Originality and Neophilia: Lewis, Pascal and the Preacher’s Dilemma

Last Saturday I started jotting down some thoughts on the subject of originality, based on some quotes I’d read in Lewis and Pascal. I got halfway through and shelved them for a few days until I could get some headspace to finish it off. Then on Tuesday Derek Rishmawy tweeted a link to an article he’d written on the very same subject, citing the very same quotes, from the very same authors! I accused him of hacking my computer and plundering my draft blogs and he pointed out that he’d posted his piece towards the end of 2012, which would make his crime some kind of prophetic, time-bending brand of cyber-theft that would make the Sony hackers’ achievements look small-fry by comparison! I’m a charismatic, but even I think such powers are unlikely.

In a weird kind of way, this illustrates the point, and proves the truth of Qoheleth’s claim:

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Originality is hard to come by. And trying to be original is a sure way to disappoint yourself. I know… I’m a preacher!

We live in a world that loves ‘new.’ Things come and go in the blink of an eye, and we drink in the freshness of it. We crunch four times more data than we did 30 years ago. E-mails, social media, music, video, text. We generate stuff in ridiculous quantities, leading some to claim that 90% of the world’s data was created in the past 2 years alone! We tire of technology at an alarming rate and traipse like lemmings to camp outside Apple stores for products we don’t need, simply because they’re marginally thinner than our current model.

This desire for ‘new’ doesn’t just kick in when we get old enough for smartphones and wikipedia. Apparently,

a newborn baby would stare at a new image for an average of 41 seconds before becoming bored and tuning out on repeated showings — that’s how hard-wired our affinity for novelty is.

We love new. We crave new. We idolise new. And we rarely stop to think whether bombarding our senses with endless streams of new really gives us freedom of choice, or whether it locks us into the paralysis of indecision. Can we ever master new, or does new master us? Why is it that boredom seems to increase, rather than decrease, when people have far more newness to explore? Was it neophilia that caused Adam to tire so quickly of the fruit of 10,000 trees?

Our desire for newness doesn’t only manifest in the way we consume, but also in the way we present. Again, I know… I’m a preacher! None of us wants to be thought of as out-dated, or stale, and so we pursue new in an aim to come across as original.

That’s all good, if our aim is to find fresh ways of telling old truths, but there is a tension between wanting to be original and resisting the negative lures of neophilia. And it’s so easy to prioritise freshness over faithfulness.

We sigh when we get assigned the regular events like Easter or Christmas because “how can anyone tell this familiar story in a new way?” Our eyes light up when we find some variant translation of a word that puts a different spin on a well-known passage, because it sounds different and intriguing, and we decide to use that translation rather than another, whether or not we have good reason to (and whether or not we have any expertise in the language!) because it might make people go “ooh!” and it gives us a chance to give our favourite preacher phrase an outing: “but in the original Greek…” We balk at passages that seem so offensive to our generation, and so we invest countless hours in concocting creative ways of dodging the issue rather than tackle it. 

Paul pretty much nails it when he writes that,

The time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear (2 Tim 4:3).

The job of the preacher is not to be a popular ear-scratcher. Originality is not the end goal. I like to gather a crowd and get positive feedback as much as the next person, but not if it means getting wax on my fingers!

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes this challenging paragraph:

No man who bothers about originality will ever be original; whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring two-pence about how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed if. The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self.

In one sense, I think he is quite right. When we pursue originality for its own sake, we fail miserably. We become deeply unoriginal, for we end up acting like the millions of other neophiles who are unaware that the thing they share most in common with one another is their deluded belief that they share nothing in common. We become like the clone whose linkedin profile boasts that he is ‘an innovative thinker’ or ‘a unique talent’, whilst the use of such ubiquitous platitudes belies the fact that he is truly anything but. Or like the crowd in The Life of Brian who declare with one voice “We are all individuals… we are all different” and thus sacrifice the very uniqueness to which they aspire.

I know there are times when I’ve failed as a preacher and put freshness before faithfulness. Where I’ve walked from the pulpit and thought to myself in a moment of honesty, “I scratched some ears today, but I’m not sure I touched any hearts.” It’s an empty feeling.

But Lewis cannot mean that we should shun creativity completely? Lewis – author of novels, poems, and game-changing books on apologetics – cannot mean that we ought never to pursue originality in any form?

