Cain Within

Abel-Camille_Felix_Bellanger-IMG_8279Last week, I tried to show the value of allegory in biblical interpretation. The account of Cain and Abel seems to be a “straightforward” story of one brother killing another in a jealous rage. But what is the “deeper” story — the story for us and our lives. Isn’t it something more than: “Don’t kill your brother”? Certainly.

The story of Cain and Abel is the first outworking of the curse and promise of Genesis 3:15,

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring [literally, “seed”] and her offspring [“seed” again]; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

There will be the seed of the serpent (those who oppose God) and the seed of the woman (those who love God). In naming her first son, Eve proclaims, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” Cain sounds like the Hebrew word for “gotten” and that seems apropos, since Cain tries to steal Abel’s honor and blessing when God rejects Cain’s sacrifice. Abel’s name, in fact, sounds like the Hebrew word for “vapor.” The names indicate their destiny and their character.

In the following chapters we see the line of Cain: building cities, living for themselves, and rejoicing in their increasing violence (the seed of the serpent). Since Abel has died, his place as the seed of the woman is assumed by Seth (which sounds like the word “appointed”). Seth’s line is listed in chapter 5 — the great list of men who lived almost 1000 years, yet still died, suffering the punishment of all men. That line includes exceptional Enoch, who “walked with God and did not die” — proof of his deep love of God.

Then finally, in the first few verses of chapter 6, we find the “sons of God” (line of Seth, seed of the woman) marrying the “daughters of men” (line of Cain, seed of the serpent). In fact, they chose their own wives (which seems harmless enough to our convention) —those whom they find attractive, not those of whom God approves. In fact, they “see” and “take” and “choose” for it seems “good” to them. (These are the same words used of Eve’s temptation with the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This tree represents man choosing for himself what he wants and how he wants it. It is a rejection of God’s plan and God’s destiny.)

Thus we begin to see the allegorical meaning: there are different lines of people—not by race or gender or nationality — but two lines: the line who loves God and the line who reject Him.

And — here’s the deepest and tragic truth — this is true within each of us! One time we are seeking God, another we reject Him and his commands. And we do the same thing the next day. And the next.

For in each of us lurks Cain within.


Painting is “Abel” by Camille Felix Bellanger, 1875

Is Allegory OK?

allegory-of-the-cave1-atsuko-nakamuraIn teaching through Genesis, I have been struck by the relevance of the story of Cain and Abel and their subsequent lines (chapters 4-5), culminating in the beginning of chapter 6. What is the meaning of this story?

In asking this question, I am searching for the theological meaning—the Truth with a capital “T.” Not a debate about the historicity of the account (that’s a different issue), but the “other” meaning, the revelation that must be applied to my life. This is one of the ways Scripture reveals its truths to us.

Our medieval brothers understood, better than we, the multifaceted interpretation demanded by God’s revelation of himself in Scripture. In fact, they typically looked for five different aspects of the meaning of every text (the first four are in this little poem):

The letter shows us what God and our fathers did;
The allegory shows us where our faith is hid;
The moral meaning gives us the rule of daily life;
The anagogy shows us where we end our strife.

Thus, we have the literal interpretation, the allegorical interpretation, the moral point of the account, and the anagogical (i.e. the spiritual interpretation regarding our future life). Added to these four is the Christological meaning (how is it pointing to, prophesying about, or revealing Christ—even if it was written centuries before his birth?). Each story is a real story (the literal) and a symbolic story (the allegory) at the same time.

Many Christians are uncomfortable with the word allegorical as it might apply to a biblical story. Allegorical has connotations in our modern mind of a fable, a made-up story. But this is not the original meaning of the word. The allegorical interpretation is not a debate about the truth of “facts” (that is the literal interpretation mentioned above), but about the “other” truth, the deeper truth. And an allegory is distinct from a fable. In an allegory:

It is the lesson that is of value; the hearer must catch the analogy if he is to be instructed (this is also true of a proverb). Such a narrative or saying, dealing with earthly things with a spiritual meaning, is distinctive from a fable, which attributes to things what does not belong to them in nature.

The point of an allegory is not to tell an untrue story. The word is derived from the Greek allegoria, a combined word of allo– (other) and –agorein (to speak, proclaim). Recall that Paul spoke in the Agora in Athens in Acts 17 and our word agoraphobia means fear of open places, since the Agora was the central market and speaking area of Greek cities. Literally, allegory means to speak so as to imply something other. It is a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms, a figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another.

