The Otherness of God

12 February 2016

A sense of strangeness may be the beginning of theological awareness, suggests Sarah Lenton

Sarah Lenton

“There once was a hill that ate people. The rabbit’s Grandmother told him never to go near it…"

 

THAT’S the beginning of Gobbleknoll*, which is included by Alan Garner in his Book of Goblins. And it’s probably in stories such as this that most of us encounter our first literary experience of the “other”, the numinous.

Just reading the abrupt opening line makes you want more: what hill? do rabbits have grandmothers? And then the agreeable frisson: could there be a hill that eats people?

Wander into any German forest, and you’ll understand immediately where the Grimm stories get their power. If you’re lucky you’ll hear forest noises — the wind in the trees, an axe chopping away in the distance — but there’s always a moment when everything goes still. And it’s then you remember Grimm, or some inconvenient bit of folklore: “If the trees talk a bit, you do get a bit of a warning, but if they’re dead still, there’s something bad a-brewing.”

They used to say that in Somerset, but everybody knows what it’s like to have a wood, or a hill, or a pile of rocks, go uncanny on them. Scripture is haunted by this sense: “We have found it in . . . the wood”, as the old translation of Psalm 132 has it.

Really? What did we find?

 

THERE’S a level of straight “otherness” in some biblical tales, and it’s particularly attached to places — the waters of Meribah; 12 stones pulled from the river Jordan.

They can be commentated on and preached away, but the bare mention of, say, the Oak at Mamre, stirs the imagination. It’s one of the ways in which children pick up the sheer imaginative pull of scripture: Elijah tramping to Mount Sinai (sustained by two breakfasts), or Jacob putting a rock under his head and sleeping in the wilderness.

In fact, that story cannot be bettered, ending as it does with Jacob naming the mysterious Haunter of nature: “How awesome is this place,” he says; “this is none other than the house of God!”

 

Sarah Lenton writes, broadcasts, and lectures on lyric theatre for the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, and BBC Radio 3 and 4. She is studying for ordination at St Mellitus College.

 

* the story is adapted from a Sioux legend

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