Tuesday 30 March 2010

Mark Meynell on the Shock of the Old: How the Ancient and Other Speaks into Today

Notes from a seminar at the London launch of Biblefresh (30 March 2010):

Taking his cue from Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock – describing the shock whch comes with too much change in too short a period of time, the suffering from information overload – Mark asked whether the experience of reading the Bible should be one of ancient shock.

Leading off with a quotation from Thomas Merton about (among other things) questioning the Bible and being questioned by the Bible, Mark noted that evangelicals can be blasé about the Bible, forgetting its troubling and disorientating strangeness, along with the danger of treating every book of the Bible as if it was our favourite letter of Paul’s.

He shared about speaking recently from Exodus 12, a significant episode in the Old Testament story, but also profoundly disturbing with the death of every firstborn son in Egypt. Or, what about Psalm 137 with the dashing of infants against a rock? Or some of the teachings of Jesus himself – hating parents, being poor in spirit – which have lost something of their shock-value precisely because we are so familiar with them.

So, we have to face up to the diversitry, alienness, strangeness of the Bible, and we must help contemporary readers of the Bible to do that too.

Mark addressed this issue under three headings:

1. Put off by the ancient shock? The problem of chronological snobbery
For some people the very fact that the Bible is ancient is problematic. Although there have been good attempts made to put the Bible into today’s ‘vernacular’ (Eugene Peterson’s The Message, for example), there will still inevitably be an element of ancient shock. C.S. Lewis describes how Owen Barfield challenged his chronological snobbery. Why should our generation necessarily have got it right?

So, a top tip here is to expose the fallacy of chronological snobbery. We’ve got some things right now compared to centuries ago (ancient dentistry anyone?), but why should we assume our generation has everything sussed? We need to engage in the deconstruction of people’s assumptions of cultural superiority.

2. We should expect ancient shock: the inevitablity of a worldview clash
Mark cited 2 Peter 1:20-21 to underscore the divine and human origins of the Bible. Prophets spoke from God, not as typewriters, but through their own personality (Isaiah is different from Ezekiel, Paul is different from James, etc.)… and yet still from God! We need to be careful of undermining the humanity of the Bible; the authors were all of their time, and so their world can seem so alien. But there is a sense in which the Bible’s message always comes from ‘outside’ our world – and it clashed with people’s assumptions then as well as now. There can be an assumption that the world revolves around me and so the Bible also needs to revolve around me, but we need to undergo a Copernican revolution in this respect. The Bible will always be subversively shocking.

Mark notes that part of the semantic range of the greek word metanoia is ‘change of mind’, restoring God to his rightful place. Sin means we will resist metanoia, assuming the Bible will justify the way we naturally think. But we should expect to be challenged and shaken up by the Bible – which is why group study is important, as is cross-cultural engagement.

So, a second top tip is to start again if you are not shaken up by the Bible.

3. The hermeneutic of ancient shock: spending time with strangeness
A good question to ask of a Bible passage is, How would I have told it? The difference between how I’ve retold it and how it is on the page will be illuminating. Mark here related an account of Dick Lucas preaching on the images used to describe Christian leaders in 2 Timothy 2 – soldier, athlete, farmer – where Lucas asks us to imagine how we might have phrased 2:7, suggesting we would be unlikely to combine the two halves of the verse in the way Paul does.

Paul did not write: ‘Rreflect on what I’m saying and you’ll soon get the point.’

Nor did he write: ‘Pray about it, and the Lord will give you insight into all this.’

Rather, he wrote: ‘Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this.’

We use our mind and we pray.

Mark also encouraged us to identify the oddities in a familiar story, taking the parable of the tenants in Luke 20 as an example. What the tenants did was appaling, and surely some sort of punishment would be expected; but the reaction comes in an odd place – 20:16 – because the listeners sense a correlation between the tenants and themselves (cf. 20:19)… but it is this response that provokes Jesus warning about the rejected stone becoming the cornerstone.

So, the final top tip is to make a point of looking for the surprises.

In short, Mark’s talk was an appeal to embrace the ‘ancient shock’ of Scripture, to relish it, embrace it, and allow it to change us. Hence:

• We need to overcome our chronological snobbery
• We should expect to be challenged
• We meditate on its strangeness, looking for unexpected, and asking the right questions

Mark finished by saying that the most exciting phrase to hear in a laboratory is not (as we might expect) eureka, but ‘Hey, that’s funny…’ – because that can lead to a whole new body of study.

So, let’s learn to embrace the shock of the old.

Having made these notes, I now see that Mark has himself summarised his three points on his blog here, and made available the full text of the talk as a pdf here.

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