This is an unprecedented time. Unprecedented—it’s a word we’re hearing a lot in the last few months. The sense of disorientation has been palpable, from eerily empty streets to new protocols at the grocery store, an ever-increasing number of masks and people performing acrobatic feats to maintain a two-metre buffer. Somehow, this feels like a watershed moment when things have fundamentally shifted. No one knows what a “return to normal” will look like. We are experiencing an era that seems so odd, so unique, so unprecedented.
How can we find our bearings in this strange new world? Where do we turn?
While Christians often think of the Bible as a source of comfort or guidance for life—which it can be—in recent months I have been reflecting on our current situation in light of a motif that also underlies all of Christian Scripture: disorientation. When you think about it, profound disorientation may well be the most significant driving force behind the creation of the Bible in the first place—and, indeed, in the formation of the Jewish and Christian traditions themselves.
Disorientation of exile
The ancient Israelites were centred in a specific place, living a tumultuous religious life as the voice of the prophets raised repeated concerns over Baal worship and “high places.” The sacking of Jerusalem, destruction of the temple and devastation of exile shook everything up. While we may be horrified by the vitriol expressed “by the rivers of Babylon,” Psalm 137 expresses the agony and potential post-traumatic stress disorder of displaced war refugees who experienced such atrocities. The psalm also reflects profound theological disorientation, since the “songs of Zion” their captors requested from them include poetry insisting that God’s presence in Jerusalem would save it from any adversity.
Jeremiah’s call to settle in for the long haul and “seek the shalom of the city” in Babylon (Jeremiah 29) provides a direct contrast to this conviction about Jerusalem’s invincibility. In other words: don’t expect a quick rescue.
But it was precisely the experience of exile that formed Judaism. Rather than consulting prophets, after exile the community gathered their traditions and sought divine guidance by interpreting scrolls (Nehemiah 8; Daniel 9). It was their exile experience that prompted the formation of synagogues, which allowed religious communities to flourish in Babylon, Rome and Spain without a temple. And what allowed for this mobility? Synagogues centred their worship on prayer and the study of the Torah.
We Christians would do well to learn from the Jewish conviction that sees engaged Bible study, including debate and disagreement, as a form of worship.
In short, it was the disorientation and dislocation of exile that prompted a reimagined and reorganized tradition, transforming pre-exilic Israelites into post-exilic Jews.
Puzzled Jesus followers
Disruption was key for the New Testament and the development of the Christian tradition, too. During the monarchy, the term “anointed” referred to the king on the throne, but it was only after exile that the people awaited an ideal Anointed One to come (“Messiah” in Hebrew, “Christ” in Greek). Since Jerusalem was under the thumb of foreign empires, and not Davidic kings, it was only in this period of disorientation that they awaited “the return of the king.”
While we habitually read the gospels in light of an ending that we already know and expect, if we slow down we will see evidence of catastrophic disorientation throughout the New Testament itself.
How exciting it would have been to walk after the One you believed to be the legitimate heir to the throne of David, expecting him to create a kingdom of justice and peace “on earth as it is in heaven!” And how depressing it must have been to see him brutalized, tortured and killed in the most shameful way by the hated Romans. Look at the confusion and fear at the end of Mark, when people are confronted with women declaring Jesus’ tomb to be empty (Mark 16), or the initial hopelessness of those walking on the Road to Emmaus who “had hoped” (past tense) that Jesus “was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).
Even once convinced about Jesus’ resurrection, the early church struggled when fellow followers began to die. Why is this happening when Jesus said he was coming right back (I Thessalonians)? As if this wasn’t enough, the Romans quashed the Jewish rebellion by sacking Jerusalem, destroying the temple again and scattering Jesus’ followers everywhere.
