genesis

Genesis

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The Beautiful and the Very Beautiful

In the course of arguing in favor of the belief that God created the universe ex nihilo, the third century church father St. Methodius of Olympus asserts that “we must say that it is in the nature of things for arts to be produced in men out of what has no existence.” While the intent of Methodius’s treatise is not to discuss the nature of art nor of human creativity more generally, the assumption underlying his argument is nonetheless a worthy starting place for a discussion of these subjects within a Christian paradigm. Methodius is arguing, in short, that just as human beings create works of art, seemingly, from nothing, so did God create the world from nothing. If man is capable of such a thing, Methodius asks his opponents, then is not God as well capable and to an even greater degree? From this can readily be extrapolated the underlying assumption that this creativity inherent in human nature is an aspect of the likeness of man to God. One can argue from human creativity to divine creativity precisely because human creativity is derived from and is, in a manner of speaking, an imitation of divine creativity. Furthermore, it is in the application of this creative faculty that the difference between the artist, strictly speaking, and the artisan—or, to use terminology of a more recent innovation, the difference between the fine arts and the arts more generally—is to be discerned.

The Genesis account of the creation of the cosmos and man provides scriptural substantiation for these extrapolations from Methodius’s statement. The opening of the book, of course, proclaims, “In the beginning God created . . .” (Gen 1:1). And this is all that the reader approaching the Bible for the first time knows about God by the end of the first chapter: he creates. He creates “the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1); light (1:3); the firmament (1:6); land (1:9); plants and trees (1:11); the sun, the moon, and the stars (1:16); fish and birds (1:20); land animals (1:24); and, at last, human beings (1:26). He is, in addition, a creator who admires his own work a great deal. As he creates, the reader finds that God stops occasionally to observe and proclaim of what he has created that “it was good” (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, and 25) and, at last, following the creation of man, “very good” (Gen 1:31). It is not too much to imagine God as an artist at work, after each addition putting down his brush for a moment, stepping back from the easel, and commenting in approval at what he has accomplished so far: it is good.

The choice of wording in the Septuagint, the popular Greek translation from the original Hebrew of Genesis used by many early Greek-speaking Christians, Methodius included, is indicative of the general orientation of the passage as a whole. The Septuagint records God’s proclamation that his work is καλόν and, in the final emphatic iteration of Genesis 1:31, καλὰ λίαν. The word καλόν carries with it the meaning of “good,” as is expressed in most English translations and in the original Hebrew, but with the additional meanings of “noble” and, perhaps most importantly for the connotations of this passage, “beautiful.” And, following the creation of man, the creation is very good, very noble and very beautiful.

The reader approaching Genesis for the first time, then, will find that God is a creator and an admirer of what is beautiful. At the apex of his creation is the thing that makes it in the end not only “beautiful” but “very beautiful,” namely, a creature “in our image, after our likeness” (Gen 1:26). The obvious implication is that these beings whom “God created . . . in his own image, / in the image of God he created him; / male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27) must, given that they are indeed like him, also be creators and admirers of the good and the beautiful. Further infused into their nature—and it may be assumed by the reader of this account that this too derives from their likeness to God—is the attribute of rulership. God proclaims just before (Gen 1:26) and just after (Gen 1:28) creating man that they will “have dominion” over the earth and over its sundry other inhabitants.

These two characteristics of man as derived from his likeness to God, his creativity and his dominion, are brought together in the vocation assigned to the first man by God, that of gardner. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it,” says Genesis 2:15. Similarly, the primeval man is called upon by God to exercise both dominion and creativity in his naming of the animals. “Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them,” says Genesis 2:19. “And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” The man, through the exercise of his own creative faculty, adds to and, in a sense, completes the work of God. While “God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens,” it is man who decides “what he would call them.” While it was God who “planted a garden in Eden” (Gen 2:8), it is man who is called upon “to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). And even God waits to “see what” he will do (Gen 2:18). While the cosmos is καλόν—good and beautiful—from the moment of its creation by God, it is only καλὰ λίαν—very good and very beautiful—following the creation of man.

