Every Wednesday evening at 8:30pm, without fail, after I close Zoom, I open the little Twitter app on my phone and I tweet: "not to be corny but I love bible study!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
And I always mean it. We've been running this weekly young adult zoom bible study and it has routinely been the highlight of my work week, and it's been so simple too. Just getting this little stalwart group of people together, putting a wild passage of scripture in the midst of us, and wondering what on earth it could have to say to us. And not just cursory wondering, but really really wondering, interrogating, what it means that ten days of plagues descended on Egypt and a river of blood flowed, or that God would flood the whole world in what would be deemed an act of mercy, that thousands of demons were cast into thousands of pigs and sent hurtling over a cliff. We wondered what it means that the devil quotes scripture to Jesus, or that food multiplies when people are hungry enough, or if we would've responded to the angel Gabriel with the same courage that Mary had.
At the outset, we decided that the theme of the bible study would be Sunday School Revisited, our effort to reencounter the stories we've heard a thousand times with fresh eyes and adult minds and wonder if there is more nuance to them than was offered us in the Veggietales. I knew that this was the goal going in, and still I did not expect quite how confounding these stories would appear given the space and time to really encounter them again. I don't know why I didn't expect it though, because it feels true enough to state plainly that the bible is a deeply, deeply disorienting text. We have this way of treating it like it's normal or commonplace, simply for years of exposure or the ways it has suffused our cultural vocabulary -- these are stories we've internalized since childhood,,, oh ya ya Noah's Ark, oh ya ya ya the Feeding of the 5000,,, sure sure sure yeah Lazarus and the Rich Man,,,,, but in their depth, these stories are brutal and beautiful and mired and complicated and do not yield their treasures to us in cursory encounter. This is the work of the Bible, but it is also its gift.
It is the gift of scripture that it disorients us. There is this Russian literary term I learned in one of my seminary classes: ostranenie which means defamiliarization or, even more literally, "making strange". We read a book on the literary approach to the Gospel of Luke and the book offered: "The Russian formalists believed that normal, everyday perception of the world becomes habitual and jaded. The routine numbs our senses to new perspectives and new ways of seeing the everyday and familiar. "Habitualization," Shklovsky writes, "devours works, clothes, furniture, one's spouse, and the fear of war... Art exists that one may recover a sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony."
It is the author's proposition, and one that I agree with, that to be a Christian is to willingly -make strange- the world around us; to adopt the understanding that things are not as they should be. To be a Christian is to recognize that this was the role that Jesus played in his time -- to take people's deeply held assumptions about the ways of the world and flip them on their heads. What if the meek will inherit the earth? What if the widow's gift of two coins is greater than anyone else's? What if to enter the kingdom of heaven you have to become like a child? Could you believe that it was Jesus' role to play in his time, and scriptures role to play in our time, to make the ways of the world seem strange and the ways of God seem normal.
I wanna read this quote again because it's tough, and I feel like it's worth it.
"The Russian formalists believed that normal, everyday perception of the world becomes habitual and jaded. The routine numbs our senses to new perspectives and new ways of seeing the everyday and familiar. "Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war... Art exists that one may recover a sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony."
To some extent, I think, we're already in on it. Look around, we know that things are not as they should be. But to be a Christian is to do the work constantly of pushing back against injustices that have been habitualized,
to push back against the extent to which homelessness and hunger and depression and isolation and loneliness and poverty have been habitualized,
to push back against the extent to which vitriol and distrust of neighbor and never-ending war and intractable political conflict have been habitualized
the extent to which going bankrupt from medical debt, going bankrupt from student loan debt, going bankrupt for the cost of housing, the admiring of billionaires, has been habitualized
the open defiance of the care of public health, the open defiance of the rights and goodness and divinity of queer people and people of color and disabled people continues to be habitualized in our common life.
It is the Word of God -- both scripture as it is written, and the incarnate Word of God, the person Jesus -- which serves as the fulcrum across which we pry ourselves out of this habitualized, numb view of the world. It is this Word of God in scripture and in Savior that makes these ways of the world strange again, that makes violence and greed and bigotry seem shocking rather than inevitable, that makes the sacred seem sacred and the profane seem profane again.
To dwell in the Word of God and to allow it to disorient you is not easy work to do in our current cultural climate where it feels like scripture itself is the battlefield on which the culture wars are being waged -- all kinds of folks using scripture to make apology for violence and greed and war, reading bigotry of all kinds into the Word of God and putting words in the mouth of Jesus-- employing scripture to maintain this unjust world order rather than to upend it. There was a famous German philosopher who once criticized religion as "the opiate of the masses", naming the role that religion plays in keeping the rich rich and the oppressed oppressed, and keeping the rest of us content with the current world order. This is a dynamic that we watch play out every day on the news, as politicians and people alike wield scripture in frivolous ways to defend inequality, to defend violence, to defend wealth and even to frame it as God's will. We can watch people use scripture to further numb themselves to the hurt, harm, longing in the world. And I just don't think it's a hard sell to say that -numb to the state of affairs- is what God intends for us I suppose, in a phrase, what I'm trying to say is that religion can also be the adrenaline of the masses, and the study of scripture is our shot in the arm.
A few weeks ago, in bible study, we read Cain & Abel, a story which feels very much, oh ya ya got it, Cain kills Abel,, or Abel kills Cain okay yeah sure got it. But we dove into it, wondered where Cain's and Abel's wives came from, wondered what it felt for your brother to receive God's praise but not you, wondered what it meant to say that punishments could not be worse than their crimes. But we got stuck on this retort shot back by Cain to God,,, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Hiding in plain sight, right there in Genesis chapter 4, a question that strikes at the heart of the word of God, a question embodied by the incarnate word. Jesus' ministry among us was always to be pointing people back to the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the sick, the widowed and orphaned and imprisoned and daring us with the rhetorical question: are you your brother's keeper? will you love your neighbor as yourself? And though Jesus said in this morning's Gospel that we would not always have him, the Incarnate Word, with us, we do have the written Word. To follow Jesus, and to study the written word, is to right ourselves in a world gone mad. And in a season where reminders of what really matters are hard to come by, isn't that some Good News?