Part of the appeal of Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, is his invitation to a time before the modern world conspired to eliminate the continuity of more tight-knit communities with shared beliefs. Instead, what we have today is what Zygmunt Bauman calls “liquid modernity” to describe a way of life in which change is so rapid that no social institutions have time to solidify. The most successful people nowadays are flexible and rootless; they can live anywhere and believe anything. The ancient ways are irrelevant.
I thought about that while preparing to teach on Psalm 78: “I will open my mouth with a parable; I will utter hidden things, things from of old – things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their descendants; we will tell the next generation.” That’s quite a change from liquid modernity wherein nothing is fixed and the old is simply obsolete and useless. Why would anyone want to hear about the things of old? What could our ancestors possibly know about the world in which we live? More than we imagine.
Then there is the question of the difference between what is hidden and what is secret. This is not about mysteries denied ordinary people. It is not special knowledge or dark arts and rituals. Instead, these are things that have been heard and known in the past but have sometimes been lost or intentionally hidden.
Both hiding the truth and hiding from the truth has been a pattern of mankind from the very beginning. Adam and Eve hiding from God. Cain hiding Abel’s death. There is even one instance in Israel’s history when the Book of the Law had been tucked away so well it was lost completely for generations. When uncovered by Josiah the covenant that had been long forgotten was renewed. That which had once been heard and known was rediscovered.
I think that is what the writer of the Psalm is saying here. He is about to tell us things already known but we have tried to hide them because they are uncomfortable. We want to make up our own stories about ourselves and our history that will be less restraining and give us permission we cannot get otherwise. We don’t want to face the truth or pass the truth on to the next generation. It’s better to rewrite it for ourselves and allow them to do the same. In Scott Peck’s People of the Lie he writes that unhealthy families have a lie they pass on from one generation to the next. They may not even be able to articulate it but it shapes them because they spend their lives hiding or avoiding something that is unpleasant to face. So the psalmist says, “we will not hide them from their descendants; we will tell the next generation…” That does not sit well with people who want their history to be scrubbed and rewritten – or hidden.
Ironically, we have not concealed that truth as much as we have hidden it in plain sight. More than 100 million Bibles are printed every year, and the average American Christian owns nine Bibles. Yet, a Gallup survey found that fewer than half of Americans can name the first book of the Bible. Only 30 percent of people owning Bibles know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and 12 percent of Christians believe that Noah was married to Joan of Arc. Half of graduating high school seniors thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. The things of old are on every book shelf but hidden in such a way that we don’t notice.
That’s why it is encouraging to hear about initiatives like the Bible Literacy Project and their textbook The Bible and Its Influence that supports the academic study of the Bible and is now taught in more than 640 public high schools in 44 states. More than 650,000 students have been through the course.
The American Bible Society opened the Faith & Liberty Discovery Center in Philadelphia in 2021 that explores the relationship between faith and liberty in America. As well, the Museum of the Bible opened in 2017 with 430,000 square feet dedicated to exploring the history and impact of the Bible. Since the 2008 launch of YouVersion, more than 615 million people around the world have installed the app. With over 3000 versions in over 2,000 languages it has become the most popular Bible program for mobile devices.
It may well be we are living in liquid modernity with institutions and their foundations never becoming solid or even melting away but I believe it is also a time of opportunity or a “Josiah moment” to rediscover and “utter hidden things, things from of old – things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us.”
Art by Caitlin Connolly