For some crazy reason, when I was at Roosevelt high school in Des Moines in the mid-1970’s, the coolest group to be part of was…the mimes! The Roosevelt Mimes were incredibly popular not because of the way they depicted being caught within an increasingly shrinking box or the way they released fluttering butterflies from their imaginary pants pockets. These mimes didn’t even do too much walking against the wind, unless it was against the hot air blowing from Congress.
In perhaps the tradition of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, our iteration served as the school’s center for subversion and satire. I was SO honored to be a part and turn the world upside down in black spandex and white pancake for both my Junior AND Senior years!
Perhaps our masterpiece during my years of involvement was the tribute we did, in February 1976, for America’s Bicentennial. The Roosevelt Girl’s Club was hosting an all-school assembly to promote its annual girl-ask-guy winter dance whose theme, that year of course, was the Bicentennial, and we were asked to provide a little entertainment.
As America's 200th birthday was coming on the heels of Watergate and Vietnam and was endlessly plugged in smarmy tv “Bicentennial Minutes” as well as special edition 7-Up bottles exuding what seemed like most superficial and hypocritical patriotism (and in those awful 1970’s fashions), Roosevelt’s silent subversives and satirists felt the time was ripe to give it all a swipe or two.
In fact, the extravaganza we mimes prepared was so extravagant, it required speaking! I was tasked to serve as narrator. Dressed primly in a polyester magenta and black fake fur get-up, I came entered the stage announcing my name was Bev Bourgeois. I was President of the Des Moines' Bicentennial Society, or “B.S.” The mimes and I were here to present a version of American history that, I was proud to say, was “pure B.S.” Ha ha ha ha ha ha!
The Revolutionary War, choreographed to a Sousa march, ended with all mimes dying in a circle with legs raising and pointed in rhythmic manner like June Taylor Dancers. Mime Pioneers smoked Native American peace pipes and got so stoned they gave their Conestoga wagons away. We skipped the Civil War (because we’d already done the Revolutionary one) and went directly to the scene where Congress was voiting on the Sherman Silver Purchase Act (staged with mimes sitting in a couple of rows of chairs, raising their hands). For The Great Depression mimes walked around really sad, until Bev said, “Cheer up, gang, another war is on the way!” We ended with the Cleavers in their bomb shelter and Bev happily proclaiming, “B.S. FOREVER!”
It is this spunky, silly, satirical spirit that, I believe, underlies and enlivens the story found in Genesis 11 commonly known as “The Tower of Babel.”
Of course, we don’t normally think of the Babel story as satirical or silly, something that might bring a Des Moines' high school mime extravaganza to mind.
Usually we think of this story as a tragedy: Once upon a time everyone spoke the same language, and that allowed them to build a great tower that reached the heavens. This however, ended up being too much. God punished the people for becoming too powerful and ambitious. He confused their language so they could no longer stand one another – on top of that tower or down on earth. Everyone scattered to live lives stuck in misunderstanding, chaos and war. Pretty dreary stuff.
However, if we put on comic lenses, we will start to see...and hear...goofy things.
Like the word “Babel.” It’s a funny word, yes? In English, it sounds like “babble,” the funny nonsensical sounds made by babies or completely unaware, annoyingly prattle-filled adults.
In Hebrew, “Babel” sounds a lot like “balel”, meaning “confusion” (which is ironically quite similar to the English "babble," as well!).
“Babel” is also the first half of the word “Bab-ilu” (no relation, as far as I can tell, to Ricky Ricardo). “Bab-ilu” is ancient Akkadian for "Babylon" and is the word the Babylonians, Israel's great nemeses, would have used to name themselves. It means “Gate of God.” Quite a name and claim! For the Israelites to say God called their tower "Babel" is to say God abruptly cuts their great name in half, leaving it to mean "Gate of.. ??" and the great tower they were purported building to be called "The Tower of the Gate Of..."? Quite ambiguous and silly, yes?
Sort of reminds me of the ridiculously sudden and unceremonious ending of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”….
What a way to parody war! (Almost up their with a June Taylor treatment!) Likewise, "Babel" seems like a brusque parody of self-important imperial naming.
And the fact is there was a great ancient tower to be found in Babylon. It was called "Etemenaki," meaning "The Temple of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth" and was believed to connect mighty Babylon with Marduk, the great Babylonian god of creation who is lampooned in Genesis 1 (see my blog "The Comedy of Creation" for more).
This gargantuan structure was originally constructed in the 14th century BC and had fallen apart over time; by the 6th century BC, when Babylon rose again to power and, as a part, invaded destroyed Jerusalem and its temple, forcing the Israelites into exile in Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar II was giving Etemenaki a grand redo. It must have been so painful...and irritating...for the exiles to have to witness this rebuilding day in, day out. Both the tower and what it implied.
The time was ripe to give it all a silly and satirical swipe or two: 'The Tower of the Gate of ... ??' 'The Tower of Confusion!' 'The Tower of Babble!' That's what this thing should be really called! That's what God calls it!
The real “confusion” in the story is that of the people who think they are capable of being on par with God (and hence capable of building a tower to the heavens.) Their linguistic unanimity, which enables grandiose ambition and self-understanding is...in the language of the Roosevelt Mimes, pure B.S.!
It’s reminds me of the irony of what's really going on on Fox News, or MSNBC.
Despite their opposing places on the political spectrum, both allow only one side of an argument on anything and let their unanimity of language and ideology grow and grow until their emboldened self-righteousness turns them into the Divine mouthpiece for all to worship. Let's face it, regardless of your politics, it's all a lot of B.S.! Wipe your screen before going to bed....
Perhaps the Genesis 11 story is telling us it’s actually a blessing that God decided it was time to scramble up the people's speech and make things obviously "confused." Having to learn to get along with others who don’t speak our language, discovering love beyond ideology, and getting to discover brothers and sisters among those we first thought as enemies…there’s no greater experience, or creative act.
Not even mime.
p.s. As the holidays approach and you find yourself singing, in the second verse of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” above its sad and lowly plains, they bend on hovering wing, and ever o’er its Babel sounds the blessed angels sing, may your thoughts turn toward Monty Python, Fox News, and the Bicentennial Society, and, in so doing, may you experience a diffusion of true hope.
p.s.s. Tonight, 12/10/14, I’m going to be a special guest star on a webcast! I’ll be talking about how we can be peacemakers by making fun of ourselves, letting ourselves look goofy! If Abraham Lincoln could do it – even Jesus – so can we. Go to http://www.porticocollective.org/p/live-web-events.html The show will be airing live at 7:30 CST but you can watch it anytime after that.