A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned an interview between the American Bishop Robert Barron and a Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson. This bloke, Jordan Peterson, I consider one of the better faces of modern paganism, in the sense that he really believes life is meaningful, and therefore that one should therefore set about discovering that meaning.
In fact, he has quite interesting views on the Catholic Church. He holds her in very high regard for the symphony of 1) her scriptures, 2) her ritual and 3) her moral teaching. However, he regularly criticises the way we go about evangelising. His basic criticism is that in general we soft-sell the hard truths, and so rob life of its drama, of its adventure. We hide the seriousness of life, the quest that is morality, and we therefore expect nothing from people. This, he contends, is the real reason behind failing religious belief. We have stopped challenging the world with the truth, preferring to go with the flow; and because of this, when we speak, we no longer sound like Jesus, no longer like the Word of God, and as result touch the hearts of no-one.
One of the interesting things about his claim is that he can back it up from personal experience. Whenever he speaks to religious figures, he brings up the enormous popularity of his lectures on the Book of Genesis, from where we get our first reading. You can find these on Youtube. Not only were the lecture theatres packed, but they now have millions of views online.
If you watch them, they are quite interesting, but they also ramble; not that the digressions are not interesting, but when you have more of a sense of the Biblical and Christian vision of the God-human relationship, you want to stop the video at multiple times to correct him.
One very interesting point in these lectures, though, is when, during his commentary on our first reading today, he goes off on a tangent to speak about the myth of Sleeping Beauty. He explains the deep psychic reality that this story articulates. And then in a throwaway line, he rails against the movie, Frozen. His basic point is that the film completely misses the point of the original story, and so completely banalises a profound message. I think he is saying that we are losing, and, in some cases, actively forgetting the deep springs of our civilisation.
This is not a new thought, and he is not the first to make it. But this is something that we should take very seriously in relation to the Bible. Do we know our own story? Have we read these foundational texts? Or have we settled for the dot points of the story, a story that actually cannot be reduced because it is already so well written? Have we actually wrestled with the text? Indeed, you might know that one of the names of the people of God, Israel, means precisely this: wrestling with God.
We should be quite worried about the superficiality of our culture. For example, our first reading today has inspired wondrous reflection and art and prayer throughout the ages, but today we cannot even take for granted the most obvious fact that humanity is male and female. So many of our brothers and sisters could not even plumb the depths of this text without hitting a roadblock at the very beginning. Yes, we need to take all these questions seriously, but at the same time there are answers. And some of them are obvious. And others that might not be obvious, nevertheless, have been around for a very long time and so should be readily available to the next generation, if not to comply slavishly with, at least to engage with spiritually and intellectually. Indeed, the truth alone frees us from slavery.
As Christians, we have a huge responsibility to educate ourselves in this history. It is incumbent on us to become resources for our neighbours. We are like the gatekeepers of a hidden city the residents of which have lost their keys. Jordan Peterson’s claim that so many people are thirsting for truth should be a great encouragement to us as Christians. People still want to know the living God, even if so much in our world seems to say otherwise.
So today I would just to encourage everyone to spend some time this week reading the two creation stories in the first chapters of Genesis. And please read them not in a cursory manner, but actively: asking questions both about them individually (for example, why does this follow this) and together (for example, what does their juxtaposition tell us)?
A few weeks ago, I set a bit of homework in relation to the readings. This week I would just like to make some suggestions. Perhaps many of you can think of writers or artists who have commented on these passages in a way that both draws from them and enriches our understanding. I would just like to suggest a few, but please don’t feel limited to them.
First, Michaelangelo’s paintings on the Sistine Chapel. For this, I highly recommend the Ted Talk on Youtube by the art critic Elizabeth Lev. She brilliantly brings out Michaelangelo’s insight into the moment of creation, the primacy of woman in creation, as well as the depiction of the reader’s perspective through the invitation of the child.
Second, I would like to recommend a book by Leon Kass called The Beginning of Wisdom. He reads Genesis as a philosopher. The book is the result of teaching Genesis for 20 years, and his writing brings out some of the intricacies of the text, as well as the big questions and perspectives on them that Genesis offers.
Finally, I would like to suggest the film The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick. This is a phenomenal meditation on the two creation stories wound together and then combined with a reflection on the relationship between law and grace.
Again, these are just my suggestions. You might prefer St Hildegard of Bingen, Haydn or William Blake. Whatever it might be, I would just ask you to wrestle with the Word of God. We need to get to know his touch in this way. This past week, we celebrated the feast of St Jerome, and his most famous quote is: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ”. Let’s not ignore Jesus who loves us more than we can imagine.