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Defamiliarizing Biblical Narrative: Or, On Keeping Scripture Weird

By Joseph L. Mangina

The etymology of the word weird is, if not actually weird, then at least complicated and interesting. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it started out life as a noun, meaning “the principle, power, or agency by which events are predetermined.” Among the earliest texts where it appears is King Alfred’s translation of Boethius’ On the Consolation of Philosophy, around the year 888. The word can also be found in Beowulf and in the Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer. Greek mythology had its three goddesses known as the Moirai or Fates. In English, these ladies became known as the Weirds.

The adjectival form of weird is also very old. Its meaning in earlier usage closely tracked that of the noun. The Weirds became the “weïrd” or “weyard” sisters, a phrase Shakespeare borrows to name the three witches who foretell the fate awaiting the Scottish king (Macbeth, I.3.33, III.1.2, and many other places throughout the play). But the association with Macbeth and witchcraft also marked the beginning of a shift in the word’s use. By the early 19th century, one begins to see authors using it in something like our modern sense, to connote that which is strange, uncanny, or beyond this world. The earliest citations of this sort are (somehow unsurprisingly) from the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The OED’s citations from Tennyson and Dickens show that weird in the sense of “supernatural” or “bizarre” had already become well-established by the high Victorian period.

I have had weird on my mind a lot recently. In part, I blame this on two preacher friends, each of whom has — quite independently — called it to my attention. One of these friends, a Methodist pastor, told me that he was about to begin a sermon series on “weird texts of the Bible.” One such text is the story in Exodus where the LORD “met Moses and tried to kill him.” The LORD would have succeeded, too, but for the quick thinking of Zipporah, who touches Moses’ feet with her son’s foreskin and says: “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me” (Ex. 4:25). If that is not weird Scripture, I don’t know what is.

The text opens itself to all manner of figural and inter-canonical interpretation. My friend told me that he saw interesting resonances between this story and other episodes in Moses’ life. There was another time when a woman came to his rescue — Pharaoh’s daughter, who drew him out of the Nile. In the story of the Exodus, the LORD, in the person of his “angel,” once again stands ready to deal out death. Once again, death is averted by the sprinkling of blood — not the blood of circumcision this time, but the blood of the Paschal Lamb. And yet Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day, in accordance with the law of Moses. Like the blood sprinkled on the doorposts, that blood, too, anticipates the blood shed at the crucifixion.

My friend said that one of his goals was to show his congregation that there is more to the Bible than its more obviously edifying tales. Scripture is weirder than that, both more powerful and more beautiful. I believe my friend is simply right about this. We are captive to the idea that we must “get” something out of a sermon — a moral lesson, a bit of uplift, a doctrinal point.[1] In Anglican settings I have heard more sermons about “the incarnation” than I care to count. Rare, however, is the preacher who can descend from theological abstraction to speak about actual flesh — a bloody foreskin, say — as a token of the lifegiving flesh of Christ. The people of God are not only illumined by such sermons, but they may also be encouraged to overcome their fear of the Bible and explore it on their own.

The other friend I mentioned, a missioner (i.e., evangelist) in an urban Episcopal parish, was tasked with preaching at a baptism in Easter season. Knowing that many of those present would be non-Christians, she preached a sermon that she hoped would be accessible to insiders and visitors alike, which she’s given me permission to quote. The Gospel lesson assigned for the day was Luke’s story of the road to Emmaus. The text is about recognition, or more precisely non-recognition, a feature that actually makes it quite funny — or as my friend put it, “weird.” How can it be that Cleopas and his companion failed to recognize Jesus, whose face and voice they presumably knew well from their years together on the road? Even the great Augustine does not quite know what to do with this, offering a not-terribly-convincing explanation centered on Jesus’ ability to disguise his appearance.

