The Story is Mightier Than the Sword
Written By: Wendell Krossa
The following is an outline on grand narratives.
The course of human history is not shaped by rulers, political leaders or marching armies nearly as much as it is shaped by its great story-tellers. These are story-tellers with big ideas, but they embody those ideas in grand narratives that sometimes capture the human imagination on a scale that can shape human culture and even change the course of history.
The founders of the Christian movement were story-tellers. Christianity began as an insignificant movement in lower class society, but it went on to capture the Roman Empire. It was able to profoundly shape Western culture because it embodied its theology in a grand narrative of the world that appealed to the Greco-Roman world.
Islam was stunningly successful because Mohammed was able to embody his ideas in a grand narrative that appealed to the Semitic culture of the Arab world.
Joseph Smith was a great story-teller. Mormonism would not have enjoyed its success in America unless it had embodied its ideas in its own grand narrative of the world.
Karl Marx revamped the Judeo-Christian narrative about the Fall of man at the dawn of history. Marxism would not have enjoyed its international success unless its revolutionary ideas were embodied in a grand narrative about mankind’s Fall from the ideal world of communism at the dawn of human history.
Other story-tellers gave birth to the modern Environmental Movement. Like Marxism before it, Environmentalism has embodied its ideas in a story re-vamping the old narrative of the Fall of man at the dawn of history. We are now told that the world that has to be restored is the ideal one that existed when mankind lived in harmony with an unspoiled natural world. This environmental grand narrative obviously resonates with an enormous number of people.
Within all of these grand narratives, there are story-tellers who embody their ideas in stories that live within the larger stories. These stories spawn movements within bigger movements or political parties within nations. This is how it was when the Protestant Reformation formed within the broader Christian World; or the Labor Movement was formed in Australia with its grand narrative of becoming “a light on the hill.”
Mankind does not live by ideas alone, but by ideas that are embodied in stories. Ideas become powerful weapons only when they are embodied in a grand narrative. To re-phrase an old truism, the story is mightier than the sword.
THE TWO MOST INFLUETIAL STORIES EVER TOLD
The two most influential stories ever told are the story of the lost Paradise and the story of the Exodus out of Egypt. Their impact does not derive solely from their being imbedded in Judeo-Christian Scripture. They are what Jung calls “archetypal stories,” meaning that they have become templates for re-telling them in a whole variety of ways. This is how these two stories are both very old and very new.
Whether these stories actually happened or to what extent they are myths makes no difference. Ideas that are embodied in story are no less powerful because the stories are myths. The old Greek legends about Achilles, Prometheus, Narcissus and others were no less winsome because they were myths.
There are many versions of the story about the lost Paradise at the dawn of history. The ancient Greeks had their story of a lost Golden Age. Within most nations and religious movements there are stories of a legendary period of the founding fathers, followed by a great falling away from how things used to be. These stories inspire dreams of finding a way back to how things were at the beginning. Rousseau (1761) dreamed about a return to the age of “the noble savage.” The Marxists dreamed of a return to the state of pure communism that they said existed at the dawn of human history. Environmentalism now dreams of a return to how things were when mankind lived a simple life in harmony with nature.
The archetypal story of the Exodus has also been re-enacted or re-lived again and again. The early Christian Church saw itself re-living the Exodus when it broke away from Judaism to begin the journey of the Christian movement. So did the Reformers when they made their exodus from Rome to begin the Protestant movement. The Pilgrim Fathers who set out from the Old World in the Mayflower to find their Promised Land in the New World of America fondly thought of themselves as re-living the story of the Exodus. So did the Boers in their Great Trek to South Africa. So did the Mormons in their journey from Michigan to Salt Lake City. So did Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement in the United States . So did the Liberation Theologians in South America who embodied their ideas in a new Exodus story. The Hebrew dream of the Promised Land forms the template of the American dream, the African dream and all Third World dreams of a better life. The Exodus story is right up there among the greatest stories ever told because it is a universal story of the quest to improve the human condition.
