What we conceive

Miraculous. Marvelous. Words can’t describe what it is like to witness a live birth, particularly the birth of my own two children. It’s been over 30 years, and the images in my mind are fuzzy around the edges. But I still remember the sight of watching my infant son being lifted whole from my wife’s womb after a Cesarean, or two years later, my daughter’s little head crowning as she emerged into the light. My wife, of course, was doing all the work, and many describe childbirth itself as awful. But from my safe and privileged vantage point, the experience was simply awe-filled. I would not have wanted to be anywhere else but in that room, watching the miracle unfold.

Do you know that feeling? Bear with me, then, while I make what may seem like a rather bizarre turn. There’s a point to it, I promise.

I suspect that it is because human birth is so wondrous that horror films exploit and twist the image to make it particularly monstrous. I’m not a fan of such movies, and have never quite understood the attraction of that kind of adrenaline rush. But I’m familiar with some of the imagery.

Director Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) comes immediately to mind. You may already know the scene I’m thinking of. A commercial space vessel investigates a distress signal, lands on a rocky moon, and enters a derelict alien ship. One of crew members, Kane (played by John Hurt), finds a chamber filled with what appear to be eggs. One opens, and as he touches it, a creature springs out and attaches to his face. In time, the creature detaches and dies, and Kane seems to return to normal.

Normal, that is, until the moment when, during a friendly meal with the crew, he suddenly begins to convulse uncontrollably, and a horrific baby alien bursts from his chest and disappears into the shadows of the ship.

Yuck.

The scene made theater-goers jump in their seats, and later, come back for more. Alien became a science fiction/horror cult classic that spawned several sequels (“spawn” seems just the right verb here), where each movie seemed to revel in a can-you-top-this competition to come up with a new and more disgusting alien birth scene.

Again, I believe what makes these images so disturbingly effective is their implicit contrast with what birth should be: the scenes are not merely shocking but intrinsically perverse.

My point? It may be that the poet who gave us Psalm 7 wants us to be similarly disgusted.

. . .

Psalm 7, as we’ve seen, is a lament about the psalmist’s enemies and a cry for help and protection. The psalmist has been falsely accused, and asks the righteous God to judge the case. He trusts that God, who hates sin and evil, will be his shield, while directing divine weapons of vengeance against those who refuse to repent of their wickedness.

And then the psalmist says this about his enemies:

See how they conceive evil,
    and are pregnant with mischief,
    and bring forth lies.
(Ps 7:14, NRSV)

The three lines form a tight parallelism. The nouns “evil,” “mischief,” and “lies” are three ways of describing the malice and false accusations of the psalmist’s enemies. The nouns are matched by the related verbs “to conceive,” “become pregnant,” and “bring forth” (the latter is the word repeatedly translated as “beget” in the King James Version of the Old Testament).

Childbirth, in the psalmist’s day, was not the modern antiseptic version many of us know now. But people still knew what the miracle of new life should be like. The psalmist’s words are more than convenient metaphor: they suggest a perversion of the way things should be.

And more: they suggest something of a moral progression which we would be wise to keep in mind. This is not simply about having bad thoughts or doing bad things. It’s about how the evil we conceive internally can gestate until it is born into the world as evil deeds, including all manner of lies. It’s as Jesus taught: “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt 15:18).

The scene from Alien and others of its ilk were created for their shock effect, not to teach wisdom. Nevertheless, through them, we might tap into a sense of moral disgust and repentance at the horror of how sinful behavior is born out of what we conceive in private.

If we could, we would indeed be wiser.