Redemptive History and 9/11

“Remembering is the art of the mature.”

I wrote Bob’s words in the margin beside Psalm 103’s heading and felt the kinetic energy of his statement slam into my consciousness. It was a simple enough statement, but as its substance dissolved into the bloodstream of my imagination I could not picture anything else but the room Choir and Orchestra shared at Parker High School. I could see Mr. Bowman’s nervous rush to the TV by the door leading out to the commons, the disciplined frenzy of his fingers as they reset the TV’s input, his hushed voice that elicited more alarm than a hundred decibel bellow- something about a plane and the World Trade Center. A nameless dread clamored behind my sternum, seeped into my lungs and throat, tasted like vinegar filling my mouth. He stared at the screen as the image took form, panic and picture becoming more palpable with every second of silence. He spoke again, mercifully ending the suffocating sensation of understanding that something monumentally important was taking place and yet knowing almost nothing about it. It was shrouded in enigma and a fearful unknowing seized the circle of students congregating around the television, clamoring for facts. Facts would act as sandbags in holding back the flood of frightened speculation but for the time being, confusion was king. Mr. Bowman heard that the plane’s collision with the tower may have been an accident, but it was far from conclusive. Theories and foreboding flurried through everyone’s minds. We were released to our second hour classes, but the entire school’s attention was fixed on the news for the next sixty minutes, enthralled and dismayed as footage of burning and bedlam buried our suddenly out of date, Midwest-shaped presuppositions.

Bob directly connected the vividness of the memories many of us have of September 11 with our need to remember with intensity and passion the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. No one remembers September 10, 2001, but with preternatural precision we can recall almost every detail of the following day because of its significance for American history. Qal wahomer time: how much more then should we seek to bring to remembrance the most significant event, indeed, the turning point of human history? It isn’t nostalgia we’re after in such an exercise- it’s the stirring up of our affections for that which redefined our reality and the subsequent renewing of our wills to keep up the good fight of faith.

I am under no illusion that September 11, 2001 is the first epoch defining event in American history; the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Challenger disaster, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and Pearl Harbor immediately spring to mind as case studies in days no one will ever forget. It’s strange for me to think of kids who have no experiential knowledge of September 11 whatsoever- it’s already as far removed from them as Pearl Harbor is from me, in a sense. But shouldn’t we seek to pass on to them understanding as empathetically close as possible to our own? To instill within them the ability to identify personally with the living past? I say yes, most definitely, because their effort to identify corporately with the American experience of 9/11 is analogous to our own burden to remember Jesus’ cross work and to identify with the long line of the redeemed community reaching back to the patriarchs. It’s fascinating how, similar to our national memories we commemorate in holidays and moments of silence, we’re to “remember” things we’ve never seen before as though we were right there when they were taking place!

The significance of these memories is found in the fact that we remember and recount them as stories. Stories define who we are, define our purpose and priorities, and ignite hope in ways that isolated, impersonal historical moments cannot. In his article “Story in the Old Testament,” R.W.L. Moberly sheds helpful light on how shared stories make sense of the world:

…there is the fact that some truths can best, or perhaps only, be conveyed in story form because of the importance of symbol and image in human understanding. To assume, as is often done, that the content of any story can be translated without loss into discursive analysis (‘What this story means is that…’) is to make an unacceptable separation of form and content. This is not to say that the medium is the message. It is to say that sometimes the message cannot be entirely separated from the medium. 

This does not mean that one cannot comment intelligently upon the meaning of a story. It does mean that the interpreter’s comments should never become a substitute for the story, and their purpose should be to send one back to the story with fresh insight so that it is the story itself, better understood, that one if left with as the vehicle of truth and meaning.

…a story can provide a pattern or framework for understanding life and experience. For many, life and existence on the purely historical plane may appear random or chaotic, without purpose, meaning or dignity. A story can so arrange things that pattern and meaning can be seen. The biblical story purports to be a true story. This means that as the reader recognizes in it the patterns of how God works, he can then find pattern and meaning for his own life and experience of God.

