painted, despite never having set foot in them. The darkness was familiar, the kind of evil, and the way people responded. It was haunting.

            This was the woman that raised my father, and he became fascinated by a certain sort of confrontation between good and evil. Caught up in that, he watched a certain sort of show, one that my mother learned to enjoy as well. Raised in that home, I too became caught up in that drama.

            There are all sorts of good reasons to watch this kind of show, but the real reason may simply be that, for those of us who do, these stories are in our blood.