Ancient & Modern



Some time ago I was intrigued when a literature professor pointed out one of the fundamental differences between Hebrew literature (and to some extent the Greek classics) and modern literature. Perhaps I should add that the comparison also applies to films, as they are more of a talking point in our culture than books are. Unfortunately, we seem to have passed the point where there is a common pool of modern literature that we all read.


As a generalization, Hebrew and Greek literature has its focus on the external, on actions and events. For example, we are not told a single word of how Noah felt about the destruction of the flood—an event in which every person he had ever known, save his immediate family, died. We are not given one word on how Abraham felt about sacrificing Isaac—the most difficult thing any father could be asked to do. Likewise, we are not given any information on how Joshua felt about the annihilation of the Canaanites—and there is no reason to believe that he found his task any easier than we would.


We also find the same focus on the external and objective in non-canonical Jewish literature. The most outstanding example I know of being the mother in 2 Maccabees, who during the persecutions of Antiochus, sees her seven sons all tortured, one by one on the same day before her very eyes. Their limbs are cut off, they are disemboweled, skinned alive, and burnt to death. Then the mother herself is executed. Her only words are to exhort her sons to die bravely in the fear of God and in the sure hope of the resurrection.


However, when we come to modern literature, TV, and film, the ethos is very different. The focus is on the internal, the subjective, and the psychological. It is the feelings, the motives, and the inter-personal relationships that underpin and intertwine within the plot that are highlighted.


An example from the States would be Seinfeld, the Emmy Award winning sitcom that aired for nine years on NBC, with its characters known by virtually the whole population and many of its catch phrases entering the vocabulary of pop culture. However, what strikes the uninitiated—like myself—is that the focus is almost exclusively on the subjective and psychological surrounding inter-personal relationships of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Cosmo. While I realize that it is a comedy, there still is virtually no reference to significant global events that comprise the background of their adult lives. Not even the neutral events on the wider horizon, yet alone the fall of Communism or the Rwandan massacre. What we have is a focus—both funny and, sadly, often immoral—on the trivia surrounding the everyday lives of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Cosmo.


The same would be true even of a serious film like Saving Private Ryan. On one level it is an account of the Normandy landings in the Second World War. However, this phase of the war with all its historic importance is framed by the emotions and inter-personal relationships of Private Ryan, his mother, and finally his children. It is still a great film, but what makes it postmodern is that Spielberg still finds it necessary to portray these momentous events within the subjective context of Private Ryan’s family and a few of his close relationships in the military.


So what accounts for the difference? It is not that the Hebrews were cold and clinical, a race that did not experience deep personal emotion. Even a cursory reading of the Psalms dismisses this as a possibility. The difference is simply that the significance of the flood, of the sacrifice of Isaac, and the annihilation of the Canaanites were so important in the redemptive purposes of God for the whole human race that the emotions of the primary players in the drama are insignificant in comparison, and are therefore not recorded.


In this way, we are drawn into seeking to understand the big picture that is front and center in the story. It is the meta-narrative, the theology, and the redemptive significance of these events that the text prods us to explore. Understanding the emotions of Noah, Abraham, and Joshua will not help us here. The events are so crucial in the unfolding of the drama of salvation history that everything else must be subservient, lest we get distracted from the momentous nature of these events in the purposes of God for humankind.


Now, fast forward to today, and we are all aware that few in a postmodern age still believe in a meta-narrative, that history is an unfolding drama, or that God’s providential activity is at work behind the scenes. So, all that is left that is of interest is the subjective: people’s motivations, inter-personal relationships, emotions and psychological foibles. It is not that these are not important, but tragic that this is all that is left of interest to us. We no longer look for the grand scheme of things, simply because we no long believe that it exists.


However, in such a context lies a great opportunity for the gospel.  People are tired of the trivial and long to discover a meaningful storyline that will make sense of their lives and the world in which they live. Clark Pinnock in his book, The Flame of Love, observes that “hindrances to faith in God seldom have to do with a lack of proofs. Hindrances to faith have more to do with the quality of our theism. Theology does not have to do not with whether God is, but with who God is. Theology gains credibility when we have a doctrine of God that one can fall in love with.” A doctrine of God we can fall in love with is the story of One who will not rest until “he brings justice to victory” (Matthew 12:20); a narrative that takes in the whole sweep of human history, and God’s determination that “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4) and the eventual transformation of the whole created order.


Our lives only take on significance when they eventually, through the grace of Jesus, bisect God’s storyline. Our task is to help people to understand that through the grace of Jesus this is now possible. Every area of human activity, be it marriage, ecology, race relations, economics, globalization, or the issues of the human heart, now all find their resolution in a doctrine of God that one can fall in love with—in a story that gives coherence to the complexity of the human condition. Our stewardship is to make this clear to a generation that has lost its way, and now hides in triviality and the flatlands of life without the coherence provided by the narrative of God’s love as the key to understanding the cosmos and all that lies within it.