Practical Dreamers
Colin Gibson:

The Dark Tower

Genesis 11


Imagine a sky,  blue as water a hundred fathoms deep.   A sky crowded with wisps of cloud,  curling and twisting in the air like a school of fish.   Dotted among them,  a host of golden stars shine out.   It looks just like the end of a late summer day,  when the air hangs still and heavy,  at that moment before the sun sets and the blue melts away into darkness.

But the scene beneath is bathed in light,  as if unaware of the gathering darkness.   Little humped hills crowd the horizon,  and at their feet green and golden slopes fall gently away to a great plain.   Everywhere there are stands of trees,  their leaves sprinkled with yellow blossoms.   At the farthest distance they look like strange stick insects.   Flowers,  red and white and yellow,  dot the green fields,  and here and there wheat or corn gleams golden brown.   It’s like the garden of paradise.

But this is no empty landscape.   On the brow of a hill a rider and walking companion climb towards a windmill.   On the crest of other hills can be made out castles and church spires.   On the left rise the gold and blue-topped towers and high roofs of a substantial town.

In the foreground there is a crowd of workers.   One man is lifting down a large balk of timber from the back of a bored-looking camel.   Another shovels a heap of sand in front of a huge water barrel,  while his companion stoops under the weight of a box of mortar,  carried on his shoulder.   Masons with rules and dividers measure blocks of marble.   One of them is chipping away with a sledge–hammer.   All around are piles of dressed stone and little heaps of rubble.

Dominating the entire scene,  and rising from its centre,  stands a many-storied tower,  its arched windows filled with stained glass.   Round its outside winds a richly decorated staircase.   There are more workmen climbing the terraces with mortar boxes on their shoulders.   Others lean out to check the pulleys of a huge crane operated at ground level by men straining at a winch to raise a giant block of limestone,  dangling in a double-hooked sling.

It seems to be a hive of industry,  a place of harmonious co-operation.   But three stories up,  something’s going wrong.   At the corner of a parapet two of the workmen are savagely fighting.   Higher still,  one builder strikes at the head of another with a pole;  and on the wooden planking at the very top of the tower tiny figures are falling back in terror as two angels swoop down with enormous hammers lifted and ready to strike.   Broken bits of stone shower down as they attack the building.   Already one workman has tumbled over the edge and is falling to his death far below.   And now you notice,  almost hidden from sight among the trees,  an army with spears,  marching towards the base of the building.

This is the Tower of Babel,  as a fifteenth-century French artist imagined it.

But we have our very own pictures of that famous tower.   Can you see that skeleton iron frame of an unfinished building,  twenty-five stories high?   Cables dangle listlessly from its summit;  two tall cranes on the very summit reach up into the sky,  silent and motionless — while somewhere below the builders and planners argue with each other and managers and workmen have an industrial dispute.   Or that manmade Beehive on a windy hill,   where charge and counter-charge, denunciation and protest,  fill the air.   Or that luxurious suburban home,  where a furious parent yells at a rebellious teenager to  ‘turn that damned music down!’

All around us rise ruined and abandoned towers,  and the air is full of babble.

We know the story of that Dark Tower.   It lies out in the desert,  like a piece of glass left on the beach,  rubbed smooth and bright by the endless pounding of the waves and the friction of the wind.   It’s quaint and old — very old — and it’s the tale of the Tower of Babel.

The scholars,  patiently,  painstakingly exploring the history of the Bible,  from which it comes,  reckon that it was written down at least ten centuries before the birth of Christ,  and that it may have existed as a story — remembered and told from one generation to the next  — long before that.   Told around a camp-fire,  or read aloud from a sacred book,  it taught what its makers had painfully learned about their own nature and what they had come to understand of God’s dealings with humankind.

It’s a pretty tall story!   In the seventeenth century,  a German scholar laboriously calculated that just to reach from the earth to the moon  (let alone to heaven),  the builders of Babel would have needed three million tons of material;  and their tower would not only have bankrupted earth,  it would also have destroyed the very planet,  by tipping it off balance.

But like the Greek myth of the Giants who piled mountain on mountain to reach the dwelling of the gods only to be hurled down and buried beneath the earth,  this story stretches the imagination to make its truth memorable.

We’re always reaching for the skies,  it says.   Look everybody,  how tall I am!   How famous,  how superior,  how clever,  how powerful!   Not content with being human,  we yearn to be like God;  to make a name for ourselves,  to raise a tower touching Heaven,  for everyone to see.   And that ambition,  says this story,  leads only and always to separation,  division and disaster.

‘I’m the king of the castle,  and you’re the dirty rascal’,  chant the children.   ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall;  Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.’ … And sometimes,  just sometimes,  even the dirty rascals have their day,  when the kings in their castles come tumbling down,  and all the king’s men cannot put Humpty together again.

The story of the Tower of Babel has always interested people who work with words,  because it’s one of the few legends about language itself:  the words we use,  the many tongues spoken throughout the world.

One modern poet imagines the great tower itself,  built heaven-high,  as something made out of words.   Our attempt,  as it were,  to reach up and capture the very nature of God — a very disturbing interruption for a deity who’s lived alone in space for endless ages,  immortal,  invisible and incomprehensible.

God woke,  but the nightmare did not recede.
Word by word the tower of speech grew.
He looked at it from the air he reclined on.
One word more and it would be on a level with him…
He leaned over and looked in the dictionary they used.
There was the blank still by his name…
The space on the page that is in all languages and in none;
That is the grammarian’s torment,
And the mystery at the cell’s core,
And the equation that will not come out,
And is the narrowness that we stare over
Into the eternal silence that is the repose of God.
Well,  in the Babel story God is no silent snoozer.   He is the one who comes down and throws the speech of the tower builders into utter confusion.   Unable to understand what each other is saying,  they are forced to abandon the whole project;  and go off in different directions,  muttering,  no doubt,  about those foreigners and their incomprehensible language.