So can we accept the Medieval Christian idea that we should look for the allegorical meaning in each text? And what does allegory have to do with the story of Cain and Abel? That’s for next week!

Sources: Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation, 148; Vine’s Dictionary of New Testament Words, 158; and
Artwork: “Allegory of the Cave,” by Atsuko Nakamura (those are salt crystals between the pages of the book).

Shelley’s Sonnet

graniteIn a bizarre piece of prophetic poetry, it seems Percy Shelley anticipated the recent discovery in Egypt of a giant statue. On March 9, 2017, archeologists uncovered large fragments of a quartzite bust which were initially thought to be an image of Ramses II. Further evaluation has led them to believe that it is actually an image of Psammetich I who ruled Egypt from 664 to 610 BC. According to the BBC, “We found the bust of the statue and the lower part of the head and now we removed the head and we found the crown and the right ear and a fragment of the right eye,” Khaled al-Anani, Egypt’s antiquities minister. To make the discovery even more compelling is that it was found deep under an area of Cairo described as a slum.

These unusual facts remind us of Shelley’s sonnet first published almost 200 years ago, in 1818.


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

headActually, that sonnet was written in competition with another poet, Horace Smith, who wrote another sonnet of the same name. These poems may have been prompted by a discovery in their own day of a statue of Ramses II.

The point of the sonnet is rather obvious, and the recent events seem to confirm their truth: men and women of prominence and power—as well as the empires they build—will fade away into oblivion. All their works and acclaim and prestige will not last. Everything they have done will be forgotten. Their fame will end up looking ridiculous.

While this may give us a bit of joy knowing that those in power and seeming greatness will one day be nothing but a pile of rocks in a slum, our own efforts—businesses, projects, influence, wealth, experiences—will also become a mist.

What then? Doesn’t this all sound familiar, even though our own culture fights against such truth tooth and nail?

Remember Ecclesiastes: “All is vanity and a striving after the wind” is the repeated chorus. And it’s true. One is tempted to dissolve into despair or hedonism, but Ecclesiastes does not end that way. Instead, the Teacher reminds us, “The end of matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

That will not be forgotten.

Mother Martin’s Fried Peach Pie

peach pieMy great-grandmother was called “Mother Martin” by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She was a slight woman, in her seventies and small of frame. She stood perhaps 5’ 1’’ and, by that time, weighed only 110 pounds, though she had been heavier only a few years before. Her husband was “Hoyt” and why he was never called “Daddy Martin” has remained a family mystery [See “Hoyt’s Crabapple Tree” posted January 15, 2017]. They lived in a small white frame house in Lufkin. On the front porch grew blue and purple morning glories up several strings running from the ground to the edge of the roof.

Once I was visiting, apparently by myself, so it must have been during my college years. I was hungry, and like every good East Texas woman, she had a sixth sense for that. She offered to make a fried pie. I had never had a homemade fried pie before, and did not realize it actually had to be “made from scratch.” She got out the flour and shortening (“Crisco”) and set about cutting the shortening into the flour, rolling out the dough with an old wooden rolling pin, and placing some homemade peach preserves in the center of the dough. She folded the dough, crimped the edge, and placed it in an old beat-up fry pan, already sizzling with melted Crisco. After the perfect amount of time, she turned the pie over, frying the other side. In a few minutes, a piping-hot fried peach pie was on the table in front of me. My fork cut quickly into the pie. Steam, heat, and peach filling rolled out. My mouth began to water in anticipation. Into my mouth went her wonderful combination of hot, fresh peaches and slightly salty, doughy perfection. My mouth still waters over 40 years later, and I can taste every morsel, and I remember the details of her gift as if it were yesterday.

Why is it that such a memory is so vivid still? I have taken vacations to exotic locales. I have seen wonders created by man. I have listened to St Matthew’s Passion and seen Monet’s “The Magpie”. I have eaten expensive and outstanding meals at top-notch restaurants. Yet it is difficult to remember the details of those tropical islands (“It was pretty”), or the different colors of “white” in the snow of “The Magpie”, or the actual taste of those sweetbreads in that lovely restaurant whose name I’ve forgotten overlooking the hills and valleys of an unnamed and largely forgotten landscape. What portions of Bach’s Passion can I truthfully recall? And what was the name of that “awesome” village nestled in the hills of a forgotten district in Provence, or was it Tuscany?