As my former advisor used to provocatively quip, “The New Testament was a huge disappointment for the early followers of Jesus, second only to his crucifixion.” Jesus’ disciples wanted a kingdom of justice and peace, but what did they get? A collection of books, a mysterious Spirit to help them understand and the encouragement to hang in there while more followers of Jesus were to be killed (Revelation 6:11). “Take up your cross and follow me” was not just a metaphor but an all-too-real possibility.
Any one of these moments could have been enough to cut off the whole tradition—the exile, a crucified Messiah, the Roman conquest of Jerusalem. But, against all odds, it survived and thrived. And it was in these darkest moments, in the midst of seemingly earth-shattering and paralyzing disorientation, that the Bible—and both Judaism and Christianity—were born.
I find it painfully ironic today how often we use this Bible, born in, and a witness to, profound disorientation, to reinforce views that cannot be questioned and from which we then metaphorically throw stones at others who don’t agree with us. While some insist on the Bible’s inerrancy and historical accuracy, others use it to prompt a commitment to social justice and inclusion, which at times become a set of convictions that leave the text itself behind. Some see the Bible primarily as a resource for deeply personal, devotional faith, and are sceptical of intellectual exploration; others treat it as an analytical puzzle, kept miles away from our own context, experience or emotions.
In each case, people then tend to shy away from difficult questions or passages, even as what is deemed problematic differs. For “inerrancy folks,” recognizing diversity in the Bible can be a no-no, while those prioritizing “inclusion” often overlook Jesus’ judgment parables. In light of communal non-negotiables, people can feel unfaithful for voicing doubts, and so they keep silent, so as not to be found out or to show that they may not be as knowledgeable as the person next to them in the pew.
In other words, although specifics differ from community to community and person to person, the function of such assumptions for limiting acceptable discourse and creating relatively homogenous communities seem strikingly similar.
Right now, we stand at a pivotal moment as we are rethinking our assumptions on many fronts and adopting new practices. In this context, I encourage us to do the same with the Bible, being willing to give it another look. Rather than engaging in a perpetual tug-of-war over seeing Scripture one way or another, now may be a moment to reread it together, as a collection of documents seeking to find God working in the world in the midst of almost unimaginable disorientation.
Perhaps we have a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity before us, when our current disorientation could move us to understand better the messy Scripture we have.
The Bible provides the church with a vast network of memory and reflection, a journey with many twists and turns, and so it represents an invaluable resource for living in uncertain times. Indeed, perhaps seeing our own disorientation as unprecedented says as much about a loss of our collective memory as the utter uniqueness of this particular moment. Maybe, just maybe, we have a Bible particularly suited for just such a time as this.
Now is the time to re-engage this resource uniquely equipped to help us face the unknown. My own practice includes reading a daily psalm and walking through the Book of Job. I am reading material forged in disorientation from my own unsettled place.
The Bible is a kindred spirit in the struggle to wrestle something beautiful, something meaningful, something true in the midst of trying circumstances. Lo and behold, it delivers—time and time again.
Derek Suderman is associate professor of religious studies and theological studies at Conrad Grebel University College and the University of Waterloo, Ont.
A pandemic reading list
- The Bible, in particular the Psalms, Job or Mark. For those especially adventurous, read Revelation. Read these as attempts to deal with profound disorientation and loss, not as intellectual treatises or an end-times calendar. Ease into the discomfort and struggle of these books. Ask: What kinds of disorientation does this material reflect? What other, or former, perspectives does it challenge? Where does hope lie? How does this pain resonate with today? Who experiences such disorientation? How do we respond? How should we? I highly recommend doing this reading in a group, making use of Herald Press’s Believers Church Bible Commentaries on these books.
- The Spirituality of the Psalms, or another book on the Psalms by Walter Brueggemann.
- Mark: The Way for All Nations, Willard Swartley.
- Binding the Strong Man, Ched Myers.
- On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, Gustavo Gutierrez.
- At the Scent of Water: The Ground of Hope in the Book of Job, J. Gerald Janzen.
- The Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse of John, Loren Johns.
