I have longed believed that the story of mankind is found in the opening lines of the Old English epic poem, Beowulf. Here they are:The Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns. There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes, A wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
Here, then, in these opening lines, is a description of this King, Shield Sheafson, the scourge of tribes, wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among his foes. It is a picture of violence and bloodshed and slaughter. One can see Shield taking up his sword, painting his face, leading his men through villages, tearing the flesh off his enemies, ravaging his captives, destroying homes and families as he embarks upon his heroic campaigns. This picture of violent conquest is one that ends in destruction, despair, ruin and loss…and yet, here is the kicker, the key to the whole song–line 11:
That was one good king.
There it is. The song of man: violence, rampage, destruction, chaos and despair venerated as “good”. And it doesn’t end with Shield. The lineage of this wrecker of mead-benches has a famous son, Beow, whose name is known through the north, admired for his path to power. Beow’s son, Halfdane the Warlord, was four times his father, “this fighter prince”. And, three generations from Shield, Halfdane’s son, Hrothgar, has been so favored by the fortunes of war that he is able to build the greatest mead-hall the world has ever seen, the wonder of the world forever, gilded in gold, where rings and jewels are doled out to all, built upon the generational slaughter of men, women and children.
This, then, is the song of man, sung by bards and troubadours minstrels and maidens, ad agencies and marketing executives around camp fires and mead halls and board rooms ever since: the song of oppression, injustice, conquest, addiction, the bottom line, cost-benefit analysis, the song of consumption and (to quote Gordon Gecko, from the movie, Wall Street) of greed, passed down from father to son, generation after generation, glorified, deified, even, as “good.”
Contrast this with another song, sung around desert campfires and stucco temples, also passed down from generation to generation, the song of Beginnings:
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number;fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” And it was so.
So here, then, is the other song, the song of creation, that moves in this triumvirate rhythm: separation, filling, blessing; separation, filling, blessing; separation, filling, blessing. Not chaos, not violence, not bloodshed, not destruction, but separation, filling, blessing. And the kicker?
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.
Here, too, in this song, there is that which is declared good. Note that both songs are possible. Both reflect a culture’s expectation, appreciation and glorification for that which is good. Violence, slaughter and oppression in the one; separation, filling and blessing in the other. Wrecked lives, ruined families, slavish lifestyles in the one; hope, promise and flourishing in the other. Self glorification and gratification in the one; transcendence and sacrifice in the other. Pleasure, profit and power in the one; potential, possibility and promise in the other.
Curse, blessing; darkness, light; death, life. These are the doxologies available to man. One a funeral oration, the other a birthday song. One a dirge, the other a concerto. One nails screeching on a chalkboard; the other, Handel’s Messiah.
Choose you this day, which song you will sing.