Kierkegaard and Abraham in "The Bible"


The first installment of The History Channel's mini-series "The Bible" was not awful - but definitely not awesome.

When I heard that the executive producer of "Survivor" and his "Touched by an Angel" wife were tackling the Bible on The History Channel, it was sort of a mixed bag of news - a glimmer of something promising, mired in the good intentions of a reality-TV producer and the throngs of ravenous cynics waiting to devour it. It was kind of like hearing you're getting a bike for free, naturally being a bit suspicious; and then, sure enough, learning that it's a shiny little Schwinn with broken gears that the neighborhood kids are anxious to steal. Thanks, but no thanks.

For the most part, the acting was corny, the writing flimsy, and the direction the hackneyed stuff of action movies. Too often I was grimacing and looking away, embarrassed by God's communication skills, angel-ninjas who look like they wandered off some forthcoming SNL parody, and the mere 7 seconds used to cover creation and the fall. The last straw may have been seeing a Jesus with the hair of Fabio in the commercials. This wouldn't be the realism that Jim Caviezel and Mel Gibson gave us with The Passion - more like the realism of reality-TV.

That said, there are a few positives worth highlighting.

One critic slams the explicit content found in the show; but I found this aspect refreshing, even if it did occasionally slip into sensationalism. I understand that some parents were probably disappointed; but in a culture where the "Faith and Spirituality" section on Netflix means animated movies about lambs and soft-focus, prudish PG films, we could use a dose of Girardian reality: Bible stories are often graphic, and are meant to provoke, not coddle. The new atheists aren't wrong when they talk about the brutality and craziness to be found in the Old Testament (but are wrong when they act as if this is irrelevant to the brutality and craziness of our newspaper headlines).

I think of a scene from a film I saw recently, Andrei Rublev, about three wandering monks in 15th century Russia - one of them a respected artist - trying to carve a way of peace through violent and unpredictable terrain. One part of the film focuses on Tatar invaders destroying small Russian villages; and in this particular scene, with a soundtrack of monks chanting what sounds like a Lenten meditation, we see the invaders in the periphery, just before and just after raping peasant women, as a black horse collapses down a flight of stairs and is killed with a spear...a searing symbol of all of man's inhumanity to man. (Animal lovers, beware: the horse, which was taken from a slaughterhouse, was harmed in the making of this film.)


Not for the kids, obviously, and the film was heavily censored at the time. But these 30 seconds - brutal and ambiguous though they are - might say more about suffering and faith then all the "Faith and Spirituality" films on Netflix combined. So kudos to "The Bible" creators for not sugar-coating what was never meant to be a series of saccharine lullaby stories. We need theodicy, not escapism; leave the crayon-Christianity for the children's versions.

Another impressive aspect of "The Bible" was the portrayal of the story of Abraham and Isaac, which stood out from the other two hours as a high point of acting and directing. This scene shows us what the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard saw as a widely misunderstood and underestimated story. As he puts it in Fear and Trembling:

It is supposed to be difficult to understand Hegel, but to understand Abraham is a trifle. To go beyond Hegel is a miracle, but to get beyond Abraham is the easiest thing of all. I for my part have devoted a good deal of time to the understanding of the Hegelian philosophy, I believe also that I understand it tolerably well...but on the other hand when I have to think of Abraham, I am as though annihilated. I catch sight every moment of that enormous paradox which is the substance of Abraham's life, every moment I am repelled, and my thought in spite of all its passion cannot get a hairs-breadth further. I strain every muscle to get a view of it – that very instant I am paralyzed.

What is the "enormous paradox" at the heart of Abraham's life that "paralyzed" Kierkegaard? He explains that the story of Abraham and Isaac highlights the radical, absolute, and paradoxical nature of faith:

Abraham was to be tried. He had fought with that cunning power which invents everything, with that alert enemy which never slumbers, with that old man who outlives all things–he had fought with Time and preserved his faith. Now all the terror of the strife was concentrated in one instant. "And God tempted Abraham and said unto him, Take Isaac, thine only son, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering upon the mountain which I will show thee."
So all was lost–more dreadfully than if it had never come to pass! So the Lord was only making sport of Abraham! He made miraculously the preposterous actual, and now in turn He would annihilate it. It was indeed foolishness, but Abraham did not laugh at it like Sarah when the promise was announced. All was lost! Seventy years of faithful expectation, the brief joy at the fulfillment of faith. Who then is he that plucks away the old man's staff, who is it that requires that he himself shall break it? Who is he that would make a man's gray hairs comfortless, who is it that requires that he himself shall do it? Is there no compassion for the venerable oldling, none for the innocent child? And yet Abraham was God's elect, and it was the Lord who imposed the trial. All would now be lost. The glorious memory to be preserved by the human race, the promise in Abraham's seed – this was only a whim, a fleeting thought which the Lord had had, which Abraham should now obliterate. That glorious treasure which was just as old as faith in Abraham's heart, many, many years older than Isaac, the fruit of Abraham's life, sanctified by prayers, matured in conflict – the blessing upon Abraham's lips, this fruit was now to be plucked prematurely and remain without significance. For what significance had it when Isaac was to be sacrificed?