1. How has life changed for you since February 2020? What makes you feel disoriented and off-kilter as you abide by the protocols necessary to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic? Do you think children are affected more than older adults?
2. Derek Suderman proposes that a major theme of the Bible is disorientation. What are some examples of biblical characters who felt bewildered or confused? What helped them move beyond this feeling of disorientation? What role did God play in the stories?
3. Does your family or community have stories of perseverance in the face of adversity? What role do these stories play in keeping us from being overwhelmed when life is difficult? Do you believe that facing hardships in our younger years builds resilience? At what point does suffering result in post-traumatic stress disorder?
4. Suderman suggests that we view the Bible as “a collection of documents seeking to find God working in the world in the midst of almost unimaginable disorientation.” Does this view of Scripture encourage us to express our own fears and doubts? In what ways does it deepen our hope?
—By Barb Draper
‘By the Rivers of Babylon (Dalziel’s Bible Gallery),’ wood engraving on India paper, by Sir Edward John Poynter, circa 1865-81. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (creative commons cc0 1.0 universal public domain dedication)
I am troubled by this contribution to the Canadian Mennonite.
The disorientation as identified by Suderman seems to be academic, and focused on feelings. And the antidote is a deeper devotional life.
A deeper devotional life is laudable, but for many who experience this time viscerally: loss of job, mental health deterioration, spousal abandonment, and business failure the disorientation is incarnational. And an individual, devotional response is a marker of privilege, and irrelevance for those living in the disorientation, not observing it.
I don’t understand your comment. The disorientation Derek is naming is not at all academic! It is gut-wrenching, visceral and communal, in Nehemiah 8 as well in the NT. It shook them to the core, challenging earlier convictions, calling for profound re-thinking. Nothing academic or abstract here. And it was communal, not personal. The antidote is communal wrestling with the new realities, searching Scripture together within the disorientation.
“Faith formed in disorientation” by Derek S. is an excellent article on our approach to the Bible, challenging a number of our assumptions and igniting our imagination. It reminded me of a quote by T.S. Eliot, "Literature is blood turned to ink.” I understand this to mean that real, gutsy life, being unsettled and disorientated is the rich soil of struggle, development and change.
As Derek points out, the exile was such a cluster of events and when Ezra and his coworkers read Torah to the people (Nehemiah 8) they didn’t just read ancient words, they re-interpreted them in the light of recent unsettling experiences, loss, confusion and an uncertain future.
The New Testament also is not just made up of abstract teachings, but contentious struggle in the light of mind-blowing developments. An example of this would be Acts 10-11.
We need to give heed to Derek’s comment “to slow down” and pay attention to the catastrophic and creative disorientation and serious tensions within the faith community, as seen in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15)
When we follow the canonical biblical patterns, not only in reference to content, but also to process, change and development, we become equipped for unimaginable disorientation, on a personal level as well as social/systemic levels. Derek’s approach offers us an invaluable resource for living in uncertain times.
Let’s follow this creative and imaginative model as we face our challenges.
Disorientation of Covid 19: a Back to the Bible approach
In his Faith forged in disorientation article (CM Oct. 21/20), Derek Suderman reflects on the value of a “back to the Bible” strategy for Christians in response to the disorientation we are experiencing as a result of Covid 19. Mr. Suderman identifies that an effective response to the disorientation resulting from a pandemic/virus, is to turn to the Bible as opposed to turning to medical science advice to help us cope with the disorientation caused by the realities of this pandemic.
It is unfortunate that our religious leaders do not see/trust that medical science should be our first and foremost strategy for dealing with the pandemic and the resulting disorientation we are experiencing. It is cold comfort when all that we hear from our religious leaders regarding medical science is “crickets.” We are encouraged by our religious leaders to chose between the “Unseen,” (faith response), and the Seen (medical science response), exchanging the present for the past as a strategy for coping with the unknowns of the future. This is the binary laid out before us, and Mr. Suderman encourages us to take the tried and true approach, a back to the Bible approach to deal with our disorientation, as this approach has delivered “time and time again.”