THE EXODUS MODEL
The story of Exodus is overwhelmingly the dominant story in Hebrew history and scripture. Hereunder we identify the main features of this classical, archetypal story.
(1) It is a story with a very unpromising beginning
The story begins at a time when Egypt was building pyramids as monuments to its unrivalled political and religious power. Firmly under Egypt’s control and subjected to appalling conditions of slavery, was a minority group known as the Hebrews. They were descended from a tribe of shepherds, a class of people whom the Egyptians had traditionally despised. As the Hebrews came to recite, “My father was a homeless Aramaean who came down to Egypt…But the Egyptians ill-treated us, humiliated us and imposed cruel slavery upon us.” (Deuteronomy 26:5). One of the prophets likened the human circumstances of Hebrew beginnings to the state of child that is helpless, filthy and abandoned. (Ezekiel 16:5) One could hardly imagine a more unpromising national beginning than this one.
(2) It is a story of a human progress.
When the Hebrews escaped from Egypt and settled in Palestine, it soon became apparent that the so-called Promised Land left a lot to be desired. Compared to the fertile lands along the Nile river in the south or the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the north, Palestine’s land was all too hilly, rocky, without a great river system and subject to uncertain rainfalls. The territory was also infested with hostile tribes who were not inclined to put out a welcome mat for the refugees from Egypt. The Promised Land was more a potential than an empirical realization. The Hebrews may have put a foot on some real estate, but turning it into the Promised Land was to become a work in progress.
The early part of this historical journey was quite messy and marked by all too much violence and bloodshed which, unfortunately, the Hebrews undertook in God’s name. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins has a field day finding things to ridicule about this God of the Hebrews. It is true that their vision of God rose no higher than their vision of what it meant to be human – as it never does! Dawkin’s argument is like criticizing the American dream because the Pilgrim Fathers mistreated the Indians.
It is not until we come to the great Hebrew prophets ( 7 – 8th century BCE) that the Exodus narrative unfolds into an astonishing vision of a truly humane future for mankind. The theology and the ethic of the prophets is based on the Exodus narrative. Rarely has any literature of any age risen to the high moral and ethical vision of the prophets, or excelled the fury of their passionate protest against man’s inhumanity to man. With them, the Exodus demands a liberation from every form of human oppression and injustice. It meant that the Hebrew people were obligated to treat others with the same kind of compassion and liberating justice that had been extended to them in the great Exodus event. What mattered to the prophets was not observing religious rituals or offering sacrifices at the temple, but becoming truly human in the practise of justice, mercy and humility.
This prophetic vision of the Promised Land meant creating a society in which nobody would be without food, clothing or shelter. It meant that no human being would oppress another human being. The prophets even dreamed of a land in which no one would be sick. In an age when the average human life span was no more than about 30 years, they dreamed how this would improve to 100 years. (We are not quite there yet!)
Finally, this vision of the Promised Land expanded to take in the world. The nations of earth would see the light and learn what it means to be truly human. They would beat their swords into plough shears and their spears into pruning hooks. “Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” The time would come when even the wild beasts would find a peaceful existence. The lion and the lamb would lie down together and a little child would lead them.
In short, the Exodus story finally unfolds as a journey toward universal brotherhood and peace. It is a story of unlimited human progress, an ever improving human condition. Even the environment is depicted as sharing in the benefits of this humanizing process. The goal of the journey is always ahead. It is never a story about going back to some better, Golden Age in some mythical past. As one of the Hebrew prophets put it, “Before us is a garden of Eden, and behind a desolate wilderness.”
(3) It is a story is about a journey within the historical process
From beginning to end the Exodus story is about a journey in this world within the historical process. It is not an allegory of a journey to another “heavenly” world as in the Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress. To be sure, the Biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt was embellished with some legendary flair, but for all that, Egypt was a real place with a real history. The Hebrew settlement in Palestine took place in real history. Notwithstanding the legendary elements that became part of the story, the violence and bloodshed of this early period was also a real part of the historical process.
In the great Hebrew prophets, the Exodus journey always remained firmly set in this world with the goal of the journey seen as something achievable within the historical process.
