The Babel Blueprint In Men’s Hearts

I’ve had glasses for just over a week now, and I still can’t shake this sense of scales having fallen from my eyes- everything is suddenly so sharp, so crisp, so focused! The foggy contours and hazy vapor auras I’ve been accustomed to for so long are gone, replaced with spectacular, high def resolution! This irruption of clear, unstrained vision has given me a tangible (though no less poetic) parallel for an insight I was granted on Tuesday, an insight perfect for reflecting upon on the backside of Reformation Day!

Kristin and I just finished Breaking Bad on Sunday and we were both blown away by the finale just as much as we had been by the show in its entirety. It left me shaking the rest of the night and into the next day, awash in so many emotions over everything that story and its characters embodied. I began writing about the series finale to try to capture its most pungent theological overtones and how and why they had so deeply affected me when suddenly I caught a sense of vast typological joints threading it together with two other figures I’ve been strangely enthralled with over the past few months. I was suddenly consumed with one question: what was it I found so captivating about Iron Man 3, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story (the David Foster Wallace biography), and Breaking Bad? Why did they resonate with me like arpeggiated notes in one diminished chord?

And then it all it came into focus. The key was the trailer for Breaking Bad‘s final half season, in which Bryan Cranston (the show’s star) reads Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, “Ozymandias”. Study the text then listen to Cranston’s masterful reading:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

The way Cranston emphasizes the tenth line, snarling, “My name is Ozymandias”- that’s when it clicked. “My name.” My mind’s eye immediately pictured those God-contemptuous rulers in Genesis 11 plotting, whipping their followers into a frenzy with that slogan, “Let us make a name for ourselves,” and beginning that doomed, step ziggurat assault on heaven. We want to make names for ourselves, and we won’t let anything stop us.

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This
is what has made these characters and personalities so compelling to me: they’ve held up a mirror and exposed what is within me, and the echoes they’ve sounded back have been as fascinating as they were repellant. These three: Tony Stark, David Foster Wallace, and Walter White- men who aim to make a name for themselves, who pour all of who they are into what they do in the vain hope of validating their existence, who will stop at nothing to establish their reputations, their legacies, their justifications. Characters who think they can set the terms for their own death, a death they think will therefore be dignified. But this move by a creature to usurp the power and right of the Creator can never be dignified: it’s dehumanizing, demonic, soul eroding. I spot glimpses of myself in all of them. I recognize my own pretensions and delusions in all of them, see how we are all conjoined by and framed with the same sinews and fed by the same Adamic heart, all of us in our own unique ways bearing out the consequences of the Fall, recapitulating that primal insurrection, constructing our bids at worthiness and meaning based on the Babel blueprint we have etched into our being. [1]

We each crave godsized recognition-we wouldn’t go to the lengths that we do to become someone we think would be worth justifying if that weren’t so. So we try to make godsized names for ourselves, working ourselves to death to attain an impossible height of accomplishment. If I can just make it to x! we think. But our target is never static- our hubris only grows, and while we have delusions of our reach having extended to match it, it’s like an asymptote, always approaching a certain point but never quite reaching it. We go hard after what we’re sure will give us life but our pursuits only ever extinguish it. They’re all grabs at godhood, Babel on a microscopic scale, and they only ever end in ruin. “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

We need another way. Revelation 2:17 offers it:

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it. [2]

The promise here is good today. The seven churches addressed in the opening chapters of Revelation are representative of the Church as a worldwide, transhistorical whole. Jesus’ promise is a live option for anyone who hears his words. And it’s good news! We work ourselves to death, “like as oxen draw the yoke that draw the yoke with great toil, receive nothing thereby but forage and pasture, and thereafter are appointed for slaughter”. [3] We need a name we don’t have to work for, one we don’t have to earn for ourselves, and it needs to be more satisfying than any counterfeit available to us here. The name Jesus offers is all of that: it’s blood-bought; it has no price tag attached; it’s more fully me than any artificial persona I can put together to try to validate myself- that name is more authentically me than anything I am even now! And it’s personally conferred by the sovereign himself, my newfound older brother, the author of Life, the glory of God in an empathetic human face.

I’m going to keep forgetting that from time to time, though. Thankfully, he never will.  I’m grateful for his unflagging love which so outshines the measly scraps of devotion I consistently offer. That cements my thankfulness for his priestly service that has effected the reality of my justification and adoption now and forever. And I’m grateful that he commissions art which viscerally confronts me with the truth of what I still am and that he regularly books appointments to do so!

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[1] On an eerily amazing note: I wrote most of this paragraph Tuesday morning in a fit of inspiration, thankful for the vision of all these pieces in their configuration as a unity. Minutes later I opened a fortune cookie I was handed, and what did it say?

image

Whoa! I kid you not!

[2] George Beasley-Murray sheds helpful light on what this stone may signify:

The victor will also receive a white stone. The significance of this is uncertain, since stones were given in ancient times for a variety of reasons. Of the many uses adduced to illuminate this passage, three call for consideration. Jurors used to give a stone to a man at the close of his trial, a white one indicating acquittal, a black one guilt. If this were in mind, the promise would be essentially the same in content as that to the conqueror in Smyrna, for he is told that he will receive a crown of life (cf. the gift of manna) and that he will not be exposed to the second death (i.e., condemned in the judgment). There is evidence that a stone could serve as a kind of ticket of admission to public festivals and royal assemblies. On this basis the white stone would admit the recipient to the messianic feast, and the symbolism would extend the idea of eating the hidden manna.
(G.R. Beasley-Murray, New Century Bible Commentary: Revelation [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971], p. 88)

[3] Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1979 [orig. 1535]), p. 301

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