I caught a snippet on the radio this morning, from a discussion amongst novelists on what led them to start reading books. One particular author, whose name I didn’t catch, but who is evidently Glaswegian from his accent, said that he first read to escape from the chaotic nature of his family life.
His childhood was beset by constant violence and the threat of his parents breaking up, by a stream of different parental girlfriends and boyfriends, and so by lack of any clear landmarks on which to build a life. He would retreat to the public library when it was open, or to his bedroom with a pile of books when it was shut. And the thing he discovered thatsaved him, which impressed me, was that novels have a beginning, a middle and and end, in contrast to the meaningless jumble of events he met in the real world of home.
I say “real world” because that was his unfortunate reality. My childhood reality – and perhaps yours – whilst possessing occasional troubles, conflicts and tragedies, nevertheless had an overall narrative. I was reminded of that last week when helping my eldest granddaughter in her school holiday project of tracing her family origins. Her planned week with us was providential, since I am the family genealogist. The events I was able to tell her, strange people and aberrant relationships included, nevertheless formed a story, quite unlike the apparently meaningless connections between the events of my author’s family. Our granddaughter fits into that, and through it into the world.
One could argue (as many atheists do) that the narrative meaning of my “normal” family life is an illusion, in the grand scheme, and that the author’s chaotic childhood tells a greater truth about “what the world is really like”, devoid of meaning and purpose and full of pitiless indifference. I would have to demur, in that this man emerged from futility to tell his story (as a rational story) only because the order he found in those books prevailed in his own life: light overcame darkness. If chaos is the underlying reality, then the illusion of order is still indispensible for our well-being. Indeed, only the illusion of order enables us even to comprehend something about chaos as the absence of order.
I feel this brief lesson from the BBC has application to the whole business of creation. For if the physical laws and rational order studied by science reveal a rational structure to the universe, only the narrative of teleology supplies that structure with its fourth dimension. But in truth, if God is the author of this particular novel, neither the discovery of mere physical coherence, nor even the admission to science that the universe is going in some general direction, provides the kind of order that we really need for fully human life.
After all, even in Glasgow’s poverty and social breakdown, chaos actually arose from the abuse of order and the deprivation of the knowledge, or the desire, concerning how to use it better. Alcohol reliably produced oblivion, a punch or two reliably kept a woman tied to one by fear, and you still died if you didn’t earn, or steal, or claim benefits, for food. Chaos is actually the parasite, not the foundation, of reality.
God’s narrative in the Bible, therefore, is not usefully seen (if one claims to be a believer) as a human attempt to make sense of the world in a religious way, which sits below some general truths about how to behave and so on. Rather, the overall story it tells is what makes it possible to live as humans formed in God’s image at all. A truthful revelation of that story is as much as, or more of, a logical outcome of the world’s origin in a wise and loving God as any scientist’s observation that we live in a cosmos, not a chaos. A divinely-ordered creation without a divinely-revealed narrative – cosmos without torah – would be liable to revert to formlessness, in the human sphere.
The creation story of Genesis 1 and the story of Adam and Eve in the ensuing chapters have, of course, their own narrative meaning. But as stories they make sense mainly in the context of the entire Bible, which for all its diversity of genre from chronicle to poetry, prophecy to apocalyptic, and mythic history to parable nevertheless tells a coherent tale of the universe with a beginning, a middle and an end.
As the BBC programme went on to discuss, novels can tell a great deal of truth even though they are made up. But stories can tell plausible lies as well – I could probably describe a good many instances where my avid childhood reading actually hindered, rather than nurtured, ny development as a human being. If the narrative by which one lives is flawed, many evils can result. There are many flawed narratives, but only one divinely-inspired narrative. And so I maintain that the Bible is as important a part of God’s provision as “seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night.”
As someone once said, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus meant by that the unabridged novel, of course, not just an anthology.