Wandering Rocks, Talking Animals, and Elfland Ethics

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Earlier this summer Pete Enns wrote a blog post describing the pivotal role that I Cor. 10.4 played in his progressive rethink of the notion of biblical inerrancy (at least as that notion has been understood in traditional Reformed teaching). In that verse Paul, drawing exhortation for Corinthian believers from the (wayward) experience of the Israelites following the Exodus, makes reference to the "the spiritual rock that accompanied them" in their wilderness wanderings, ultimately identifying that rock as Christ. Enns claims that Paul, in writing these words, accepted as true a contemporary Jewish interpretation (otherwise described as a "strange legend") which resolved two OT accounts of a rock providing water to the people -- one at the beginning of their wanderings (Ex. 17), and one towards the end of the same (Num. 20) -- by suggesting that "one and the same rock" actually "accompanied the Israelites on their 40-year journey."

Thus Paul, claims Enns, essentially accepted as true, and (more importantly) repeated within the confines of inspired Scripture, something which was, well, clearly not true. "No rock moved in the Old Testament, but Paul said one did." Enns assumes that evangelical readers will agree with him on the merits of the movable rock "legend," rightfully dismissing it as "just plain silly." The implications for traditionalist notions of biblical inerrancy are deemed fairly obvious. The logic runs something like this: No rock followed the people around the wilderness. Paul suggested that one did in canonical Scripture. Ergo, canonical Scripture contains erroneous statements of fact.

Greg Beale has offered an intelligent response to Enns, casting doubt both upon the presence of the movable rock "tradition" in Paul's day and Paul's allusion to such a "tradition" if it did exist. In a less intelligent vein, I'd like to ask why it would be a problem -- if in fact Paul did believe and suggest that a water-providing and Christ-typifying rock followed the Israelites around the wilderness (which, by the way, I don't think he did) -- simply to conclude that such a rock actually followed them around?

In other words, Enns' absolute confidence that no rock actually moved throughout the wilderness strikes me as rather strange (and ultimately, dare I say, Bultmannian). My guess is that his confidence on this point stems from the rather mundane observation that rocks don't stretch their legs all that often. Fair enough. But seas aren't generally in the habit of clearing a path for large parties fleeing their former masters either. For that matter, water doesn't typically turn into wine, and dead men don't typically rise from the grave. I'm not sure, then, that anyone who takes seriously (that is, accepts) Scripture's affirmation of miracles (especially in close proximity to salvific events) would so quickly dismiss even an un-inspired account of a water-providing-rock following the Israelites around the desert; the people of Israel, after all, were hardly strangers to the miraculous at this period in their history. If an inspired Apostle were to affirm that account (which, again, I don't believe he did), the response of at least this evangelical would be "awesome," and my only question would be whether the rock rolled behind the people or grew legs for the occasion.

Shortly after Enns published his post regarding the travelling rock, several online news journals picked up on article recently published in the journal Cognitive Science which showed that religious children were more likely than their secular counterparts to accept fictional/fanciful literary creatures -- "talking animals" were specifically named -- as real. Needless to say, anti-religious bloggers had a field day with the story, touting it as clear evidence that religion is bad for a child's cognitive development (producing, for example, "false categorizations"). For my part, I found tremendous encouragement in the report that Christian children are more likely than their secular counterparts to believe that talking animals are real. It suggests to me that Christian kids are more sensitive to the enchantment that necessarily informs a world spoken into existence by an eternally-Triune God.

Christian kids, in other words, apparently have a better grasp of what is true than their secular counterparts, and that's reflected not only in their knowledge of our Christian creed but in their receptivity to the existence of a Reepicheep. Am I saying talking animals exist? No. Am I saying talking animals might have existed in the past or might exist in the future--that is, are talking animals possible? Absolutely (contra the explicit if passing identification of such by the authors of the Cognitive Science article as "impossible"). Our Christian children are, it seems, tuned in to the truth that animals as such are impossible apart from the hypothesis of God. Animals themselves are miracles. Giving animals voices, in light of the miracle of their being per se, entails a rather small imaginative leap, one that our children are willing to make because they intuitively grasp the profound implications of the stories we regularly tell them about our God and his miraculous doings. Shame on us as adults for not pausing ourselves, when reading fairy tales, to wonder whether the fanciful creatures that populate them are true in light of the sheer (God-ordered) magic that infuses our world. Shame on us for having the cheek to categorize the better sense of our kids as a case of "false categorization."

The combined certainty of Enns regarding the non-existence of travelling rocks and the authors of the journal article in question regarding the non-existence of talking animals made me think, as most things do, of G. K. Chesterton's insightful chapter on "The Ethics of Elfland" from his 1908 book Orthodoxy. Therein Chesterton describes how he was primed for Christianity long before his conversion by his innate sense, even after graduating from the nursery, that children's fairy tales better reflect the nature of the world we inhabit than do adult descriptions of the same, the latter being informed by "scientific fatalism." In other words, Chesterton's innate conviction that the "ordinary things" of our existence are actually rather "extraordinary" quite naturally led him to God, since the extraordinary reality and nature of our "ordinary" world testifies to the creative hand of a rather extraordinary God.

"The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature." Indeed. And if we were able to recapture just such a sense of wonder at un-moving rocks and un-talking animals, perhaps we'd think twice about so quickly dismissing moving rocks and talking animals.

I suspect that Pete Enns actually affirms a fair number of miracles, though his apparent certainty regarding the impossibility of a miraculous moving rock makes me think he does so only by a rather suspect segregating of certain unnatural though clearly revealed events (the resurrection, for example) from all other events which operate along the lines of a closed natural system (where rocks lie still and animals communicate strictly in species-specific tongues). Which point, I believe, serves as a powerful reminder that the leftward drift from orthodoxy, though generally identified by us confessionally Reformed types as a movement from truth towards error, is equally a movement from an enchanted world towards one which is decidedly more boring. Without denying the need to defend the truth of traditional Reformed orthodoxy against our critics to the left, it might occasionally be useful to respond to more liberal views (and their incessant efforts to tame the extraordinary) with some loud and obnoxious pretended snoring.

Posted September 10, 2014 @ 9:00 AM by Aaron Denlinger
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