Mr. Suderman identifies the historical turmoil experienced by the people of Israel, and their relationship with their God, and how being faithful to their God ultimately paid off. He encourages the reading of this history in order to glean some heretofore as yet undiscovered bits of solace and well-being which would be applicable to our current situation, or to just reinforce what is already known or believed about this relationship between a people and their God.
As an example of how the faith of a people in their God is forged in disorientation, Mr. Suderman identifies the profound disorientation experienced by the people of Israel in exile in Egyptian captivity, as an incredible injustice of an oppressed people at the hands of an oppressive force and that their faith ultimately won out. Mr. Suderman indicates that a back to the Bible approach should remain a constant as we seek to know and understand the seemingly inscrutable nature of God.
This scrutinization of Biblical history approach, may very well help us with a perhaps failing and flagging relationship we have with our God, however in regards to the disorientation resulting from this pandemic/virus, I think we would be better served to focus our scrutiny on the wisdom and values of medical science. I think a focus on the “Seen,” as opposed to the “Unseen,” is a more responsible strategy in dealing with the disorientation resulting from Covid 19.
It is understandable that our religious academics/leaders/thinkers turn to Scripture for answers to problems we encounter. That is what they are called for, paid for, and elected for, however I think that only a minimal broadening of our worldview could produce a more satisfying result. It is unfortunate that even in the 21’st century, the chasm between faith and reason is still so vast, that our religious’ cannot see fit to foremost encourage us to trust in the knowns of medical science to wear masks, social distance, trust in therapies and vaccines, etc.
Thanks for now
I must admit to being quite puzzled by this response to my article. I did not address the area of medicine at all --- this falls well outside my topic (and expertise). For the record, I don't see my proposal here at odds with support for medical science, much less opposed to it.
In fact, I don't propose a "chasm between faith and reason" at all, but quite the opposite. You can't tackle everything in a few pages, but I would describe science as a form of "wisdom," similar to how I describe restorative justice in my article "In Search of Divine Wisdom" (available in 'Full Text' here: https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/publications/conrad-grebel-review/past-issue...). As I suggest there, I think it is crucial for Christians (and churches!) to be able to engage in "dual discourses" (in this example, medicine and biblical/faith perspectives).
In Ontario, where I live, there is a public medical briefing daily, which I often tune into. But, to be the church, I also think it essential for us to consider our current circumstances and explore them in the language of faith. In this article I didn't address medical science at all, but was more concerned when, to use Reimer's words, our response to our current disorientation in the language of faith may be "crickets."
And Reimer's seemingly quick dismissal of my description here and "religious academics/leaders/thinkers" more broadly seems to illustrate my concern quite well.
excellent insight to disorientation drawing from the inclusive Judea-Christian story
Thank you, Derek Suderman, for pointing us to the Bible in these unprecedented times.
It's through reading and studying God's word that we can get to know Him as The One in whom we can fully trust by putting our faith in Him, knowing that He is with us no matter what transpires. It is God alone who can give us the peace that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7)
These days the words "unprecedented times" keep popping up, not only regarding the pandemic, but also the tremendous social and political unrest around us. We're not sure where this will all lead us to one month from now, let alone one year. There’s so much uncertainty and perplexity, even with the US election which threatens to increase chaos no matter which way it goes.
No doubt some of us are looking at where current events put us on the timeline towards the second coming of Jesus Christ and the end of this age. I believe we’re still in the “birth pangs” spoken of in Matthew 24 and Mark 13, but it’s hard to know how fast we are going to be hurled towards the tribulation period, etc. etc. Maybe some of you are interested in learning more about all of this. I highly recommend Joe Schimmel of Blessed Hope Chapel’s Revelation Series. It can be found by simply searching Revelation Series – Blessed Hope Chapel podcasts.
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