THE APOCALYPTIC MODEL
Around 200 BCE, the Jews (as the Hebrews were now called) abandoned the worldview that was based on the Exodus model and the vision of the Hebrew prophets. They developed another worldview that became known as Apocalyptic.
(1) Apocalyptic was theology of despair.
During the Second Temple era that began around the 5th century BCE, the Jews suffered a series of setbacks and national calamities that crushed their hopes of realizing their national dreams within the historical process. They developed another grand narrative to explain why the present age is hopelessly flawed. It was a “theology of despair” called Apocalyptic
(2) Apocalyptic was based on the mythology of a lost Golden Age
This “theology of despair” was based on the grand narrative about the Paradise that was lost through the defection of Adam and Eve at the dawn of history. Until around 200 BCE when Jewish Apocalyptic developed, the story of Genesis 2 never received any attention in Hebrew thinking. It played no role at all in the theology of the Hebrew prophets. It was as if this story of the lost Paradise lay unnoticed in the nest of Hebrew Scripture like some cuckoo egg until it hatched out as Jewish Apocalyptic.
This raises the question of how a story so fundamentally at odds with the Exodus story got to be included in Hebrew scripture. Did the early Hebrews know that the Genesis 2 story even existed? Did the Hebrew prophets know it existed? We do know that the story of man’s Fall in Genesis 2 is remarkably like an old Persian mythology about a Fall from an original age of light into the present age of darkness. We also know that Judaism absorbed a lot of Persian influences when it came under the sway and patronage of the Persian Empire.
We can’t go into some of these intriguing literary questions here, but one thing is crystal clear: all the Jewish Apocalyptic books of this era ( The Book of Enoch, Jubilees, Tobin, Ezdras 1 and 11, etc.) based their entire theology or worldview on the grand narrative of the Fall of man and the lost Paradise.
(3) Apocalyptic was a model of human regression and inevitable decline
The grand narrative of the Fall from the age of light meant that this present age was given over to the powers of evil. The narrative meant that the national dreams would never be realized within the historical process. Until this historical process ends we can only expect things to become worse and worse. History all runs downhill and everything is in inevitable decline.
Apocalyptic was like a theological version of the Second Law of thermodynamics.
(4) Apocalyptic put its hope in an end to the historical process.
In Jewish Apocalyptic (as in Persian Apocalyptic before it), the only hope was for this present age to be swept away by a violent act of divine intervention. Apocalyptic put its hope in the arrival of a new age beyond the cataclysmic revolution, beyond the historical process.
The word “Apocalyptic” came from a word meaning “something revealed.” Apocalyptic not only revealed this catastrophic, revolutionary future, but it revealed ways people could prepare for it and even hasten its arrival. Some of these ways were innocent enough (like ritual baths or strict Sabbath observance), but some of them were fanatical and violent.
(5) Apocalyptic was fundamentally ahistorical and surreal.
Jewish Apocalyptic was based on the account of a world at the beginning of time that never did exist. In despair of this world, Apocalyptic turned its back on the present historical process and put its hope in the arrival of an end-time event that was as surreal as the Golden Age at the beginning of time. Even the literature of Apocalyptic was filled with lurid images of surreal animals and symbols that did not exist in the real world. It created a world of religious fantasy.
(6) Apocalyptic was soaked in bloodshed and violence
Jewish Apocalyptic was all about the process of history coming to a violent end. It not only saw this end as imminent, but prayed, hoped and worked to hasten its arrival. To use some famous imagery from Schweitzer, Apocalyptic not only waited expectantly for the wheel of history to turn, but it threw itself on the wheel to make it turn. The results were not pretty.
In the older Persian mythology, the sons of light and the sons of darkness would be locked in conflict with each other until a great final battle at the end of history would deliver one side and destroy the other. Those who counted themselves on the right side demonized those on the other side. This aspect of Persian Zoroastrianism was absorbed into Judaism (and was perpetuated within Christianity) It inevitably produced a lot of hostility and sectarian violence – not just violence toward the national enemies such as the Syrians and the Romans, but violence toward those in opposing Jewish factions.
