Well, it’s Halloween.
Which means it is the perfect day to review a book called The Return of The Chaos Monster – And Other Backstories of The Bible. A couple of weeks ago, I actually listed out the backstories for you, and now that I’ve finished the book I can give you my thoughts.
Gregory Mobley’s book is centered around 7 key backstories of the Hebrew Bible. As such, after an introductory chapter, he devotes a chapter to each and then a short concluding sketch of a possible 8th backstory. Just to refresh (and if you missed the first post on this book and/or didn’t click thru the link) here are the 7 backstories:
- God has subdued the chaos, but just barely
- God has given humans an instruction manual for life on planet Earth so they can partner with God in the management of chaos
- God has enacted the tough love of moral cause and effect in order to reward fidelity to the instruction manual and to support management of the chaos
- God enlists prophets to mediate this dynamic partnership upon which the health of creation depends
- Through praise humans release energy that augments God’s management of the chaos, through lament humans report on the quality of God’s management of chaos
- Here and there, humans catch glimpses of the divine design for chaos management; living according to these insights is another expression of the partnership
- There are times when chaos gains the upper hand and humans in partnership with God can only hope that God is able, as in the beginning, to subdue chaos
In terms of exposition, the first story recieves the most attention, and perhaps rightly so. It is the title of the book after all. The motif of chaos is established well in the opening chapter, and I think Moberly makes a good case that is very possibly lurking in the background of the Old Testament narrative. While not necessarily present in Genesis 1, the sea monsters (agents of chaos in pretty much every other ANE story) are, yet they are just one of the creatures God created and put in their place.
Once the motif of recurring chaos is established in the creation narratives, it is easy to see pop up elsewhere in the Old Testament. I don’t think it is particularly too far-fetched to suggest that since God is a God of order, and gives his people instructions (torah) for how to order their lives and ultimately his kingdom, the threat of chaos is the perennial threat. This seems to be Moberly’s overarching point, and he develops it well over the course of the book.
Given the content of this book, it could very easily be lost on the shelves of the academy. However, Moberly writes in a very conversational style, and since he is dealing with stories and backstories after all, the book has a very nice flow to it. If there is a good entry point to both ancient Near East backgrounds to the Old Testament, and a short accessible overview of the Old Testament itself, this would be it.
My only misgivings on this book is the theological perspective of the author. Mobley writes from a General Baptist perspective, but from comments here and there I can tell we see the nature of Scripture much differently. Basically, if you are familiar with the standard critical view of the Old Testament (non-Mosaic authorship of Torah, doubt on the historicity of most of Joshua-Kings, etc.) then you know where Mobley is coming from. Additionally, his general theological outlook is not exactly evangelical, to say the least.
However, even given that, it is not so much a weakness of the book, at least as far as judging whether the book accomplishes the author’s aims. I only mention it because it was something I wasn’t too enthusiastic about, and since I’m going to recommend you read this book, I want to be clear what part of the book I’m commending to you.
So, all that being said, if you are particularly interested in the Old Testament, you should probably pick this up and give it a read. If you’re an evangelical (especially of a more Calvinistic persuasion), then the theological outlook and critical assumptions of the author will bother to you a lesser or greater extent. But, it is worth wading through in order to see the literary structure of the Old Testament more clearly as well as the ancient Near East background that was exerting some level of influence on the biblical authors.
It is also likely to stimulate more ideas as you read and think of how our own culture uses the chaos motif extensively in literature and especially film. I mean seriously, can you think of a superhero movie that has come out recently that doesn’t have its plot driven by some kind of chaos “monster”? I doubt you can, and that’s why this idea of chaos intruding on order is so prevalent in all literature everywhere, including our Bible. Likewise, I bet your own life could be characterized as an on-going attempt to pursue the order and harmony of Christlikeness against the intruding chaos of sin and resident evil. I know mine can, and this book has not only enhanced my understanding of the Old Testament, it has shed light on my personal life as well. And for that, I think you ought to look into reading this book for yourself.
Gregory Mobley, The Return of The Chaos Monster – And Other Backstories of The Bible. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, January 2012. 167 pp. Paperback, $16.00.
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Thanks to Eerdmans for the review copy!