21st Century Reader’s Anxiety and the Word of God

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In the Age of Information, there’s a hazard that goes unnoticed in our desire to learn and grow as human beings: the implicit demand for new knowledge or information.  We read with great impatience these days, demanding a writer tell us something within the first hundred words of a book or article that we don’t already know.  Have we overestimated our skill as readers?  Are we so adept at acquiring and integrating new knowledge into action that we only need to read about an important subject one time?

This morning I read an article about Scripture and within the first paragraph I said to myself, “I know where this is going.”  I felt reader’s anxiety in the second, third, and fourth paragraphs.  Let the scanning begin.  Am I wasting my time reading something I already know?  Shouldn’t I reading groundbreaking writers who help me forge new territory in my life and thought?

When I finished reading the article, my impressions were unchanged from the beginning.  No new information, no fresh insights.  But then a troubling question emerged in my heart:  has this word about Scripture been integrated with my habits?  Has the word become flesh?  Then I had to face my own reader’s hubris: just because I anticipate a writer’s narrative or argument doesn’t mean that I’ve acquired the wisdom being shared.

In truth, wisdom requires repetition.  Wisdom cautions against forgetfulness.  Throughout the Old Testament, the origin of Israel’s sin is commonly her forgetfulness of God’s faithfulness.  The Exodus story is repeatedly mentioned in the Old Testament.  Israel knew the plot of the Exodus story, but she failed to embrace the Exodus story and the God who delivered her from Egypt.  She knew the Ten Words (Commandments) of God, but failed to integrate the wisdom of Torah throughout her history.

Sin begins from forgetfulness and the seeds of forgetfulness are sown in the moment we hear a familiar story and say in our pride, “I know where this is going.”  We may know the plot of a story, but surely we have not exhausted the depths of meaning within any given scriptural story.

Christians should have a different kind of reader’s anxiety:  the longing to integrate the truths of Scripture within the habits of our hearts and minds.  A better interior discipline for Scripture reading might be to say, “I know the story, but I don’t know where it’s going.”

In that sense, when we turn to Scripture, our prayer would change:  “tell me a story I already know.”   For our communion with Christ is sustained through hearing stories that we already know, practicing the discipline of remembering.  Yet remembering is never a boring, static discipline, for the Word of God is always “living and active” (Hebrews 4.10).  The Word of God is always speaking new things from the same, familiar stories we have heard over many years.

Every so often, a member of Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s congregation would question the wisdom of rehearsing the same liturgy every Sunday.  Heschel responded to that frustration with a question:  have you become the liturgy?

When we tire of familiar stories, maybe we should ask a similar question:  have you become the word?