As a Middle School Theology teacher who focuses on Scripture, I struggle every year with the fact that our Religion textbooks follow the books of the Bible chronologically. While the Book of Genesis is often one of my students’ favorite units, starting off the year introducing the concept of figurative language to a group of eleven-year-olds can be challenging. Often they have been made aware of figurative language in their Language Arts classes, but the difficulty is getting them to understand that the meanings behind such language in the Bible still contain spiritual truth. In a culture that is increasingly literal (my students will literally Google questions like “what makes the story of Adam and Eve interesting” when such questions are meant to be their personal reflection) and takes things at face value- whether that be online, on social media, or watching the news- critical thinking becomes more and more necessary to teach both students and adults.
I happen to have a unique perspective on this as I teach both Religion and Media Literacy to middle school and high school students. Both the Bible and the various mediums we use every day contain multiple layers of meaning. Take, for instance, a movie or a book that you are reading. We know that an author or a director can be implying more than just the main plot line through the images the artist chooses to emphasize like The Great Gatsby’s green light or Citizen Kane’s Rosebud sled. It is perhaps easier to analyze books or films because we know that their images matter. Many of us have studied literature and have been taught to look for the underlying meanings beyond just the literal text. So it is with social media and the “news” that we see distributed, however, for some reason, people have a hard time seeing beyond what they read when it comes to those mediums. This is what I seek to teach my students in Media Literacy: for them to become “literate” in learning how to find messages beyond just the literal in the many, many mediums they encounter.
It is, however, a challenge and my school year starts by immediately having to embrace this head-on as I seek to enlighten my students to the multiple layers in the Book of Genesis. Some of the stories are more straightforward than others. Particularly, when we get to the Patriarchs, the stories are more about the relationships between fathers, sons, mothers, and siblings and my students, for the most part, pick up on those themes. Even in the pre-history stories of Adam and Eve and Noah, my students can identify the symbols of the fruit, the snake, or the flood and see that those images stand for sin or temptation, which are part of our spiritual truth.
A story that I truly have always struggled with though is the Tower of Babel. The story is only a total of nine verses. The story starts out with the first verse telling us that “the whole world had the same language and the same words.” If you read the footnotes in the USCCB’s edition of the New American Bible, this story is meant to: “illustrate increasing human wickedness” and “explain the diversity of languages among the peoples of the earth.” When I ask my students on their assessment for Genesis, “what angers God about the Tower of Babel?” there are three potentially correct responses: 1. They were building ziggurats which contained temples to false gods (see USCCB footness for Gen. 11: 1-9) 2. They were trying to “reach heaven” which meant they were trying to be equal to God. 3. They were not spreading out around the earth nor contributing to the diversity that God desired.
This story is not perhaps one that maybe we think about much today. In fact, I’m not sure that I recall hearing it very often in our liturgy. However, I am currently reading a book for my own spiritual reading called “The Listening Life” by Adam McHugh. Early on in his text, he alludes to us sometimes wanting to “build a tower to God” with our prayer. That image struck me and made me think of the story I had been teaching in Genesis. I think McHugh’s reference is to show us that in prayer we don’t need to build a tower to reach God, but that He is, in fact, attainable in our communication with Him. It requires listening, though, which is the point of the book and something that our media-inundated world struggles with.
I had been told by a previous spiritual director something similar about prayer; that I shouldn’t make myself “perfect” in order to approach God. In other words, that I can come to God as I am. Whether looking at McHugh’s structural reference or the actual story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis, we can glean a similar message: building a tower to God is not great. It’s unnecessary. God is here with us and puts Himself within our reach, which is part of His beauty and humility.
As a culture, however, we do continue to build towers to false gods, which is another one of the lessons in the story. We should never build metaphorical towers by putting more energy into social media, news pundits and politicians instead of our relationship with God. I also find it so interesting that the story of the Tower of Babel can be interpreted as God wanting humanity to spread around the world and share in each other’s cultures and not be isolated. In a world increasingly concerned with nationalism and growing xenophobia, this story can also teach us a lesson about striving to learn more about those around us and to become more tolerant of those who are different from us.
This story that I struggled with, in a unit that I find challenging to teach, I believe actually has much to teach us. Enclosed in its nine little verses are a call to approach God with humility, but to still come to Him in prayer and to spread the good news of His Love with those outside of our towers or houses. I am left with some questions for reflection after thinking about this story and I share them now with you: What towers do we build that are unnecessary? What are the false gods inside of our towers? Do we fear those around us and seek to stay in one place? And how can we listen to God more closely and share His message of love and tolerance with others?