Changing Well Known Details to Make a Point
"WTF? (Why the Flood)" Part Three: How Genesis uses a comic book technique called a "retcon"
STRETCHING YOUR FAITH IS A GOOD THING
In Rob Bell’s first book, Velvet Elvis, he used the metaphor of a trampoline to describe faith. The springs of the trampoline are like our beliefs, intended to stretch and bend as they provide the support for traversing the ups and downs of life.
When my kids were younger and we’d be at friends house with a giant trampoline I can recall different reactions from different kids. One of my younger sons would get anxious if I jumped too high or too hard, and he chide me, “Daddy, you not jumping softly!” Whereas, my oldest son would demand that I try and time my bounce perfectly to send him soaring as high as possible.
Some of you reading this series so far might feel like my younger son. You might feel like revisiting the story of Noah (in the non-literal way I’m doing) puts a lot of strain on your trampoline springs. “Colby, you not theologically jumping softly!”
If that’s you, then hear me when I say that I get it. This response makes sense. I also graciously suggest that you might still have narratives in your mind telling you that if you question the “literal or historical reality” of anything in the Bible then, well, you might as well toss the whole thing out! Such is the scare tactic employed by religious fundamentalism: it’s all or nothing. Even though many of us have abandoned such (conscious) thinking, the residue of those messages remain, and we end up feeling a bit nervous when we toy the idea of not reading Genesis 6-9 as a real story about an actual guy named Noah, who really did build a giant boat to survive a worldwide flood.
Others, perhaps, are more like my oldest son, and you can’t jump high enough. You’re here because you’re ready to see what lay beyond a myopic, stilted, static reading of the Bible. “Yes, stretch my springs!” you declare, because you’ve tasted a kind of liberation from the need to get it right. You’ve experienced the truth that God is not One obsessed with “believing the right things.” And you see the value in auditing your beliefs, stretching them out, and letting them have some flex and play because you know your faith is better for it—not worse.
Alright, enough about trampolines, let’s get back to the deep waters of ancient myths. But first, a word about Wolverine, Spiderman, Sherlock Holmes, and the TV show Friends.
I’m not a comic reader, so the following information is what I’ve learned as an outsider. My understanding is that in the world of comic books there are generally multiple authors who, over the course of time, write different stories about the same characters. (In fact, this came as a surprise to me when I learned that not every Xmen or Superman comic is written by the same author!)
As a result, one particular author may want to tell a certain story or take the narrative or characters in a different direction that then requires they make an alteration to the existing (and even well known) story.
A term was given to this process in the early 80’s: a Retcon, which stands for “retro-active continuity.” Retcons reframe past events to serve a current narrative need. In other words, it’s an author saying, “Ta-da! You know that thing that happened in the past that you thought was totally settled? Well guess what, it went slightly differently!”
But retcons, as you could imagine, are a tricky thing. Serious fans understandably take this stuff seriously. They will resent an author for changing things if it jacks with the story too much or causes their beloved characters to “act-out-of character.”
Here’s a few examples to illustrate how Retcons work.
Wolverine: Some believe that Wolverine’s entire history is just one crappy retcon piled on top of another. Wolverine was originally meant to be an actual wolverine who had been turned into a human, with his claws being part of his gloves. Then one retcon made the claws be implants created by Weapon X, making him a mutant. Then in another retcon he was made to be Sabertooth's son. Then it was declared he'd had bone claws all along, but they were just covered up with adamantium metal. Good luck trying to keep Wolverine’s story straight!
Spiderman: Spidey has received a couple major retcons over the years. Originally he created web shooters to wear on his hands, but now he’s been retcon’d to shoot them biologically out of his wrists. Also, in the first Spiderman movies that came out 2002 with Toby McGuire, he was bitten by a genetically modified spider, yet in the original storyline it was a radioactive spider. But here’s an important point: back when Spiderman was created there was genuine fear around nuclear bombs and radioactive material, so a radioactive spider made sense. But in the early 2000’s such fears have subsided and been replaced by concepts around genetic modification and biological warfare.
