Note: this was originally presented at the 2019 ABC/USA Colloquium (a gathering of American Baptist Pastors). The theme of the gathering was “Spirituality of the Word.”
A Prelude – What is a text and what does it mean to read.
In our post-modern culture, in a time when we engage with various erudite books that ask the very question if there is a text in this class, in a time when we are arguing about the author’s intent and the value of even wrestling with such a question, to consider what a book means and what the author is trying to say and how we are supposed to react is a daunting task. People much smarter than I have written great works telling us how to read, what to look for, and the ways to really get the most out of a book that is possible. We have been told how we are supposed to read.
We, in the realm of religion, embrace a belief that we do have a central text and that the author’s intent is important if not essential to be aware of (who the author is tends to be a fun and interesting debate). We have continued to push back against the academic and upper-crust trend of liberating books to fall completely into the modernistic idea of truth. Granted, there are many important and valuable new areas of research in Biblical Studies that does call us to look at the text from the perspective and experience of the “other.” Yet even with that, the continued prevailing trend of reading scripture leads one to what is it that we are supposed to receive from this text. I am not sure this is a good thing and I wonder if we have been forcing the Holy Spirit in demanding such a response to the Scriptures. But this is a digression that I will not follow.
All this being said, reading and engaging with text is a complicated endeavor, especially in a context of faith, and I have been asked to speak about it. I am not an English teacher nor have I been trained as one. I am not a writer, poet, or a literary critic. I have a degree in Music, and in music school they really did not want us to work on reading and writing, but on making music. In Divinity School we were pushed to read great works with a focus on retention and knowledge, and expected to offer back that knowledge through a paper or on a test. As a theologian I have been trained to deconstruct texts, to look for the base, the foundation, the methodology of what the text is offering and then to question and push the validity of the base of such theories. Aside from my public-school education, I really have not been trained to read. But, in a data heavy climate that we dwell in, I wonder if any of us have been trained to read at all. Thus, I invite you to join me in what has been an exploration into what feels like the wilderness of my own home. I am exploring what has been right in front of me for all of my life. What I have taken for granted, I have dwelled with for a little longer, looked at a little closer to see what is waiting to be discovered.
One final caveat. I am not going to talk about reading Scripture. For me, there is a difference between reading books and reading Holy Scripture. It is through my faith that I have put scripture into a different category in relation with the rest of my life. Scripture is authoritative in a way that is different from anything else that I read, and deserves its own time to consider and debate and pray over. While there may be some overlap between how I try to approach books and how I approach the Bible, there is a difference of essence between the Bible and everything else written.
Movement 1 – Making Lists
I have a problem. I love to make lists, to amass data, to look at numbers, to step back and see how far I have gone. I love to go through my books and to tick off all that I can say that I have read, and then feel proud of myself. I am a part of the website, Goodreads which is supposed to connect people who love books but I use it for more insidious reasons. There are two things about that website that I really love, the stats and the comparison of my books with other people’s books. I will look at the stats of the books that I read the previous year and compare them with how I am doing this year and either feel good about myself or feel like I need to really step it up and do better. I also like comparing what I have read with other people who are in my network, noting the similar books that we have read, but then feeling a sense of self-satisfaction when I realize that I have read more books then my friend or acquaintance. I want to know that I am winning.
There is a sketch from the quirky show Portlandia that speaks to this sense of “out-reading” others. It shows some friends sitting in a coffee shop, and one asks the other if they read an article in the New Yorker about Golf and Marriage. The other responds with the affirmative and then asks if they have read something else, and before you know it the two are throwing out names, articles, authors, with a rapid pace trying to outdo the other in what they have read. This is a part of who I am, I am someone who wants to say that I have read and looks to outdo others in the quantity and quality of what I have read.
Now I am sure that there are deep, psychological issues that I should probably wrestle with to figure out why it is so important that I have a list and feel like I am keeping up with others, but this is neither the time nor the place. I share my struggle because I feel fairly confident that I am not alone. There is a way of bragging that comes out of reading. There is a bravado that one can claim from the Hipster-esque lifestyle to show that you have read the one book that no one else has read, or to be the first person to read a book by a popular author before anyone else has had the opportunity or to be able to list the multitude of books that you have read. This is a way to read that is focused on consumption, focused on numbers and content, but I wonder if it is healthy. It is a kind of reading that is so heavy on the consumer side, so heavy on the power side (until you read “X” you can’t understand what I am talking about) that it leads us to a place where we are simply trying to control and dominate information and data. We find ourselves in a place where reading becomes a tool, a means to an end, and that end is bragging and boasting and showing off how accomplished we are. And for those of us who are not athletically inclined (me), there is a lure, a temptation to fall into such a place because it may be one of the few places where I actually have a chance to brag about something that I accomplished. Too often I have fallen into such a temptation, and continue to do so, and while I am reading and maybe even retaining information, I am not engaging with the text. This approach simply leads one to read the text and then throw it aside and look for the next one. Much is lost in this approach to reading.
Movement 2 – Let’s Talk
I have a problem. I like to talk to people. I like to find out who people are, to learn about them, to discover, and to have good conversations. My hiking and backpacking companions have complained to me that I too quickly will stop on the trail to ask someone about where they are headed, what they have experienced thus far, and on and on. I have found myself spending twenty to thirty minutes on the trail caught in conversation. But I am curious and want to know. I want to wonder with someone, to consider with someone, to think about the deep questions of life with someone. If I meet someone who is a plumber for a living I will ask about the challenges and the joys of that profession. I will ask teachers how they can keep a lesson fresh year after year. I will ask a banker what it is about numbers that they find so exciting. I will wonder with a police officer about restorative justice vs. punitive justice. I don’t want to take time talking about the weather, I certainly do not want to talk about “the game” because the chances are I did not watch it and do not care. I really would rather talk about who the person is, what they do, and try to ask the question that I would not be able to answer on my own. I want to discover, I want to learn, and I want to engage.
