Many Stories, One World

YHWH’s Image

With this clay He began to coat His shins,
cover His thighs, His chest. He continued this
layering, and, when He had been wholly
interred, He parted the clay at His side, and
retreated from it, leaving the image of Himself
to wander in what remained of that early
morning mist.
—Scott Cairns

I wrote a little tepidly about Scott Cairns’s collection “Recovered Body” a little while back. Nevertheless, I find that “YHWH’s Image”–partially quoted above– has been sticking with me, as poems somehow seem to do. I keep coming back to that image of the creation, so different and yet so right, as if Cairns has shown me both the truth of human intimacy with God and our ache at God’s absence.

I may have been thinking about this a bit since I’m leading a discussion of Genesis 1 and 2 at my church this Sunday. No Biblical scholar am I, but I’ve been mulling over the endless troubling that goes on about the two different accounts of creation, as if this somehow counted against the truth of the Biblical passages. “Those silly ancient Hebrews,”  we seems to say, “Didn’t they realize they put two completely different stories right next to each other.”  A modern chauvinism.  As it happens, I also read this week a very fine essay in manuscript by my colleague at Messiah College, Brian Smith, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, who points out that there’s also a creation story in the first part of Proverbs that is very different from the first of Genesis, proclaiming the primacy of Wisdom. And, of course, I  realized that there’s another creation story in the first chapter of John, where in the beginning we have not God brooding over the deep, but the Word with and as God. I’m sure if I knew my Bible better a number of other creation stories might spring to mind–I’ve come to doubt there are only four. And yet even with so many, Scott Cairns’s poem got me thinking about some truth about the creation story that is genuinely new but somehow consistent with all the others and with the teachings that I’ve received about God’s relationship to the world as creator and redeemer.

And yet we worry and fret that there are two stories and they don’t match up.

What if it is the case that the creation of the world out of nothing is so beyond our imagining, that getting the one right story isn’t the point. What if it is the case that the great rupture of creation is so beyond our comprehension that we are set to storytelling, not so we could capture the single truth of what happened, but so we could bear testimony to its mystery.

Testimony, it seems to me, is an important word because it bears witness to a given fact and is in some way accepted as testimony only to the extent that it both repeats what everyone already knows, but in a way that bears an individual stamp.  The truthtelling that is testimony is both repetitive and unique, as we are urged on to bear witness to the facts of a known or remembered world.   The recent rehearsals of oral histories about 9/11 is this kind of record. All of them sound familiar, and yet all of them are unique and different, bearing some new witness to the day a world changed for those who were there. Scott Cairns’s poem strikes me this way. Right and consistent with everything I think I have heard and believed, but bearing its own stamp, its own word, never heard before, such that I know God the Creator in some new may.

For many poststructualists/postmodernists, the multiplicity of stories about events in the world gives credence to the notion of incommensurable realities–in some sense we make the world through our speaking about it.  And so there is no world to be spoken about, instead a plethora of worlds carried and clashing on the wings of our words. In this view, the notion of one world or a singular truth is oppressive, squashing down our human ingenuity.

But what if it were the case that the one act of creation created a world so singular and beyond our knowing that we are called upon to bear testimony to that one world through our own stories?  The one great rupture of creation calls into being our own acts of creation out of testimony to an event we affirm but cannot encompass.  If this were the case, then I would stop worrying about the fact that there were two or three or four or more stories about creation in the Bible. I might be surprised that there weren’t more.

Wouldn’t something as startling and unprecedented as a world need more than one story?

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