I have been noticing a phenomenon lately which has probably always been present in humanity: a seeming inability to hear new ideas. I’m not speaking even of being unable to understand new ideas, which is pretty understandable. What I am observing is an inability to even recognize when a new idea is being put forth. There seems to be an unconscious assumption that there are a set group of possible ideas about a variety of issues and therefore everything you will read, see or hear fits into one of those known sets.
It seems that when exposed to a new take on one of these old issues, people make a mental evaluation of which known idea sets this information most closely resembles and then respond to that rather than anything which is actually being said. It’s an odd phenomenon. I’m not sure if it comes from the lack of original thought which unlies almost everything we read or hear these days or if it’s just a natural result of our human tendency to categorize things.
Not only is this happening in the world at large, but I think it has taken over our religion as well. In her book Wondrous Depth: Preaching The Old Testament, Hebrew scholar Ellen F. Davis gives what I think is a good explanation of the problem with regard to our habits of reading scripture and why it just decimates the life of the church:
[It is] the gravest scandal of the North American church in our time – namely the shallow reading of scripture. Such reading results from the assumption that we already know just what the bible says; therefore our reading is a simple rehearsal of what (we think) we know rather than an attempt to probe deeper. The assumption of prior knowledge which is fully adequate to new challenges seems to be widely held by “conservative” and “liberal” Christians alike. Ironically, that common assumption may account for the sterility of the arguments between them. However heated and divisive these arguments may be, they do little to advance the Church’s understanding of its Scriptures, or even provoke curiosity about what fresh insight the Bible might offer into the multiple situations that perplex or disturb us, or what possibilities for our life it might disclose.”
I have seen this stubborn lack of imagination and curiosity at work in conversations about scriptures and also about politics, education, child rearing and any number of other topics which we disagree on in this country. We draw our lines, learn the arguments, look for information to bolster our cause and go to battle. We don’t listen. We certainly don’t allow for ideas which we haven’t thought of yet. And as a result, when someone does come up with a new perspective, we can’t even see it. Cognitive dissonance sets in and we just pull out the stock argument which seems to best fit the situation and leave it at that.
In the church, on the internet and in our daily conversations we don’t seem to be producing any new ideas – we’re just producing new ways of arguing the same old things. And no one is even looking at the evidence anymore – we just quote each other. Look at any conversation which occurs after a controversial event like Obama and his old pastor Rev. Wright and you will hear the same exact arguments, using the same second and third hand ideas and quotes over and over and over again. A perfect circle of idiots.
It is bad enough that this is the state of affairs in the world at large, it is really inexcusable that this has become standard fare for Christians as well. Again from Ellen Davis:
In order to gain perspective on our current habits of reading, it is important to recognize that it is a peculiarly modern conceit to assume that we might ever know fully what God has to say to us through the Scriptures. Ancient and medieval interpreters regarded it as impossible ever to plumb that “wondrous” depth and exhaust all its treasure. Therefore, the aim of pre-modern commentary and preaching was precisely to keep readers and hearers conscious of that mira profunditas [wonderfully profound] – and indeed, hovering over it, praying for illumination by the Spirit that hovered over the deep at the creation of the world. If the bible is indeed the Word of the Living God, revealed and made intelligible to us through the power of the Holy Spirit, then our lack of curiosity bespeaks the failure to be alert to the presence of God in our midst and so refresh ourselves and our tired arguments by returning again and again to the new word that waits to be heard today. “
I would guess that there are a good number of people who would read this and disagree that we are engaging in a shallow reading of scriptures or not expecting new ideas. Many people and preachers scour scriptures for obscure passages which can speak to us or for new insights which further illuminate. However, I would argue that we are looking for those scriptures or insights which confirm what we already believe. We are not looking for anything which will challenge our understanding of things like the role of women in ministry or God and evil or salvation. We presume to think that those are settled concepts. We have an answer. It is the right answer and we don’t need to dig any deeper or think any harder about it. I believe that this is arrogance on our part. Once we have the answers, we no longer need to turn to God Himself for our answers. This is where we stop being people who have a relationship with the Living God. We become people whose primary relationship is with a set of ideas about Scriptures.
This is why I despise study bibles. I always say it creates the mindset that we should read scriptures and then read the notes to find out what it “really” said. To my mind, this encourages us to evaluate scriptures according to someone else’s ideas. The correct thing is to evaluate ideas according to scriptures.