Origin stories tell us who we are as individuals, and who we are as a society. In other words, if you want to explain some of what you see in society today, you have to look at what we tell ourselves about where we came from.
By and large the predominant story we tell ourselves about where we came from today is the story of chance existence and progress through natural selection. We exist because enough time passed in our universe for the chance of the emergence of life on this planet to come to fruition. And we exist the way we exist today because nature has selected the strong over the weak.
Where does this story leave humanity?
If this is our prevailing origin story, what motivation would we have now for protecting the weak among us? In respecting the dignity of all humans, including the weak and vulnerable, we would actually be working againstthe very forces that have gotten us this far.
Our modern origin story is not one that places much value on all human life.
We are not alone in this.
In the past century or so we have discovered an ancient Babylonian origin story: the Enuma Elish. You can read this ancient myth here.
According to this ancient origin story, humans are not the product of chance and natural selection of the strong over the weak. No. Humans are vermin. We exist to spite and cause annoyance and to do the work of the gods so that they don’t have to. We are the least worthy of honor in all of creation.
This story, and other stories like it, were the origin story of the ancient world.
And then along came Israel.
In the ancient world every god had an image bearer. Some sort of physical representation of that god.
The Egyptian goddess of fertility was often represented by a pregnant frog. The Babylonian god Marduk was often represented by a dragon.
Israel was different.
Israel made a bold claim: if you want to know what God is like, you should look at a human person.
The God of Israel, like all other gods of the ancient world, also had image bearers. But they were not made of gold or iron. They were made of flesh and blood.
This is a wildly different portrayal of humanity than that of any ancient or modern myth. You are not a cosmic accident; you are not a pawn in the battle of the gods. You bear the image of God.
But a closer reading of Genesis reveals something even more fascinating.
It turns out, you can’t quite understand God by looking at just one human person. The image bearing of God was not complete until there existed multiple human persons.
According to ancient Israel, if you want to know what God was like, you had to look at human persons in relationship.
Adam did not reflect the image of God until Eve appeared. God said “Let us make mankind in our image, and let them have dominion…” And these two human persons were created in order to produce a third. “You shall be fruitful and multiply.”
You need multiple human persons to properly reflect God because God exists as One God in Three persons.
But it doesn’t stop there.
These first two human beings were not exactly carbon copies of one another, were they? They were different. In fact, they were biologically opposite.
If you want to know what God is like, you have to look at very different human persons in relationship.
This is the role of humanity within the created order: to reflect the nature of God through our relationships with one another. To serve as image bearers. Signaling to the world through our treatment of one another that a good, loving God exists.
And it is our differences in those relationship that most properly reflect God. Our differences are not something to be dealt with, or minimized, or used to our advantage. They are part of the reflection of the image of a God who cannot be represented by just one gender, or just one race.
I don’t need to tell you that we don’t live up to this high calling. That we allow differences to lead to mistreatment. That we allow distrust to tarnish our relationships. That we fail to love. That we fail to honor the dignity of ever human image bearer we encounter.
So what are we to do? What would Jesus tell us if we were to sneak out in the middle of the night, like Nicodemus, and ask him this question?
“Jesus, how do we restore the broken image?”
His answer would likely be the same answer he gave Nicodemus.
You must be born again. You must relearn how to be truly human.
Being born again—becoming more truly human—is a long journey. And it is one that begins at the cross.
When Nicodemus asks how to be born again, Jesus answers him:
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
If the remaking of humanity in the image of the New Adam happened through torture, shame, and crucifixion, we should not expect our own process of being born again to be without pain.
But on the other side of this process of rebirth is a life we were meant to live, a return to our truest origin story. Reflecting the image of the one God through our relationships with entirely different others.
There are countless layers to the challenges our society continues to face, and this is one of them: we have actually believed and embraced the modern origin story.
And we have done so to our collective detriment.
Change will at least have to involve a rejection of the modern story of who we are and what we are here for, and an embracing of a much older one. This is not an easy task; this origin story is so engrained in our culture that it is hard to even notice.
The affirmation that all human beings are the creation of a good and loving God rather than the result of chance, violence, and the selection of the strong over the weak has more healing power than many of us realize.
This local, quiet task is something that every teacher, parent, plumber, friend, and pastor can do, starting today.
Do you want to see a shadow of this at work? Check out The Repair Shop, a BBC show about … a repair shop … that seeks to be “an antidote to throwaway culture … shining a light on the wonderful treasures to be found in homes across the country.”
Watch a few episodes (you can find it on Netflix), and try not to be moved by old objects being restored through tender care because the shop owners believe that these objects and their owners have an inherent sense of dignity. And then imagine going about your own local, quiet work with other people in the same way.