For my money, Pascal puts it in a more nuanced form, when he writes this in his Pensées:

Let no one say that I have said nothing new; the arrangement of the material is new. In playing tennis both players use the same ball, but one plays it better.

In Christianity for Modern Pagans, Peter Kreeft expands upon Pascal’s thought:

All honest Christian apologists must be “conservative” or traditional or unoriginal in this basic sense: we cannot make a new ball or a new game. God gave us the ball (the truth he revealed in Christ) and the game (the task to preach the “good news”). Those who are so “original that they invent new games or new balls are by biblical standards “faithless” (Matt 17:17), unfaithful. They were entrusted to wrap and deliver God’s gift; instead, they went out and exchanged it for another. They were told to deliver God’s mail; instead, they edited it.

And there is the tension. The faithful preacher must learn to play the game with greater finesse, but he is not permitted to change the rules of the game itself. He can find new and innovative ways of manipulating the ball whilst on the pitch, but if he tries to play outside the lines, or swaps the ball for a puck, he’s forfeit the game and is playing something altogether different.

It’s less freshness-vs-faithfulness, and more freshness-within-faithfulness.

In Matthew 13, having just strung together a series of quite original and explosive short stories, Jesus says these words:

Every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old. (Matthew 13:52)

Teacher and disciple. Well versed in the Old Covenant, but living in the New. The fresh-faithful teacher of Jesus’s parable doesn’t leave behind his appreciation for the law, but brings out of his storeroom both new and old treasures. Freshness within faithfulness.

The challenge will look different for each preacher, perhaps depending on his or her predilection, or age, or fears, or time commitments.

For some it may need to be a case of out with the old, in with the new. For whatever reason, some preachers retreat into oldness and irrelevance. It’s comfortable there. Like the technophobe who lament smartphones and longs for the days of buttons and devices that did nothing but call people and had the capacity to hold a maximum of 20 text messages and 50 phone numbers.

Some preachers need to eradicate staleness and work on freshness. Watch a few more movies; quote some people who haven’t been dead for over a century; try listening to albums that are written by people half your age, and see if you discover any new language for expressing old truths. Check out this video from Jerry Seinfeld and have some fun with rhetoric.

Question a few things you’ve not thought about for over a decade; see if they stand up to modern thought and if you still have as good a reason for believing them as you did the first time round. If they’re truly true, they’ll pass the test, right? Remain constantly curious, wanting to explore new things about God’s vast world. Cultivate a little wonder. Don’t just be satisfied with the patch of land outside your door: travel, watch documentaries, read books outside your specialism, never stop learning. Be like a baby who’s like, “right… 41 seconds, done. What’s next to discover?” The Kingdom belongs to such as these!

For others, it may be a case of out with the new, in with the old. Freshness must not top faithfulness, and it may be that you need to ditch some of your movie clips, slick examples, and pop-psychology for some good old meat and bones ‘things of first importance’ (1 Cor 15:3ff). As I’ve put it before, you may need to take a cricket bat to the heads of a few darlings.

Consider that the plain reading may be the right reading, for once. That we in 2015 may not be the pinnacle of wisdom and that previous generations may have got some things right, before we went and complicated it all. Brace yourself and read D.A. Carson’s terrifying little book Exegetical Fallacies. And once you’ve picked yourself up off the floor, get back in the pulpit and give it your best shot.

If someone congratulates you after a sermon with, “wow, I’d never heard anything like that before!” take a moment to consider whether or not that’s a compliment. If you happen to have found something ‘new under the sun’, chances are it ain’t gonna be biblical!

Freshness within faithfulness means us balancing an insatiable curiosity to explore new ways of communicating, with an unwavering commitment to the unchanging gospel.

As the hymn goes,

Tell me the old, old story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.
Tell me the story simply, as to a little child,
For I am weak and weary, and helpless and defiled.

Tell me the old, old story, tell me the old, old story,
Tell me the old, old story, of Jesus and His love.

Tell me the story slowly, that I may take it in,
That wonderful redemption, God’s remedy for sin.
Tell me the story often, for I forget so soon;
The early dew of morning has passed away at noon.

Tell me the old, old story, tell me the old, old story,
Tell me the old, old story, of Jesus and His love.

_____

Image: New Things by Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures, used under CC

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