Before the Beginning

“The Cylons were created by man…” Battlestar Galactica’s prologue pointed viewers back to something that happened before the beginning of the weekly saga. It was a reminder of unresolved tensions – unresolved until the finale this past March. There’s a lesson here for faith communities focusing more on the finale than the prologue. It’s the human tendency to remember unresolved tensions more than resolved ones.

Battlestar Galactica began as a 2003 mini-series about the last surviving humans from the Twelve Colonies of Kobol after their nuclear annihilation by the Cylons. Chased by the Cylons, the survivors formed a ragtag fleet looking for the thirteenth colony: Earth. Battestar Galactica was the command ship. The finale resolved the series’ tensions, including the role of Cylon/human hybrid Hera and the fate of human race itself. But the finale also released some of the grip it had on viewers. No more tensions.

There’s another prologue pointing viewers back to an event that happened before the beginning: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the water.” This preface doesn’t point to the beginning of everything, but rather to the beginning of earth. It’s a reminder of many unresolved tensions in this story.

The first is the Keanu Reeves Tension: Whoa dude… finite beings describing an Infinite Being. If the idea of the limited describing the Unlimited doesn’t give you pause, check your pulse. The second is the Ominous Tension: The pristine earth is “formless and void,” a Hebrew phrase with ominous overtones of God’s judgment.1 That’s because Satan is slithering silently on earth, a sore loser from an earlier conflict (Isa. 28 & Ez. 14). The third is the Oversight Tension: The Spirit of God is supervising the Story of Earth – editing while we complete the story with God. This trio of tensions sets up even more paradoxes in the “four chapter” gospel – all of them unresolved until the finale.

The first is salt and light. Adam and Eve are created pure yet proximate to the earth, even though evil is lurking nearby. When sin pops up, they pull away from God, each other… everything. But purity is not pulling away from the world. “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden” (Mt. 5:13-16). Salt in a shaker is worthless. Light beamed under a bushel doesn’t help anyone. Keeping pure while proximate to the world is the hard-to-resolve salt and light tension.

Another unresolved tension comes from “chapter two,” the fall. Sin provokes and/or offends us. Provocation leads to engagement while offense leads to withdrawal. Both are appropriate at different times since tensions hold together competing truths. Some sin ought to provoke, as it did Paul in Athens when he “walked around and looked carefully” at the appalling pornography of the city. His spirit was provoked (Acts 17:16). Athens was festooned with phallic symbols that could be seen as far away as forty miles. Joseph, on the other hand, was offended when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him. He withdrew. Where’s the balance? There is no balance. Balance is a myth and a misnomer. Jesus didn’t “balance” being fully God and fully man. God doesn’t “balance” his attributes of justice and mercy or being personal yet transcendent. They are unresolved tensions.

With Christ’s redemption, another tension emerged. Followers of Jesus are called to influence others by leavening the whole lump of dough (Mt. 13:13). Yet the early church father Origen of Alexandria, and later Augustine, urged Christians to also “plunder the Egyptians” – that is, be influenced by them without idolizing them (Ex. 2:21-22). This is the tension of influencing others while being influenced by them – a two-way street. It’s not necessarily a sin to be influenced by the world, since nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean’ (Mk. 7:14-16). It’s a paradox – not resolved until the finale.

If this all seems too complex and confounding, maybe you need to recalibrate your view of reality. Reality is complex. A good faith ought to be a definition of reality with categories for complexity. Lacking such categories, people inevitably become confused and invariably opt for illusory ideas such as “simplicity.” But it is no good asking for a simple religion, C.S. Lewis wrote. “After all, real things aren’t simple. They look simple, but they’re not. The table I’m sitting at looks simple; but ask a scientist to tell you what it’s really made of – all about the atoms and how the light waves rebound from them and hit my eye and what they do to the optic nerve and what it does to my brain – and, of course, you find that what we call “seeing a table” lands you in mysteries and complications which you can hardly get to the end of.”2

Maybe we don’t want to get to the end of these mysteries – at least not too quickly. In 1927, the Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik discovered the psychological tendency to remember an uncompleted task rather than a completed one. A waitress for example remembers the bill not paid more than the three generous tips she did receive. People remember unresolved tensions better than resolved ones. A gospel focusing on the finale – “Come quickly Lord Jesus” – therefore tends to be more forgettable.

