In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers, two of the protagonists, Frodo and Sam, are at the end of their rope in one of the darkest moments of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Frodo is discouraged and ready to give up, but Sam, ever the optimist, encourages him with the only thing they have left: the “great stories” they learned growing up. His words are among my favorite in all of literature:
“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.”
Sam’s words have helped carry me through some of the darkest times in my life, because they ring with truth. Think of the great stories that have shaped you, the epics and fairy tales and adventures and romances and action movies that captured your heart when you were young. The stories that move us most often carry similar themes throughout them all, certain literary motifs that keep drawing authors back again and again, storylines we can’t seem to escape. The “search for home” propels stories as varied as Homer’s Odyssey, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and Baum’s Wizard of Oz. The “unlikely hero” surfaces in nearly every Disney movie, as well as diverse novels like King Arthur, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. “Restoration” storylines echo through The Return of the King, Star Wars, Hamlet, and The Aeneid.
Why do those themes grip our hearts and stand the test of time? Why do you tear up at the climactic moment of a movie, when victory is in sight but still seems so far away? Because something deep in our souls resonates with the subtle whisper coming through these stories, the whisper of a true Story, a real fairy tale, what Tolkien called “the true myth.” They stir up a secret ache deep down in our hearts that we have buried and tried to move on from, a homesickness for some place we’ve never actually been, a desire for something we’ve never truly experienced. C.S. Lewis, in his masterful essay The Weight of Glory, puts it like this:
“In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you, the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter… But the books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust in them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
Coming through every book and music and movie that has ever gripped your soul is “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited,” a longing ache for something we were made for but have never experienced.
The Bible is the “true myth” whispering through every story, the original song behind every echo, which unmasks that hidden ache and, in the end, satisfies it. As we have seen, the opening pages of the story set up our true home and identity: a paradise of fellowship and unity and joy with God, where we were made to rule over a world that bowed to our will and flowered with endless blessing. To walk with God, please God, and represent God, to exercise dominion and be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, is the life that the human heart was designed for. And this is the life that was ripped from our hands when our first parents, the king and queen of the cosmos, were overthrown and driven from their perfect kingdom.
Now every human heart finds itself homeless and crownless, yet unable to name or even identify the ache because we have never truly experienced the home and crown that we crave. Even in our most contended, restful moments—sitting on a beach, lying in the arms of a loved one, returning to a childhood home—the joy we feel is intertwined with a subtle homesickness that simultaneously makes the happiness sweeter and yet somehow also painful. And our moments of greatest achievement—crossing the finish line, receiving the award, completing the project—prick an inconsolable desire, stir a restless hunger, for something greater that we can’t quite articulate. It’s as if we were haunted by the memory of a dream; every joy and sorrow accompanied by a feeling that we don’t belong, a fear that we don’t measure up, a thirst that no home or accomplishment can slake.
Carl Sagan, a brilliant atheist scientist and philosopher, captured this sense of haunting, happy homesickness in the opening words of his television show, Cosmos:
“The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation of a distant memory, as if we were falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.”
As an atheist, Carl Sagan was perhaps closer to the kingdom than he realized. He was right in identifying the universal human ache for home and for significance, but he was wrong in identifying the source. We ache for home, not because this world “is all that is or was or ever will be,” but because we were in fact made for another world, a home that we have lost and yet lingers in our souls as an irrepressible memory. To quote C.S. Lewis again, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Nothing in this world can satisfy the ache in our souls; nothing will ever be enough, because every place of rest we’ve ever experienced and every reward we’ve ever tasted is a dim shadow of the world we were made for. The story of the Bible is nothing less than the story of God recreating that lost world, and recreating us to live and reign there.