But it is not simply the disciples who fail to see Jesus. We ourselves struggle to do so. The church is said to be Christ’s body, but it does not exactly look like his body. Do we see Jesus when he comes to meet us? Acknowledging that this is “a deeply weird question to ask,” the preacher went on to say:

We have some people who don’t normally come to church visiting us today, so I am very aware of just how weird church and Christianity may seem. Do you ever think about the way Christians talk to each other? I just said “we’re supposed to be recognizing Jesus in ourselves and in each other,” and none of you church types blinked an eye. But how and why are we supposed to recognize a first-century Palestinian Jewish man in each other?

What I find interesting about this sermon is the way it dissolves barriers between insiders and outsiders, “church types” and the unchurched or ex-churched. Disciples should have an advantage in seeing Jesus, but too often they don’t. Visitors who came for the nice religious ceremony can join them in wondering at the strangeness of the risen Christ. The preacher parlayed the weirdness of the Emmaus story into a rich catena of reflections on the weirdness of baptism, the weirdness of Christianity, even the weirdness of God. Acknowledgment of the weirdness of these things gives the outsider permission to be an outsider, and so attend to the stories and rituals without defensiveness. It also serves the cause of defamiliarization for insiders, who — especially if they are Anglicans — may have heard all these stories before in the context of the liturgy, but perhaps never really heard them.

If both these preachers are blessedly free of moralizing and pontificating, they also avoid the related error of valorizing doubt. It was Paul Tillich, I suspect, who first supplied doubt with a kind of cachet in mainline Protestantism, though doubtless the trope goes much further back than Tillich. Two things need to be distinguished here. On the one hand, there is the genuine spiritual issue of struggle with doubt; this can best be addressed by good pastoral care — there is nothing like conversation with another believer to quell one’s doubts and fears. On the other hand, there is the sort of solipsistic, dare I say masturbatory, reveling in doubt that breaks out from time to time in our pulpits (though thankfully, not in any of the places where I regularly worship). Whether our audience consists of insiders or outsiders, they probably do not come to church on Sunday morning expecting to be told that it’s okay not to believe the stories.[2] Presumably they come to hear us tell them what this whole Christian thing is all about and why it matters so much to us. We shouldn’t let them down.

God is the reason we need to keep on keeping the Bible weird. Which is actually not all that difficult, since it is weird, wonderful, full of bloody foreskins and resurrected bodies and suppers with strangers. The Bible speaks of matters like these because they are of the stuff of human life, and therefore of God’s way with us. Before weird meant things supernatural, it meant fate, that which determines our destinies before and beyond any choices we might make.

Christians, of course, do not believe in fate or the Fates. But we do believe in God the Creator, the One who knew us when we were still in our mother’s wombs, and who sovereignly shapes us as the potter shapes the clay. God does this through the slow (or at times perhaps sudden) work of the Word in our lives; through the formation we receive from the people God gives us to love, suffer with, and care for; and through the sacraments and the life of prayer.

Attending to the weirdness of Scripture — and of course it is not the word weird that does the heavy lifting here, but the Word itself in all its lifegiving strangeness — is one way of getting at these deeply existential matters. As usual, the preacher’s task is to draw people into the world of Scripture and get out of the way. The rest will take care of itself.


[1] I have written about this before in The Living Church.

[2] Alas, sometimes the mischief extends beyond mere permission to doubt. I have known clergy who have boldly preached Christ’s bodily resurrection at Easter, only to have a colleague get up the next Sunday and explain to the congregation that it’s all “just a metaphor.” John Updike (a man who appreciated a good metaphor) is still a good antidote to such tepid stuff: see his beloved poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter.”

4 COMMENTS

  1. Nicely done, Joe! It might be a good time to plug our colleague, Kathryn Greene-McCreight’s new book Galatians (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, 2023) in which she deftly exegetes the “weirdness” of Paul’s pastoral task of addressing the problem of circumcision (bloody foreskins and all). Like you, she makes a compelling case for keeping Scripture “reality based” rather than overthinking or analyzing theological profundities (in the case of Galatians, the doctrine of justification). Keeping it weird is most commendable!

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