Unity in Shinar

Unity in Shinar May 31, 2020

I’m in the very final push of editing Nailed It. I feel like I say that every day but today it is really true. Sorry I haven’t texted or emailed you back. I wasn’t going to blog this morning, because I really need to just keep my eyes glued to that very tiresome document, but the world is aflame, and today is also Pentecost, and so I thought I would just make an observation that Christians should know about anyway.

If you go to a church that observes the church year, there will be all kinds of readings you might encounter this morning, but the best one that I can imagine is this text from Genesis:

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

This, of course, gets turned around on the very morning that we now celebrate, when the Holy Spirit descends and the church rushes out into the city of Jerusalem, speaking the languages of all the people gathered from all around the world for the feast. Everyone heard the same message–about Jesus–in their own languages. But that is a long way off from all the people diligently working together to make this tower.

What sort of tower is it? Well, it is made of bricks that have to be shaped and left to dry in the sun and then baked hot so they won’t crumble. That would have taken a lot of sorting out. The people making mud, the people working with bitumen, the person who was good at math and knowing that the base of the tower would be a lot wider than the bit at the top, all the people carrying the bricks up so that they could be put in place. That was just the tower, but they also wanted to build themselves a city, a place where they could all live cooperatively together so that, and this is the money quote, they could “make a name” for themselves.

So, even though there might have been all kinds of troubles to distract them, they get right to it. They work together. It’s an ancient utopia. They, as the banner on my local elementary school proclaims, “Believe it and Achieve it.” Unity, that vaunted post-modern virtue, is on display.

And all such cries this morning for everyone to simmer down and get along should quietly be filtered through that antiquated, discredited “utopian” grid. Who exactly, right now, of any political or religious ideology is trying to “make a name” for him or herself? Are the rioters and looters? What about the politicians? And certainly many on social media want to be seen to have the right kind of name, the right kind of unifying thoughts and feelings. Fear and anxiety baked hot with moral indignation are going into the far reaches of the darkness and dragging out all the people who would never normally say anything.

But before any of us think about what we each individually and altogether ought to do when the world is on fire, look at what God does when he discovers “unity” on the plain of Shinar. He looks at what all the people of men are doing, he sees underneath the cooperation, the smooth communication, the rapidity with which the tower is ascending into the sky, the strong economy that would make every human generation faint in envy, and yet knows that if they keep it up they will destroy his world. And so he goes down and on purpose “confuses their language” so that “they may not understand one another’s speech,” so that they will leave off the very sickening business of idolatry.

I had to take all kinds of classes back in the 90s about deconstructionism and decadence and irony and literary theory, and I often found myself thinking about Babel as I tried to make sense of texts that weren’t meant to be understood–not in the proper human sense. Men (mostly) who hadn’t anything better to do or build had imagined a world in which unraveling everything, taking everything apart–like little kids dismantling an expensive lawnmower without any thought of ever putting any of it back together again–thought and wrote many things with clever-sounding words. But at the center of each word, no matter how any of them fit together, was the truth that the human might as well be god. Arrange your own life, build your own tower. You don’t have to cooperate, although, if you can, that’s fine. But the most important thing is that you are the center of the world.

God, in his mercy, because he does not want us to yet destroy the world that he has made, lets confusion reign as an antidote to idolatry. Is it ugly? Yes. Are we wicked? Yes. Is there any hope? Yes.

Watch your church this morning, or go to it if you can, because Jesus supplants the world’s false idolatrous “unity” with something so coherent, so full of sense and rationality, so whole that it can never be broken. It is himself, his body. He bakes his people together by the fire and power of the Holy Spirit, joining them to himself so completely that they can never be pulled apart or destroyed. Do not be anxious. Go to your Lord who sees everything and knows everything and will ultimately sort everything out. Cast all your anxieties on him. He will put the right words in your mouth for the right time to be understood by those who need to hear them. When you have said them all, it will be his name that the world hears.

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