Puzzles

by Frances Young.

The first time I met the man who has been my husband for over 50 years he and a friend were doing a Guardian cryptic crossword. I sat on the touchlines making somewhat caustic comments – to my linguistically-trained mind the tricks and conventions were just ridiculous! But then I had never been any good at puzzles, outshone by younger siblings, fearful of failure – though I suppose some would have thought I was doing puzzles all the time as I struggled to read and write Greek and Latin. No – I was never a puzzler! Yet late in life I’ve discovered Sudoku and Codewords and have to discipline myself not to get addicted and waste all day on them… They are definitely therapeutic, certainly a distraction from pressures and anxieties, a better accompaniment than reading to listening to music – you really can listen… And they say, there’re a possible antidote to dementia, a serious consideration in one’s 80s! Puzzles are to be celebrated.

But should we treat Scripture as puzzles deliberately set for us by the Holy Spirit? Believe it or not that is exactly what significant Christian theologians of the third and fourth centuries did think. I wonder if they might be onto something.

Augustine, the great theologian of the Western Church, whose life spanned the fall of the Roman Empire in the early fifth century, composed a treatise On Christian Teaching. It was essentially about interpreting and communicating scripture. He knew all about teaching classical literature – professionally he had been a rhetor, an educator, before his conversion. He had been one of those cultured despisers of the scriptures – they lacked style, being written in awful translationese, and were thoroughly alien and strange. But once a priest and bishop he devoted himself to making sense of them. He could then exemplify their natural eloquence and wisdom, while admitting that in places it was hard work to find it. Problems and ambiguities of many kinds were presented to the casual reader, “so thick is the fog created by some obscure phrases.”

I have no doubt that this is all divinely predetermined, so that pride may be subdued by hard work and intellects which tend to despise things that are easily discovered may be rescued from boredom and reinvigorated.

No one disputes that it is much more pleasant to learn lessons presented through imagery, and much more rewarding to discover meanings that are won only with difficulty… In both situations the danger is lethargy. It is a wonderful and beneficial thing that the Holy Spirit organised the holy scripture so as to satisfy hunger by means of its plainer passages and remove boredom by means of its obscure ones. Virtually nothing is unearthed from these obscurities which cannot be found quite plainly expressed somewhere else.
(De Doctrina Christiana II.6-7)

This kind of attitude did not come out of the blue. In the East the first great biblical scholar, Origen, had, more than a century earlier, suggested that the aim of the Spirit was to conceal the truth:

The word of God arranged for certain stumbling blocks, as it were, and hindrances and impossibilities to be inserted in the midst of the law and the history… for the sake of the more skilful and enquiring readers… By giving up themselves to the toil of examining what is written [they will discover] a meaning worthy of God.
(De Principiis IV.2.8)

He thought the prophecies “are filled with riddles” and the aporiai (puzzles) were intended to move readers into seeking deeper meanings.

All this may seem rather surprising, but in fact it helped to get a hearing in the culture of the time, and eased acceptance of this “barbarian” collection of books. How it helped is illuminated by the essays of Plutarch (a pagan thinker) discussing oracles: philosophers attributed such prophetic phenomena to the workings of providence, but also recognised they were often very enigmatic. Plutarch suggested that the god deliberately posed problems in the form of riddles or puzzles so as to create a craving for knowledge of the divine. The culture encouraged the idea of revelatory concealment, of hidden mysteries. No wonder then that the entire Old Testament was treated as a system of prophetic symbols and riddles pointing to Christ, if only you worked hard at teasing them out.

So to my questions for today: how do we find a way to encourage contemporary “cultured despisers” to try reading the Bible? And do puzzles have a theological purpose?

3 thoughts on “Puzzles”

  1. Thanks for this, Frances. It shows that theology doesn’t always have to be such a serious bone of contention!
    I also love puzzles, especially cryptic crosswords, sudoku and online Scrabble. I suppose Scrabble is more of a game than a puzzle, but I do have to figure out how to make the best possible word and play it in the best possible place to gain the optimum points, so it is a puzzle in a way. But my favourite puzzles at the moment are jigsaw puzzles. I’ll sit down to put a few pieces in and before I know it two hours have passed in pure escapism and relaxation. Some would say why spend so much time and effort in building a picture, when you can just look at the picture on the box! But it’s the challenge, isn’t it? Seeing the picture in a thousand pieces and putting it together so it can be seen clearly is very satisfying. And the best thing is that there are puzzles to suit all ages and all intellects. Very small children can enjoy them and so can wise old men; it’s just a matter of choosing the level of puzzle that suits you.
    Isn’t it the same with Scripture? When we tell a child the story of the prodigal son we might encourage their thinking by asking a question such as ‘why do you think the older brother was grumpy?’ And yet students and learned people can still address that same question in a more intellectual, complex and profound way. There is something for everyone in the Scriptures, our wonderful God provides spiritual food for us all.
    Another point, just because we can get our heads round more complicated stuff doesn’t mean we always want to. This week the Duchess of Cornwall revealed that her favourite food is still beans on toast and fish and chips. This is a lady who can enjoy fine cuisine every evening if she chooses, but sometimes it’s the simple fare that satisfies like nothing else. Who doesn’t enjoy a kiddies tea of fish fingers or sausages and chips, even when they could have salmon or steak?
    ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ (whether that’s a white sliced loaf or an artisan bread, thank you Lord for your provision!)

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  2. The difference between puzzling over scripture and over a crossword puzzle or jigsaw puzzle is that there isn’t just one correct answer. One can find hundreds of different sermons based on one passage of scripture. This is because preachers take different angles, because particular phrases speak to them and trigger thought responses or because they feel called to give a particular message to the congregation before them. As individuals, we approach scripture from different points in our lives and with different needs. We might see different insights within a passage of scripture when we re-read it some time later.

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  3. There are many ways of doing a jigsaw puzzle. Some start with the edges and work inwards, some focus on one particular area of the picture and work outwards. Either way, the picture gets bigger and becomes clearer over time, but if any of the pieces are missing it can never be completed. And for me, the four corner pieces of the Christian faith are this:
    1 Jesus is the Christ, Son of the living God
    2 Christ has died
    3 Christ is risen
    4 Christ will come again

    ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes.’ Acts 4:11-12

    Of course we will never see the whole picture that God is creating because we ourselves are just a small part of it, a tiny thread in an infinite glorious tapestry. History (his story) is unfolding even as we speak!

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