Chaos, Order, and Grace: Greg Mobley Makes Sense of the Entire Old Testament
Greg Mobley and I began seminary at the same time. Naturally enough, we found each other, as well as a cadre of other off-kilter Southern Baptists. Our group could be profane and heretical but harmlessly so. It was in the service of being as true as we could to a transformative, Jesus-loving faith that—by then, we were all painfully aware—had become stiflingly drenched in Southern white culture, embarrassingly anti-intellectual, and mostly blind to social issues. We questioned beliefs, ridiculed prominent Baptists, and wrestled with theological notions. Yes, we could have moved on to another, more highfalutin, astute Christian bunch (some did), but we wanted to be the hipsters bringing funny-wise relevance to the faith of our birth and nurturing. We watched discussion-worthy movies together, celebrated and mourned election results, planned how to end world hunger, marched against militarism and racism. We were a witty, brainy bunch, as we saw it, trying to follow Jesus with intelligence and have loads of fun doing it.
Tall and handsome, Greg was the best basketball player on campus. (You’re thinking, How good do you have to be to beat a bunch of ministers? Yeah, but, still, he was the best.) At parties, where we sang a lot of Springsteen and all manner of rock-n-roll and drank a lot of beer, he knew just about every song. He has a good voice. (When he didn’t know the words to a song, he made them up, seamlessly.) He married one of the smartest women I’ve met. (Now divorced—it happens.) Some of us continued into church ministry, some social work, some academics, chaplaincy, other things. A number of us earned doctorates, but then there was Greg: Some (like me) hung around the same seminary, comfortable with the teachers and routines, but that dude—he went to Harvard. Now he teaches at a Boston-area seminary, Andover Newton, and has two outstanding basketball playing sons and a genius daughter.
And he’s a heck of a writer. This space is devoted to his latest book, The Return of the Chaos Monsters—And Other Backstories of the Bible. I have always used the Old Testament in bits and pieces, overlooking huge chunks of it when I needed something to read for devotion or to prepare a sermon. Seeing and discerning the full sweep and arc of the OT—historically, theologically, narratively—never interested me. Actually, it intimidates me. It’s long and complex, archaic; much of it is boring. And now here’s Greg saying he has a thematic structure that pulls the whole thing together. That alone is admirable. Chaos Monsters is beautifully written, both serious and playful, thoughtful, fun, insightful, with Greg’s own story woven in here and there. He draws from a creative range of sources: scholars, poets (including Wendell Berry from Greg’s home state of Kentucky), TV, quantum physics, American folk songs, Dr. Seuss, and movies.
“Story” sounds so simplistic and easy, childlike, hardly academically rigorous, but Greg knows that story is how we humans find and express meaning: “Each story leads to another as our minds seek to interpret, connect, and harmonize each new story into that single masterpiece we all author, consciousness’s magnum opus, every soul’s work, the Song of Myself” (p. 6). [Then there’s this exquisite, compact sentence, which managed to take me to three different places: “We are so adept at this meaning-making through narrative that we can do it in our sleep, a dozen times every night, often with bizarre results” (p. 7).] I know I am biased toward him because we are buddies, but I will say that Greg does as fine a job as I have read in explaining the role of narrative, story, in human life and how we make meaning of our lives. Greg explains that story-telling is one of many “registers,” or styles, that we use to communicate, so “We are all multiregisteral polymaths, consciously or unconsciously changing our voices according to circumstance and audience” (p. 54). Story is no less valuable than other registers, such as sermons or academic lectures or essays or poems. Each of those has its appropriate circumstance, which gives them their power, and narrative is a particularly effective way of saying, Here is what God is trying to tell us. Hence, much of the Bible is story.
From studying Hebrew and history, interpreting ancient tales, learning from theologians who had already figured some things out, and gazing inquisitively at human behavior, Greg found seven “backstories” that underlie the OT, with all seven backstories being variations on this theme: “the dynamic interplay of order and chaos.” So across the OT, Greg explains, the backstories give meaning to the various stories, sayings, and prophecies that make up the seven main categories of OT writings. The backstories are themes, motifs, big ideas—concepts that are in the background but help us make sense of what’s in the foreground. Greg describes the categories of OT writings, then illustrates how the backstory of each category plays out in the text, and the reader begins to make sense of this interplay between God and humans. God has a role. Humans have a role. The prophets, well, they have several roles.
God and God’s people need to work together to manage chaos, which can refer to the many awful things that can happen to, and by, humans: hunger, violence, oppression, crime, deceit, you name it. The cooperation between us and God isn’t a simple formula in which everyone who is faithful lives all grapes and ice cream, and the unfaithful languish in agony. Greg knows better. The Bible, thank goodness, knows better, too. But faithfulness by humans is crucial.
