Facing the Strange

Why Do We Need to Experience New Things?

Sam Bush / 5.17.21

Does the world need new material? Surely, there are enough exhibits to satisfy even the most voracious art enthusiast; enough literature to supply an endless reading list for the most bookish of book worms; enough movies to supply hundreds of channels of niche markets. Lord knows, there are enough recorded sermons to occupy the rest of your Sunday mornings till Kingdom come. So why bother with fresh content?

On the one hand, our society is addicted to novelty. We are mass consumers of the latest gadgets, the trendiest styles, the hottest TV shows, and all the breaking news we can get ahold of. But we are also slaves to the familiar. The Office, a show that ended in 2013, was the most-streamed show in 2020 — by far. Baby Boomers have kept Classic Oldies radio stations alive and well for the past 40 years. Just last night, I ordered the same thing I always order when I dine at a particular restaurant. Advertisements may temporarily convince us that The New Thing will solve our problems, but experience shows that if the shoe fits, we’ll never take it off.

Jeremy Larson delved into this question in his article for Pitchfork, “Why Do We Even Listen to New Music?” In it, he explores the benefits of experiencing something new even if our brains reward us for seeking out what we already know. For someone who is on a heavy rotation of familiar music, his words hit hard:

I assume most Americans — especially those who have settled into the groove of life after 30 — simply don’t listen to new music because it’s easy to forgo the act of discovery when work, rent, children, and broadly speaking “life” comes into play. Eventually, we bow our heads and cross a threshold where most music becomes something to remember rather than something to experience.

Ain’t that the truth. From my own experience, music is a perfect example of how being open to the unknown only gets harder with age. In my 20s, I used to pour over magazine articles and playlists in search of my new favorite band. Watching this year’s Grammy awards made me feel like I had been transported to another (much younger) planet. Gone are the days when I had my finger on the pulse of “cool.” These days, I am much more in need of comfort than novelty.

Apparently, I’m not alone. Larson references one of The Onion‘s best headlines on the subject, “Nation Reaffirms Commitment To Things They Recognize: ‘We Have Seen These Things Before And We Like Them,’ Say Populace.” The story quotes various citizens saying that they especially like things that they have already seen a lot of times. Movies, music, food, you name it. We like what we have already liked before. These things are safe. They give us a sense of security and ask nothing in return. Larson goes on to say that our brains are hardwired to find more pleasure in what we know. “It’s not just the strange allure of the song your mother played when you were little or wanting to go back to that time in high school driving down country roads with the radio on. It’s that our brains actually fight against the unfamiliarity of life.” As one neuroscientist explains, “We are built to abhor the uncertainty of newness.”

Many of us have such a distinct fear of newness because it threatens the familiar. Newness does not confirm that which we already believe. If genuinely received, newness will reshape the way we live.

In these never-endingly uncertain times, it’s no one’s fault to stick to familiar creature comforts. There is so much fear in the world as it is, who can be blamed for wanting something reliable? Much can be said for the dependable sources of love and comfort in one’s life. If you struck gold somewhere in the past, and your pockets have since been emptied, it isn’t outlandish to go back to the source to find more gold.

While Larson is mostly right to pit new tastes against the comfort of familiarity, when it comes to Scripture, the dichotomy breaks down. Somehow, this ancient text resists the domesticated familiarity that comes with the passage of time. When one’s faith has run dry, the Bible can serve as an eternal wellspring. The reason why we can say with confidence that “as it was in the beginning, is now and forever shall be,” is because God’s Word is not fixed in place but living and active (Heb 4:12). Scripture has the unique ability to endlessly repeat itself without becoming something rote. Its waters are not frozen in time, nor are they stagnant, but living (Jn 4:10). In fact, Scripture is a gift that keeps on giving, not despite but because of the passage of time. Like Shakespeare or a timeless film, repeated viewings don’t wear the text out but enliven it. The Bible then encourages us to sing to the Lord a new song (Ps 98:1). The same words have a tendency to strike a different chord again and again.

While we might constantly change, the impulse to reach for the familiar, oldie-but-goodie, is rewarded when one seeks out God. If change is the only constant in life, the same can be said of God. The Gospel is where those two constants — the variability of life and God’s faithfulness — meet. It is where the constancy of God’s character interfaces with a life that is ever-changing, the tangent point where infinity meets the finite of our lives to make all things new.

How does the gospel, then, communicate the same thing over and over again in a way that doesn’t sound like a broken record? How is it both familiar and new at the same time? It is taking something that is old and familiar and representing it as something new, dare I say strange. It’s singing the same old song, but with a synthesizer instead of a harpsichord.

Jeremy Larson concludes his article with this: “The choice to listen to new music prioritizes, if for one listen only, the artist over you. It is an emotional risk to live for a moment in the abyss of someone else’s world.” This is what happens when God sings to us a new song. He bids us to leave our own world behind and to step out into the abyss of His world once again. While we are prone to cling to the familiar, we are free to face the strange.