But lightly in the abyss, which swallows up
Judas with Lucifer he put us down;
Nor thus bowed downward made he there delay,
But, as a mast does in a ship, uprose.
Inferno: Canto XXXI
In the beginning there was a God who hovered over the chaos. God’s voice brought order, harmony, and shalom to the deep. When we Christians adapted this story—made it our own—we wrote a bit of Greek philosophy into it. The Gospel of John tells us that “the Logos,” the very word and rationality of God was there to make sense from chaos. Just as our words are extensions of ourselves, God’s Word (John names him Jesus) is an extension of the God who formed shapeless and meaningless matter into symbiosis. God tamed the chaos of the deep and Jesus calmed the watery tempest, all through the power of the Divine Voice. This is how the Christian Story begins. It is a Story that brings order and solidarity to our disparate stories. How comforting it is to believe in a rational, reasonable, and peace-loving God.
Yet this is not the whole Story.
I just read an extraordinary book. Daniel Melligan’s Codename Hannah is a vivid breviary of human failure. Melligan takes us from apathetic suburbia to a counter-intelligence war room. The story unfolds in private jets, yachts, exclusive casinos, courtrooms… and jail cells. Melligan convinces us that the ethical problems of office politics parallel those in the world of black-bag-funded espionage. He offers a labyrinth of sin as only a practical theologian can. His explicit debt to Dante’s Inferno allows him to weave together a story of debauchery, greed, and self-deceit. When at his best, Melligan’s story is grotesquely R-rated, which returns our discussion to the Christian Story.
Anyone familiar with the Bible knows that it is a wide-ranging collection of ancient texts. These texts arc toward redemption, but not without repeated depictions of archetypal depravity. Indeed, how is the good news of redemption possible without the sobering reality of sin? My Bible includes harrowing accounts of snake-worship, child sacrifice, incest, massacre, summary execution, and torture. The chosen people of God (in both Testaments) are given to lust, conceit, adultery, and ethnic prejudice. Many religious folk would rather have the Bible rendered as child’s picture book. But no amount of flannel-boarding obscures the decidedly adult-appropriate darkness of God’s Story.
God’s hands are filthy in the bloody business of redemption.
In my first paragraph I drew out the theme of biblical abyss. The chaos of the sea was a terror in the ancient world. As with many ancient cultures, the authors of the Bible carried a healthy fear of the deep; an unpredictable abyss without form. Traversing the waters means death far too often. This phobia works itself into a repeated motif, no better seen than in the Book of Jonah. Jonah—an anti-hero of sorts—is suicidal and jumps headlong into the heart of darkness. Or return to Genesis, where God unleashes a watery apocalypse in the redemption of Noah. Or Moses, who divided the waters to destroy the Egyptian cavalry in the redemption of Israel. Jesus casts a herd of demonic pigs toward a watery grave. In each case, the narrators of the Bible wield Israel’s terror of the sea as a redemptive tool. They may sound banal to us because we have heard these stories so often, but to ancient ears, they are akin to nail-biting thrillers. And what does it say about our God that He wields the terror of chaos so readily?
One of my favorite moments of Divine terror comes from the end of Job’s story. After 37 chapters of darkness, the Divine Voice shouts forth from a tornado (itself an image of chaos) and demands that Job acknowledge his mortality. Among the many terrible words uttered in these final chapters, God compares his wisdom to a sea monster:
“Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord?
Can you put a rope in his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook?”
If Job cannot tame the sea monster, how can he hope to grasp the wisdom of the Lord? The rationality of God is deeply problematic when it looks bestial. Sometimes the Divine Voice tames the wind and waves; sometimes it is the wind and the waves. “His voice was the sound of many waters,” say the authors of Ezekiel and Revelation. If the abyss is an awful chaos, how much more so is the God who wields it?
I’ve described Codename Hannah as a breviary of human failure. Daniel Melligan’s storied spiral of descent is compelling because it draws from a deep awareness of sin. I can only conclude that the author has gazed deeply into the stormy eyes of God. Perhaps Melligan heeds the words of Dante:
Fix now thine eye deep into the abyss
Of the eternal counsel, to my speech
As far as may be fastened steadfastly!
Paradiso: Canto VII
Posted on September 30, 2013 by Anthony Le Donne, Ph.D.
4 Video: Falling from Grace and the Language It Provokes
Video: Codename Hannah and Dante’s Devilish “Man in Hole” 2
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