Replaying the prologue however is not for the fainthearted. John William Ward says the Puritan experiment collapsed after they grew weary of unresolved tensions. “Tremendous energy went into sustaining these polarities in the early years,” Ward writes, but the Puritans tired of the unresolved tensions between the inward, personal experience of God’s grace and the demands of an outward, socially responsible ethic. “The synthesis split into two.”3 Tensions resolved. Game over. One way to avoid this Puritan mistake is to steal a page from Battlestar Galactica – replay the gospel’s prologue every week.

1 Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988), p. 106.
2 C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity (New York, NY: Touchstone Edition, 1996), p. 35.
3 John William Ward, Red, White, and Blue (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 138.

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8 Comments

  1. As Christians, we ought to focus on our skills of provocation…clearly we most often end up offending…What a great take-away

  2. Mike, is it fair to say that an individual cannot be provocative until the unresolved tensions of their own story are embraced emphatically? For some reason I think that my unresolved tensions — my “lack of peace” — disqualify me from influencing others. It seems that the Puritan mistake was to forsake the wider world under the false pretense that all of their community’s tensions would be resolved after such a break.

  3. Peggy, not at all. I’m not really talking about evangelism as much as emphasis. We have a history of End Times conferences that try to nail down events that even John in Revelation stuttered to describe effectively. How many Before the Beginning conferences have you been to? How many times have you heard a sermon that left you with several unsolved mysteries? How many times have you attended a Bible study where the conclusion was: “I’m not sure – we only know in part?” Evangelicals seem particularly uneasy with uncertainty. Yet the Bible’s prologue promotes this very effect. My guess is that this bleeds into evangelism: “Find peace with Jesus” for example. Yet Jesus warned, “I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” Feel the tension?

    Kyle – I can’t speak for the Puritans but can suggest that your “lack of peace” might make for a more compelling and provocative witness than “Everything’s cool with Jesus.” I watched six “And They Lived Happily Ever After” stories in church on Easter Sunday and then spent the evening watching Extreme Home Makeover – where the dad dies three days after the family moves into their new home. It was kind of a “What The Hell Happened?” story. The show’s producers didn’t try to resolve that tension.

  4. Mike,
    I agree with your comments about “illusory ideas such as ‘simplicity.'” It seems we mortals are too prone to try to reduce reality to what we are able to grasp with our finite faculties.

    Yet, it also seems we are prone to over-complicate things that really ARE simple:

    “But I am afraid, lest as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds should be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 11:3 NASB)

    Perhaps this is another “unresolved tension”?

  5. John: Maybe. Paul is taking about devotion, which ought to have a purity and simplicity to it. Devotion however ought not to be confused reason and faith – two tensions in the scripture.

  6. I think it’s difficult to acknowledge complexity and yet find contentment w/ living in the tension it reveals. It’s so much easier to live under the illusion of black/white, right/wrong, square/circle, particle/wave. Once we sense that there is actually much more in the “/s” of these than we can grasp, there can be a gulf of despair that opens up for a time. In the face of complexity, one might think “Why bother? It’s so futile.” Contentment comes in responsible stewardship of what we know in the face of what we don’t yet know, and in continuing to move in humility toward finding out. This is faith.

  7. Mike,

    Any post that starts by referencing BG has my attention! (yep, guilty as charged, I’m a BG nerd and will totally miss the series!)

    I would agree with you that the producers of Extreme Makeover who live and present without apology the tension of a Dad dying 3 days after getting the new house live with more integrity than Xtians who try to tie up all the loos ends because they don’t have a worldview big enough to handle that kind of mystery.

    Another irony..? Xtians who want little mystery here will think they are more mature b/c the have “the answers” but in reality they are working hard to have the new earth with all its resolution right here, right now. They have actually willfully forgotten the fact that the tension of mystery is a reminding gift that this is not our home and feeling “out of sorts” is healthy.

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