Of Forerunners and Foreshadows

Of Forerunners and Foreshadows November 30, 2018

In which I apply my mighty BA in English to the figure of John the Baptist for a four-part series in celebration of Advent:

The season of Advent is bound up with the figure of John the Baptist or (as he is known in the East) John the Forerunner. He is a curious figure if, like me, you do not originally hail from the Christian tradition and just come at the gospel story fresh, not taking him for granted.

Why would Jesus need a herald or forerunner?  Why would he need to be baptized for repentance and the forgiveness of sins (one of the most awkward features of the whole gospel narrative)?  Did John invent baptism?  Why does John call himself a voice crying in the wilderness?  What’s the point of all this preliminary stuff?  Why doesn’t Jesus, being God, just announce himself to the world and get going without the help of this strange, shouting figure out in the boondocks?

Over the next four weeks, I’d like to take a look at John, the last of the Old Testament prophets and the herald of the Messiah. But to do that, we need first to talk about God as a Creator, not of the universe, but of great literary art.

I’m an English major. The great thing about this is that, not only does it teach you to despise all the money you’ll never make, but it teaches you to see how great written art is done.

One of the basic tricks of the writer’s trade is known as foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is when something happens in a story that is going to become immensely more meaningful later. So when Frodo tells Gandalf that it was a pity Bilbo had not slain Gollum when he had the chance and Gandalf replies that the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many, Tolkien is packing into this small remark the whole unfolding meaning of the entire story. (Those of you who know the story, know what I mean. Those who have not read it: demand it for a Christmas present and get going!  It’s a great story!)

Foreshadowing is important, not only as a literary device, but because we humans navigate our lives and understand our own stories by reference to other stories, especially the Great Stories, that have piled up around us over the millennia like leaves on a forest floor. When we watch The Matrix and Neo “goes down the rabbit hole” we understand his experience because of the reference to Alice in Wonderland.

Likewise, when he is told “Kansas is going bye bye” we understand that reference to The Wizard of Oz. Much of our communication to one another consists of references to stories we hold in common. So when I joke with my son, Luke, “I am your father”, the gag makes sense because of our common knowledge of Star Wars. When somebody says of some strange event, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio” that reference to the most famous ghost story in history—Hamlet—gives us a common frame of reference for talking about the uncanny.

This way of communicating is vital for understanding Scripture and, in particular, the New Testament since both the characters in and authors of the New Testament are people whose minds are utterly marinated in the imagery and events of a common story: the Old Testament. These are people who habitually understand themselves and their world by means of reference to it. And they have formed that habit of thought, paradoxically, because the authors of the Old Testament do it too.

What do I mean?

Consider the relationship of the book of Genesis to the book of Exodus. What many people don’t understand is that Genesis is, if you will, prefatory remarks. The main book of Torah, and therefore, of the whole Old Testament, is Exodus, not Genesis. Exodus is the mirror by which the Jewish people understand who they are, where they come from, and how they live in relationship to the God of Israel in the covenant made at Sinai. Genesis is the introductory story that leads to Exodus, the main story.

So, for instance, in Genesis, the world emerges from “the deep” in the creation narrative just as Israel is born in the passage through the waters of the Red Sea. When the human race sins and falls and eventually requires chastisement (as Israel will do in the sin of the Golden Calf) it is cleansed and purged in the Great Flood and emerges again to new life just as Israel is cleansed and purged and enters the Promised Land by passing through the waters of the river Jordan.

Much more here.  This has been fun to write.

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