babel-tree5.jpgWhile on holiday last week, we visited a renovated Tudor house in Suffolk – Kentwell Hall. Quite apart from being a jolly beautiful place where one can fully imagine wandering around in doublet and hose – though don’t let your imaginations run too wild – Rachel & I were both knocked sideways (metaphorically speaking) by a unique sculpture standing right beside the main house. This is what the official blurb has to say:

The Hurricane of 1987 followed by the Great Storms of January 1990 severely damaged Kentwell’s finest and biggest Cedar. Rather than fell what remained, the Phillips commissioned Colin Wilbourne, an outstanding sculptor in many materials, to carve it. The theme is The Tower of Babel , a metaphor which remains relevant today: man’s ambition still exceeds his capacity and he still seems unable to communicate, well or peaceably, with his neighbour.

What this doesn’t say of course is the key problem of Genesis 11, namely the plot to storm heaven and ‘make a name for ourselves’ – but the tree does the job. It is one of those sculptures/carvings that you just have to keep looking at. The four sides at the base create a Tardis effect – drawing you in, luring you into the endless possibilities

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It is only when you stand back and see where it all gets you that the futility of this becomes clear. A road to nowhere…

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It is ingenious but stark – and rightly so – for the story of human arrogance is stark. It is just as well, then, that the inhabitant of heaven comes down to our level to take us there by his own route (Philippians 2:5-11), a route that took him to another tree, a tree with no beauty – only horror. But that tree was our saving grace.

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  1. In December, one of our friends visiting from the States remarked that standing in Trafalgar Square hearing many different languages invoked thoughts of the Tower of Babel. We take it for granted but to a newcomer stepping from a pretty homogenous place in the middle of some evergreen forests along the 45th parallel (Seattle), the intersection of cultures in London hits you in the face – which is great. I went straight to Trafalgar Square to see how many languages I could hear and then read this quote a couple of months later:

    “At Pentecost an alternative to the imperial unity of Babel is created, yet without a return to the pre-Babel state. Before Babel, the whole of humanity spoke “one” language; in Jerusalem the new community speaks “many” languages. As the tongues of fire are divided and rest on each of the disciples, each one of the Jews from every nation under heaven representing the global community hears them speaking in the native laguage of each. A theological (rather than historical) reading of the Pentecost account suggests that when the Spirit comes all understand each other, not because one language is restored or a new all encompassing meta-laguage is designed, but because each hears his or her own laguage spoken. Pentecost overcomes the confusion and the resulting false scattering, but it does so not by reverting to the unity of cultural uniformity, but by advancing toward the harmony of cultural diversity.”

    Miroslov Volf
    Exclusion and Embrace
    pg. 228

    BTW, the book is 300 pages of a very detailed assessment laying out the inexhaustable conclusion that real truth and harmony can only be achieved through embracing each other under the embrace of the triune God. All of this comes from a very well-read guy after his emergence from the full onslaught and battering of the Balkan wars between the former parts of Yugoslavia.

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