Constant reading of Scripture highlights the tendency of the writers to examine an event from different angles, even if the angles do not join seamlessly. At least two creation stories coexist in Genesis; Samuel gives several accounts of David’s initial encounter with Saul; Kings and Chronicles have the same story told from different viewpoints; and four Gospels look at the life of Christ—three from slightly different angles and one from a totally different perspective. The Scriptures practice a form of literary Cubism.
Painters noticed that the normal way of depicting a three-dimensional object on the two-dimensional plane of a painting did not allow the painter to show all sides of it. Cubists like Picasso experimented with ways of showing all sides of an object in the same painting. Although even cubist paintings did not capture the richness of triple dimensionality, they hinted at it, reminding the viewer of the innate limitations of the medium of painting in depicting reality.
The Scriptures do something similar. No doubt venerable traditions were cobbled together and inconsistencies only partly smoothed out, but the constant use of multiple, juxtaposed narratives reveals the intent of the Author. Scripture gives a God’s-eye view of history and thereby implicitly claims divine inspiration. But God sees the complexity of history far better than men can. The kingship in Israel was a punishment, a disaster, a blessing, and a promise of the Messiah all at once. David, a man after God’s own heart, was also a calculating politician who did not kill Saul because regicide would be a bad precedent for one who himself wanted to be king, and while he forgave him who cursed him as he fled from Absalom, on his deathbed he told his son Solomon not to let gray hairs go down quietly to the grave.
The multiple viewpoints, which coexist sometimes in the same book, hint at the complexity of reality as God sees it. Only he can grasp the truth that lies behind events, and this truth cannot be expressed in a single, unified narrative line, any more than a three-dimensional object can be fully depicted in a two-dimensional painting.
The Gospels continue this approach. Why are there four Gospels and not a single unified narrative like Tatian’s Diatesseron? The multiple points of view in the New Testament remind us that reality is not easily grasped. We are limited in our perceptions, and God, when he employs our language and narrative structures, can give us only glimpses into the depths of reality. Paul fumbles when using language to express the mystery of Christ: “Eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man . . .”; Paul ends in stammering praise.
One danger that revelation poses is that man will think that he possesses God’s word rather than that he is possessed by it. That is, he may think that he fully grasps and completely understands God’s message as if it were a communication from another human being. This is a danger of fundamentalism, which has strong rationalist tendencies and wants to understand God’s mysterious word as if it could be comprehended in simple human categories. The multiple narratives serve as a rebuke to this mistake.
God’s revelation in nature can also be understood only under multiple categories. Newtonian physics thought it could set forth all God’s work in the universe as a system of discrete particles in motion, for Newton also thought he could understand the prophecies in simple terms. But modern physics sees the universe from multiple angles. Modern physics began when physicists realized that light could be understood as both a particle in motion and as a wave. The simple Newtonian universe rapidly became kaleidoscopic: Particles could never be fully observed, since the very act of observation changed them.
In a universe in which physical events can be understood in multiple ways, relativism in the moral dimension also becomes a threat. But precisely because we cannot fully understand the story, precisely because we cannot, even with the light of God’s revelation, fully comprehend the meaning of events, we are left in a state of learned ignorance, in which we must rely upon the light of the Law to guide our paths. We would be fools to try to make our way through history, including our personal histories, by plotting out all the details of our narratives and all the consequences of our actions. We can foresee some consequences, but not all, and even those only dimly, and we cannot fully understand the meaning of our own lives, never mind all of history.
The Word of God, although it does not (and in this world perhaps cannot) reveal the full meaning of history, nonetheless serves as a reliable guide and path to follow to attain our goal. As has been said, the Scriptures teach not how the heavens go but how to go to heaven. Nor do they teach the full meaning and consequences of every event, but they show us the signposts that lead to the heavenly city. The pilgrim who wants to get home would do well to follow those signposts, even if he does not understand everything he sees along the way.
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“Cubist Scripture” first appeared in the December 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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