While he does not seem to have had the biblical story of creation in mind in this instance, T. S. Eliot’s comments on the creative activity of the poet in his essay on “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism” serve as a useful commentary on the creativity inherent in man’s nature as it appears in Genesis. Poetry, he says, is able to “make people see the world afresh, or some new part of it. It may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves, and an evasion of the visible and sensible world.”

More true, perhaps, in the postlapsarian world than in the world of the primeval garden, what Eliot draws attention to here is the ability of the poet—and of the artist more generally—to participate in the divine creative activity by constantly renewing and revealing the world. The gardner participates in the creative activity of the divine by assisting in the yearly process of the apparent death and rebirth of nature. The poet does the same by revealing and identifying the world of the subconscious, thereby allowing man to make sense of the world of experience, both inner and outer. The painter reveals and renews the world on his canvass by allowing the mind to focus on the beauty of the singular phenomenon he has taken as his subject. In this “evasion of ourselves” and “of the visible and sensible world” we behave destructively; through the renewal and revelation made possible in and through our artistic faculties, we participate in creation.

In his Critique of Judgement, Immanuel Kant reasons in a similar direction when attempting to define the sublime. According to Kant, “it comes that the sublime is not to be looked for in the things of nature, but only in our own ideas.” There is, after all, he continues, “nothing . . . in nature, no matter how great we may judge it to be, which, regarded in some other relation, may not be degraded to the level of the infinitely little, and nothing so small which in comparison with some still smaller standard may not for our imagination be enlarged to the greatness of the world.”

Man’s imagination so far surpasses nature, then, that it is not in nature itself, but in this activity of man upon the world that one finds the truly sublime. “Sublimity, therefore,” he writes a bit later, “does not reside in any of the things of nature, but only in our own mind, in so far as we may become conscious of our superiority over nature within, and thus also over nature without us (as exerting influence upon us).” And it is the artist who allows us to realize and to exercise our dominion over nature through his creative endeavors. Yet again, we see that creation is  καλόν before man’s creative cooperation with God and dominion over the world, but can only be καλὰ λίαν—to be identified with the sublime—with man’s active, imaginative participation.

What Kant refers to as the sublime, Richard Wagner describes as “Das Wunder,” or wonder, in his Opera and Drama. “The poet,” he writes, “must . . . take the phenomena of Life and compress them from their viewless many-member-edness into a compact, easily surveyable shape.” Each facet of the cosmos is, after all, individually καλόν, but only collectively, only when viewed as a whole, and only when viewed after the introduction of the human element, καλὰ λίαν. The poet or the artist must take up the various individually καλόν elements and bring them into such an intelligible and orderly unity that they become καλὰ λίαν as a complete composite. “In virtue of this Wonder,” says Wagner, “the poet is able to display the most measureless conjunctures in an all-intelligible unity.” Like the primeval gardner, the poet makes sense of the created order by endowing it with a humanly orderliness. “The poetic daring,” he continues, “which gathers Nature’s utterances into such an image, can first for us be crowned with due success, precisely because through Experience we have gained a clear insight into Nature’s essence.”

Wagner is quick to point out, however, that this “insight into Nature’s essence” gained through poetry is not the mere building up of systems of doctrine and dogma. “Now, for the operation of its message, the poetising intellect has absolutely no concern with Faith, but only with an understanding through the Feeling,” he writes. Writing of T. S. Eliot, Russell Kirk offers an assessment of the relationship between Eliot’s poetry and Eliot’s faith that provides illumination for Wagner’s claim. “One does not look to Eliot—or to Dante, or to Shakespeare—for irrefragable demonstration of dogma or for an ingenious philosophical system,” writes Kirk. He concludes, “All that poetry of Eliot’s kind can attain is to express one man’s understanding through emotion.” The poet is able to distill and to crystallize experience and emotion. The poet and the artist do not concoct grand theories to explain phenomena; rather, they are able to bring the shared phenomena of human existence to greater clarity and depth.

W. F. Hegel, in his Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, similarly finds that “the universal need for expression in art lies . . . in man’s rational impulse to exalt the inner and outer world into a spiritual consciousness for himself, as an object in which he recognizes his own self.” It is the task of the artist, then, to take up the material provided by nature, both the nature internal to man and the nature external to man, and to transform this nature into something intelligible by man because it is, in part, a product of man. The first man’s act of naming the animals, for example, allowed him to make these animals into something intelligible to him by creatively endowing them with some piece of himself through the names by which he calls them. He did not, notably, create a system of classification for the animal world as a whole. Rather, he knew them each individually and experientially rather than systematically and theoretically.

This provides a line of demarcation by which the artist may be measured against the artisan, or, for that matter, the scientist. While the artisan and the scientist deal in similar matter, they do so for quite different purposes. It is not the prerogative of the artist to systematically explore and classify the material world, as it is for the scientist, for example; the prerogative of the artist, instead, is to reveal and renew that material world. The job of the scientist, in short, is to explain, while the job of the artist is to appreciate. Each of these methods leads to understanding, though of different sorts.

The artisan is closer to the artist in that he works to shape the materials of the natural world into an aesthetically pleasing shape. What is lacking, however, is the component of creativity. The difference here is like the difference between the first, prelapsarian vocation of the primeval man and the second, given as part of the curse following the Fall. While he was at first a gardner, placed in “Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15), he became a farmer. “Cursed is the ground because of you,” says God to Adam, “in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Gen 3:17–19). While the gardner and the farmer both work in the same material of soil, water, plants, and sunshine, the two perform their respective works for divergent reasons. The gardner will “work” and “keep” the earth; he performs his work as a creative participation with nature. By bringing into it human orderliness, he beautifies the natural landscape, and through human creativity he assists the natural process. The farmer, on the other hand, toils that “by the sweat of [his] face [he] shall eat bread.” While he must cooperate with nature, he does so in order to grow the food necessary to survival. Farming, like the work of the artisan, is a necessity. It is what must be done for survival. Gardening, like the work of the artist, is a superfluity performed out of an innate need in man to bring order and to create, but not out of material necessity. It is always one feature of any garden that it is beautiful. It is possible for a garden to consistent entirely of flowers and other plants that will never be eaten but only gazed upon with an admiring eye. The same is not true of the farmer’s field. The field is rarely beautiful and, when it is, the beauty is at best an incidental byproduct of the similarity of the farmer’s vocation to that of the gardner. The intent of great stretches of straight rows of cornstalks is always that they be harvested and consumed, never that they be gazed upon, never that they be admired. The farmer and the artisan may occasionally, and typically accidently, make something καλόν, but only the work of the gardner and the work of the artist can be declared in truth καλὰ λίαν.

Primary Source: Genesis 1 (Creation Story) (Introduction to Western Civilization 2.5)

1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

11 And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.17 And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

20 And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” 21 So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. 25 And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

 

Review

According to Genesis 1, God created the earth in six days. On a sheet of paper, number 1 through 6 and list what God created on each day.

Primary Source: Genesis 22:1-18 (The Binding of Isaac) (Introduction to Western Civilization 2.4)

This story from the Bible is often called the Binding of Isaac. In this story, God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Just before Abraham kills Isaac, however, an angel stops Abraham and tells him that it was all a test to see if he would obey God. Jews, Christians, and Muslims see this story as an outstanding example of perfect faith. What do you think?

