The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society
THERE ARE ONLY so many ways of telling a story. Scan world literature and you discover a surprisingly small stock of narrative styles; narrow your search to historical writing and you find only a handful.
The oldest and most enduring is the chronicle. Chronicles all look something like theBayeux Tapestry, the eleventh-century embroidered scroll that visualizes the stream of events leading up to the Norman Conquest. As the scroll unfurls you see men fighting on ships, followed by men fighting on horseback, followed by men fighting with swords, with the occasional lord and castle thrown in for variety. This goes on for more than two hundred feet. Since chronicles try to be comprehensive, they are wonderfully messy documents—messy like the truth. They leave the impression that the outcomes of human action depend on choices the actors make in time, that they are weaving the tapestry as they go.
The Hebrew Bible belongs in this tradition. What makes the chronicle of the covenant so dramatic is that it follows the unpredictable encounter of divine and human freedom in all its emotional twists and turns. God chose Abraham, but would Abraham choose God? In the event, he did; but then Isaac had to choose whether to remain faithful to their covenant, as did Jacob and Esau, and so on down the line. The story that emerges is meaningful not because it exposes the irresistible work of providence, but because it doesn’t. It teaches that you must choose to be chosen.
Human beings should be content with such stories and the gods who come with them. But few of us are. Chronicles place the responsibility for history on our very small shoulders, which is a burden we would like to shirk. We want comfort. So from time immemorial we have fabricated myths to convince ourselves that we understand the underlying processes by which the world took on its present shape. Such myths begin with some remote historical Big Bang, after which life unfolds in a meaningful, if not precisely predictable, direction. It is a revealing psychological fact that the most common historical myths that early civilizations comforted themselves with were stories of fated decline, which give temporal reasons why life is so hard. We suffer because we live in an Age of Iron, far removed from our origins in the Age of Gold. It’s not our fault, and perhaps one day the gods will smile down and return us to the world we have lost. Pazienza.