And yet, and yet, Mother Martin’s peach pie rings clear. The heat, the sweetness and brightness of the peaches she had “put up” herself. The fragrance of sweet dough and the sizzle of the pie frying in Crisco. And, of course, that taste — how can it be described? Not that I have forgotten, but that it approaches the ineffable.

For you see, the pie was never just a pie. It was a gift of love from someone who loved me long before I was even born, who loved me in a way only a great-grandmother can love, who loved me for spending a few hours of my “precious time” to visit an old couple near the end of their days.

That love — that is what I experienced. It was just made manifest in a fried peach pie.





“This Life,” by Randy C. Randall

mirror-man-of-la_1This Life

I met a man on the pier today
He has been given a different life.

His yellowed teeth, his weary voice
Untaught, unschooled, but not by choice
Ignorance gave an oft-crude tongue.
No song of joy, he’d ever sung.
He’d been given unchosen skin.
Along with this, crushed hope within.
Prejudged by most, he’s suffered so.
A wide embrace, he’ll never know.

I saw a woman at the store today.
She has been given a different life.

Grown children three, but none around
Busy with life, they’ve long left town.
Her husband left her years ago,
Alone to struggle blow by blow.
Through parted curtains, she peers outdoors
For friends to come, but nevermore.
Her family was her life and light,
But now she cries into the night.

I met a man at work today
He has been given a different life

Good fortune came along his way.
“Just my hard work,” he’d often say.
His wants fulfilled, his dreams unfold,
He has been given wealth untold.
Collecting travels far and wide,
Never seeing what’s just outside.
Those less gifted? He has no time,
For they had failed to make the climb.

I watched a child on a swing today.
She has been given a different life.

She swings up high into the sky
Joining the sparrows as they fly.
Dancing in cloudland, now she twirls,
Tosses her corona of curls.
She is sunshine to all around
Though giggles and dirt veil her crown.
Trailing glory, unknown to her.
Days pass fast, and become a blur.

I saw myself in the mirror today.
I have been given a different life.

A life I did not make.
A life I won’t forsake.
For only in this life have I known You,
and you and you and you.

Socrates Hates the Alphabet

360px-Socrates_LouvreThis week, I am going to cheat. These few paragraphs are too good to pass up. And I will give credit where it’s due: Rob Kapilow, from his book All You Have to Do Is Listen (page 91-93).

Though we have a modern aversion to memorization, “more than two thousand years ago Socrates feared that the loss of memory would be an inevitable by-product of the discovery of the ‘brand-new’ phonetic alphabet.” [!!!] According to Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates worried that:

“This discovery will created forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The [alphabet] which you have discovered is an aid not to memory but to recollection, and gives only a semblance of truth; they will hear much and learn nothing; they will appear to know much and generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, for they will seem wise without being wise.”

Kapilow adds,

“It is fascinating that Socrates’ belief was echoed by Native Americans more than a thousand years later, when they made contact with white men for the first time. The tribes that met the settlers were astonished by their need to write things down and assumed this could only be a reflection of the White Man’s inferiority and weak memory. In fact, the Shoshone word for “white people” means “those who write things down.” Like the Greeks , the Indians prided themselves on the memory required to sustain their oral cultures, and since there was no need to transmit this knowledge outside of the tribe, there was no need for writing. For Socrates, like Native Americans, real engagement came through memory, not through the written word. When you memorized something, you internalized it, took possession of it, made it your own, made it live inside of you. Writing it down kept it separate and removed. Outside of you. Today, however, we seem to believe the opposite. We think of memorization as a mechanical, distancing activity producing no real engagement with the memorized material, simply the ability to parrot it back.”

Why then, do we also use an unusual phrase to indicate memorization that itself suggests the intimacy of the connection: “by heart”?

Kapilow continues, “As Socrates suggests, for both the listener and the performer [Kapilow was referencing the memorization of music], the process of memorization creates intense engagement with the thing being remembered.” [Italics mine]

Want an intense engagement with God? Perhaps we would do well to think of this when we avoid the memorization of Scripture. How else to keep it close to us, to know it “by heart”?

