chiasm: choose to not think straight

Twenty-first century, English-speaking Westerners tend to think in linear-mode. That is, we look for all expression of thought, whether verbal or literary, to develop in succession, in a straight line, with the climax or “punch line” coming at the end of things.

Chiasm-think-A

However, that was not at all the dominant mode of thought and communication among Easterners in the Mediterranean world in the first century (and earlier)!

Chiasm-think-B

Rather than linear thinking and communication, the ancients of the Mediterranean world tended toward cyclical ways. Consequently, the climax or punch line, the point of focus or matter of emphasis in a work was expected to arrive at the center of the piece, not at the end. Pause for a moment and let the significance of that difference soak in!

Chiasm-think-c

This expectation of “the center of things” was just as natural to the ancient Easterners as “a climactic conclusion” is to modern Westerners. Even for young children.

Let me ask you something: do you know your ABC’s? When a modern, Western, English-speaker is asked that question and responds with a “Well, of course, ever since I was in pre-school!,” they’re thinking in a straight-line. They’re thinking they can speak or write the English alphabet “from start to finish, in alphabetical order” (i.e. – A, B, C, etc.). They’re thinking only in terms of left-to-right, in linear succession, until they reach “the end.”

But, what if I told you that the youngest of children among the ancient Greeks, Jews, and Romans, were commonly drilled in the alphabets of their languages and were not – repeat not – merely trained to know/say/write the letters of their alphabet in “one direction” but, “in both directions,” as well as in symmetrical alternation toward “the center?”

Let the church say, “Huh?!” [HUH?!]

Now I ask you: can you do that? Can you say the English alphabet three ways? As in (1) “A, B, C, etc.” and (2) as “Z, Y, X, etc.” and (3) A, Z, B, Y, C, X?

I didn’t think so! Now let the church say, ‘Wow!” [WOW!]

All of which means you and I have a great deal to learn and will have to work hard at setting linear thinking aside in our head and deliberately shifting into cyclical mode when we’re in much of the world of what we know as Scripture, the Bible.

Chiasm-think-D

That’s enough for now, I suspect, because your head might just be … how shall we say? …  spinning. Just let me leave you with a thought to ponder: how might a significant matter of emphasis or a climactic point in a segment of Scripture that was crystal clear to the ancients be misconstrued – or even missed altogether! – by us moderns? And all because we wrongly expected Scripture to fit the way we think today (linear) rather than the way its ancient authors thought then (cyclical)?

Let the exegete ever be humble, and so, first don the ancient’s mind and sandals when approaching the Bible’s text, rather than expecting the ancients to do time-travel into the future (our time today) and think, speak, act, and write like we do. The former merely requires some awareness and effort; the latter is impossible.

Let the church say, “Amen!” [AMEN!]