Ambiguity and complexity can shake people up. But they also stir something. That’s why the creation story is a bit disorienting. The Christmas story should be as well.
In his new book, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, Jamie Holmes describes how ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity captivate the imagination. Holmes is a Future Tense Fellow at New America and a former research coordinator at Harvard University. Nonsense describes a dynamic. What we don’t know often alerts us to patterns that otherwise go undetected. A little disorientation can be beneficial.
This is supported by research. Travis Proulx and Steven Heine, psychologists at Tilburg University (Netherlands), conducted an experiment in ambiguity where two different groups read Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor.” The control group read the story as Kafka wrote it. The second group read an alternative version that removed all references to death. That made the thrust of Kafka’s story unclear.
After reading, subjects were shown a series of forty-five letter strings and asked to copy them down. What subjects didn’t know was the strings contained patterns. Those who read the unclear or ambiguous version of the Kafka story found 33 percent more strings. This indicates people who have read a disorienting story tend to be more alert to patterns.1 Those who read unambiguous stories are less attentive.
This explains ambiguity in the creation story. Genesis opens with God creating the earth. It is initially described as formless and void, a Hebrew phrase with ominous overtones of God’s judgment.2 That’s weird. Something’s not right. But what?
Ambiguity continues as God places Adam and Eve in the garden. He instructs them to eat whatever they want—except the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That was forbidden knowledge. Why? What’s going on here? Read on… all the way to the last book of the Bible, Revelation.
In Revelation, chapter 12, a woman is about to give birth. An enormous red dragon crouches before her seeking to devour her child. This beast has a tail that “swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth” (v.4). Fortunately, the dragon is foiled and the child spared. What’s going on here? Read on.
The rest of Revelation 12 tells of a war that broke out in eternity past. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels. The dragon—identified as the devil, or Satan—lost and was hurled to the earth. This is described in Isaiah 14 & Ezekiel 28, where a third of the angels, those who side with Satan, lose the war and are hurled to the earth. Now we see why the ominous overtones in Genesis. Evil is lurking on the earth. God remedies the situation by confining evil to a tree in a garden. It holds forbidden knowledge. There is power in not knowing. Don’t eat the fruit.
Jamie Holmes says there is power in not knowing. The creation story supports this. A little disorientation goes a long way toward alerting us to patterns. It ought to work the same way with the Christmas story. For example, while it might look ominous, why don’t we include a serpent figure, Satan, in our nativity sets? I’ll tell you why.
In the 19th century, Victorian writers, often Christians, romanticized the idea of “childhood” as something quite separate and distinct from adult life. They sanitized ancient stories for the sake of the kids by emasculating villains. Satan was erased from the Christmas story so that we wouldn’t feel too disturbed.
J. R. R. Tolkien warned that this “sprucing up” would ruin ancient stories.3 He was ignored and the Christmas story became syrupy, ho-ho but also ho-hum. Christmas artwork became saccharine, depicting a cherubic child in a bucolic setting. We now live in an age of ambiguity intolerance, a term coined by Else Frenkel-Brunswick, a psychologist at the University of California in the 1950s. No serpent, no viewers shaken. No shaken, no stirring. No difficult-to-discern patterns detected.
Could it be the growing indifference to the gospel is somewhat attributable to Christians being intolerant of ambiguity and complexity? Unlike a martini, mankind turns out better when shaken and stirred. The Christmas story ought to shake us up a bit.
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1 Jamie Holmes, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing (New York: Crown, 2015), p. 43.
2 Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), p. 106.
3 See J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” Andrew Lang Lecture (1938).