There is probably not a more awkward passage for Biblical literalists than the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11. How exactly do you build a tower to heaven in the real world where physics and atmospheric pressure exist? And what kind of sovereign God would squash this project out of fear that “nothing they propose to do will be impossible for them” (v. 6)? The text gives no moral reason why building the tower was wrong so the creators of children’s Bible videos have to fill in a lot of blanks. But as I was considering this story last week in our Pentecost week readings, it hit me that maybe God just hates hegemony.
Maybe God’s action against the tower of Babel is supposed to describe a divine penchant for trust-busting. The people who built Babel had a uniformity of language (they all spoke the same), method (they used the same sized bricks), and purpose (they wanted to “make a name for themselves”). Babel was in a sense the first monopoly. How many other smaller building projects were gobbled up by Babel, Inc? Under hegemony, there is one vision for the people whether this vision is laid down from the leader or coagulates as the will of the mainstream.
So what’s wrong with uniformity? What’s wrong with finding the one right way and then bringing everyone else into conformity with it? This seems to be the zealous pursuit of a certain type of evangelical Christianity for which orthodoxy implies an exactitude of sameness. Is it only a problem if we’re conforming to the wrong thing? What if it were possible to create a hegemony of perfect correctness?
The best answer I can give is in the story of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit translated God’s “deeds of power” into multiple different languages instead of giving the listeners the power to understand Aramaic or whatever the disciples were speaking. Peter grounds Pentecost in the Joel prophecy, “Your sons and your daughters will prophesy; your young men will see visions and your old men will dream dreams.” This account of community discourse is inherently polyphonic. There is not one vision but many visions. In hegemony by contrast, sons and daughters have no space to prophesy because all that needs to be said has already been spoken.
My seminary professor Edgardo Colon gave us the analogy of a symphony. If every instrument played the exact same note the entire time, the truth of the symphony would be compromised. This isn’t to say that there is no truth and everyone can just play whatever notes they like, but rather that truth occurs in harmonics instead of single notes. We are giving the basic melody and chord changes, but perhaps the God who hates the tower of Babel wants us to make His song our own by improvising along with Him.
Rather than hegemonically striving to draw everything into exact conformity, perhaps the life of a healthy Christian community is a process of improvisation, finding the harmonies that are beautiful, accepting a song whose tensions are perpetually irresolvable. Such improvisation is difficult to control and make into a product that you can sell, but then again, so is the Holy Spirit.