Of course, as "The Bible" shows us, Abraham does not actually sacrifice his son Isaac - an angel intervenes and stops him, saying (in the actual Bible, at any rate): "Do not raise your hand against the boy. Do not harm him, for now I know you fear God. You have not refused me your own beloved son."


The radical content of this story has haunted believers for generations. The notion of being asked by God to kill what's most precious to you (and then suddenly stopped) strikes us, in a surface way, as a vicious and bizarre display of sovereignty. (Louis CK, riffing about this story on stage, joked that God is acting like a "shitty girlfriend.") But Kierkegaard sees this surface difficulty as embedded in a wider, deeper point: namely, the contrast between "the knight of infinite resignation" and the "knight of faith." The story is not so much about God's commands and our obedience to them, but about the nature of faith itself.

The knight of infinite resignation, Kierkegaard explains, resigns himself to the impossibility of getting what he desires in this world, after discovering that it's a lost cause. The example Kierkegaard gives is a man striving to be with a princess, but - after discovering that it's impossible - accepts it. "In the infinite resignation there is peace and rest...by my own strength I am able to give up the princess, and I shall not become a grumbler, but shall find joy and repose in my pain; but by my own strength I am not able to get her again, for I am employing all my strength to be resigned."

This resignation can be the end - or, it can be the last stage before a kind of "double movement," by which one becomes a knight of faith. "He makes exactly the same movements as the other knight, infinitely renounces claim to the love which is the content of his life, he is reconciled in pain," Kierkegaard explains. "But then occurs the prodigy, he makes still another movement more wonderful than all, for he says, 'I believe nevertheless that I shall get her, in virtue, that is, of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible. '" The knight of faith goes as far as the knight of infinite resignation, but makes a final step beyond all rationality, aesthetics, and pragmatism, and "leaps" into the paradox of faith. As Tertullian put it: certum est, quia impossibile - it is certain, because it is impossible. This, for Kierkegaard, is a true expression of faith, because of its paradoxical center.

In Abraham, Kierkegaard sees the knight of faith par excellence:

All that time he believed – he believed that God would not require Isaac of him, whereas he was willing nevertheless to sacrifice him if it was required. He believed by virtue of the absurd; for there could be no question of human calculation, and it was indeed the absurd that God who required it of him should the next instant recall the requirement. He climbed the mountain, even at the instant when the knife glittered he believed...he who loves God without faith reflects upon himself, he who loves God believingly reflects upon God. Upon this pinnacle stands Abraham. The last stage he loses sight of is the infinite resignation. He really goes further, and reaches faith...for the movements of faith must constantly be made by virtue of the absurd, yet in such a way, be it observed, that one does not lose the finite but gains it every inch.
Is Kierkegaard accurate in his depiction of faith? I personally am more attracted to the Thomistic understanding, which sees faith as a fundamentally reasonable enterprise. Still, Kierkegaard's all-or-nothing, either/or attitude is enticing in an age of the wishy-washy; and "The Bible" gives us a condensed but powerful portrayal of that sublime story which, for him, was key to unlocking the mystery of faith.

(Reggae/hip-hop musician Matisyahu has said that his next album will be based on the Abraham and Isaac story: "Next will be a record called, Akeda; Teach Me To Love. Akeda is the sacrifice of Abraham’s son Isaac. It is a record I began writing at the same time as Spark Seeker and it wasn't time yet.")

2 comments:

  1. I too prefer the Thomistic understanding, but faith as it's presented in the Bible is such a deep and radical concept that I think it can comprehend both Thomistic and Kierkegaardian conceptions. Faith is not unreasonable, and yet it's beyond reason. Anyway, good stuff.

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    1. Thanks, Stephen! And I agree. There's something in Kierkegaard's hermeneutics that keeps me coming back for more, and I think it's that emphasis on the "beyond," the absolute, the paradox that sweeps us up. We need to be reminded of the high stakes of faith, of its power to utterly orient us to "one thing", absolutely, unequivocally. That said, there's a danger in his thought of obliterating or obviating reason, as there is a danger on the other side of domesticating faith, of stripping it of its supernatural quality. I think you're right, there's a middle way that comprehends the best features of both - the notion that faith is radically supra-rational (particularly when about mysteries like the Trinity, the Incarnation, etc.) but still consisting essentially in knowledge, of acts of the intellect toward some true object, which can accomodate and even invigorate the natural sciences.

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