What is the What

In his excellent book that the whole city is now meant to be reading, Dave Eggers tells a creation story that comes from the Dinka tribes of the southern Sudan:

“When God created the earth, he made… the first [men]… tall and strong, and he made their women beautiful, more beautiful than any of the creatures of the land….

“… and when God was done and the [men and women] were standing on the earth waiting for instruction, God asked the man, ‘Now that you are here, on the most sacred and fertile land I have, I can give you one more thing.  I can give you this creature, which is called the cow….

“… God showed the man… the cattle, and the cattle were magnificent.  They were in every way exactly what the [man and woman] would want… [they] would bring them milk and  meat and prosperity of every kind.  But God was not finished….

“You can either have these cattle, as my gift to you, or you can have the What.

“… the first man lifted his head to God and asked what this was, this What.  ‘What is the What?’ the first man asked.  And God said to the man, ‘I cannot tell you.  Still, you have to choose.  You have to choose between the cattle and the What.”

Of course the man can see what an excellent gift the cattle are.  He can imagine the health and happiness to be had in its milk and its meat, he can see that it is a peaceable animal and a great blessing from God and so the first man chooses the cattle, and leaves the What well enough alone.  But throughout time the memory of the mystery persists.  What other gift might God have had in store?  Something better, more wonderful, more frightening, more excellent than the cattle?  Or is the What a second prize, of clearly lesser value than a cow?  What is the What?

Thus God guides the human heart in imagining the beginning of all things: a garden planted in the east of Eden, a man, and a woman formed from a rib, rivers flowing, a tree of Life, and a tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil.  And somehow, choices to be made, even in paradise.  To accept God’s obvious blessing or to go with what’s behind Door #2, since, after all the fruit of the tree looks to be good for food, and it was a delight to the eyes?  

Our own creation story is universal in its outlook but in many ways it hews pretty closely to the African one.  And as Adam and Eve stand naked before the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, there is a sense in which they are being faced with the same kind of choice: accept God’s obvious blessing, or risk it all and find out what is the What?

There is missing, in the African story, a crucial character, slithering and sliming along: the subtle serpent is absent from this tale.  Had he been there, we can only assume that he would have bargained with the first Dinka man and the first Dinka women, convincing them that the What was worth looking into, pointing out ways that they might keep their cattle and still get the What. He could sell snake oil to a snake!  But he has no role in this story... not in those early days of story-telling.

But in Sudan the story continues, jumping forward to our own times: a chronicle of the horrific slaughter of men and women all across southern Sudan.  An exodus of Lost Boys (and others) walking across the desert into Ethiopia.  A decade of childhood spent in a refugee camp.  And finally deliverance to the promised land of these United States where the main character of the book finds himself beaten, robbed, and left sitting in an Emergency Room for hours since he has no insurance.  Perhaps the serpent, subtle as ever, has been there all along.

And the memory of the mystery persists.  What is the What?  What is that secret that God once withheld?  Was it right to choose the cattle – which had seemed such an obvious blessing?  Or would the What have been a better choice that could have delivered the people from this awful fate?

What is the What?  It is such an odd question!  We can let it take us into our own story, too.  What is it that leads us so quickly from paradise to murder?  It wasn’t the cows, surely!  It wasn’t Abel’s goats that so incited Cain!  What is the What?  

What is it that has organized this great nation of ours into the aisles of a discount super-store?  What is it that puts guns in the hands of children and then recruits them for warfare?  Is it some twisted version of a gift that once was given by God?  Is it the backwash from the rivers that flowed through Eden?  How did this garden get so polluted?  What is the What?  

Is it some Holy Grail that has inspired men perversely to fight to the death across a holy land?  Is it the power of the tree of Life, rolled up into a belt, strapped around a young girl’s midsection, and then detonated in a public square?  What is the What?

What gift did we decline?  Or is it that we have never stopped pursuing its mystery?  What fruit could we have eaten that brought things to this?  What parasite has burrowed into the human being that has made the street corners of Camden so awful and so bloody?  What is the What?

Or is the What the deceptive power that courses through corporations and congresses as they spend ever more money on weapons and less on anything else?  Or is the What light sweet crude oil – that sounds so scrumptious, but grips us with all the determined and corrupting power of a heroin addiction?  What is the What?

