Saying It Anew: Preaching, Teaching, and Defamiliarization

(Above: a defamiliarized street sign in Montmartre)

I have always been interested in how God’s Word is communicated in the Scriptures by the prophets themselves. I have written  elsewhere about one particularly common, artful device, what the Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky calls defamiliarization or estrangement (Russian: ostraneniye), which refers to the communication of an idea or object in a new way so as to force the audience to experience the idea or object in a vivid compelling way. One finds defamiliarization in almost every book of the Bible in the form of metaphor, simile, parable, stylistic constructions, or rare words.

The examples are plentiful. Jesus could have explained the difference between repentant sinners and self-righteous religionists through propositions, but instead he did it through a powerful and much-repeated parable. In Psalm, 1, the wise man’s reliance on scripture could be described literally or as a tree planted by streams of life-giving water that resists the drought of affliction. Personally, I am glad the Psalmist went the latter route. One could say that, in old age, the body begins to fail, or you could quote Ecc. 12:2-4:

…before the sun, the light, the moon, and the stars are darkened, and clouds return after the rain;  in the day that the watchmen of the house tremble, and mighty men stoop, the grinding ones stand idle because they are few, and those who look through windows grow dim; and the doors on the street are shut as the sound of the grinding mill is low, and one will arise at the sound of the bird, and all the daughters of song will sing softly.

The problem with straight speech derives from the human tendency to prestige efficiency over experience or deep understanding. In an article I wrote for a collection of essays in honor of my professor and great defamiliarizer, Richard Pratt, I describe Shklovsky’s distinction between artful and unartful language:

For Shklovsky, this feature [defamiliarization] distinguishes literature from other writing. Unartful writing seeks to remove any obstacles between the reader and the referent, the object that the writing describes, so that the referent can be observed and experienced as immediately as possible. In other words, one might say that in the nonliterary project, the goal is to produce an expression that is transparent and unobstructed so that the writing finally recedes from consciousness, merely an economic means to an end. The unintended and perhaps counterintuitive end result, however, is a lack of true experience of the particular object being described. Shklovsky argues:

We see the object as though it were enveloped in a sack. We know what it is by its configuration, but we see only its silhouette. The object, perceived thus in the manner of prose perception, fades and does not leave even a first impression; ultimately even the essence of what it was is forgotten. (“Art as Technique, 11)

His conclusion may come across as ironic and a bit too clever, but it is proven by human experience. Sometimes using plain language can have the same effect as walking down a familiar street. Because of your familiarity, you stop actually experiencing the street, you are kept from actually noticing it and its many facets because you presume to already know it. Without the deep experience there is no deep personal impact. Remember last Friday’s morning commute? I thought not.

On the other hand, Shklovsky describes successful defamiliarization as a way of artfully slowing down perception for maximum communicative impact.

A work is created “artistically” so that its perception is impeded and the greatest possible effect is produced through this slowness of the perception. As a result of this lingering, the object is perceived not in its extension in space, but, so to speak, in its continuity. Thus “poetic language” gives satisfaction. (“Art as Technique,” 15)

The biblical prophets, including Christ, excelled in shrouding their message in order to communicate it effectively, and so much of biblical truth is packaged in a strange wrapping. That is because defamiliarization is a universally powerful way to communicate deep and basic truths.

Most people realize that preaching and teaching the ancient text of Scripture requires a certain measure of linguistic and historical aptitude, but it also require an impressive level of artfulness. The prophets were homiletic artists, so should preachers be. This is particularly true in the West, where Scripture still holds a significant place as the source of so many familiar cultural ideas and idioms. Even in its current secularizing tendency, western culture still thrives for the most part on a detached (decapitated) Christian system of values, what Cornelius Van Til called “borrowed capital.” As a result, we as preachers and teachers ought to avoid whenever possible cliched and the hackneyed language when trafficking in the transformative discourse of the Gospel.

Art takes time and effort, but it is worth it.

You can read the rest of my piece on defamiliarization here.

Excerpts taken from For the World; Essays in Honor of Richard L Pratt Jr. ISBN 978-1-59638-728-7 used with permission P&R Publishing Co. P O Box 817, Phillipsburg, N.J. 08865

4 thoughts on “Saying It Anew: Preaching, Teaching, and Defamiliarization

  1. I wonder, how does the umbrella of “ostraneniye” not extend to cover the jargon of the academy which defamiliarizes but also stupefies the lay audience?

    1. Not all defamiliarization, of course, is effective, and examples of the bad kind are easily found. The technical jargon of specialized fields can stupefy if overused or used with the wrong audience. Effective defamiliarization assumes some shared knowledge. When Jesus speaks of a prodigal son, he knows his audience understands family dynamics, inheritance customs, and so on, but they had probably not thought about the kingdom of God in this way.

      1. I see where you’re coming from and I agree to an extent, insofar as poetic language conveys familiar truth, defamiliarly. But when Jesus or the prophets preceding him spoke of God, our relationship to him, or the kingdom of God, it was always in the context of new revelation or adding a new dimension to the truth that heretofore had only been foreshadowed. New or deeper revelation is necessarily uniquely constituted and unfamiliar whether it comes in familiar rags or no. It’s true that poetic oratory is what the ambassadors of Christ must resort to without confounding the hearer.

        1. I think we are in agreement, though I also think it is safe to say that much prophecy is application of already revealed material instead of new information. For instance, David’s problem in 2 Sam 12 is not that he is not aware of Mosaic teaching against coveting, adultery, and murder, but he was unable/unwilling to be convicted for his own sin. Nathan’s parable makes D. see his sin for what it is by defamiliarizing the subject matter. If you are saying that there I times when plain, literal speech is needed, I agree wholeheartedly, though I think artful language is surprisingly common in biblical literature, including Paul.

Comments are closed.