13 June 2008


What, if anything, can we identify as the Ur-story of Western Civilization?

Certainly, the Ur-story of the Western religious tradition is one of the inevitabiity of loss. Look no further than the Genesis myth: Jahweh puts in a tough six-day work week, and ends up quite self-satisfied with his work product: a perfect, functioning world inhabited by at least one interesting creature. All of which reflect his divine ability, however vain. As we all know, Jahweh ultimately loses control of his doppelganger and, in His grief and anger, condemns his entire creation—at one point nearly destroying the whole thing in a cataclysmic flood. With the loss of His creation, Jahweh realizes He must do something. So, He creates a nation of favorites to try and conquer it for Him by proxy, but that doesn't really work out because the chosen ones are as forgetful and rebellious as Satan and Adam and always squabbling amongst themselves. Still, he has to try to redeem it somehow. So, He comes up with a better idea: He'll send a princely Messiah to try to reclaim it. (This either has or hasn't happened depending on what flavor of religion you prefer.) And this works! At least in theory—though it's yet to be put into practice. So, along the way He is constantly sending little prophetic reminders that He's still trying to get the kinks worked out.

That's about as naked as it gets, though, in Gass's terms, this grand story of loss is still slathered in fiction. The characters of Jahweh and Satan and Adam and Moses and Jesus and all the various prophets, for example. The (circular) plot of creation and damnation and redemption.

This story of loss is repeated in the Eden story: Adam and Eve get a swell place to live—no toil, no strife, etc. Not even child-birth labor pains. But they think they're so smart and go out to picnic with a lesser creature and get their asses evicted. Loss. Irreparable. Irretrievable. Sadness and grief and suffering that clouds over the smaller gains and joys that come and, just as quickly, go. Later, one of their boys kills another, so they have to send him off. Again, loss and loss. It can happen in so many ways, but it always happens.

We tell ourselves stories to try and understand this sense of loss that permeates our existence. This sense of loss that is replicated in the Ur-story. We create fictions to populate these stories with identifiable protagonists and antagonists and discrete, digestible outcomes and comprehensible emotional responses to this predicament.

Scholars tell us that the story of Job is the oldest of the Biblical stories, predating the Jahwist Genesis texts. The story is one of a good and prosperous man who loses everything. Loss is inevitable, a fact of life. In fact, it is the central fact of life. The fiction is that Jahweh allows Satan, or "the adversary", to take everything away from Job to test Job's faith. In the end, after all his suffering and loss, because of his virtuous character, everything is restored to Job. Apparently, the story of Job is older even than its telling in the scriptures. And it certainly feels like an ancient way of "justify[-ing] the ways of God to man," a real Ur-story. Suffering and loss is not always punishment. Sometimes it's just Jahweh's way of playing with us. Still, in the end, He'll come through and make us whole. This, in Gassian terms, is the fiction surrounding the story, but it's instructive and gives us something to cling to.

[to be continued]

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