The above paragraph is a decent summary of what Greg is saying, but, darn it, he sums it up better: “My main task here is to help you see the big ethical story of the Bible, namely, that humans have been created to be partners with God in managing chaos and preserving the created order. What we do, or don’t do, what we omit or commit: it matters. When we uphold virtue, we make the world more secure; when we trespass, we risk awakening chaos and unleashing destruction.”
Here are a few of my favorite parts of Greg’s book.
I grew up, as Greg did, being taught that “Jewish law” was a stultifying limitation on the human spirit, an endless, dreary list of do’s and don’t’s, and that Jesus freed us from its strictures with grace and love—if we really, truly believed in Him deep in our hearts. We would then do all the right things because we wanted to, not because a bunch of spirit-encumbering rules told us to. My Christian community used first-century Judaism as a foil, and we hammered away on “law.” Jesus, we boasted, wielded that hammer deftly, and we were following His lead. But Greg beautifully reminds us that Jesus wasn’t, in fact, stepping all over law; he was “playing the game of Torah by its own rules” (p. 37) when he accepted the Torah as authority but reinterpreted it, as did the many wise rabbis recorded in the Jewish Talmud who worked out what it means in day-to-day living to be faithful to the Torah. Those particular demands (or rules) are important for any “grown-up major world religion” (p. 37) that wishes to persist, but some of them look silly to future generations, so there is re-interpretation. This relationship involving humans, God, and chaos is guided by “law” but is dynamic and subject to revision—not because Torah (and the rules drawn from it) was wrong but because it wasn’t meant to be stuck in a long ago era.
Like many people I know (well, pretty much anyone with a Bible), I have quoted Old Testament prophets selectively. When they help me rail against racism, poverty, or oppression, I unleash them and let them wreak their judgment. There is a Top Ten or so of prophetic proclamations that we leftist Christians hang our hats on. That omits scads of material that I find puzzling or uncomfortable. Greg makes me feel better about this, saying the Bible has “epic inconsistencies and ethical incredulities” and is “all over the place” (p. 72) theologically because the history of faith in God is a partnership. The stories in the Bible, and the meanings and beliefs we draw from them, emerge from what humans say and do, not only what (drum roll) God Pronounces. His book doesn’t so much provide beliefs or principles (although it does that broadly) as it describes a method that Greg observes. I don’t have to ignore Biblical ethical incredulities, or other parts that make us cringe, because they are a part of the story along the way. Is the Bible patriarchal? Why, yes. They were. But humans now should know the oppressiveness of patriarchy and, via “the mutual partnership of God and humans in redemption,” work for its diminishment; otherwise, the chaos-consequences of it will make the world less than it can be.
(In the Baptist faith of my youth, saying that the Bible is all over the place and that head-scratchers are in there because humans were in the mix would be a fatal flaw. If it’s not 100% from God but is only 99.9%, well that .1%, we thought, meant it was a false religion. Into the reject pile you go; join us or you’re off to Hell one day.)
If you don’t read anything else in this book, read pp. 72-96, about the method that God and the Latter Prophets use when they are trying to control chaos and keep the faithful faithful. P. 84 lays this out in five steps of a cyclical drama involving God, the prophets, and the community (he calls this a menage a trois—heh heh), but don’t go straight to p. 84; read what leads up to it first. Here is where Greg rescues the prophets from having to be prophets-that-I-approve-of-all-the-time. (There is even a time when God says, “Oops, I was mistaken” p. 80.) In this drama, a prophet may represent God and speak angrily to the community about what they need to do or stop doing, or may represent the community and speak to God, asking God to be merciful despite their deeds. Some of it is manipulative behavior (there’s a fair amount of good cop/bad cop), so you may read this and think this sounds like a dysfunctional family, and maybe it is, but that’s what you get when God doesn’t simply dictate but works with humans to deliver salvation—albeit in fits and starts and clumsily and incompletely. (We may serve an awesome God, but crooks still thieve, oppressors oppress, and sinners sin.) These stories of the prophets aren’t clean fables with clean lessons. They are stories of trying to live out the faith in the real, messy world.
It’s also what you get when our sacred Scriptures are accounts humans compose in order to show, the best they can, God’s presence in our lives. Underlying this drama (and I mean “drama” in both the usual sense of dramatic story and the exasperated sense of “too much drama”), God’s ethical message is still true and good: “of moral cause and effect, of justice and righteousness” (p. 96), and the community of faith should continue to uphold it. The Biblical story of working it out, however, is hardly a straight line from belief to heaven-on-earth, and thanks to Greg’s book, that is inspiring, not disappointing.
