Scripture and the Veil of Familiarity

Most of this site’s readers are aware that biblical literacy in Evangelicalism is quite low. Many people claiming to be Christians are unfamiliar with Scripture, but another problem can arise for those who are well-acquainted with the Bible. There is a veil of familiarity that can cover its pages and cause us to miss the glorious realities it is unfolding.

If you are someone who has a decent grasp of the Word of God, have you ever noticed yourself doing either of the following? A sermon series comes across your path on the Sermon on the Mount, and you quickly dismiss it because you already know what the passage is about. Or you are reading a book, and it begins to quote Scripture, and you skip the quote because you already know the gist of what it says, and you are hoping the book will give you something else. Why do we do this?

In his book Lifting the Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God, Malcolm Guite explains why it is easy to gloss over glorious realities when we are familiar with them. He borrows a phrase from Samuel Taylor Coleridge and argues that a “film of familiarity” can arise and put a “veil between us and the radiant reality of things.” Guite is not necessarily talking about our response to Scripture in this passage, but it applies. Guite is talking about looking at a majestic mountain range or some other beautiful aspect of nature.

Guite says, “This film is not there by accident: we have put it there! We have dulled our own vision of the world, both by over-familiarity and by what Coleridge calls ‘selfish solicitude,’ that is to say, we are treating nature as not only familiar and easily dismissible background but also as an agglomeration of stuff for us to exploit.” He explains that selfish solicitude means we demand nature and its beauty to serve us and our selfish ends. In doing so, we fail to consider its intrinsic worth and purpose.

Treating glorious realities as if they exist only to serve us thickens the veil covering them, and once we do it long enough and others around us do the same, we forget the film is in place, blocking our view. This veil could be one reason why an expansive canyon or a starry sky once filled our hearts with wonder, but now they are less inspiring than the Facebook posts the algorithms feed us.

Applying this principle to our reading of the Bible, this film of familiarity might be why Scripture often leaves us uninspired. In addition, in our selfish solicitude, we might have turned it into something meant to serve us, and we have forgotten its intrinsic worth and purpose; the revelation of our glorious God. When it fails to fill our selfish needs, we assess it as dismissible background, and social media posts become more inspiring.

What is the answer to this? We need God-given imagination to lift the veil and awaken us from our slumber. We need creative Christians to tell us the old truths in imaginative ways. We need poets to remind us of the grandeur of the Word of God. We need artists to point us to its inherent beauty in the same way they can help us see the beauty of a mountain range. We need architects and designers to lift our minds to transcendence when we gather to worship. We need storytellers who can take us out of ourselves and place our spiritual eyes on things above. The Bible is full of poetry, wisdom literature, architecture, art, and calls for music. Also, we should never forget Jesus himself was a storyteller. He helped us to grasp spiritual realities with earthly stories.

None of this dismisses the need for biblical exposition and doctrinal teaching. Instead, it reinforces it, but all of us should be aware that the veil of familiarity may be in place, numbing us and others to the glories of Biblical truth. As we preach, teach, write, paint, tell stories, build, make music, and produce films, we should strive to use our God-given imaginations to awaken the mind to realities we have been dismissing. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will use our work to help lift the veil and give us eyes to see.

-D. Eaton

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