Reflection 6/7: A Just So Story
Dear Beloved Community of St. John’s,
I remember that I was in the church basement when I first heard the story of the Tower of Babel.
Rudyard Kipling, in 1902, published a children’s book called Just So Stories. This is a type of story that in the first instance, has to be told “just so”—that is, the child knows the story structure and details so well that if the adult deviates from the familiar tale, the child corrects to ensure the story will be told only the “right” way. The other aspect of a “just so” story is that it teaches the child something the child might wonder about: for example, how the leopard got its spots or the zebra got its stripes.
To entrance the child, these stories are typically fanciful and mythical, charming and magical. However, the story becomes so wedged in the child’s imagination, that even when science takes over the truth eventually, the original story is never forgotten. It is such that if the first explanation isn’t true … well it should be!
The Towel of Babel story is a just-so story because it has been told through the millennia essentially one way, in its purist form. The Bible story, with only nine verses, explains why there are different languages that are mutually unintelligible. Different languages is God’s curse for the human sins of arrogance and pride. Misunderstanding is God’s punishment for thinking we can “build” our way to God.
Counterbalancing the ancient story of the Tower of Babel is the New Testament story of the gift of the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost morning. The Holy Spirit reverses God’s punishment by allowing us to speak and hear clearly the Word of God, as it pours forth regardless of our native tongue. Beyond that, the scripture teaches that Jesus’ story is so powerful that we can’t keep it to ourselves, but rather must fan out into the world to tell it to everyone, over and over.
“I love to tell the story,” as the old spiritual goes.