A THREAD OF HOPE
As Genesis 3 ends and the dust of the fall and curse begins to settle, this is the crisis that will propel the whole rest of the storyline along. Humanity, God’s regal image-bearer, has been cast out of its kingdom paradise, denied access to the Creator and deposed from its position of authority. The kingdom for which God had designed the entire cosmos—a kingdom where his presence dwelled and his regents reigned—lies in ruins. Everything is destroyed; the man and woman’s hearts are darkened and nearly unrecognizably twisted from the dignity and purity of the previous chapter. Creation lies groaning, aching, straining under the iron bands of the Creator’s curse and the cruel tyranny of demonic dictatorship. And Satan, the new master of the world, laughs as the roots of rebellion continue to sink down into the human heart. Within a paragraph, the story descends further, from fruit-stealing to murder. In less than a chapter, humanity has moved from holiness to homicide. It’s the first time royal blood has been spilled, but it won’t be the last. Adam’s murderous son Cain is driven further into exile, and further into the upside-down value system of hell. By the end of Genesis 4, Cain’s great-great-great grandson is singing boastful songs about his bloodthirsty brutality and rapacious sexual appetite. The dark desires of their demonic overlords are alive and well in the hearts of Adam’s sons.
And yet, amidst the darkening drama of rapidly escalating human evil, a glimmer of hope remains. Genesis 4 ends with these words:
And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth… To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the LORD. (Genesis 4:25-26)
God’s promise to bring a snake-crushing Savior through the offspring of Eve is the thinnest thread of hope holding the tattered tragedy of the human project together. Adam’s descendants have abandoned their Creator and embraced the twisted appetites of hell, but God has not abandoned his regents. The human project has derailed and devolved into chaos and brokenness, but the promise still stands. And so, emerging from the burning wreckage of Adam’s ancestry, a narrow lineage of hope emerges. Another offspring of the woman is born, and although he carries in his DNA the same poison that destroyed his parents, the march of promise begins anew. Seth fathers Enosh, Enosh fathers Kenan, and so on and so forth, down the genealogy of grace. Alongside the resident evil within human souls, a yet-older impulse springs anew: “people began to call upon the name of the LORD.” Worship begins to rise in the hearts of humans again. It may be a feeble and broken hallelujah, but it’s a lifeline of hope. Satan has not stamped the divine image out of his trampled subjects. And try as he may, he never will.
Just as God promised to the snake in Genesis 3, the competing lines of descent—offspring of the woman and offspring of the serpent—battle for mastery through the next few chapters of Genesis. What distinguishes the “offspring of the serpent” and “the offspring of the woman,” especially since all of them are technically descended from that woman? The answer is desire. Jesus draws out this distinction in John 8, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.” Those who crave what their spirit overlords crave—really, the entire human race—are recorded in the genealogy as the offspring of the serpent. And those precious few who, owing only to divine mercy, retain the impulse of worship and obedience are the tiny “offspring of the woman” whom God is preserving until the promised Snake Crusher comes.
And so the battle between competing bloodlines continues through Genesis 4 and 5, until the offspring of the serpent and the rising tide of evil threatens to sink the human project altogether. Genesis 6 gives this assessment of the human condition, bleak even by the standards of biblical language:
The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Genesis 6:5-6)
In a global act of judgment and grace, God exterminates every offspring of the serpent and brings the human species to the brink of extinction, rescuing only the narrow genealogy of grace. The human project reboots with Noah, who is given the cultural mandate anew: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1). But even though Noah is in the line of promise, he still carries within his heart the serpent’s seed and Creator’s curse, and immediately plunges himself and his family into debauchery and ruin. Soon after the flood in Genesis 11, humanity reassembles in arrogant rebellion, founding a glorious city in defiance of God’s command, with the hopes of reestablishing their dominion and “making a name for themselves.” But that’s not how image-bearing was meant to work. Human authority must mirror and represent divine authority, or it will inevitably turn in on itself and self-destruct. The builders of Babel are scattered to the ends of the earth in a merciful preemptive strike by God.
As the story progresses, it is clear that we cannot learn our lesson; nothing in the human heart or in this formerly human-ruled world will go right. But the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable, and through the chaos of Babel, the lineage of hope still moves forward in Noah’s son Shem, and throughout the next two chapters as the human race rebuilds, multiplies, and fills the earth. Maybe, just maybe, the Snake Crusher would still come, against all odds, through the twisted branches of this family tree.