Questioning Our Paradigms
Text: Genesis 6: 11-17; Genesis 7: 17-24
6:11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. 14 Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. 15 This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. 16 Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. 17 For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die.
7:17 The flood continued forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. 18 The waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. 19 The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; 20 the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. 21 And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; 22 everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. 23 He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. 24 And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days.
When I was in high school I won a state speech competition with an adaptation of Bill Cosby’s famous conversation between the Lord and Noah. It was very funny – and actually, I think, still is – the problem is that the paradigm around Bill Cosby has changed. With new information comes new perspective and somehow the old “Noah” routine that I performed in high school has lost some luster because of what we now know. The content of the routine itself did not change, but the lens and the filters through which we view it certainly have. This is what we call a “paradigm” – it is the combination of information, perspectives, prejudices and assumptions through which we view the world. Sometimes paradigms change, and the world changes as a result.
Most of us have grown up with stories and songs and children’s toys about Noah and the ark. It is all very cute and the animals are cuddly and in Cosby’s case, the stories are funny.
But in reality – it isn’t funny or cute or cuddly at all. It is downright awful. Did you hear what the scripture said? All flesh died that moved on the earth; everything on dry land that breathed died. Why do we tell this story to children?
The story of Noah and the ark has been romanticized to the point of ridiculous. In shopping malls all across the country there are showrooms full of nursery furniture featuring various treatments of the theme of Noah’s ark. Wallpaper borders and mobile toys to hang on a crib, stuffed animals and ark shaped bunk-beds; trinkets and toys and furniture of every size and description can be found. Countless vacation Bible schools and Sunday school rooms have painted walls and murals full of arks and animals and rainbows; it is all very colorful and bright and cheery.
But does anyone bother to ask the question? Does anyone bother to look beyond the color and consider the story? Has anyone ever had the courage to simply say; “hey, wait a minute – this isn’t a healthy story, this isn’t fun or cute or cuddly.” I don’t think so. What I’m suggesting here is a paradigm shift. These are paradigm altering questions. To no longer accept the story of Noah’s Ark, just because it is in the Bible, or just because I learned it as a kid is a paradigm shift. Probably a needed one, I might add.
The photo on the front of your bulletin is a picture of a slot canyon in Arizona. These canyons are formed by flash floods and they can be dangerous. In this very canyon a number of years ago, 11 hikers were caught in a flash flood and they all perished. It caused a paradigm shift and a re-thinking of policy and accessibility to the canyon; it caused the rules to change and caused some people to begin to ask questions. The canyons are much safer now for hikers because there are always people watching the weather on your behalf. The canyons are beautiful and inspiring, but they need to be approached with caution and rational thought.
This was a paradigm shift that was easy to make. The changes required to make the slot canyons safe for hikers were relatively simple and the added protection for those in the canyon were well worth the benefit. I wasn’t personally involved in any of this, so I can’t say for certain just exactly how things happened, but I do know that things changed. Things changed because the perspective changed. Perhaps what should have been obvious to anyone was not so obvious until the unthinkable made it obvious. The canyons were dangerous and common sense can’t always guide you. The thing is, it can be raining miles away and you would never know it until the flash flood was upon you. This is how a paradigm shift usually works.
Let’s consider Noah for a minute. Can we talk about facts surrounding this story? We do know that part of the world flooded frequently and that is about all we know. We know there is a scientific reason rainbows appear and it is highly probable that rainbows appeared both before and after all of the floods in the region. But what truths can we learn?
The truth of the story of Noah is that the person and the family of Noah found life through preparation. From a position of connectedness, Noah prepared for a flood, even while the sun was shining and the land was dry. We can find truth in a rainbow to know the sun is always shining somewhere and whatever the storm is that we currently are involved in, it too, will have a conclusion and a rainbow moment. The truth of the story is that early humans lacked the ability to understand natural disasters and they attributed those disasters to God. (If you think we have completely gotten over that frame of reference and that type of thinking, read an insurance policy – chances are, you will find a section entitled; “acts of God.”)
We can find truth in a story, even when all the facts are wrong. We can find truth in stories that are hideous but the truths are helpful and uplifting and nurturing. We can find the truths, but we have to be willing to look, we must be willing to question, we must be willing to break free of paradigms that influence us and keep us in complacency.
Breaking free of the paradigms that surround Noah’s Ark might be considered easy compared to some of the other paradigms we need to see challenged. At Annual Conference this last week, much of the time we spent together we spent talking about paradigms. Now I don’t think I ever heard that word used to describe what we were doing, but that is what it was. We talked about how we see people; how we make assumptions about people; how we sometimes view people as obstacles or the enemy. All of these things are paradigms and they must be challenged.
We have a number of conflicts and issues within the church where people are divided. The foundational reason people are divided is because they view the issues through different paradigms. The same can be said of our political climate as well. It is the different paradigms which is the cause of much of our political polarization at the moment.
So what can be done to bring people together? If we look back at the examples I have given the common denominator is information. I have experienced a paradigm shift around Bill Cosby, it just isn’t as funny as it used to be. What caused that shift was information.
The rules around hiking through the slot canyons have changed. There are now certain safeguards in place and other changes have been made. The paradigm around the slot canyons has changed because of new information and new experiences.
I can’t say if your paradigm around Noah’s Ark has changed or not; I know mine has over the years. What changes that paradigm is information and thoughtful contemplation.
Here is just one more thought. Jesus did not intend to start a new religion; at least I don’t think he intended to do that. What Jesus sought to do was to bring a new paradigm to ancient Judaism. So when we are called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, you might give that some thought. We simply cannot ignore new information or new ideas or new ways of doing things because we think we like the old ways better; if we are to be followers of Jesus, part of our responsibility is to identify and change old paradigms that are no longer useful or helpful. Challenging the paradigm of Noah’s Ark is an easy place to start, but it is a start.
If we are to survive into the 21st century and beyond, we must learn to adapt to and learn to embrace new paradigms. This happens to us all the time, we would do well to recognize paradigm shifts from the past and try to learn from those experiences. The move from horse and buggy to automobiles was a huge paradigm shift. The move from pencil and paper record-keeping to a computer data base was and perhaps is a huge paradigm shift for some. Learning to use a cell phone is a paradigm shift that I still struggle with. The idea that we use and produce too much plastic is a paradigm shift I’m just becoming more comfortable with. The idea that meat may not be as good for you as you think is a paradigm shift I went through about a year ago. Paradigm shifts are a natural and necessary part of life.
A paradigm shift is what Jesus sought in almost every encounter; if you study the exchanges Jesus had with many people throughout the New Testament, I believe you will find that Jesus asked people to view their situations through a new paradigm. Be open to the Spirit of a new paradigm; be open to the renewal and resurrection of a new paradigm; be open to the transformative power of a new paradigm; in short, be open to the work of Jesus in your life.
And that is food for thought, Amen.