Fathom Mag
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It’s a wonder-full world.

What we gain when we comit to a theology of wonder

Published on:
June 4, 2018
Read time:
4 min.
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Atticus takes my face and pulls me in close, “Do it again, Daddy!”

I dip the wand, blow, and we are overwhelmed with bubbles. We laugh. A bubble lights on Atticus’s brow and when it pops, he giggles. “Again! Do it again!”

For a moment, all was worthy of wonder. But moments are fleeting.
Tommy Welty

A steady stream of bubbles fills the courtyard and Atticus chases them, trying to catch each one as they drift just past his hands. Two teenage girls walking through the courtyard dote on Atticus as he tries to get them to chase bubbles with him. A neighbor enjoys the first truly warm day from his balcony. I blow another stream of bubbles and my gaze follows them toward the sky. I’m captured by the full spectrum of light held in a single bubble as it dances upwards on the breeze. The same bubble catches Atticus’s eye, too. We watch it float through the bright buds of early spring on the oak sapling.

Then it bursts.

Sirens wail down busy city streets. A couple fights in the background. I find my eyes cast down to the ground, to the grime, to the courtyard littered with cigarette butts. For a moment, all was worthy of wonder. But moments are fleeting. My wonder burst with the bubble.

The Hermeneutic of Wonder

These are dark days; they feel apocalyptic even. Fear and suspicion rule us. Every day reveals a new evil. Or, rather, every day makes an old evil plain. This is nothing new. Since Cain tried to pretend he didn’t smash his brother’s head with a rock, humans have been inventing new ways to be cruel to one another without being found out. Maybe we’re right to be so afraid and suspicious. 

To this dark world the Bible speaks. How we read it makes all the difference. We all have a default way of reading, a method we use to interpret what we read in the Bible. It’s our personal hermeneutic. And our hermeneutic matters. When we read with a hermeneutic of fear, what grows in our hearts is not love and good faith toward our neighbor but anxiety and terror. When we approach the scriptures with a hermeneutic of suspicion we scour the world to find the seams we can pull at until the world comes undone.

To this dark world the Bible speaks. How we read it makes all the difference.

A hermeneutic of fear suggests readers should aggressively guard their material security from any threat, whether it is creeping secularism, political opposition, or different skin color. And a hermeneutic of suspicion suggests that everybody, even your closest companions, are liars.  Fear says it’s only prudent to cross the street, lock the doors, and call the cops. Suspicion suggests everything must primarily be deconstructed and reconstructed then deconstructed and reconstructed again in an endless cycle of doubt before being thrown out all together. Fear reads the command to love one’s enemies but only ever identifies them. Suspicion says that the enemy is your neighbor.

But what about wonder? A hermeneutic of wonder catches our eyes with light and draws our gaze heavenward. Wonder motivates us to seek understanding and awe. Wonder displaces self-preserving fear of the other with life-giving fear of the Lord. Wonder displaces suspicion with faith. Wonder makes way for love, love for God and love of neighbor. Wonder shines hope in dark days.

But wonder is not what humans default to.

The Culture of Wonder

Our lack of wonder is particularly evident in this cultural moment.

My first political memory is of a pastor during the 2000 election cycle. He stood behind a pulpit flanked by thirty fake ficuses, a large man in an even larger suit, proclaiming one could not be a Christian and a Democrat. Political discourse since has clearly not improved. Politicians and pundits weaponize the Bible as an instrument of terror. We read on magnets pinning old Christmas cards to refrigerators about how God has plans for us, to prosper us and not to harm us, to give us hope and a future and we’ll be damned if anybody stops that from happening. So we read the Bible with great fear and trembling of what could be lost.

God has plans for us, to prosper us and not to harm us, to give us hope and a future and we’ll be damned if anybody stops that from happening.

The Bible has been read so poorly that, if I’m being honest with you, I find it a little embarrassing to admit in respectable company that I actually believe what’s written in it. When friends and family ask how I believe in a book that inspires such cowardice and vileness I mumble weakly, “Actually what it really means is actually . . .”

For many in my audience the default hermeneutic isn’t fear; it’s suspicion. On all sides our trust in authority, in institutions, in traditions have rightfully eroded as leaders abuse their power, systems are found corrupt at every level, and traditions are built on the bodies and labor of others. So they roll their eyes as if to say it’s all a bunch of fairy tales edited and redacted over centuries, nay!, millenia to brainwash suburbanites to “Eat Mor Chickin.” 

What and who can be believed anymore? And why should a dusty old book confusedly compiled over hundreds of generations be trusted to speak anything at all? What good can a book often used by wicked leaders, institutions, and traditions offer anyone? Valid questions.

Perhaps the problem doesn’t lie in the book but in how the book is read. And, further, not just how the Bible is read but how humans read each other.

To begin with wonder means to look first for what is beautiful, true, and good in a text. Wonder assumes the best; it leads us to be amazed that even though it may not seem like it a loving and redeeming nail-scarred hand is tending to this hurting world. A hermeneutic of wonder looks for this tender wounded hand behind each word and person. You and I must resist looking for objects of fear and distrust and instead let the pierced hand take our faces and lift our gaze from the grime of this world and point us heavenward to hope and kindness.

It would be naïve of me to suggest that all we need to overcome our anxieties and doubt is some ethereal sense of wonder that ignores our harsh reality. A hermeneutic of wonder doesn’t ignore sin and evil—it recognizes them and then leads us to grace and love.

Chasing wonder replaces fear and suspicion with curiosity and delight. Wonder invites us and invites our neighbors to redemption. As a sense of wonder at blowing bubbles brokered a small moment of grace in our courtyard, so should a hermeneutic of wonder in the reading of scripture and each other broker a greater grace. How we read the Bible matters. How we read one another matters.

Tommy Welty
Tommy Welty is married to Alyssa. Their son Atticus was born the summer before Go Set a Watchman was published. Tommy and his family live in Liverpool where they are missionaries. His writing and poetry has been featured at Christ and Pop Culture, The Curator, Rock & Sling, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. Follow him on Twitter @tommywelty.

Cover image by NASA.

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