 

1After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”

Like Noah, but different …

The first time the story of the universal deluge was told in the version that has come down to us in Genesis, there must have been a great deal of perplexity, no doubt at least a few guffaws, and perhaps even some outrage. The story was well known in the ancient world. The gods had wiped out humankind, save one man and his family, in a worldwide flood. In the earliest versions, the reason seems to have been that the gods were annoyed with man. This clay thing they had created to serve them and work on their behalf had grown too numerous, too proud, and too loud. The man who was spared was spared not because of the mercy of the gods generally or for some special higher purpose but because the god he served warned him in secret.

The author of Genesis, or perhaps someone he heard the story from, took the story and, keeping the framework, turned it on its head. Humans were not clay things made to serve the slothful and severe deities, but the children, made from clay no doubt but clay infused with God’s own spirit, of a just and merciful God created to be his heirs and co-creators, his image and likeness. The deluge was not sent because man had annoyed God but because of man’s own inhumanity to his fellow man, because his moral shortcomings had grown so severe that if God did not destroy him and save only a small remnant, he would destroy himself altogether and the rest of the world as well. And the man who was saved was not saved by some chance and subterfuge, but because of God’s greater plan for mankind. The effect must have been stunning. It was, at least, to make of the story something that would last through the ages, being given a variety of fascinating interpretations by its various readers, inspired by the enduring and timeless nature of the tale, a tale which conveys a powerful message about God, about man, about stewardship, about the world, about mercy, about sin and about much else.

The effect of seeing the new movie about this story is similar in many ways. It is an interesting and surprising twist on the old story. Even living, as we do, in a post-Christian wasteland, surely the general moviegoer is familiar with the story of Noah according to the biblical tradition. He therefore approaches this movie with certain expectations which, when defied, might leave him delighted at the surprise or perhaps disappointed at the alterations of the beloved tale. I left the movie theater early this evening carrying a bit of each.

The story told in this movie is a good one, but it simply is not the story of Noah. The creators of this movie have done with the biblical tale of Noah the equal and opposite of what the biblical author did the Babylonian story. Whereas the biblical author adopted the framework of the earlier story and altered its meaning, the creators of this movie have maintained the essence of the biblical story in much of its meaning while altering the tale. This is defensible, given that it serves to create a certain sense of suspense even among viewers who would almost certainly be familiar with the story.

To be honest, I found it rather a positive point that God is not present in the movie in a direct thunderous-voice-from-heaven sort of way. Instead, Noah is forced to grappled with the unapparent presence of God in the same way that we all are. He must discern the will of his creator without the creator coming down from heaven and spelling it out for him. In addition, given that the special effects were not what I would expect from a movie in 2014 (the Watchers, angelic beings trapped in bodies of rock, for example, seemed a bit cheesy and out of date in their appearance), I would happy not to see the kind of cheese I was expecting from the depiction of God.

That said, unlike the transformation of Babylonian myth to biblical story, I think the majority of the modifications of the Noah story did not move it in a positive direction. Instead, the twists and modifications made for a more convoluted telling which ended up with the same and expected ending anyway. The addition of the Watchers might have been done better, but might also have been left out altogether, and the story line involving the birth of Shem’s twin daughters should have ended up on the cutting room floor. There were surely better ways to make the point that Noah was given the choice by God to decide whether mankind would continue. It was a good point (and not too far a step outside of the biblical tradition when the stories of the Torah are taken together) to add, but added in the wrong way.

What was best about the movie was what was true to the biblical tradition. I very much enjoyed, for example, the scene in which Noah tells the creation story of Genesis to his sons (though I wish they would have just used the text of Genesis 1 rather than summarizing it) while a beautiful scene showing the cosmos, the creation of the earth, and the evolution of animal life plays. Similarly, I think the film did a wonderful job of emphasizing the triumph of mercy and love over sin, of presenting faith in a positive way and of reinforcing the place of man as steward of the created world and responsible for either its flourishing or its destruction. Ultimately, the creators of the movie should have stuck much closer to the original story or just told a different story altogether.

In spite of my objections, I do recommend the movie. It is worth one view, but I would not go back for seconds. Plus, let’s be honest, the book is always better.