Reading the story of Nature

So, in a previous post I talked about how Nature doesn’t have a voice, and that this makes it difficult to ask it questions. Today I want to talk about an alternative way of interpreting nature.

Francis Bacon talked about reading “both books” in order to gain insight about God. By this he meant that God is revealed in scripture, because the Bible is God’s Word to us, and God is also revealed in nature, because he is the Creator of the universe. It seems to me that asking questions of nature can be very similar to asking questions of Scripture, which in turn is very similar to asking questions of a novel. Let me explain:

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Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. Copyright Penguin Publishing (2012)

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo.
© Penguin Publishing (2012)

Victor Hugo had a lot of big ideas about life, death, love, honour, justice, duty, sin and redemption, and social inequality. Now, he could have written a series of essays on each one of those, but instead he wrote a book called Les Misérables, which deals with all those topics (and more). It also provides a host of unforgettable characters, some beautiful prose, and an epic story spanning several decades (as well as a few fascinating diversions into the Battle of Waterloo and the history of the Parisian sewer system).

A series of essays might have clocked in at about 50-100 pages, in total. The book is anywhere from 1500-2000 pages, depending on the imprint and/or translation that you read. So why did he make life so difficult for himself?

The simple answer is that people are much happier to read 1000 pages of novel than 100 pages of essay. The far more important answer is that you can say things that are far more nuanced, insightful, and challenging within a story than you can in an essay. This is because the story does not speak directly, and thus it requires active involvement from the reader to understand what the message is.

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Now consider scripture. If you read through the Old Testament, you’ll find that a great deal of it can be classified as narrative. That is, it tells the story of stuff that happened to God’s people. It’s not always a happy story: there is death and betrayal and revenge killing and adultery and idolatry and lots more besides. In some places, that sort of wickedness is explicitly condemned (such as in 2 Samuel 11:1 – 12:12), but in other places the Bible itself makes no obvious judgement on things that seem wicked. However, it is naive to say that if something is in the Bible and isn’t explicitly condemned, it is therefore condoned. These sorts of passages are a challenge to the reader: what does the history of the nation of Israel tell us about God, about human nature, about the world in which we live, about the short- and long-term consequences of our decisions and our actions?

These are not simple issues, and a simple set of bullet points cannot capture the scope of human experience. There is a great rule of cinema: “Show, don’t tell.” This concept is equally true in novels, although it is less pithy to phrase it for a writer: “Tell implicitly through the narrative, not explicitly through commentary”. This is not just an issue of artistic expression: we understand things far more deeply when they are told through a story.

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So what about Nature?

The messages of nature, understood as God’s creation, are also less direct than a set of bullet points. We see the majestic beauty of the stars, and also the beauty of a tiny flower. We feel insignificant against the unimaginable scale of the universe, and yet we know that Jesus loves us so much, and sees us as so precious, that he was willing to suffer and die for us. We know that God made the world, and that He is immeasurably loving and good, and yet we see the relentless and brutal struggle for survival that seems to define all living things.

Many of these issues are challenging and thought-provoking. There are few simple answers. But they are all chapters in the greatest story ever told.

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Related posts:

Questions to Nature

On reading both books

The power of narrative

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2 thoughts on “Reading the story of Nature

  1. Indeed. Free will is a [w]itch. 😛

    Minor quibble: for a marginal increase in precision, substitute “God” for “Jesus” in your penultimate paragraph.

  2. Pingback: Questions to Nature | Spiritual Meanderings

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