Taken this way,  the story of Babel is a myth,  a tale invented to explain why there are so many languages in the world.   Once upon a time,  everyone spoke the same language and worked together towards a common goal.   But a jealous God,  angered by human pride and fearful of human success,  destroyed that common speech and condemned us to live forever separated from our fellows by the barrier of language.   The Tower of Bab–El  (the Hebrew name means ‘Gate of God’)  became Bab–al  (or ‘confusion’).   All of which is tidy but wrong.   There never was a universal language spoken by all the human inhabitants of earth,  though many languages are related to and influenced by other languages.   From the beginning,  Eskimos spoke Eskimo,  Egyptians spoke Egyptian,  and Babylonians babbled.

But at a much more profound level the story of Babel speaks the truth about the quarrels,  the competition and rivalry which splits human societies,  just as it divided tribe from tribe among the ancient Hebrews.   For us,  as for them,  the difference of languages is a symbol of deeper differences.

The talk of swinging youth is a mystery to an older generation;  the artist is baffled by the chatter of computers;  the jargon of experts bewilders their hearers;  and for many the words of religion have lost any meaning.   The prattle of talk shows,  the slogans of advertisers,  the catch cries of politicians and pressure groups fill the air with confusion.   The East is not talking to the West;  the channels of communication are blocked with avalanches of empty,  decaying words.

There was a tower that went before a fall.
Can’t we ever,  my love,  speak in the same language?
Its nerves grew worse and worse as it grew tall
Have we no aims in common?
As children,  we were bickering over beads —
The more there are together,  togetherness recedes …
Patriots,  dreamers,  diehards,  theoreticians all,
Can’t we ever,  my love,  speak in the same language?
Or shall we go,  still quarrelling over words,  to the wall?
Have we no aims in common?

Four centuries ago the great Flemish painter Pieter Breughel painted two pictures on the subject of the Tower of Babel.   Both of them are dominated by a gigantic building,  looking something like the Colosseum at Rome,  but many stories higher than that vast stone amphitheatre:   in fact,  in the second picture clouds float across the building below the summit.

There’s a mass of architectural detail — buttresses,  arches,  galleries,  tier on tier — and the building is crawling with tiny workmen,  dwarfed by its size,  like a multitude of insects scurrying over some colossal ant-heap.

All the latest technology is in use:  hoists,  huge double-headed cranes,  masses of scaffolding,  intricate machinery of every kind.   Down below,  in the harbour at its base,  the docks are piled high with supplies and materials;  the basin crowded with barges and merchant vessels unloading stores and pallets of timber.

In the foreground of Breughel’s first version,  a royal party has arrived to inspect progress.   Engineers and masons prostrate themselves before Nimrod,  the mighty hunter,  tyrant and military despot,  ruler of Babylon and builder of the Tower of Babel.   In the second version there are no such figures to give a human scale.   Just a colossal skyscraper,  swallowing its hordes of workers,  scarring the landscape,  filling the sky.   It evokes the kind of stupefaction we may have at the news of billions of dollars to be spent on the latest military or industrial marvel,  the space-shuttle tanks filled with thousands of gallons of rocket fuel,  the city monuments of steel concrete and glass.

As a poet puts it:

This is the famous Babel tower.
You’d think it had grown since yesterday.
We are the architects of that power;
Oh that the clouds would bear it away!
When our morning stint is done
We watch the manikin sentries
Stand shoulder to shoulder with the sun
(They are like tribesmen of the air),
And view the geometrical line of shadow
Cutting in two our land.
What have we fashioned but a sign?
This unending quarry,  strewn
With rough and smooth and wicked stone,
To mount the gun aimed at the sky.
What have we made but an empty sign?
The clouds pass slowly by.
What are our masters?   Who are you there?
We scarcely see you.   May there come
A great wind from a stormier star,
Blow tower and shadow to kingdom come.

In Edwin Muir’s poem,  as in Breughel’s paintings,  there is no need for angels to destroy such a tower.   Ugly,  monstrous,  it stands self-condemned.

The moral is the sad observation of Ecclesiastes:   ‘Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought,  and on the labour that I had laboured to perform,  and behold,  it was all vanity and vexation’.

But in the original Bible story God is active in human history,  deliberately intervening to sabotage the construction of the tower.   There’s more than a whiff of human fear in such an idea;  the primeval fear of offending a jealous and revengeful being,  who might take offence at the success of his own creatures.   ‘Behold they are one people,  and they all have one language,  and this is only the beginning of what they will do.   Nothing that they propose will now be impossible for them.   Come let us go down and confuse their language,  so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’

And that’s where this ancient story ceases to be true or useful;  when it’s time to recall the pictures of another God,  who comes down not to confuse and divide but to draw together in love.   Just a man with a child on his knee,  explaining that this is what the kingdom of God is like.   Just a man sitting in an upper room with eleven others,  his friends and disciples:  a man who prays to his father,  ‘May they be one,  even as we are one,  I in them and you in me,  that they may be made perfect in one.   And that the world may know you have sent me,  and love them,  as you have loved me’.

From Babel and its famous tower to Pentecost:  that’s the journey we must take.   It is our journey,  we who follow Christ into our world of shattered towers and too much babble,  of too much confusion and division,  too little unity and not enough listening to each other. 


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