Hummingbird Amputees

Hummingbirds were the passion of Emily Dickenson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Mark Twain.  Christopher Benfey’s new book A Summer of Hummingbirds traces the interconnectivity of these writers to their interpretation of the beating wings: the fleeting nature of human life.  All had left behind their Christian roots seeing that “the old pieties no longer sufficed” opting instead for a patchwork quilt of personalized faith.  Dickinson concluded “human life, all life, is a route of evanescence.”[1] She developed a view of existence centered in “birds, flowers, the shifting quality of light and of mind.”  Roger Lundin’s review points out the problem of those fluttering wings: “the loss of belief left them riddled with phantom pain.”[2]

Amputees confess the ache of loss to be real.  The mind actually creates a physical illusion to compensate for the missing appendage.[3] But doctors observe that while time may dissipate the sense of loss, it is the focus on something else that eventually eliminates phantom pain.  Creating a trick, a “virtual reality” for the person who has lost a limb, may enhance a patient’s recovery.[4] The illusion of loss is exactly the problem faced by people who have the original taken away.

I use only Coffee-Mate® in my Dunkin’ Donuts® coffee: the packaging adds the large statement “the original.”  Ask anyone who knows me well.  I cannot stand substitute coffee creamer.  One of the true things about aging is the idea that when we have the option, we are no longer interested in knock-offs.  We want what we want; time is short!  While situations arise where my beloved Coffee-Mate® is inaccessible, my taste buds know something is amiss.   Substitution seeks to overcome, but can never replace, the original.

Genesis has had its share of imitators.  Some will declare that since Genesis history was written later than Egyptian or Mesopotamian mythology, that Genesis is the “copy.”  While “literary similarities” exist, “borrowing” does not have to be the explanation.[5] For over 20 years while teaching the book of Genesis from high school through master’s level students I have used a “compare and contrast” approach to learning.  Just before going off to college, for instance, seniors were asked to find similarities and differences between pagan mythologies of the Babylonian Enuma Elish and North American Raven versus the Genesis record. I still have their brilliant summaries in my files.  In an honest comparison, high school seniors discovered this truth: distinction is more important that similarity.

And for 20 years I have diagrammed an alternative approach on the white board.   The original Truth recorded in Genesis 1-2 was distorted by sin because of Genesis 3 creating warped imitations throughout human history.  One nation chiseling their distortion of the original 500 years prior to the actual record does not call Genesis into question.  The differences are so pronounced, Genesis stands alone.

The pagan view is plainly magical—committed to ritual, attempting to placate unknown, unseen, unpleasant forces.  Mythological tales are written in a poetic fashion, creating memorable stories, giving a token sense of human origins.  But these tales are nowhere close to reliable.  John Walton says it best, “Though its permutations vary from time to time and culture to culture, the paganism in each of us is inclined to fabricate a manageable deity.[6] The fantastic nature of the gods and their situations fit better in a graphic novel (read, “comic book”).  Cartoons, though they reflect aspects of supernatural and natural worlds, are only hopeful of something other.

The biblical view is plainly mystical—the text is committed to an “other” sense of wonder and mystery.  The creation account is striking.  Genesis 1:1-2:3 is unique.  A “matter-of-fact” style dictates a form of composition little known in the ancient world: historiography.  Historiography reported events that occurred in space and time.  Deuteronomy 4 captures the point:

For ask now of the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of. . . . Know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath, there is no other.[7]

Yahweh had warned against the rise of imitators.[8] This should come as no surprise since “correspondence is founded on metaphor . . . and that metaphor is the basis of all language and thought, as it is of all religion . . . Deep within each of us, the need for correspondence remains . . . the need to perceive ourselves as belonging to the cosmos.”[9]

Myth in the ancient world was a substitute for the local community concerning their gods and life’s origin.  For most people groups, their creation stories gave direction for their priests to perform their ritual, magical ceremonies to maintain proper relations with the gods.  Evil was co-equal and co-eternal with their gods.  Time was cyclical; “Fate” controlled life.

Against the culture of the day, Genesis declares God is God alone.  He personally plans and oversees all events (Providence).  He controls all of life (Sovereignty).  He gives direction to human time (History).  He is unchanging giving certainty and security in the world (Immutable).  He directs all of life toward His purposes (Teleology).

When I read about Dickinson, Stowe, and Twain this week I felt a deep sadness.  My emotions are the same anytime I hear of folks yearning for truth, painful in their loss, settling for falsehood.  In contrast to the views of the writers mentioned above, hummingbirds are a result of God’s direct creation.  I suspect that if this little creature could speak she would say, “Listen to my wings; their sound is in praise of my Creator!”[10] So it is no surprise to hear Scripture so often compare those refusing to believe as “having no eyes to see, nor ears to hear.”[11] Amputation of The Truth, is simply rebellion against The Truth.[12]

As a monastic-mystic Mark believes mystery shrouds human understanding, stands as a marker of Heaven, subjects accepted norms to One outside earth, and speaks best through Jesus who is “the mystery of godliness” (1 Timothy 3:16).  Mark lives and teaches in Indianapolis, IN.

[1] Evanescence means disappearing, vanishing, or vaporous.

[2] As quoted by Roger Lundin in his review “Old Pieties No Longer Sufficed,” Books & Culture Sept/Oct 2009, 16-18.

[3] V. S. Ramachandran and S. Blakeslee. 1998. Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind (William Marrow).


[5] Among the many books that could be mentioned in promotion of such a view, consider R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, (Hendrickson, 2004); Walter Kaiser, The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable & Relevant? (IVP, 2001); K. A. Kitchen, The Reliability of the Old Testament, (Eerdmans, 2006).

[6] John H. Walton. 2001. The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis. (Zondervan): 55.

[7] Deuteronomy 4:32, 39 (ESV).

[8] Deuteronomy 4:15-19.

[9] “This is why something inside us responds spontaneously to metaphor, the heart of all poetry and, finally, of all language and all meaning.” Thomas Cahill. 1998. The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. (Doubleday): 49, emphasis mine.

[10] Indeed all creation is commanded to give praise to its Creator: Isaiah 44:23; 49:13.

[11] For example, Deuteronomy 29:4; Jeremiah 5:21-24; Ezekiel 12:2; Mark 8:17-18; Romans 11:8.

[12] “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25).

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