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Volume 15, Issue 3: Tohu

The Same New Thing

Jared Miller

No human being can ever escape routine in a very basic sense, for all our simple biological functions, not to mention the cyclical character of natural phenomena, dictate a natural routine to us. We wash, shave, dress, eat, void, sleep, and wake on a daily basis. The sun rises and sets, the moon waxes and wanes, the seasons spin, and the years pass. As the Preacher of Ecclesiastes sang, the whole universe is locked into a routine. "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun." The routines of novelty, wandering, originality, or spontaneity are still routines. In this way routine is somewhat like the paradoxical concepts of conformism or stasis—nonconformism is deeply conformist, and constant change is stasis.

Therefore it is vain to push against the routine, as the Preacher did; rather we ought to embrace life as a routine, or rather, embrace it as a liturgy. We evangelicals oftentimes don't like the word liturgy because we don't embrace routine. We don't embrace routine because of our worldliness. Advertisements, particularly for travel agencies, tap into a profound discontent as they preach escape from the nine-to-five world. Popular and even highbrow stories abound with protagonists who break away from their soul-desiccating routine and go on some sort of journey of self-discovery.
Our idol capitalism has in a sense created such a distaste for routine. The famed Protestant work ethic was possible because it involved a Sabbath—a routine that prescribed a break of routine. Replace God with the almighty dollar, and the worshipers go through the same motions, but find the service very unsatisfactory.
But liturgy, like routine, is a freedom and not a prison. I should be overjoyed that I don't have to decide when and how to eat, sleep, or wash every day—the mind is free for work, play, love, study. In the same way, "spontaneous" worship tends to focus on the worship act rather than seeing through the worship act as a glass, or passing through it as a door, to the Person with whom we are really meeting. If the door is opened differently each time, or the lens is a different prescription, we blunder along, fiddling with optics instead of images, remaining indoors instead of outdoors. Fortunately, most doors that we meet are the same doors we have opened thousands of times before (though sometimes we might push instead of pull), and this does not make the act of going outside more "boring" than if we had the "excitement" of figuring out a new type of door every day.
Repetition, I have found, is not only effective in worship, but has a profound impact on hermeneutics. For a recent assignment in "living history" of the Middle Ages, I was given, and duly performed, an eight-week daily routine of reading aloud and writing from Scripture. I found that the tasks of reading aloud, reading repetitively, and writing out passages slowly by hand, letter by letter, definitely alter the ways that those texts are experienced. Something more than information transfer is taking place; one is living the text rather than just allowing it to drift through his mind as he reads silently along. (It is strange to think that reading silently was once rare. Augustine, in the Confessions, marveled at his teacher's habit of doing so. What effect has individualized reading had on how we read, think, and live?) The structured normalcy of the routine forces the mind to concentrate not on the routine but on the materials involved. Routine is, in fact, essential to a rigorous hermeneutic.
Critical tools are doors to the text. I am not suggesting we should routinely ignore them. "Just me and my Bible" is not a lack of hermeneutics; it is a hermeneutic, and as likely to produce rarified, idiosyncratic readings as the most sophisticated critic. I am suggesting that routine is a hermeneutic.
For the medieval monks, whose lives were highly structured, and in a large part highly structured around texts, life was a way of reading, and reading was a way of life. This is appropriate for the people of the Book, and much hermeneutical heterodoxy would be eliminated if modern exegetes dwelt as richly upon the text as monks have. Interpretation, like liturgy, is like the glass or the door; we spend too much time fiddling with it and too little time acting it. This does not mean that we can never correct our "prescription"—but theory and praxis must not only meet, but also marry.
Are we yet on a level with our fathers, whom we are so ready to criticize? For the scholar, reading—in the broadest sense that includes interpretation—naturally becomes a way of life, but what does his life bring to the reading? Gadamer said that interpretation is a fusion of horizons, one of which is the context that the reader brings with him—life is spouse to the text, and their child is meaning. Moreover, the life and text may shape each other by a repeated dialogue. What are our horizons? Have we made life into a way of reading?
"Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us." Novelty remains always merely novel; only tradition, repetition, and community continue to truly teach and delight us, always with the same new thing.

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