Can you begin to see how retcons work to update previously-existing narratives for current purposes?
Sherlock Holmes: At the end of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s series, “The Final Problem,” Sherlock Holmes is killed by his rival Moriarty by plummeting off a giant water fall. However, fan outrage was so great that in the next book Doyle retcon’d Holmes to say that he merely faked his death.
Friends: In “The One with the Prom Video” we were told that Chandler had never seen Fat Monica or pre-nose job Rachel. But as the show went on and the creators shipp’d Chandler and Monica, they wanted to alter history—which is how we get a later episode showing us that not only had Chandler met them both, but such a meeting was a catalyst for Monica to lose weight.
Retcons in and of themselves are neither good nor bad. It’s merely a tool, a storytelling device. Sometimes you get sloppy retcons which add frustrating inconsistencies and contradictions (such as with Wolverine). Other retcons (for me, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy comes to mind) fill in gaps or provide helpful context. Or, they might just be a useful way to update an outdated narrative (such as with the kind of spider that bit Peter Parker).
In summary, when an author makes a decision to retcon, they say, “Here is the point I desire to make, but in order to do so I must make changes to existing parts of the story.”
And thus the historicity of past events get modified to serve the goals of the storyteller.
HOW ISRAEL RETCON’D OLDER FLOOD STORIES
Next week I’ll start unpacking some of the ways in which Genesis 6-9 altered existing, well known Flood Myths. It will become clear how the Hebrew authors wrote in their retcons.*
If you want to do some homework between now and then (lol, what is this? Homework?!) then I invite you to go read Tablet 11 from the Epic of Gilgamesh, the story I referenced last week. As you do, take notes of what is similar and what is different from either your memory of the Noah story or, if you want, re-read that story, too.
Because remember, the thing we want to pay attention to are the kinds of details the author(s) of Genesis 6-9 changed.
We want to pick out the retcons so that we might then ask the question, why?
Why make that change?
What were they trying to say?
What points were they making?
That’s when we start seeing the story of Noah and the ark as something way different (and way better) than that of a Creator who literally destroyed the earth except for one family and some animals.
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*I’m indebted to former Mars Hill teaching paster, Shane Hipps, for introducing me to the idea of seeing the Genesis Noah story as a retcon of older Mesopotamian Flood stories.
CATCH UP ON THE SERIES
PART 1: The Myth of the Great Flood
PART 2: There’s More than One Ancient Flood Story
A MESSAGE ABOUT THE IDEA THAT “IT ALL BELONGS”
In what will likely be my final sermon ever given at Sojourn Grace Collective, I shared a message on October 16th about one of our community’s favorite sayings, “It all belongs.”
You can watch it here:
Terrific series. What Colby doesn’t mention is he’s actually describing in an easy to understand way the approach used by our best Hebrew Bible scholars today. Ronald Hendel, a professor of Hebrew at Berkeley, has a wonderful book, Remembering Abraham, that basically says the same thing as Colby in greater detail and scope. The scholarship used by fundamentalists and most evangelicals is a watered-down version of scholarship that began to be displaced over 200 years ago by modern scholarship. Relying on fundamentalist scholarship is like relying on a physician today who doesn’t understand germ theory and treats patients based on the imbalance of the four humours.
I'm intrigued by the ways that former fundamentalists and evangelicals give themselves permission to stretch their understanding of scripture. For me, it first felt like a teenager crawling out the bedroom window to participate in a forbidden social event. Then later, I hid in line behind some who were more adventurous than I about questioning a literal/historical interpretation. Only in the past year or so have I heard teaching on the stages of spiritual development. What a relief to know that rather than backsliding I'm moving forward! Jumping higher!
So yeah, let's retcon the flood story and maybe in the near future take on the creation story. What fun!