Somewhere on a nearby journal the other day a comment was made about whether or not there is value in the preserving of ancient texts or the re-telling of old stories. Do such things keep us from moving forward to new things? Do they hold us too close to the familiar? These are good questions, and although my answers may be partial (note the inevitable pun), I'll try to comment.
Disclaimer: Interpreting ancient texts is what I do with my life. As such, I'm not exactly a neutral observer. Bearing that in mind, I'l introduce my topic of the moment, and then retreat behind the cut.
Thesis: All too often, the problem with familiar texts is that their familiarity breeds an illusion about whether they are understood. My example deals with the meanings of some familiar religious words, beginning with repentance.
Repentance is often thought to be a matter of feeling bad about having done something wrong, and is thus used to bludgeon people into submitting to religious authority. I say it is actually a matter of thinking in a new way about one's unexamined assumptions, and thus is a call to move beyond the familiar.
Settle in, if you will, for a rather detailed argument.
I'll begin with the message brought first by John the Baptist, and then by Jesus, in the countryside of Galilee and Judea: Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. I'll give what I think is a commonly understood (but erroneous) reading of this saying, and then tell you what I think it really means. By the time I'm done, you'll see why some people accuse me of doing what I do under false pretenses, to the extent that I let people think they know what I'm talking about (my retort: He who has ears to hear, let him hear). Here goes:
Popular evangelical reading: Be sorry for your sins, because the world will end very soon
More accurate reading: Rethink your situation, because Divine Reality is within your reach
The first reading relies on a whole framework of assumptions, some about the nature of religious experience, some about the attitudes of first-century Jews concerning the immanence of an apocalyptic end of the world. Rather than challenge those assumptions one by one on their own terms, which would take a rather large book and has been done by persons more competent than I, I'll bypass that for the moment and offer some things about an alternative set of assumptions, which seem to me to be more appropriate, and will of course talk about this way of seeing things as though it sprang, fully armed, like a mighty Goddess from the head of a Titan.
First, the word: My Greek is not flawless, but metanoia, translated Repentance, is generally explained as meaning a change of mind; I think with a connotation of going beyond (meta) what had been thought (noia, from nouos, mind). I'll have to look all that up, to parse it right, but the idea is there. So if our word re-pent (with the root having its cognate in French, penser, to think) means to re-think, to think again, that is fairly faithful to the original. And it has nothing (necessarily) to do with feeling guilty.
Let me just note in passing the difficulty there is in getting comfortable church folk, or for that matter, most people in the world, to think at all, never mind to re-think things they assume they already know. But such thinking, the questioning of one's own assumptions, is necessary for anyone to come to a spiritual awareness that is of any use whatever.
As for the kingdom of heaven being at hand, which is to say, spiritual reality being within reach; this is the very thing which is so often assumed not to be the case, even (sometimes particularly) on the part of the most religiously inclined. Forget what you know, and look around; the Divine is everywhere.