Saturday, 14 February 2009

Remembering the Tower of Babel for strategic global planning

I had a memorable early Saturday morning today up in Geneva's old town in the parish rooms of the Old Catholic congregation where the World Student Christian Federation executive committee was meeting.
Our very simple morning devotions were led by Dan from Mexico and involved eating a tequilla filled chocolate as a way of beginning to understand the shock and surprise the disciples must have felt at Christ's miracle of turning water into wine! Meanwhile I was fascinated to listen to the English translation of John's gospel which spoke of each jar at the wedding in Cana holding two or three "firkins" of water. (The word "firkin" is only one which I have come across relating to beer not wine!)
After devotions I introduced the group to "Remembering the Bible" or what Janet Lees sometimes refers to as "Bible study without Bibles". WSCF is reflecting this year on issues of diversity and identity and one of the Bible texts they are inviting local student Christian groups to study is the story of the Tower of Babel. Janet tends not herself to do much Remembered Bible with the Hebrew scriptures but I really wanted to give this a go today and it was a fascinating experience with this particular group of 14 people who came from 14 different countries, with most of them currently living in third countries.
I began by encouraging them to think about language and language justice as a global issue - this fitted in well because the morning devotions had been in Spanish. What language do we pray in, how easy is it to pray in another language?
Then I encouraged them to try to remember the story in the Bible about language getting mixed up and people building something. I could have brought them pictures but decided not to this time, though I did ask them to imagine a pile of bricks on the table.
They spent some time in pairs remembering the story and we then pooled those rememberings around the table - they were quite colourful and we did spring over into story-telling and interpretation quite quickly which was fun: "There were these people who gathered in New York to build great towers and institutions in Wall Street then the financial crisis and credit crunch comes."
What also came out quite strongly in some of the rememberings was the idea that God was angry with people and destroyed the tower. Some as they remembered the story said they felt it was a story about power, others were trying to piece together bits of the story as best they could. Afterwards one of the young women who has been to the plains in Iran which may be where the original tower may have been, talked to me about that experience and how remebering the story had triggered memories of that visit for her.
What moved me was how everyone seemed to be able to use Remembered Bible easily and how excited we all were by the interplay between telling the biblical story and telling our own story.
Because we only had 50 minutes, and because I didn't only want to do remembered Bible with this story, I then read two different English translations of the story aloud, the second was the NRSV (the translation we tend to use at the Ecumenical Centre) but the first was a translation from 1876 by Julia Smith which Suzanne McCarthy has posted in full in one of her extended and brilliant reflections on translation of these nine verses from Genesis. (Julia Smith's translation talks about "lips" - more female and closer to the original Hebrew - rather than tongue - more male and not as true to the Hebrew)
I wanted to get across the story as a story of meaning through the Remembered Bible method but through some of the translations I also wanted to give some idea of of the story as poetry and a worked at literary text. To do this I read aloud this part from Suzanne's own translation to get across in English the babbling sound of the crafted words in Hebrew:

bake ourselves bricks

fire them with fire
brick for block
bitumen for bond

Now you get the some rhythm, some babble.

We then spent some time talking about what struck us as different in the textual versions of the story compared to our own rememberings. God doesn't destroy the tower nor does God seem particularly angry but we do seem to have internalised that vision of a destructive angry God into the story we remember. This vision of the God of the old testament scriptures being angry and judgemental is one I have tried to work against throguhout my ministry, but it is obviously ingrained through centuries of bad story-telling and interpretation.
So is the tower in the story a monstrous oversized idol with its head reaching up to the heavens? Might the scattering and diverse confusion of languages actually be God's blessing? (It occurs to me now that in terms of canonical shape this scattering of humanity could indeed be read as a blessing or promise for the story comes just before the call of Abraham ...)
Towards the end of our time this morning, one of the group said how much he appreciated the method of Remembered Bible because he is really opposed to prooftexting of any kind, be it from a fundamentalist or liberal perspective. He felt that doing Bible study in the way we just had was going to be helpful as the group tried to seek ways of putting into place a global strategic plan for a WSCF approach to Christian faith and reading the Bible.
Despite having to get up early on my day off I was just grateful for this opportunity to remember the Bible with such a diverse and committed group of young people.

By the way, WSCF will be leading worship in the Ecumenical Centre on Monday 19 February to mark the Universal Day of Prayer for Students. You can use this year's liturgy prepared by young Christians in the Middle East.


janetlees said...

It sounds just great. Wish I had been there. Thanks for telling us about it in such detail - remembering the remembering. I'm glad it worked for you and for the group. Maybe I'll do a blog on not using the Hebrew Scriptures - just to fill in the gap.

Hansuli John Gerber said...

Great story about a great story - thanks. Another good example of unveiling the power behind biblical stories.