“What Sort of World” (part 3 of 3)

Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17So what sort of world is this? Is it a world of materiality only—that things are only what they appear to be or what our science tells us? No. This point-of view is rejected by most people, and by me, and by Scripture. Well, then perhaps the “something more” of this world is subjective—it’s what I decide it is. It’s my personal opinion. It’s the meaning that I assign to it as an observer or as the one who experiences it. This is a widely held belief in our society and in our churches, “Well, it is true for me, even if it’s not true for you….After all, ‘Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder’—and so is truth, for that matter.” In this perspective, it is “I” who assigns (or determines) the meaning, the truth, the beauty.

Alas, though this may be the dominant belief today, this is not what Scripture reveals, nor what the church has taught, that is, until the rise of the cult of individualism.

So what does Scripture have to say when we ask the question, “What sort of world is this?” The historic Christian view is a different, more unified account of the reality of this world.

Fr. Stephen Freeman again:

“The world is not simply matter…” [Thus rejecting a mere material universe—part 1 of this little series]

“The world is not simply matter—devoid of any meaning other than that inferred through ideas.” [Thus rejecting the concept that reality is of my own making, the beautiful is what I deem beautiful, truth is what I see as true—part 2.]

“We don’t live in a world of mere things, disconnected and without reference to one another and to God. Creation exists with the capacity to reveal God, ‘For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.’”(Romans 1:20a).

None of this denies the material character of creation. We are certainly material beings and we live in a material universe, but we—and creation—are more than material because God is present everywhere and reveals himself to us through his own creation.

Thus, in one sense, there are two realities: the material reality we see every day and the spiritual reality of God everywhere present, revealing his power and his presence in all created things. But, here is the strange thing: they are not separate realities but one, and that single stunning reality is given to us as a mystery.

Thus, we do not assign meaning, we do not assign beauty, we do not assign truth, we do not assign goodness. It is revealed to us and we discover it—a very big difference. So this world is not a world where we can assign the meanings we choose. However, we can discover the true meaning, we can discover true beauty, we can discover true goodness, but only if we acknowledge that God knows better than we do. We must submit to his way of knowing, his path of righteousness. In humility, he will reveal those things to us.



“What Sort of World” (part 2 of 3)

Hands_of_God_and_AdamIf this world is something more than the obvious, the material, the analyzable, then what is that “something more”?

Fr. Stephen Freeman points out one possibility:

“For some, the problem of many things carrying a double meaning is resolved by placing one of the meanings within the mind of the person who sees it. Thus, something is literally one thing, while a person may understand it to be another. The Sistine Chapel is literally marked by a collection of colors, but is understood as beautiful and a work of genius by an educated witness. Of course, this distinction has the handicap of saying that things are really only their material components—anything more is in the eye (or mind) of the beholder. Thus the significance of reality is somehow less than real—it becomes merely psychological or cultural. This is another manifestation of the two-story universe. The first floor on which we all live is “real,” while the second floor is found “in the understanding” of some.” [italics mine]

Thus, the usual modern response is that the world may indeed have more meaning than its mere materiality. But you and I, the observers, determine that meaning. It is in my mind; it true for me; it’s my opinion. You and I assign its meaning.

Along these same lines, it is common to hear the statement in modern discussions about the meaning of things, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (so put in this modern form by Margaret Wolfe Hungerford).

Both of these viewpoints suggest that, in answering the question, “What sort of world is this?” the answer can be left to the observer—to you, to me—to anyone who cares to venture an opinion. It is the one who is questioned, the one who is looking at the Sistine Chapel who determines the answer.

To sum up, “It is man who assigns the meaning.”

It may well be true that a large group of men will agree that the Sistine Chapel is beautiful, or they may come to a similar answer as to the meaning of the world, but the key to this view is that man is the determiner of that meaning. Man can answer the question accurately.

An obvious problem arises when these men disagree. The disagreement may be due to cultural, psychological, or other factors. What if they come to different conclusions as to the answer to these questions, “What sort of world is this? What sort of people are we?” It’s not long before problems arise, as we can see in our own country this very week.

So, have we found the answer? What sort of world is this anyway?

