Repetition – an Explanation

I’ve posted two “Repetitions” here, and it occurs to me that some of you may be wondering just what I’m doing.

Well, it all began back in college, when Dr. Meadors had us read Soren Kierkegaard, including Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing and Fear and Trembling/Repetition.

I have to admit, some of Kierkegaard’s writing went right over my head.  Other parts of it challenged me (the knight of faith, the teleological suspension of the ethical as seen in the story of Abraham and Isaac).  But one part slipped, almost unnoticed, into a little empty space in my mind, and hid, almost unnoticed, for many years.

Repetition.

In the beginning of Repetition/Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard re-tells the story of Abraham and Isaac several times.  And each time it’s different.  One time, it focuses on Isaac’s broken trust in his father.  Anther time, it focuses more on Abraham’s pain and dread of what he has to do.

But what struck me was this: the Bible gives us an outline, a story in a form much shorter than what we are currently used to.  It tells us what happened, but we must infer or imagine the feelings, the reasons, the details.

And so we do.

There’s a huge sub-genre of Christian fiction retelling Bible stories in novel form, but even those of us without literary agents rewrite the stories into modern-style narratives within our minds.  And that’s good, because it makes it more than just a brief passage, an efficient chronicle of something that happened long ago.  It helps us make the story real to ourselves.

But it’s important to remember that we don’t know how Jacob or Ruth or Abraham felt (at least I don’t).  It’ s important to know that those details (the ones that didn’t make the canon) could go any number of ways.

And so, when I retell stories from the Bible, as I will sometimes do here, I never just tell them once.  That would be an “answer,” and an answer I am surely not qualified to give.  But by writing the story again and again, using different possibilities, different approaches, I can keep myself engaged with the questions, with the Bible itself.

How did Jacob feel when he wrestled the angel?  Why did he stay behind at the Jabbok ford?  Who started the fight?  If Jacob hoped to live, what did he base that hope on: his gifts and plans, God’s protection, or Esau’s mercy?  Did he ever fear the angel would kill him?  Did he even know what he was wrestling?

I don’t know.  But it helps me, sometimes, to imagine.

Wrestling Angels

I’m writing this blog primarily about religious matters.  I’ve tried blogging about my faith a couple of times before, but I always fell away from it (the blogging, not the faith).  I think there were two problems:

First, I was trying to tell people what I think the “answers” are.  I don’t have answers.  Honestly, we don’t get many “answers” this side of Heaven, and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.

Second, I wasn’t ever really, deeply honest.  I don’t think it is possible to be fully honest when giving out “answers,” because the truth is, whatever seems right now may seem wrongheaded and petty in a couple of years.  When your business is talking answers, you either lie,  constantly contradict yourself, or become so arrogant that you refuse to change your mind.  None of those is worth the bandwidth.

The only honest path is to admit to the questions, to embrace the questions, and to genuinely study the questions.  Doubt can be a kind of worship.  Doubt is a kind of humility.  Doubt is saying to God, “I don’t understand you, I know I can’t prove you, but I still choose to worship you.”

That’s why I’ve called this attempt “Wrestling with the Angel.”  The title comes from Genesis 32:24-28, when Jacob wrestled with an angel (or possibly a pre-incarnate Christ) throughout the night, refusing to let go until the angel blessed him, even though the angel tore his hip out of joint.

It was here that he lost the name Jacob, the deceiver who stole his brother’s birthright, and became Israel, the one who struggles with God.

And I think that is one of our duties as Christians: to struggle with God, to wrestle the angels, to dive headlong into our doubts and fears.  To hold on until He blesses us, and gives us a new name.