A Theological Phrasebook entry.

One of the best illustrated books I discovered when I had children was John Burningham’s Mr. Gumpy’s Outing. The story starts with a man who decides to take trip down a river in his boat. As he floats along he begins to collect passengers. Two children, a rabbit, a cat, a dog etc. Each passenger receives a warning as they board Mr. Gumpy’s (increasingly full) boat, a limit they are told they cannot transgress. The limit is specific to each passenger. So, the children are told they can come for a ride as long as they “don’t squabble”; the rabbit can come as long as it doesn’t “hop about”; the cat, provided it does not chase the rabbit, etc.

You know how this story is going to end, don’t you? Of course you do.

Mr. Gumpy’s boat travels lazily down the river under the summer sun with its crew of children and animals and,

For a little while they all went along happily but then …
The goat kicked
The calf trampled
The chickens flapped
The sheep bleated
The pig mucked about
The dog teased the cat
The cat chased the rabbit
The rabbit hopped
The children squabbled
The boat tipped
And into the water they fell.

When reading this to my children, I would always punctuate the picture of Mr. Gumpy’s fall into the river with a dramatic “SPLAAAAAAAASHHH!” (For the concerned reader: things turn out ok for Mr. Gumpy and crew in the end – they climb out, dry off in the sun on the walk home, and have tea at Mr. Gumpy’s house).

The fall of Mr. Gumpy and his passengers into the river illustrates a particular aspect of what Christians often call the Fall (although as many have noted, the Bible itself never uses the term). I want to call it a sense of “intimate failure.” To be fallen is to experience that pull within ourselves towards that thing that we know we must not do (and to experience the effects of others who similarly do the thing they should not). It is to know how Mr. Gumpy’s Outing is going to end as soon as the various prohibitions are mentioned. The cat, one way or another, will chase the rabbit, and there will be consequences. The boat will inevitably tip even if it may float along smoothly for a time.

I am not trying to trivialize the consequences of sin by comparing it to a children’s picture book (although, what is going to happen if the cat catches that rabbit?). But, to focus only on the most obvious horrors of sin (from a comfortable chair in early 21st century America) can have a distancing effect. We are most quick to recognize what it is to be fallen in the actions of others. We think of the big and obvious failures – in history, in society, in the lives of those around us, of the harms done to us by others, conveniently dodging our own repeated, repeating, failures. We also are the dog who will tease the cat (or the calf who will trample, as the case might be).

In the story of Adam and Eve, the tree they are not allowed to eat from is not at some outer limit but at the very center of the garden, their home (Genesis 2-3). There is no Promethean adventure beyond the boundary of the human, no theft from a god caught sleeping. The forbidden fruit is there at the center, free for the taking, save for God’s command. When we read “you may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat,” when we hit that “shall not” we know how the story will end. Adam and Even did not. That’s the tragedy of it. We can’t really imagine otherwise, because we are on the other side of this story, creatures in the “anxiety-causing middle” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it, cut off from our origin as those who once walked and talked with God in the cool of the evening. Now we know ourselves to be naked, and so we hide from God and from each other. We cannot imagine ourselves back to a condition where not eating the prohibited fruit is a real possibility. The “before” of the before/after story Genesis 2-3 tells is not something we can access.

Adam and Eve’s rebellion is a story of disaster, such that what we call the fall really is a falling, a “falling away from being safely held as a creature … a continual fall, a dropping into a bottomless abyss, a state of being let go, a process of moving further and further away, falling deeper and deeper” (Bonhoeffer again, in Creation and Fall – italics in the original). The story of this falling continues in the early chapters of Genesis (right around the corner is Cain’s murder of his brother, Abel) through to the present. Our internal falling, our continuous and irresistible intimate failure, becomes torturous, destructive. We damage ourselves, and others. We make noise rather than music. And, unlike the ending of Mr. Gumpy’s Outing we are unable to pull ourselves out of the river to dry off in the sun. We need to be rescued or we will drown.

Further exploring:

  • Genesis 2-11
  • Confessions (Augustine)
  • Unapologetic (Francis Spufford) – Spufford is excellent on sin as the “HPtFtU” – aka the “Human Propensity to F*ck things Up” – and his novel, Golden Hill, provides a vivid illustration of the HPtFtU in action along multiple dimensions
  • I’ve quoted from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall above, but be warned that it can be a challenge to interpret
  • In the “intimate failure” vein, Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald perhaps captures the sense of the inner twist in people, of the damage we do, better than most novels (and continues the river motif of Mr. Gumpy’s Outing – which you should also read, of course)