Some things I never notice until someone points them out to me.
In this case, it’s the story of the Fall—or rather, the Falls—in the first chapters of the Bible.
We’re all familiar with the tale of how Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and were expelled from the Garden of Eden. What hadn’t come home to me is the fact that this is only one of three tales of sin and punishment in the first eleven chapters of Genesis.
First, of course, there is this familiar story of Adam and Eve and the serpent—how humans lost Paradise through their disobedience. But the second is how the “sons of God” took wives of the children of men, in the time before the Flood, incurring two punishments—one that man’s lifespan was restricted, the other, that the world, filled with violence, would be destroyed by a flood. The third is the story of the Tower of Babel. Men, striving to reach heaven by their own efforts, were scattered and confused in their language with their great work unfinished—a confusion, indeed, that lasts to the present day.
Adam and Eve are the symbols of personal failure and disobedience in the face of temptation. The “sons of God” would seem to be angelic powers inferior to God, who chose to defy their Creator by leading humankind astray. We meet them again in Psalm 82, where God (not Satan, as John Milton might have thought), “takes his place in the Divine council”, calls these powers to account for the world’s injustices, and sentences them to “die like any mortal”. The Tower of Babel is more familiar to us—man, doing his best to reach God through works rather than grace, ends up in utter confusion with the work unfinished.
Probably many sermons could be drawn from this beginning. What interests me is how these different stories connect with the different types of churches we meet in the modern world. It reminds me of the tale of the blind men who grasped different parts of the elephant, and each one thought he was talking about a completely different animal.
We have evangelicals in this world whose religion is concentrated on personal sin and its consequences, the problem of Adam and Eve, and often have little patience for the ‘social gospel’ and ‘holy roller’ types of Christian.
We have mainline churches, like the Anglican, with a rich heritage of interest in good government, social issues, correct worship, sound theology, disciplined church organization, and moral behaviour. They strive to avoid the problems of the Tower of Babel, but are often critical of what they see as ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘enthusiasm’.
Then we have the Pentecostals, mystics, charismatics and faith healers, afire with a direct experience of the Christ’s ability to conquer the evil powers of the spiritual world. Compared with such “signs and wonders”, they tend to see mainline and evangelical churches as stodgy, rule bound, and ‘dead’.
Relationships between churches might improve a lot if we all realized that a complete religion needs every one of the above elements to be taken into account. For, as the poet concludes in the poem about the wise men and the elephant:
Each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong!