Doodle: Interpretation versus Information

LibraryA few weeks ago, after the men’s Bible study that I am involved in, someone asked me what study notes and material I received at Bible college. We have been reading through Romans and anyone who has read it carefully will be familiar with the occasional confounding phrase, even passage. Therefore the question is understandable. Furthermore, I remember being in awe of Bible teachers as a young Christian in my teens and assuming that with enough commentaries I would be able to do what they did. However after an honours in theology and just over five years in local church ministry I was able to answer this man’s question quite differently to how I might have ten years ago. While there is no denying my library has grown in that time, while my savings have shrunk, what I have learnt formally and in my day-to-day Christian life is that reading and understanding the Bible has less to do with information and more to do with interpretation. Let me explain.

At college we did have courses on specific books of the Bible: Exodus, Psalms, Proverbs, Ezekiel, Mark’s Gospel, Acts, Romans, and Ephesians. But, as you might picked up from that list, many books were excluded, even though I lived on campus as a full-time student. You might also have noticed from the list above that seemingly more important books, if one can make such a distinction, were omitted: Genesis, Isaiah,  John’s Gospel, and Revelation. But the value of the book studies we did, along with other more general courses, was that we were taught principles for interpretation, tools for faithful reading. What are those? Simply put, we were equipped to read biblical texts carefully, in context, and by considering things like genre and original or authorial purpose. For example, in our course on Ezekiel we learnt tools for understanding Ezekiel that can be applied to all Old Testament prophecy. Sadly, such an approach is all but lost in many churches today where Bible verses are treated like the sayings of Confucius, explaining the vast theological confusion that currently reigns.

In his useful, compendious, free, and excitingly titled essay New Testament Hermeneutics, G. K. Beale provides a few questions that might further help you understand what I mean by interpreting the meaning of a text:
1. Does the meaning reached fit with the larger context?
2. Is it in harmony with rest of biblical revelation?
3. How well does it illuminate the rest of the passage?
4. How does it compare with other commentators’ interpretations?

What you will notice from Beale’s questions is that commentaries are only mentioned in the last. The preceding questions deal with reading the passage in its context (historically and in the biblical storyline), making use of clearer passages in Scripture, and considering a passage or verse within its immediate surroundings. How you read the Bible is in some ways more important than what you read about the Bible. In the same way that you do not pick up a novel, open up to a page at random and read a couple of sentences believing that that is what the novel is about, we should not treat Scripture as a repository of unrelated but inspiring sentences. Meaning is determined by close reading, knowing the context, and comparing your interpretation with the rest of God’s revelation in Scripture.

HermeneuticsIn conclusion, if these disparate thoughts can actually be brought together, the Christian faith is not housed in a body of work or library but in the living text, God’s inspired words. We benefit immensely by reading scholars who have sought to correctly interpret the Bible throughout history, we even learn as we study those who interpreted it incorrectly. But at the end of the day we must meet God in his Word, as he addresses us in his text. This is how God has chosen to reveal himself, rebuke his people, and reach those who do not know him.

Doodle: Blogs, Theology, and Woolworths

Woolworths FoodThere are hundreds of thousands of Christian blogs out there, reflecting the wonderfully broad spectrum of our faith; you are reading one of those right now. With the advent of the digital age more Christians from across the globe are able to share the truth in love, engage in meaningful conversation, pursue theological enquiry to the praise of our God, and encourage one another to persevere – well, that is at least how Christian blogging could be done. But with the overwhelming number of options available where should we start, which blogs should you frequent (apart from Rekindle)?

Before answering that question I would like to speak about Woolworths, with the hope that its significance to our question above will become apparent. Woolworths Food has revolutionised the middle class South African’s kitchen, mostly in demanding more fridge/freezer storage and less counter space for preparation; “Eat in for under R150,” “Heat and eat in less than 20 minutes,” and “Organic” cry out from the aisles of our local Woolies, adulating their lord and ours: convenience. As you can tell, I have enjoyed my fare share of Woolworths’ food and will unashamedly continue to do so. But it is undeniable that convenience has supplanted cooking, and by cooking I mean more than heating the oven to 180˚C while you defrost a readymade lasagne in the sink. Preparing meals from recipes and working with raw ingredients is a dying art in many homes, though my numerous attempts at actually cooking – with varied degrees of success – have nearly always resulted in something tastier than what I get out of a container. And though we hate to admit it, we know that culinary effort does not only produce better meals but much healthier dishes too.

ReadingBut what does that have to do with blog posts, or theology for that matter? Am I going to answer the question from our first paragraph, listing recommended theological blogs? No. I want to make another point: blogs are indicative of our bondage to convenience and resistance to putting the time or energy into thinking about theology. What you can find on blogs, is not that dissimilar from the aisles of Woolworths: already packed and par-cooked thoughts; microwavable musings; and Calvin’s entire theology in 5 simple points. Do not mishear me. Please keep reading Christian blogs (especially Rekindle). But do not leave all of your engagement and interaction with deep, rich theology to someone else that will neatly pack it for you online, replete with eye-catching images. Do some hard work, delve into doctrinal ideas, tackle theological tomes, and invest intellectually in reaching your own conclusions. Sure, sometimes you will have to grab something off the shelf and gobble it down. But that cannot be your staple: it is unhealthy, lazy, and the opposite of thoughtful Christian discipline.

Stop What You’re Doing and Read

Mark HaddonI recently picked up a short collection of essays titled Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! The title caught me – not to mention the bright cover – because I am passionate about literature and convinced that we should carve out time in our busy lives to read. Not only am I troubled by the lack of reading today but have elsewhere observed an obverse trend: the consumerist approach to books that fails to engage with their ideas and prefers volume to deep reading. After reading Stop my zeal to see the prioritising of literature was heightened. So I hope this post will both serve as an appetiser for the collection and create a hunger for reading good books.

The best place to start, in my opinion, is with Blake Morrison’s essay, which for the most part remarks on how books provide readers with hope beyond where they find themselves, however dire; he argues that literature allows us to breathe when our surroundings are suffocating. Any lover of reading knows this. But the point I want to pick out from his piece touches the canonical works of literature. In a culture obsessed with entertainment, resistant to sustained and thoughtful engagement, we find that older (and, most often, larger) books involve too much effort and are sorely lacking in event. But, referring to the canon, Morrison writes, “Some books are simply better than others. Or last the course longer. Or grow richer the more they are reread.” With the postmodern insistence on subjectivity and self we are determinedly independent and suspicious of established narratives. However, Morrison’s necessary point for today is this: “If we see the canon not as social-conditioning…imposed from above, but as a collective of writers’ and readers’ enthusiasm, then there’s no reason to resist.” Recognised and recommended literature, especially those works belonging to the canon, should be added to our reading lists. As another contributor, Tim Parks, writes, “Life is simply too short for the wrong books, or even the right books at the wrong time.”

Earnest HemingwayThe next point I want to pick up on is the unique ability of literature, not possessed by any other art medium, to help us feel the human condition. We are so over gorged on series and films, the effortless and explosive entertainment flying off our screens, that we overlook what is undoubtedly a healthier medium: paper. One of the contributors, Carmen Calill, probably overstates this point, arguing that without the connection of words, thoughts and stories we will die. Though I do agree that without literature our internal lives will suffer, as we glut ourselves on stories made to sell through gripping viewers and grabbing awards. Mark Haddon believes that when you, “Lay the novel alongside film…its specialness becomes obvious…[Film] can’t do smell or taste or texture. It can’t tell us what it is like to inhabit a human body. Its eyes are always open. It fails to understand the importance of things we don’t notice.” Haddon is convinced that the novel will endure because it comes closest to revealing the “texture of life” and “the mystery of what it means to be human.” Anyone who has invested time into engaging with exceptional literary works, will admit to the screen’s relative poverty and readings’ probing power, which is sometimes unnerving yet always enriching.

Following on from the previous paragraph, Jane Davis makes an incisive point about our fear of deep reading. While her issue is with the preference for light reading I would extend it to our obsession with film, “The plea for lightness may be a natural and entirely understandable fear of getting serious: lots of us spend a great deal of time not thinking, for fear of being brought down.” A little later she adds, “It is easy to see why, when dealing with literature or life stuff, people think it better if we stick to the surface of things and splash around up there, lightly pretending there are no depths.” We might think this is harmless, and because life is so demanding we are justified in sticking to the shallows and superficial engagement with the human condition. But Davis thinks the opposite, suggesting that, “Consistently ignoring the inner life has put depression and anxiety high amongst the world’s most serious epidemics.” I admit that this conclusion seems far reaching, but listen to what Davis adds, “Despite our desire to amass, consume, and be mindless, the ‘unspeakable desire’ to know ‘our buried life’ is ancient and implacable. If we ignore it, or have no means of knowing it, that desire will come back and hurt us.” Our fondness of film, more often than not, indulged at the expense of deep interaction with literature is a cost that we fail to consider; it damages our inner lives and numbs us to the depths of human nature.

Lastly, hopefully tying some of the above points together, I want to develop another fascinating point made by Jane Davis. She suggests that religions’ fall from grace, over the last century, as an interlocutor in the discourse of common life has not only impoverished our language for contemplating the human condition but has also in many ways been the demise of community. She posits that members of faith groups are more likely to flourish as religions provide people with a “network of fellow supportive creatures, a sense of purpose”. Religion, according to Jane Davis, offers us “inner stuff, scaffolding to help us get around our inner space” and meaningful community; maps to explore the complexities of our humanity and safe groups where such ventures are encouraged. The reason I find this point so interesting is that while I agree with Davis that a “reading revolution” will help us to reinvestigate the human condition and even result in new communities formed around good literature, I also believe the Christian story that plumbs the depths of our humanity including the parts that we avoid, drawing people into a community governed by grace, connected by their faith in Christ. In my experience this community has greatly enriched my understanding of human life and afforded me a platform to discuss it further. But even here, I find myself becoming increasingly disturbed by the shallow, distracted interaction with our world, thought and significant literature.


The Ethics of Reading

Most people read to relax. It’s much easier for me Owl Readingjust to soak up the words as the pages turn than to consider the stance into which I am being drawn. I want to suggest, however, that this tendency is lazy and potentially dangerous.

As I am drawn into the narrative and become an observer of unfolding events, I make judgements based on the voice of the narrator or the character who relays the tale. Too often, this voice is heedlessly imbibed by its hearers and absorbed into their thinking patterns. The reader has to allow a text to speak in its own categories and understand it in light of its own judgement calls (unless we decide that our response is more important than the text to which we are responding, but that’s for another post).

In James Sire’s “Habits of the Mind” (p.148,150) he writes about reading directing our thinking explaining,

James Sire's Habits of the Mind“One begins to read, giving over one’s mind to the text and the primary meanings that begin to form. When the text of a great work fully engages the mind, when the reader is so completely occupied with what is being read, the world of the text becomes the world of the reader. … The mind of the reader becomes one with the mind of the author,”

“When reading directs thinking, one’s mind is absorbed in the mind of another. Many have certainly thought that dangerous.”

This, Sire (p.151) continues, gives rise to censorship of “dangerous literature”.

“The foundational insight leading to censorship is, however, correct. Books are dangerous, because the best of them are powerful conveyors of ideas, points of view, moral persuasion and the like.”

Sire realises that the words we read arrest our mind. The critical point with which he concludes this section is the fact that Scripture is the one text that should direct our thinking. The correct stance of a reader approaching Scripture is one whose categories and patterns of thought are foundationally malleable so that death can become assailable, entropy reversible, Eden restorable and the concepts of freedom and goodness fundamentally reordered.

Coming to Scripture without assumptions – willing, even, to disbelieve it – is, therefore, an inferior approach. The assumptions that the text produces in us of the death and resurrection of Christ and the purposes of God are critical to out interpretation and don’t make for a “blinkered, check-your-brain-in-at-the-door reading” but rather, a reading that enables our minds to be “renewed in knowledge after the image of their Creator”.

Read Smart

Kevin Hendricks - 137 Books137 Books in One Year; no, that is not how many books I read in 2012 nor is it how many I aim to complete in 2013. It is the title of a book, which was free on Kindle for Independence Day. I am an avid reader so books about literature interest me (and free books are always worth grabbing). Now – to risk causing the collapse of our universe – I am going review a book that is about books. But this will be more than a book review, for I hope to offer a critique of the book and expand on the Christian’s motivation behind reading.

The book is extremely short so I will not spend too much space summarising its content. Hendricks is a book lover and desires to see others regain or discover their love of and appreciation for literature. It is a noble, worthwhile undertaking. Hendricks is clear that these tips for cultivating a love of books, gaining momentum with practice, have nothing to do with an impressive annual tally. He wants people to actually love reading. But I have two major criticisms of the book. Firstly, while Hendricks is adamant that the number of pages per day and books per year is not in focus, I could not help but feel volume is crucial to being a lover of books. Secondly, I felt the terse piece was as a whole unevenly weighted in favour of reading as recreational.

Firstly, while Hendricks obviously returns to things he has noted during his own reading, attested to by his free use of a multitude of other writings in this short book, as well as on his blog, reading 137 Books made me feel that progress ultimately came down to moving hastily from your present title into the next upon completion. Exhortations that reading is not about quantity are obscured by the numerous tips aimed at streamlining your reading and maximising your time. Even when it came to reflection Hendricks seems to suggest writing hurried summaries rather than thoughtful assessments and critiques. I would sooner side with Julian Morrow, in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, arguing for the merits of having single teacher as Plato did: “it is better to know one book intimately than a hundred superficially.” What is the rush? I believe Hendricks’ emphasis on volume coupled with scant time for reflection entails his reason for reading, and my second criticism, below.

Book on darkHendricks’ purpose for reading is principally recreational. Now please do not hear me as some literary-purist-type who believes all reading must be informative, and that we must engage critically with every work we pick up. Just last month I read David Gemmell’s entire Troy trilogy (almost 2000 pages of historical, heroic fiction). Yet I wish that Hendricks had emphasised something he provides only glimpses of. He writes in the introduction, “[we read] to discover incredible new worlds and stimulate creative thinking. To get out of my skin and experience something I otherwise couldn’t.” Later, in chapters 7 and 8, Hendricks encourages intentional reading that processes content, notes valuable quotes, and records brief summaries of ideas contained in the writing and reading experience. But as I have noted above, these tips are couched in the larger context of reading lots. It is hard to see this valuable approach to and aim for reading amidst the voracious consumption of books. I am convinced that we need to be responsible and critically engaged readers, to varying degrees. And obviously that will be depend on the type of literature you read. We should be weary of viewing books in the way TV has taught us to see entertainment: frivolous and disengaged consumerism.

Take notes readingWith those two criticisms in mind I will close with what I believe to be a better and healthier approach to reading, which is obviously in much need of development and discussion. For starters I would suggest reading Tony Reinke’s book Lit!, which I have reviewed briefly here. Reinke aims for 6 or 7 books a month, between 70 and 80 a year, which is modest and realistic if you plan on really reading and not merely shredding books. More important than the number is the content of his suggested reading. He provides 5 categories, outside of Scripture: knowing Christ, spiritual reflection, personal growth, professional excellence, and good stories (p95). Forget reading for reading’s sake. Read to enrich and strengthen your faith. Stop reading for the love of reading. Read in order to love God more. I am not advocating the abandonment of recreational reading, enjoying a cleverly written narrative. But when we reduce the reading of books to consumption we lose out. For, as James Sire puts it, “[great literature will] help us understand who we are as a human family in all our diverse and glorious yet fallen splendor” (p163 of Discipleship of the Mind). Literature embodies worldviews and philosophies. Engaged and unhurried reading helps us imbibe reality, as others understand it.

In his famous article, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, Nicholas Carr quotes Maryanne Wolf: ‘Deep reading is indistinguishable from deep thinking’. I do not know if the modern resistance to thinking means we no longer read deeply or if our lack of discerned reading has stunted our thinking, with regards to literature. Perhaps it is both. What I do know is we need to start at both ends. This means endeavouring to engage with worthwhile good books, even if they are hard, and engaging deeply with more of what we read.