Perhaps our own story is not so different from the story of those tall, dark Dinka from Sudan.  Perhaps we, too, have been possessed by the memory of the mystery of what might have been (what is the What?)  How delightfully naive it must have been to see the hopes of the future possessed by a cow!  How delightfully simple it would have been to stay away from just one tree!  But that was long ago and now we are modern, sophisticated, busy people!  Give us the What – whatever it may be!  For at last we must know what we might have had - What is the What?!

If the truth is that our story is intertwined with the Africans’ story, then let us let the story take us to the desert – since it is the desert that the Lost Boys of Sudan had to cross.  But let us let our story take us to a different desert, where Jesus has gone, and where after forty days of fasting he encounters that slithering, slimy, subtle tempter.  And it turns out that the devil has been harboring the memory of the mystery all these ages.  He’s packaged it differently for Jesus.

Wouldn’t you like some bread, he asks.  Wouldn’t you like to let me help you out?  No?

Wouldn’t you like to show me just how powerful you are?  Flex your muscles?  Won’t you take my suggestion?  No?

Wouldn’t you like to add to your power?  Wouldn’t you like to rule men’s hearts with an iron fist?  No?

The devil’s temptations suggest the contours of that old mystery.  Wouldn’t Jesus like to have the What – the alternative to God’s obvious blessing?  Wouldn’t Jesus like to have it all?  What is the What?

Somehow fortified by his fasting, Jesus, who now seems to know himself more fully, also knows the folly of these false choices.  He knows, of course, about the garden and the tree.  He knows about the Dinka and the cattle.  And he knows about the What.  Jesus knows about the false choice between God’s obvious blessing and whatever it is that’s behind Door # 2, or down Aisle 12, or in the firing chamber of a gun, or gushing up from an oil well, or strapped around a suicide bomber’s waist.  Jesus knows that there was never really any good choice to be made, that accepting God’s obvious blessing is blessing enough for any people.

So Jesus goes into the desert like a new first man to confront the memory of the mystery of this ancient, nagging question – what might have been?  And when we see Jesus confront this tempting question, do we finally see it for what it is: something like a curse on our lips?

Even though that first Dinka man chose wisely, his children, or their children, would find themselves in the exact same boat as the children of Adam and Eve.  That persistent question always haunting them, unable to simply be grateful for the cows, the question hung in the air: What is the What?

So Jesus goes into the desert to become a new first man who will take the question from our lips.  Because a story like that – or a story like the folly of Eve and Adam – is a story that we are bound to go on repeating over and over until we find a new story to replace it.  This seems to be the way we are made.

Which is why today the Sudan has become a place of un-imaginable bloodshed and misery.  Far from the most sacred and beautiful land that God could give, Sudan and its people have been raped and slaughtered in their hundreds of thousands over the last ten years or more.  Africans are unwilling or unable to put a stop to this.  The Chinese are unwilling, the Europeans are unwilling.  And although we Americans will read about it and preach about the carnage that has befallen Darfur and other parts of Sudan, we have shown precious little willingness to do much about it.

We are all too willing, it would seem, to live with the What – with whatever the alternative to God’s obvious blessing is.  We are all too willing to be beguiled by smooth-talking serpents who tell us we don’t have to have it God’s way, we’ll do perfectly well on our own.  And we have not yet convinced ourselves that it is time to let this new first man take over our lives, our history.

Which is why, as Lent begins, the Church drags us into the desert with Jesus to overhear his confrontation with that old serpent.

“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

“You shall not tempt the Lord your God.”

“Be gone, Satan!  For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”

And there is no What anymore.  When Jesus comes out of the desert he begins his ministry of healing and teaching and preaching and feeding.  He holds no false bargain up to those who would hear him and follow him.  He leaves no lingering question in the air.  He only starts to call out, “Follow me, follow me!”  And soon we learn that to follow him is no easy task.  It might be easier to wonder about what God is hiding behind another door, what secret answer he may hold to an ancient question.

But there is no question.  There is only the Cross to go to with this new first man, who will take every ancient tragedy there with him to be crucified with him – and every modern tragedy as well.

And there is no What anymore – no alternative to God’s obvious blessing in this new man, who has given us a new story to tell, and who has beaten that slithering, subtle serpent at his own game.

Forty days and forty nights he is giving us to think about that old story, or to repeat the old question in our heads over and over: What is the What, what is the What?

Forty days and forty nights to leave these things in the desert, where, with the serpent, they will finally shrivel and die.  

Forty days and forty nights to discover this new first man, who the devil is forced to leave, and to whom angels come, to bring him to us, if we will have him.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
10 February 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on February 11, 2008 .