When I was growing up, my family was the church-going kind – like the multiple times-a-week, involved in choirs, programs, and volunteering kind. My dad was the janitor, for goodness sake. So when literally no one else was at church, I was at church. I’m not interested in discussing religion at the moment, but I bring this up to say that I remember a lot of the Bible stories from my childhood. One of these stories has come to the forefront of my mind recently but for a reason that was never taught in Sunday school.
So, basically, the quick version goes like this: After God makes mankind, people become bad. Really bad. So bad that God regrets ever making man. So he tells Noah – like the only decent person He can find – “Get ready, build a boat, 2 of every kind of animal” – you remember. After all of that, Noah’s family survives the flood and starts to repopulate the earth again. Okay, now what happens after that? Most people don’t remember much after the ark lands, but there’s a really important story that comes right after that with a hidden little piece of info that gets glazed over.
In the story, civilization is building up again. People are still all speaking the same language. They decide, “We need to build a city with a big tower. This will bring us all together and keep us from scattering.” Well, you may remember that the people build the Tower of Babel – basically an attempt to claim deity status alongside God. Then God says, “Look if these people keep speaking the same language, nothing will be impossible for them. Scramble them up and send them on their way.”
Now, a lot of people tend to focus on the scrambling of the languages or the arrogance of the builders or any other number of theological points. I want to bring focus to something a little different – the idea that a building can create unity. Recently, the Omaha City Council voted to remove Landmark status from the Clarinda and Page buildings along historic Turner Boulevard. When I was having a dialogue with someone at work recently, I was asked, “What difference does it make if the buildings are torn down?”
At that point, I could understand the intentions of the builders of Babel. The real significance of the tower, at least to me now, is that the builders understood the ability of a significant building to provide stability, unity, and identity to the people around it. Was everyone going to live in the Tower? No. But it was to be part of their cultural consciousness. I’m not saying that the Clarinda would unify the people of Omaha or prevent people from scattering. I am saying, though, that these historic buildings hold part of our identity as a city, and with each building that falls, so does a piece of who we are.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if Omaha seems to lack a clear identity at times, it is probably because we as a culture have not yet learned the power of Babel. Well, in Minne Lusa, we are adamant about preserving our history and our built environment. There is an identity here that is unique, and it permeates the walls of our homes. Our culture is hidden in the woodgrain of our mantles. Our perspective is influenced by the ripples in our glass. Every creaky step, every glass doorknob, every shingle bears testament to the stories that have passed through the hands of time here. These places are sacred. They hold our history as a people. When you buy a home in Minne Lusa, you inherit the history of the families that lived, cried, married, died there before you. The built environment you come home to each night was there before you were born and, if cared for properly, will be there long after you die. Whether you intend to or not, you are adding your history to its walls. This is more than a romantic notion. Architects, preservationists, sociologists, and scientists the world over repeatedly confirm the importance of use to maintaining a building’s life just as they confirm the importance of familiar built environments to our sense of identity and belonging. When people talk about the importance of old buildings, it is so much more than just wanting to see bricks and mortar. There is a real and measurable benefit to maintaining our Babels, our Clarindas, our Minne Lusas.
Another lesson Babel teaches us is that nothing can stop us when we are united. Whether you believe the Biblical account is true or not, the lesson has persisted at least as long as the story. Cultures have acknowledged for millennia that incredible things are possible for us if we can work together for a common goal. What kinds of things could be possible for us in Minne Lusa if we could really harness the Power of Babel?
If you are curious about the story of the Tower of Babel, you can find it in Genesis 11:1-8. It’s not a long read and you don’t have to do anything with the theology in order to see some of the morals of the story. Check it out if you’d like. Any story that has endured for thousands of years must have some kind of social benefit beyond only religion. Can you find it?