A Strange New World

Ways of Knowing

A Strange New World
Tuesday, October 15, 2019

I grew up relatively sheltered in my Kansas home and in Catholic schools. However, over the years, life has provided me with countless opportunities to meet people whose different experiences and understandings have opened unseen doors and enriched my knowing. Moving out of our comfortable bubbles is essential to knowing God and reality in a self-critical way.

Presbyterian theologian and activist Robert McAfee Brown (1920–2001) wrote about what Karl Barth (1886–1968) referred to as “a strange new world.” Brown begins by telling a story:

A retired Air Force major, now a seminarian, went to a conference on “The Church and Central Africa.” As the talks proceeded, he got angry. One speaker, he reports, “was basically saying that the United States is greatly responsible for the suffering in third world countries.” . . . [He] went back to hear the African speaker a second time. His outlook was modified:

[The speaker] was showing us that our imperialism is often unconscious, done through economic arrangement. As Christians who have compassion, we need to know these facts, even if they hurt. . . . I came away . . . with a deeper awareness that we have to attempt to see the world the way others do. . . . [1]

What [he encountered] is what Swiss theologian Karl Barth described . . . [as] “The Strange New World Within the Bible.” [2] . . . When [Barth] approached the Bible, every bit of spiritual and mental equipment he brought to the task was shattered by that “strange new world” and that as a result he had to begin looking at both the Bible and his own world in a new way. . . .

Christians make the initially bizarre gamble that “the strange new world within the Bible” is a more accurate view of the world than our own and that we have to modify our views as a result. This means engaging in dialogue with the Bible—bringing our questions to it, hearing its questions to us, examining our answers in its light, and taking its answers very seriously, particularly when they conflict with our own, which will be most of the time. . . .

We must be in dialogue not only with the Bible but also with Christians in other parts of the world who read the Bible in a very different way . . . [especially] Christians . . . who are generally poor and powerless, victims of political and social and economic structures . . . that oppress them on all levels of their lives, while those same structures support and enrich us. . . .

When [they] listen to the Bible, they hear different things than we hear. It often seems as though they and we are reading different books. . . .

People like us read the Bible from the vantage point of our privilege and comfort and screen out those parts that threaten us. [People who have been marginalized] tell us that the basic viewpoint of the biblical writers is that of victims, those who have been cruelly used by society, the poor and oppressed. . . . Consequently, when they hear the Bible offering hope and liberation to the oppressed of the ancient world, they hear hope and liberation being offered to them as the oppressed of the contemporary world. If God sided with the oppressed back then, they believe God continues to side with the oppressed here and now.

References:
[1] From Sequoia, Northern California Ecumenical Council (September 1983), 5,7. As cited by Brown in his Introduction, 12.

[2] Karl Barth, “The Strange New World Within the Bible,” The Word of God and the Word of Man (Peter Smith Publishers: 1978, ©1928), chap. 2.

Robert McAfee Brown, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (The Westminster Press: 1984), 11, 12, 13-14.

Image credit: Tableau No. 2/Composition No. VII (detail), Piet Mondrian, 1913, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Perhaps it was the strangeness of the setting, perhaps it was the power of the moment, but, as I stood there, those stones began to speak. It was a clacking sound, a clattering sound, like the fluttering of wings, the descent of birds, the pounding of a hundred thousand hooves across the frozen tundra. —Kent Nerburn
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