The chapter on wisdom literature similarly reminds us that the Bible is populated with human beings, not necessarily super-religious higher-level spiritual heroes. Wisdom literature isn’t so keen on saying Israel is different from other cultures and even includes a lot that it has in common with them. This literature isn’t afraid to say other people have good ideas too. It is “the most international of biblical genres.” (Job, in fact, is “a legendary wise man from someone else’s culture,” i.e., a foreigner , p. 119.) Wisdom literature, if I’m following Greg correctly, is in touch with universal concepts that cross cultures and religions. (One problem, of course, is that each religious or cultural perspective thinks they have an exclusive claim on truth, which means we have, oh, The Crusades and ISIS beheadings and such.)
Some wisdom writings are “bewildering, more statements of doubt than of faith” (p. 111). To me, that makes the Bible more accessible to normal people. Greg says the backstory of this literature is that there is a Great Plan that God has in mind for the world and that it is built into creation, but we (and the wisdom writers) grasp it partially, sporadically—then sometimes forget it. We see God’s Great Plan in fragments, and we count on the wise and eloquent ones among us to see the patterns among the fragments and proclaim what they mean. This means the world—human lives and communities—can be unruly even though God is alive and active. God created a world that is “wild” and “free” so that when we do the right thing, it’s because we choose to. When we don’t, here comes chaos again, and real people can get hurt. The message of Job, in fact, is that chaos is a part of our reality, that God’s Great Plan isn’t always carried out. The hoped-for relationship between faithfulness and the good life happens much of the time, but not all the time. That’s the world we have, the Bible tells us.
Please, read about Satan, pp. 131-3. I feel much better about not having a clear picture of what the Bible says about him. He’s not one consistent figure but is an amalgam of characters and stories. One story gets recounted the most these days, but that is thanks to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. When I was a teen, a church friend told me he once invited The Devil to have a talk with him, and he (my friend) said he felt a shiver of instant fear. That’s pretty much what we thought: Satan was a mysterious, evil fiend who sneaked into your life and tricked you into snubbing God’s good ways. Intense prayer kept him at bay. We used to ask God to “bind Satan” from where we were.
Greg reminds us that while we may fear Satan, we love his “miniatures” in stories: “all the portraits of countless fictional criminal masterminds and evil comic book kingpins from Lex Luthor to Doctor Doom” (p. 135).* The narrative precursors of what we would later call Satan are here in apocalyptic literature, during a time when things seemed so hopeless and desperate that stories to inspire the faithful needed to be highly dramatic and fantastical. So perhaps, Greg posits, the Biblical story includes humanity’s Biggest Opponent as a necessary character: “his opposition has benefits, forcing God, the angels, and the saints to bring their best game. Satan makes life easier for theists, giving them a focal point for their frustrations, providing them with a common enemy” (p. 137). Whether that’s literally true is irrelevant. What is relevant is that the Biblical story, using its methods and styles (even if we wish it were some other style, perhaps more straightforward, or with neat bullet points), inspires us to be faithful, feed the hungry, spread God’s love, free the oppressed—or, to use Greg’s terminology, overcome, or at least manage, chaos with good.
(*This way of connecting across the ages is impressive. We tend to project onto the Bible the assumptions and sensibilities of our era, and the result is often a false confidence in our hunches. But Greg shows there is a common humanity (i.e., fascination with dramatic apocalyptic stories as a way of coping) across the ages, and he sets it solidly in the Biblical historical setting and in our setting. That is no easy feat and requires a delicate touch. Push that connection too far, and you’ve reached parody-ville. You’re saying: Because I feel a certain way as I read Psalm 23, that’s how they must have felt. Greg, however, gives the past and the present their own integrity.)
Greg wraps it up, in a brief chapter, with what strikes me as what might have begun as an “aha” inspiration for him during the writing of the bulk of this book, and it percolated and simmered in his mind until the insight emerged: Here’s a backstory to the backstories. (I also suspect this last chapter may grow into a future book.) Greg points to three stories that involve windows and rescues, two from the Old Testament, one from the New, and in all three the male heroes are vulnerable and helpless. They are rescued in two of the stories by women and in the third by an unnamed group of disciples: unsung heroes. This image of emerging through a window in need of help by women brings to mind childbirth, which for every human is the ultimate gift, the beginning of life, over which we have no control, and which calls for total dependence on love. Preach on, Greg: we are all here by grace.
On p. 128, Greg tells briefly of his teenage infatuation with end-of-the-world literature and its fantastical predictions. We haven’t talked about this in detail, but my impression is that his spiritual development is similar to mine: Teenage-naivety-and-zealous-faith followed by tempered-realism/skepticism-shaped-by-the-academic-study-of-the-Bible-in-college, which led to the-onset-of-mature-blossoming-of-a-well-rounded-faith-in-seminary. Something like that. We hit it off as friends in the third phase but probably would have in the other two also. Our like-minded take on Christian faith (and love of basketball) would have drawn us together, I think. This is part of my enjoyment of this book. The content is stimulating, but it is also gratifying to see one of us succeed so well.