Have you ever experienced familiarity blindness? You've done a thing so many times that you don't even recognize when you're doing it, or can't remember having done it? As a lover of routines, I often don’t realize what I’m doing. I can be running down a country road without thinking about anything in particular and then “come to my senses,” realizing that I don’t remember where I turned to get to where I am.
Sometimes I experience familiarity blindness when I immerse myself in a project or a subject of interest. When I’m asked to explain what I’ve been working on or studying, I find myself incapable of describing exactly what it is I’ve been up to.
Or, if I do attempt an explanation, the language I use doesn’t make sense to someone who hasn’t been slogging through a systematic theology book or attempting to determine his or her maximal oxygen consumption during an aerobic workout. (What’s that? You haven’t heard of arteriovenous oxygen difference? Let me explain . . .).
I’m sure I suffer from familiarity blindness in a few areas, not least of which is my approach to what I know (or think I know) about God.
In his latest book, The Work of Theology, theologian Stanley Hauerwas has a chapter entitled “How to Write a Theological Sentence.” In it, he unpacks what is in his estimation among the most concise and rich theological sentences he has ever encountered. The sentence, written by Robert Jensen, goes like this:
“God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having previously raised Israel from Egypt.”
At first glance, this sentence seems simple enough. Jensen nudges his Christian readers in the direction of familiar images: the resurrection and the exodus narrative. But Hauerwas, ever the observant theologian, is intent on snapping us out of our familiarity blindness and alerting us to the intense thought that led Jensen to render this sentence just so. Hauerwas explores in considerable depth how the syntactical nuance of this seemingly straightforward statement invites us to see God anew, to lift the veil of familiarity blindness.
Hauwerwas says, “What [Jensen] does is help us see why the word ‘whoever’ is absolutely crucial. What the word does is render problematic the presumption that you knew who God was prior to God having made Godself known by raising Jesus from the dead.” In other words, Jensen’s statement prompts us to confront our familiarity blindness, to come to our collective senses regarding who exactly this God is.
Hauwerwas continues, pointing out that after our presumptions about who God is have been challenged and re-worked, Jensen’s sentence “invites the reading of the Old Testament christologically through the word ‘raised’ Israel from Egypt. That beckons us toward the resurrection to remind us that the God who raised Israel from Egypt is the same God who raised Jesus from the dead.”
Haurerwas argues that Jensen’s use of the word “raised” — rather than, say, “liberated” or “delivered” — invites readers to see the entire biblical narrative in light of Jesus’ resurrection. In addition to offering an elegant explanation of who God is, Jensen’s builds into his sentence a recommendation for how to read scripture. We would do well, Jensen implies, to read the thrust of the entire biblical narrative in light of Christ’s triumph over death by death.
It is also especially easy for me to succumb to familiarity blindness during the Christmas season, which is a shame, considering the abundance of wonder that the characters experience in the gospel birth narratives. (“Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened!”)
Author Lauren Winner suggests that “Christmastime may be the hardest season for churches,” not only because churchgoers’ familiarity with the Christmas puts them at risk of becoming desensitized to the utter miracle it recounts, but also because of their familiarity with yearly rants against consumerism.
“Every creative attempt to make the season meaningful,” Winner says, “to steal it back inside the church, away from the shopping malls and cheesy radio stations, has been tried, and most often those creative attempts have proved wanting. Perhaps the problem is that we don’t know the meaning of this holiday, of Jesus’ pushing into the world, is. If we did, we wouldn’t have to worry about consumerism; if we knew what the Incarnation meant, we’d be so preoccupied with awe that we wouldn’t notice all the shopping.”
Maybe you’re like me, and you’re as fatigued by those condemning consumerism as you are by the idea of Black Friday itself. No wonder we’re so tired by the time Christmas rolls around!
My prayer during Advent this year is directed toward whoever raised Jesus from the dead having previously raised Israel from Egypt: resurrect in me a sense of wonder. Preoccupy me with awe. As familiarity blindness encroaches this year, as it inevitably does, I hope to join the shepherds in their response: “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.”