Last weekend I went to Vienna’s Art History Museum, home to a large collection of paintings from sixteenth century Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Many of Bruegel’s paintings could be postcards. They are often set in nature or timeworn town centers. They depict proverbs, village traditions, and ancient parables.
It was in my final years at Calvin that I started to think seriously about story. Professor Jennifer Holberg, among others, presented the Bible as a grand narrative, one with a beginning and an end. I was encouraged to look at my life the same way, with chapters, characters, and a broad arc.
There’s a big crowd around “The Tower of Babel.” Dated 1563, it’s one of Bruegel’s best-known pieces and regularly draws a sizeable crowd. As the title indicates, the painting depicts Genesis’ account of man’s great overreach: the attempt to build a tower to heaven.
Bruegel’s tower spirals upward. It sits tilted to the left on a coastal landscape. Ships wait in the harbor. In the immediate foreground a man of clear importance, possibly Nimrod, the man overseeing this ambitious construction, is followed by a crowd of people. Three more are prostrate before him.
Like the Bible story after which it is named, Bruegel’s painting seems to critique humanity’s thirst for power. The tower is unfinished and crumbling. Neither scaffolding nor a canon can mask its clear decay.
But Bruegel’s tower seems to transcend the Old Testament. Instead of ancient Mesopotamia, the landscape has drawn comparisons to coastal Italy. The regal man in the foreground in clothed in full Renaissance regalia. With this painting, Bruegel seems to have taken a Bible story and transposed it on his context.
Genesis 11:4 reads, “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.'”
The people of Genesis 11 have clear motivations. They are afraid of being scattered and want something coherent, something that will last. It’s not hard to find a similar fear of fragmentation today. We’re painfully aware of our own impermanence. There’s a strong sentiment today that the solutions of the past aren’t adequate for the future. There’s little to hold on to and we’re scared of being swept away.
Perhaps this is the danger of viewing life as a story: to make yourself the protagonist. This is a danger that confronted the people of Genesis 11; it confronted Pieter Bruegel; it still confronts us today.
I remember Professor Holberg repeatedly asking our class, “What story are you living into?” This is a terrifying question. It demands an answer. Answering that question alone is a daunting, like building a tower to heaven. Eventually, your answer will topple.
Mercifully, the Christian does not have to answer that question alone. The Christian story already has a protagonist. The Christian story has, as my grandpa says when he prays, “an author and perfector.”
The great comfort of the Christian story is that the end is already written, yet we are called to keep writing.