By Ellen Nimmo
The little girl
just could not sleep
because her thoughts
were way too deep
her mind had gone
out for a stroll
and fallen down
the rabbit hole
~ Lewis Caroll, Alice in Wonderland
Ah yes, the oft-mentioned, notorious, proverbial rabbit hole. You’ve gone down it; I’ve gone down it. I’m down it now actually. It started, as far as I can tell, during a meal with friends. Cosmically speaking, it very well could have started long before that, but that’s another hole entirely. Amidst our conversations about future plans, present goals, our struggles and joys alike, a few pals and I decided to read a book together. It’s a short story, but one with lots packed in – the Old Testament book of Jonah.
You’re probably familiar, on some level, with the story of Jonah. It’s pretty memorable because this dude, a prophet named Jonah, gets swallowed up by a fish. Not only swallowed either. But swallowed and spit-up after three days too.
Our team put together an eleven episode video series talking through this story back in the fall of 2020. It was created out of a great appreciation for the story and also with a very limited knowledge of all things audio/visual. Still, we made it and it ain’t all bad. You can check it out here if you’re interested, but let’s get back to this rabbit hole.
So, like I said, we decided to read this story together and see what there was to sea (don’t worry about that last part, there are more bad puns coming your way).
Two weeks later, we met to discuss the first bit of reading, Jonah 1, which is something like 32 sentences total. It’s the longest chapter in the whole book. See what I mean about short? I think I can speak for us all when I say that it was good. It was good to gather. Good to ponder this strange story. It was good to consider what it meant (if anything) to its original readers, the contemporaries of Jonah and the whole gang over yonder in the land of Nineveh. And it was good to consider what it means (if anything) for us today. It was a safe environment, thankfully, so we all said things like, “I don’t know” and “I’m not sure” quite a bit. And what a relief too! Sometimes saying you don’t know is the most powerful antidote to stilted conversation. It’s as though, by accepting one doesn’t have it all figured out, you’re able to keep exploring, keep listening, keep mulling over the deep thoughts you find swimming around.
We continued meeting and discussing, reading and considering, and watching those badly produced videos (which turned out to be pretty helpful). At one point the idea of goodness came up. It came up and it stuck in my mind. Over the edge of the boat and down the rabbit hole I went!
As I considered this idea of human goodness (or the lack of goodness), I went where any sane person would go: the internet. Coincidentally, it’s the same place insane people go when they go down the rabbit hole, just to make that crystal. The internet made its suggestions, as it does. Some clicks took me further down the rabbit hole, others were more of a dead end. It’s hard to see when it’s all soil and roots, am I right?
One of the articles the fateful fall had me bump into was entitled, “The Strange Persistence of Guilt.” It was written by an author and columnist named David Brooks back in 2017. In it, Brooks sets the modern scene for morality. He makes the claim that although our current culture has changed the way it thinks (or doesn’t) about issues of morality, it hasn’t changed the language used around it. This sentence he wrote sums it up well:
We have words and emotional instincts about what feels right and wrong, but no settled criteria to help us think, argue and decide.
He goes on to say that although one might have expected our culture to have moved into some easy-breezy mode of ethics, where everyone’s right so long as no one got hurt, that just hasn’t happened. Rather, Brooks points out, judgement has ballooned in our modern age, giving birth to a new generation of crusaders. The clash of right verses wrong, zealous as ever.
I don’t think the article is saying activism or caring deeply or advocating for causes and people are bad. What he was saying, I think, is that humans have got both good and bad in us, but we’ve let go of ways to process, understand or redeem the bad. While simultaneously we’ve ratcheted up the blame and shame.
The article gave me pause, sustaining my curiosity until . . .
Deeper into the rabbit hole I went!
As I thumped and bumped into articles, into books to read, into TedTalks and interviews and sermons, into theories and philosophies, new and old, I ended right where I started off, adrift in the story of a wayward prophet, a man swallowed whole, Jonah.
In the third sentence of Jonah we read, “But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish.” Instead of doing as God instructed (verse 2), “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” Jonah goes directly opposite. Yep, he does what feels better, safer, to him in the moment. And the Ninevites? They are, according to God, also letting their non-goodness run; it was wickedness all amuck.
Sin. It’s a charged word laden with centuries of exploitation and divide. But one can hardly go down the rabbit hole of human goodness without thinking about it. You could call it something else if you preferred, but it’s around all the same; and whatever you call it, it’s hard to ignore all the mayhem caused by humans. In ancient times right up to the minute.
It seems so obvious now.
It’s right there in the story of Jonah. Right there in today’s headlines and right here, in the timeline of my life. The Bible is a chosen authority for me, so perhaps I should have begun by asking what it has to say about the human condition. But I ran the other direction first. Classic.
Hearing Jesus’ thoughts on these matters one sees right away: His thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are not our ways. Scripture and Jesus agree, indelibly united: Humans are far more evil than we believe ourselves to be and we are entirely, completely, wholly protected by the grace of Jesus’ crucifixion; transformed in the light of His resurrection; loved into being then, now, and into eternity. That is, if we acknowledge our sin and turn towards Goodness.
After pinging around in the rabbit hole of human nature, I found an explanation of “sin” that made a lot of sense to me. “Disordered Love,” the person called it. It was a recorded talk given by a theologian to a group of students at Oxford. In the talk he called sin a disordering of loves. He explained it as: Any time we’re loving something, someone, some idea or ideal, some station or option or comfort more than we are loving God – that’s sin.
Far as I can tell, all of us have disordered our loves by choosing things outside God’s divine goodness. But we’re also made in His image and saved by His heavenly hand. Yes, we’re evil; and good. By recognizing and confessing our sin we are allowing the truth to come in and reorder our love. It’s not a cheap grace, it is grace that came with a cost and comes with a result too: A reordering of love.
As the story of Jonah continues we see God give mercy to the defiant prophet and to the entire city of Nineveh. They needed only to repent and recognize true Goodness comes from Him, the ultimate source.
Ahhhh. Can’t you just smell that green grass!
Feel the fresh air and sunshine hit your cheek; hear the birds singing in the trees. Rejoice, we’ve come up, out of the rabbit hole, to the place where light and dark meet. Back to the beginning.
Jeremiah 31:31-34 – “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”