Apocalyptic inspired the Jews in the time of the Maccabeus to fight their Syrians oppressors with amazing courage and ferocity. At the same time, Jewish factions demonized and slaughtered those who were in opposing factions. As very graphically described by Josephus, this kind of sectarian mayhem and murder was still going on with incredible ferocity in the city of Jerusalem even while the Roman armies had the city under siege (69-70 CE) and were about the burn the whole city and destroy its temple. The Apocalyptic fanatics went on with this kind of sectarian violence while they confidently awaited for a divine intervention to punish both Romans and their factional opponents.
What they proved has been demonstrated many times in history. What hopes for violence ends in violence. Apocalyptic embellished its vision of the end with frightful, worse-than- pornographic images of the a fiery hell full of eternal torments that awaited the national enemies and everyone else counted among “the sons of darkness.”
Apocalyptic demonstrated that those who go down this road of demonizing their opponents and proclaiming that they will soon be objects of the end-time vengeance, will themselves not just hope they will be punished, but will become all too willing to start that punishing process.
Jewish Apocalyptic inspired a revolt against Rome that was never going to succeed. The city was reduced to a heap of ruins, its temple was completely destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of Jews perished. It was not the kind of end-time that Apocalyptic had hoped for, but for Judaism – its culture, its history, its priesthood and temple that never would exist again – it was the end of their world. One might have thought that Jewish Apocalyptic would never raise its sorry head again in another revolt against Rome. But it did just that about 60 years later in one final sally known as the bar Cockbar Revolt . Bar Cockbar was an insurgent warrior Messiah who led his countrymen in one final bloody Apocalyptic assault on Rome who by this time lost all patience with the Jews. Not only was this military messiah and all his followers put to the sword, but thousands of Jews were slaughtered. Jews were totally banished from their homeland. Any uncircumcised male found in Palestine was summarily put to the sword on the spot.
After this latest disaster, the rabbis, who were now in control of Judaism, pronounced a curse on anybody within their community who promoted Apocalyptic again.
Was this to be the end of Apocalyptic? Not at all, because another fledging movement had taken it up, having inherited it from Judaism. The movement was called Christianity.
Outline of what is to come:
- Judaism was the mother of Christianity. At the time of its birth, the mother was suffering from an Apocalyptic fever – Christianity imbibed Apocalyptic in the mother’s milk.
- Kasemann: “Apocalyptic was the mother of all Christian theology
- Christian theology was set within the framework of the grand narrative of the Fall of man. This story was basic to the Christian narrative – St. Paul Romans 5, the controversies between Athanasius and Arius, Anselm and Abelard illustrates how basic the lost Paradise/Fall of man narrative was to Christian theology (worldview) so too the great epic of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The narrative of the Fall is basic to most Christian Catechisms both Catholic and Protestant. Even today Rome rules that Evolution is permissible theory provided the doctrine of original sin is not abandoned.
- Christian Apocalyptic teaching of world getting worse and worse – this present evil age, man-hating, world-denying, etc. leads to opting out of this world –
- Christian Apocalyptic retains Jewish Apocalyptic basic ideas about an imminent fiery end of world, embellished with hell etc.
- Christian Apocalyptic is based more on next life as the heavenly Promised Land
- Christian Apocalyptic teaches this age is evil, not reformable, and opts out of this world…monasticism, asceticism, etc
- Christian Apocalyptic is ahistorical – its theology is ahistorical, not dealing or focused on real history – its doctrine of atonement is ahistorical etc.
- Christian Apocalyptic is soaked in bloodshed and violence
- Reasons why in recent centuries, its bloodshed and violence has ceased (a) movements of humanism, liberal democracy, political reality in the face of religious pluralism, loss of commitment (“the civil people are not committed”) (b) the teachings of Jesus seen not to condone intolerance and violence etc.
The Apocalyptic Movements In More Recent Times –
Movements such as Marxism and Environmentalism are the crying babies of Christian Apocalyptic.