For the past few weeks, the children’s message at church has involved the retelling of the story of Noah in different ways in preparation for our Church School switching to the Rotation Model curriculum next fall. The first week the story was told with a short drama, the second week we sang the “Arky Arky” song, and today the kids got a rainbow craft project. The woman leading the children’s time explained that when God said, “I will put my bow in the clouds,” God was taking the bow as a symbol of war (as in bow and arrow) and turning it into a promise.” My mind jumped to an alternative ending to her sentence: turning a symbol of war into a symbol of gay pride.
The idea of the Rotation Model is to speak to our multiple intelligences so we hear the story in new ways and, hopefully, in the way we can best hear it. As the ark has floated around in my head the last month, I’ve heard several things. I went back in my mind to a philosophy of religion class in seminary where the professor talked about all the flood myths in various ancient religions. “Does it bother anyone that Genesis says only Noah and his family were in the ark and yet any number of flood stories that don’t involve Noah have survived?”
It was the fact that he asked the question that bothered several of the folks in the class. To me, the variety seemed to speak to some sort of cataclysmic diluvian tragedy they all were trying to explain. That bothered some folks, too.
Noah’s Ark is one of those stories that can cause people to throw lightning bolts at one another. When I searched for web pages, I found articles and exhibits across the continuum of feasibility and belief. I found a page that lists the various flood stories, a Christian site that takes the story quite literally, an explanation at JewishEnclyclopedia.com, and a BBC story about a guy who has built a replica as a way of calling people to faith. In a book I have here at home, I found this interesting comparison:
Christian and Jewish historians and theologians give slightly different interpretations to the Noah story. For Christians, Noah represents an ideal faith in God – marked by trust and obedience and for which Noah and his family were saved. For Jewish interpreters, Noah represents a reluctant faith marked by Noah being one of the last to enter the ark as a sign of reluctance. This suggests his faith may not have been so strong. (The Intellectual Devotional 14)
And I found these words from Karen Armstrong:
Religious truth does not stand or fall by the historicity of its scriptural narratives. It will survive only if it enables people to find meaning and value when they are overwhelmed by the despair that is an inescapable part of the human condition. When we are discussing the meaning of life and the death of meaning, the historicity of the flood becomes an irrelevant distraction from the main issue. We are dealing not with history or science but with myth.
Today in popular parlance, a myth is something that did not happen, so to claim that a biblical story is mythical is to deny its truth. But before the advent of our scientific modernity, myth recounted an event that had – in some sense – happened once, but which also happened all the time. It was never possible to interpret a myth in terms of objective reason.
There were two ways of arriving at truth, which Plato called mythos and logos (reason). They complemented each other and were of equal stature; both were essential. Unlike myth, logos had to relate accurately to the external world: from the very earliest days, we used it to create effective weapons and to run our societies efficiently.
But humans are also meaning-seeking creatures, who fall very easily into despair. When faced with tragedy, reason is silent and has nothing to say. It was mythology and its accompanying rituals that showed people how to acquire the strength to go on.
Ever since the children stood at the front of the church this morning waving their rainbows and reminding us that God keeps promises, I’ve been thinking about Noah in a different way: as a study in depression. Whether Noah was determined or clueless or both as he began to build the ark, his task was an isolating one from the first cubit. Genesis chronicles the ridicule and the questions he endured. But Noah didn’t live in isolation. As the boat came to completion and the storm clouds began to gather, Noah had to come to terms with leaving friends – all his friends – behind to drown. His daughters-in-law couldn’t bring their families. Sometimes it sucks to be the standard-bearer.
I’ve always wondered what the sanitation system was like on the ark. The rain lasted for forty days, but when you add up all the time it took for the water to dissipate, they were in the ark for nigh on half a year. Our Schnauzers can only last about ten hours inside before sanitation becomes an issue. Six months?
The last thing that crossed my mind I had never thought of until today: the ark had no means of propulsion. All it did was float. Granted, in a flood, floating is important, but it was going nowhere. Put it all together – isolated in a boat that’s not going anywhere and is filling up with crap – and you have a pretty good picture of depression. “It was mythology and its accompanying rituals that showed people how to acquire the strength to go on,” Armstrong says. So it is. I’m acquainted with both floods and rainbows in my life and to find traces of that which most haunts my existence in the stories my faith uses to make meaning of life as a whole is strangely comforting. I know of days that feel as though I’m sinking in excrement, or endless days tossing about on an endless, restless sea, and days when the clouds break, the rainbow forms, and my feet find solid ground.
I know this story; I’m living it.