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Defamiliarise

‘Defamiliarise’ is a word that has been echoing in my mind ever since I stumbled on its use recently in a book review.

In the image of Christ the King, when a crown is made of thorns, Jesus and the Gospel subverts the concept of royalty. When Jesus reigns from a cross, Jesus and the Gospel turns power upside down. When Jesus washes feet, we are given a lens on leadership and lordship that overturns our usual understanding. True wealth, says Jesus, is not measured by our bank’s numbers. And the image of God being most active is that of a man nailed immobile against a slab of wood.

We’ve all used words like ‘subvert’ or ‘transform’ – because that’s what Jesus and the biblical message does to our regular viewing of reality. Since the other day when I stumbled on ‘defamiliarise’ – that’s going to be my word of choice for a while.

‘Defamiliarisation’ has a definition: “the artistic technique of presenting to audiences common things in an unfamiliar or strange way in order to enhance perception of the familiar.” That seems a wonderful description of what Jesus was doing in his parables and metaphors. And his life and death. Defamiliarisation comes complete with Russian and German theories for those who enjoy that kind of thing (Russian: остранение ostranenie; German: verfremdungseffekt).

I like the quote by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria: “To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child’s sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which every day for perhaps forty years had rendered familiar … this is the character and privilege of genius.”

Isn’t that exactly what Jesus pointed to:

Jesus called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

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7 Responses to Defamiliarise

  1. I’ve had to think about this a while to apply it practically to the church experience, but I think the things which ruin churches, *ruin* in every spiritually meaningful way, are nepotism/croneyism/unfairness, gossip and other forms of bullying ( ‘we do it this way’, ‘it’s MY job/decision/role’, shouting or pouting… etc ), excessive staffing/building/rebuilding and the endless large scale fundraising necessary to become a ‘megachurch’ ( this is maybe more of an American thing), lack of compassion and services for the poor or suffering, and egotism/dishonesty about what’s really going on. Being involved with a church can quickly become being in an abusive and unbalanced relationship I think.

    Everyone wants to ( and is encouraged to ) ‘fit in’.

    People become so familiar with a situation it’s not questioned, and when an ‘outsider’ comes along and can see more clearly and makes suggestions or reacts to what is really a longstanding *problem* they are either taught ( indoctrinated? ) the ‘correct’ way to think here, to accept things, or encouraged to move on.

    It’s a fine balance between dedication to the community and being controlling or abusive, and takes a brave leader to challenge some of the worst situations and help build healthy social structures which are safe, welcoming and (dare I say it ) happy.

    In that way the Matthew 18 challenge concept of becoming ‘immature’ again means ‘defamiliarise’, στρέφω/stréphō or turn back? There’s an openess about spiritual maturity, a childlike quality of wonder and trust in god/goodness.

    • Thanks, Tracy. Your point about wanting to grow mega-churches as a significant model is one worth spending more time with. Maybe we need to have a reflection on what is a good number for a healthy church? Blessings.

  2. Churches are foremost businesses in America, by which I mean run on a business model; you are quite right it needs reflection, not least because this ‘biggest is best’ concept is failing in many other spheres, we now see daily downsizing and outright closures of previously successful huge ventures. People are being asked to sacrifice and give towards unsustainable projects long term.

    ‘Maybe we need to have a reflection on what is a good number for a healthy church?’

    I personally don’t like being in large crowds so I wouldn’t be in a mega church like America’s largest community here https://www.lakewoodchurch.com/Pages/Home.aspx and I would expect to join a church this size means total acceptance of the way things already are, there would be no personal input whatsoever?

    But I also have found some smaller churches to be unappealing because they are equally closed to new ideas and hence new people.

    I’m not sure ‘a healthy church’ is yet universally defined either, to my cultural background it would include concepts of equality, integrity, honesty and professional standards even training where necessary in how to deal with each other.

    But there are plenty of places where sexism, nepotism and prejudice ( for examples ) are the norm even when purporting to be representing Jesus.

    ‘People are imperfect’ so the churches are bound to be imperfect too I have been told, which is true but some of the things which happen seem to me well beyond the vagaries of human nature like the abuse scandals and cover ups -and they seem to happen in communities both large and small.

    To me Jesus was mostly talking about ‘social justice’ issues, so it’s important to follow him by addressing the same concepts of fairness, sharing of wealth and opportunity and power, and not use churches to create or perpetuate existing privilege and oppression in microcosm.

    I think the larger a church body gets historically the leaders become far removed from their people, but there are small communities too where people have been together for a long time and even pointing out something as visible as obvious bullying will get the general response of something like ‘it’s just how he/she is.’

    The money aspect is important to that too: from ancient times people use their donations to wield influence! And the larger a charity seems to get, for example, the less people seem to be helped, it takes on a life of its own in order to be self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling -as a business.

    Simplest may be best, whether that’s a lot of people or a small group.

    • Thanks, Tracy. A small church can easily be(come) a closed club. I know of one church that proudly stitched the names of its members on the altar cloth. Very visible: who was in and who wasn’t. Blessings.

  3. ‘Club’ is a good word for it, and asking people to pay 10 % of their income to belong reinforces the ‘membership’ feel.

    The ‘member altar cloth’ reminds me of the cathedrals and high churches in the UK where historically families installed memorials or famiy pews, and even some of the stone and wood carvers jokingly made their gargoyles and carvings representations of the locals!

    I was told by a friend yesterday that Jesus said it was important to belong to a church so I am still pondering where that comes from…

    • I’m going to think more about the use of the word “church”, Tracy. I have no idea where your friend’s quote would be found – a private revelation? Blessings.

  4. All I can think of is Ephesians ( thought to be written by a scholar of Paul -as you know! ) and 1 Corinthians, so- Paul? I think a lot of the ‘wrong’ teachings drift from these books traditionally attributed to Paul, sola fide ideas particularly which appear to conflict with the teachings of Jesus on deeds and heaven.

    The oldest papyrus fragments of these texts date to @ 200 AD I believe though many are way later, I haven’t studied them much but maybe I will since they seem to have influenced so many of the teachings which are attributed directly to Jesus in some churches. But I don’t need a math degree (!) to know this is @ 150 years after the death of Paul at the earliest gap.

    It’s all fascinating, for me at least
    : )

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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