“What Sort of World” (part 1 of 3)

riverOne of the central triads of the Christian faith is that God is omnipotent (all-powerful, or “Almighty”), omniscient (All-knowing), and omnipresent (everywhere present). This last of the triad, omnipresence, is best understood to be that God is “everywhere present and filling all things.” This phrase is foundational to a particular way of understanding the world—i.e. a sacramental way. A sacramental understanding insists that things are not merely what they appear to be. Things are not just “things.” They are something more. Things are more than they appear because God is everywhere present. In contrast, someone who believes in Literalism or Materialism as an explanation of the world believes that a river is literally a river—and nothing more. But Literalism gives an incomplete and non-biblical view of the world.

Fr Stephen Freeman in his book, Everywhere Present, links the ideas of God being “everywhere present” with the fact that all things are more than they appear to be. He explains:

“What is the Jordan River? It is similar to the question, “Where is God?” On a literal level, the Jordan River cannot be made more the Jordan River than it already is. If God is everywhere present, then on a literal level He cannot be made more present than He already is.

“This is the failure of literalism. It is certainly possible to walk beside the Jordan River and have no idea of where you are. As rivers go, it is just one more stream of water. Angels do not sing as you approach, nor do the waters automatically part when you seek to cross it. The presence of God everywhere is not accompanied by trumpets or Hollywood’s special effects, the lack of such unusual qualities often lead modern men and women to see nothing more than the obvious. It is possible to tour the Sistine Chapel and describe Michelangelo’s ceiling as “a collection of colors.” Such a description, however, could easily evoke the response, “Then you never visited the Sistine Chapel.” [Italics mine]

Is the materialist position correct? Are things only what they appear to be: a river, bread and wine, a person? Is a river merely a quantity of water flowing downhill over rocks and through forests to the sea? Is bread only a mix of yeast and flour and water? Is wine only crushed grapes and yeast? Maybe a person is only a large collection of fantastically complex biochemicals or—perhaps—just a thinking “machine.”

The historic Christian answer is: “No, of course not.”

C. S.Lewis, in his book Voyage of the Dawn Treader, writes of this exchange:

“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.”

Unfortunately, the materialist view has crept into much modern Christian thinking. Yet, our spirits feel a dis-ease with this truncated view of the world. This world seems so much more. Why? Because it is!

So what sort of world is this, anyway?

“It could be worse”

Amy_CarmichaelIn Lake Wobegon, the folks of Norwegian stock are a tough lot. They are not easily excited, except perhaps by a flock of errant geese inside the local Catholic church, Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility. The opposite is true too. They rarely complain when things go awry. Like water off the backs of those geese, frustrations and adverse events (like a failed rhubarb pie), simply cause a momentary pause in their lives. They merely shrug and say, “It could be worse.”

Of course, in real life—the life you and I actually live—much worse things happen than a failed pie, brownies made with salt rather than sugar, or a car that won’t start one cold morning. Sometimes there is very great suffering. Sometimes there is great frustration and grief and tragedy and anguish.

What do we say then? “It could be worse”? Is that the response of true contentment?

Sometimes—perhaps all the time—this is how we deal with problems in our lives. Our idea of contentment is so shallow that we resort to trite expressions which largely mean nothing, and console no one (including ourselves).

And the truth is, it could be worse. Any tragedy and grief can be magnified. Is our rest and recourse merely to acknowledge that we have not suffered ultimate suffering? Doesn’t this make other sufferings, penultimate sufferings, seem of little account?

The insipid statement that “It could be worse” is useless. We cannot deal with our lesser grief and lesser disappointments merely by acknowledging that they could be greater.

Further, these sufferings cannot be truly understood only by recognizing that God has given me much peace and goodness in other areas. The loss of a child is not assuaged by the recognition that I have another child who is healthy or that I have a good job.

So what, then, do we do?

Amy Carmichael (1867-1951) suffered greatly in her life, particularly after a severe fall which injured her so severely that she was confined to bed for many years. She wrote:

“It is twenty-one years this year since I could sit up, and for nineteen years it has been this one position in bed; but isn’t it wonderful that He enables us to triumph, and to rejoice in Him?”

What?! She had been bed-ridden for 21 years? Note that her response was not, “It could be worse. I could have been in bed for 22 years.” Such a statement is cold and uncaring and trivializes her pain.

No. Her response, her source of true contentment, is not that it could have been worse, but that she is able to rejoice in God, to triumph in Him who has made her—and us—“more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37).