Sorting by

Skip to main content

Fraught with Background

By January 5, 2016 One Comment

Years ago my Old Testament professor, Raymond Van Leeuwen, said that we seminarians absolutely had to pick up a copy of Erich Auerbach’s classic book Mimesis, if for no other reason than to read the opening chapter on “Odysseus’s Scar” and how Auerbach talks about the art of biblical narratives.  I did pick up the book and though I have never read the whole thing, that first chapter has always stuck with me.

The following is a gross simplification of Auerbach’s point but he compared and contrasted the Homeric style of writing in The Odyssey with biblical stories, including the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22.  Whereas Homer elaborately laid out the history and background of his characters through flashbacks and long speeches, the biblical writer tended to build suspense differently.   The long history and background of some stories are not spelled out but hinted at, alluded to, teased out in ways that pique interest in the reader and build its own level of suspense.   Genesis 22 simply (and with a certain level of startling rawness) jumps out of the narrative gate with God testing Abraham.   We don’t know where Abraham was at the time, what the setting is.   The chapter begins “After these things . . .” and although that surely refers to the “things” that have been happening in Genesis for the last 10 chapters, even so all of what “these things” involve is not spelled out.

As Auerbach put it, the Genesis author has included “only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the narrative, all else is left in obscurity; the decisive points of the narrative alone are emphasized, what lies between is nonexistent; time and place are undefined and call for interpretation; thoughts and feelings remain unexpressed, are suggested by silence and the fragmentary speeches; the whole permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal . . . [all else] remains mysterious and ‘fraught with background.'”

Believe it or not, I thought of all this after seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens with my son on opening day December 18.   Jeff Munroe has already shared what he called some “random thoughts” on the movie here on The Twelve but I want to ponder briefly the role of story and especially of stories that are indeed “fraught with background.”   There is just something about us human beings that delights in and is drawn to stories that are rich in history.   J.R.R. Tolkien was the master of this, of course, creating for himself as author–and so for also us as readers–a history of Middle Earth that is as textured, rich, and storied as the real history of the real world.   Tolkien did not need to show us all this history when he wrote The Hobbit but when you read the book, you knew you were in an established world.   Things happened the way they did and made sense the way they did because everything had this long–albeit unstated–history and background behind it.   (And it is just here, of course, where Peter Jackson fell off the rails in making his over-the-top three-part Hobbit movies: he put EVERYTHING out front and threw in way too much detail.   The narrative was not enriched by all that stuff from The Simarillion  but was killed by it.)

Although Star Wars and director J.J. Abrams (and screenwriters like Lawrence Kasdan) exist on a far different narrative plane than Tolkien, the whole idea of a story being enriched by being “fraught with background” was not lost on them.  Of course, just about every person who went to see the new film these past weeks already knew the basic story and they knew all the major characters and what had happened to them across six previous movies (and especially across the first batch of three films).   What viewers did not know, though, was what all had happened in the thirty years since we last saw Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, and the others whooping it up after winning a decisive victory over the Empire, Darth Vader, and the evil emperor.

It turns out (minor spoiler alert here) that not everything went well.  There were significant failures and setbacks.   Marriage is not always what it’s cracked up to be and children don’t turn out the way parents fondly hope and fervently pray, either.  Things go wrong.   People make bad decisions.  A lot can happen in three decades’ worth of time and although none of it gets spelled out for viewers of the new Star Wars movie, we do start to get hints and innuendos of what’s been going on.   Everyone in the story already knows all about this–Han, Leia, Luke: they had all lived those years.   But we don’t know it and so are narratively captivated as all that background emerges in dribs and drabs as the new action unfolds.  In that sense the new characters of Rey and Finn are stand-ins for the rest of us: they are catching up to a larger story in which they are now themselves engulfed but about which they did not know quite everything.

And Auerbach is right: the Bible and its narratives are like that.  They are fraught with a background we know something about but not everything about.   God is always bigger than the biblical stories that reveal him.   But that’s good news because like Abraham receiving an outrageous test from out of a clear blue sky, so our lives unspool day to day and year to year and decade to decade without our always knowing everything there is to know about any given person, event, movement of God, or revelation from God.   We, too, are caught up in a larger narrative in which our little stories all find their place.   But just as Abraham was able to respond to God because of all “these things” that had preceded Genesis 22–some of which we know about and most of which we don’t–so we go forward in confidence that God has our stories and the Big Story in his hands.

The fifty-one-year-old man who took his nineteen-year-old son to see The Force Awakens a few weeks ago is a very different person now than the thirteen-year-old Scott Hoezee who saw the first Star Wars in 1977.  I, too, am now fraught with a background that few (including even me) know or grasp fully.   But it’s comforting to know that after all the “things” that have happened to also me across thirty-eight years that I am still in God’s larger story.

Maybe we are drawn to well-told stories like the one in the original Star Wars and in the new film because the tensions, nuances, and drama of the past–unexpressed and sometimes not fully known–are things we know altogether too well from our own lives.  Maybe that’s why the Holy Spirit–unlike Homer–inspired the biblical stories to be told the way they are.  It’s real life, after all.   Indeed, Christians believe it’s as Real as Life gets.



Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

One Comment

Leave a Reply