In honour of the opening of the London 2012 Olympics, here’s some of my favourite English music, from one of my favourite composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Now, these aren’t the kind of pieces that will inspire great feats of athletic prowess, but they do conjure up quintessentially English landscapes. Better for meditation than exercise, but I guess that tells you something about the way I tend to spend my days. I always listen to music as I work, and since I listen to Vaughan Williams more than I listen to any other composer, I should probably recognize him for the significant contribution he has made to my dissertation.
Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 in E minor
The Lark Ascending
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Here’s an excerpt from the sermon I preached a couple weeks ago on Genesis 11:1-9. This is the passage where I was dealing with the insight from Reno I posted about two weeks ago. You can read the whole thing here.
This is not a story with a lot of grace in it! It is primarily a story of judgment. The people, as a whole, seek to turn away from God and find their security and significance in their own achievements; God responds with a judgment which is complete and decisive. Each of their ambitions and hopes is overturned and their scheme unravels as God intervenes in the situation. They had planned to build a city with a great tower; in the end they give up building the city, and the tower. They want to avoid being scattered; but in the end they are scattered. Lastly, they want to make a name for themselves; in the end, they do get a name, but it is not the great name they wanted; their name is Babel, which means confused. They are indeed remembered by those who came after them, but they are remembered for their folly, rather than their greatness.
And yet, there is a note of grace in this judgment, and we will only be able to hear it if we clear up a misunderstanding about this story. Many people make the mistake of thinking that God, in putting a stop to the building of the tower, was trying to protect himself against the ingenuity of the people of Babel. And the wording of the story can leave you with that impression if you don’t read it thoughtfully. God says, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” It sounds as if God is worried, that his reign will be endangered, and that his heavenly home will be invaded if these humans are allowed to go on scheming and building towers up to heaven. It almost sounds as if God is worried that humans will become like him, able to do anything!
But of course, we know that is not true. God is not threatened by human ingenuity. Even the greatest of human achievements are no threat to the God who created all things, and continues to preserve and govern all things by the power of his Word. It wasn’t as if they could have literally built a tower to heaven, snuck in the back door, and robbed God of all his riches! No, that is silly. God doesn’t confuse the language of the people in order to protect himself, he does it in order to protect them. It’s not that they are threatening him with this tower; they are threatening themselves; they are threatening their own humanity, by giving themselves over to wholesale corporate corruption and rebellion against God, and gathering all the resources of their society in order to try to degrade themselves and avoid their vocation of scattering across the face of the earth. When God says “nothing they plan to do will be impossible,” he means “there will be no limit on their capacity for self-destruction.” Those of you who have children know that sometimes you’ve just got to split them up. There are times when they just can’t help but bring out the worst in one another. God’s punishment is, in fact, a way of putting a check on their rebellion, and holding them back from further corrupting themselves. It is definitely a judgment, but it is an act of mercy-in-judgment.
Read the rest: sermon 120708 GENESIS 11 1 TO 9
I’ve been using R. R. Reno’s theological commentary on Genesis in my preparations for a sermon on the Tower of Babel this Sunday. As a kid I remember thinking that God stops the building of the tower because he is somehow threatened by human ambition – as if human beings might have actually reached out from the top of the tower and grabbed God by the ankle, or something like that. I’m sure that is how many people interpreted the story as children, and it is quite possibly how some still read it. The confusion of languages, then, would be God’s way of protecting himself against humanity – limiting their ability to scheme together and take heaven by storm.
The story of the expulsion from the Garden is often taken in a similar sense: God sends Adam and Eve away because he’s worried they’ll eat from the tree of life, and therefore they’ll become divine.
Of course, this can’t be the meaning of either text. Reno succinctly summarizes an orthodox theological interpretation:
“Faced with an accelerating project of prideful ambition on the plains of Shinar, God acts on the same rationale he gave for the expulsion of Adam and Even from the garden of Eden. The LORD says, “ This is on the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose will be impossible for them” (Gen. 11:6). We need to be sure readers here. It cannot be the case that human beings can make themselves divine by dint of their efforts, any more than the fruit of the tree of life and sheer deathlessness would give Adam and Even divine life – “like one of us” (3:22). Nor can God be threatened by human striving, as if he were a vulnerable despot anxious to protect his prerogatives. No, the temptation of the covenant of the lie is precisely the false promise that worldly abundance is enough to bring rest to human beings.
…Therefore, the danger that God identifies in both the tree of life and the tower of Babel is simple. It is the limitless human capacity to live according to the covenant of the lie. However impossible the pure negation of radical evil, we really can say an enduring “no” to the covenant of life. As “slaves of corruption” (2 Pet. 2:19), we have a striking ability, day after day, to give ourselves over to sin. God intervenes not to protect his power, but in order to protect us from the tenacious power of our own corruption” (R. R. Reno, Genesis, 132).
In other words, the confusion of languages is not God’s way of protecting himself from human beings, but it is his way of protecting human beings from themselves – it mitigates against the social corruption of sin. It is an act of mercy-in-judgment.