For example, life for the Jews in exile and the diaspora when they were deprived of all those things that had previously been central to their faith and identity – land, temple, king – must easily have appeared hopeless and meaningless. Stories such as those of Daniel and Esther do more than just show how life under God can be a reality in such situations. The way the stories show, both explicitly and implicitly, that God is in control and that what people do does matter makes the stories a powerful medium for creating trust in the wisdom of God and in the meaning and significance of life even in difficult circumstances.1

To remember is to fan into flame the meaningfulness of the story we find ourselves in, both on the societal and the personal levels. At times the two are intertwined into a single point in time in which corporate and individual realities are irrevocably altered and re-injected with fresh significance. There is a gravity to these events that draw us into their orbit. The pathos of a shared event has a potential energy waiting to be harnessed through recollection- when we bring it to remembrance we unleash its innate fullness and invite change to flow from it into our present. This is a particular strength of cultures which preserve the richness of their history in narratives and tell and retell those narratives to reinvigorate the failing hopes of its people in difficult (or simply mundane!) times. The Church likewise must rehearse the accounts of God’s saving acts throughout history and learn to be awestruck by the world shaking might of the Triune God who has vowed to save His people and has acted to deliver on that promise! The individual stages and the overall trajectory of God’s rescue operation should be meditated upon and relied upon as faithful deposits of the work He will yet do. Everyone lives right now- how many people can channel the past into the present so as to shape the future? To remember God’s workings in redemptive history is to summon down rain in a period of drought! This is seen in Habakkuk 3:17-19, where Habakkuk is so moved by recounting God’s mighty deeds in the past he can joyfully submit to the hardships he knows are imminent:

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.

That is the power of remembering.

Last night, while watching a 9/11 documentary with Kristin, I was moved to a degree I hadn’t anticipated. Seeing the antithetical poles of man’s nature as the glory and scum of the universe cast in the sharp relief of selfless rescue workers and hijacked jets as they collide catastrophically with one another was positively gut churning. Who can understand the dizzying polarities of human beings? Though capable of outstanding heroism and charity, we are at the same time sick with sin, twisted inwards, corrupting almost everything we touch. We are beautiful and disgusting both. There is a hideous, self-inflicted gouge in the visage of our race; our dignity is marred, and only a pale reflection of the nobility we possessed for one brief, shining moment. And yet… there is still dignity, that unquenchable glimmer of the imago Dei, tattered and yet intact! As Hamlet rhapsodizes:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals…
2

Yet at the same time,

For in fact what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret, he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up.3

A glorious and sorry lot we are; enviable, yet pitiful. Thanks be to God that He should look upon our state and pity us. The torrent of emotion that accompanied this thought enlarged my conception of and love for God. He who would be just to dismantle the entirety of the universe and deliver the penalty fit for rebels is grieved by the death of His finite and fallen image bearers too- His heart is moved for the plight of those whose lives were extinguished that day ten years ago. God looks at the toxic stranglehold sin holds upon the universe and His compassion burns in unison with His white hot hatred for injustice. Psalm 145 reminds us of the mercy and kindness God lovingly extends towards His creation- His compassion abounds throughout the world as He witnesses its inhabitants’ plight. He discerns with infinite insight the cosmos writhing in pain due to its subjection to the dominion of sin. He looks and sees every living creature subject to sin’s tyranny. There is unspeakable tragedy in the reckless hate with which sin seeks to destroy human lives, a tragedy that God Himself identifies with, most vividly in the humanity of the Lord Jesus. God is sovereignly committed to the eradication of the cosmic dissonance that tarnishes His good creation and His image bearers and He has spared no expense in that glorious campaign of liberation. That God should take pity upon suffering rebels and in turn call for them to to do the same for one another is a truth which should be immeasurably precious to our souls, spurring us on to remember, to rejoice, and to play our parts in the Church’s restorative mission.

1 R.W.L. Moberly, “Story in the Old Testament,” Themelios 11.3 (April 1986):77-82
2 William Shakespeare, Hamlet II.ii.256-259, The Oxford Shakespeare (London: Oxford University Press)
3 Blaise Pascal, Pensees II.72

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