Broadly speaking, the person becomes a text. The person I start a conversation with invites me into a place I could not go on my own. I have been in one profession my adult life, with a very brief dip into the music world (I could not live the rock-star bassoonist lifestyle). There is so much more out there and I want to learn, discover, and explore. That is why I like to talk to people. And if I have a little bit of knowledge to help in the conversation then I will start from there. I will want to know if my impression of PVC pipes is accurate, if my bias against High School math is rightly placed, or if there is something about accounting that I just don’t understand or get. I am not just asking and receiving, but I am also offering myself into the conversation. I am engaging, throwing back the ball and learning more. An example:
I was at the outpatient clinic getting stitches because I was washing dishes and cut my arm. Never wash the dishes. I found out that the doctor stitching me was a D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) rather than an M.D. (Doctor of Medicine). I have only encountered a D.O. once before and really did not know the difference and so I asked him. What makes a D.O. different from an M.D.? We had a long conversation about approach, about theory, about the basic practice of medicine, and he ended up recommending a book to me The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, by John Barry (who has also written a great book about Roger Williams). It is a book that pinpoints where the two schools of medicine diverged, and speaks well to the difference between the two. Since that conversation, and since reading Barry’s book, when I have the opportunity to talk with others in the medical profession I can ask more about the difference of approach between a D.O. and an M.D. I can engage more deeply because of the introductory conversation with one doctor giving me stitches.
We are texts with stories, narratives, insight, wisdom, and I want to learn. I look for the mental stimulation, the engagement, and the provocation that a good conversation can have. This can be a problem because sometimes people just don’t want to talk and sometimes my family just wants to go home. But I like to talk to people.
And if I can engage with a person, and find a person to be, in a sense, like a text, then why not other things? Why not music or art or the shape and construction of a building. In reflection I realize that I desire more than just receiving information or just experiencing the presence of someone, but rather to engage, to ask, to push, and then to listen and hear what might be next. The joy of a conversation is that the engagement is real and alive in the moment. It is something that is shaped and formed with each back and forth unlike listening to music or looking at a painting. It is good to talk to people.
Movement 3 – A Silent Conversation
The challenge that I realized that I encounter when reading is to bring the immediacy of a conversation to the books that I read. Books are, after all, fairly static. Once the words have been written and published, then they are going to stay in that state, not change, and are simply there to be received as they are. However, there is something that can be found that I believe is very much alive, a very real interchange when reading.
Hans-Georg Gadamer suggests that when reading a text, when engaging in a hermeneutical pursuit, then the horizon if the author interacts with the horizon of the reader and in that overlap, we find the text. Such a theory invites one to revisit a book again and again. The first time I read Eugene Peterson’s great work Under the Unpredictable Plant (one of the books that greatly influenced my life) I was just beginning my ministry. I was in a place where I was still trying to get a sense of what it means to be a pastor. About five years ago I read Peterson’s book again, but from a different place. I was wrestling with depression, facing questions of my vocation, and unsure about which direction to go. My horizon had changed. The words of Peterson’s book had not changed. The book itself was the same one that I had read fifteen years earlier, but this time the book was different. The overlap of the book and what I brought to the book had changed and I read something new.
I had brought with me different questions. I had brought with me a different wondering. With each reading lies the potential for a new conversation. In a way this is a secular lectio divina with a couple of years between each reading. I read and I listen. I bring my question and I listen. I read and I listen. Books can be returned to, reread, and re-engaged. On one level the text is static, but on another, the text is changing and constantly changing.
Perhaps one of the first steps we need to take before engaging in any book is to have a sense of what it is that we are bringing to the book. We need to have an honest appraisal of who we are in the moment, what it is that we are wrestling with, what are our assumptions about the book, and then prepare to engage. When reading Adam Haslett’s novel, Imagine Me Gone, I was warned that it addressed mental illness in a family. I took the time to name how mental illness has been a part of my own family and my own life and was careful to bring that part of my own story to the text in a way that was vulnerable, but still safe. It was a difficult, powerful, and worthwhile book to read.
I wish I could say that I approach all books with a sense of openness but that is not always the case. I find that I am “asked” to read books for group studies, for events, and the like, and because I like to brag and make lists, I almost always read the books. Yet I tend, at times, to read quickly with a bit of resentment, assuming that there really is nothing for me to learn from the book. That makes me a rude conversation partner. I am approaching the books with my arms folded, resistant, angry, and not open to anyone or anything. A good book can still break through. The last time I encountered this, reading books that I did not want to read, the books still spoke to me, (Margaret Marcuson,’s Money and Your Ministry, and Ruth Soukup’s Living Well, Spending Less) still broke through, and I was able to walk away with something. Overall, I would say that it would be better for me to not read at all than to be so rude in my reading.
Ideally, I would approach a book with an open mind. Ideally, I would engage with a book in a similar way that I engage someone I am meeting for the first time. Tell me about yourself. Tell me who you are, and I will find a point to connect.
This takes a good deal of trust. Trust is an important part of reading. I am trusting the author. I am trusting that the author wants to have a conversation with me, wants to tell me something of value and worth, and is going to lead me in a way that will be good. Sometimes it takes a chapter or two for me to relax and know that I am in good hands, and sometimes I know right away that all is going to be ok. Sometimes it is because of other books, past conversations with that same author that I know I am going to be ok. I know that I need to trust. I need to trust that my time will not be wasted, that there is value in what I am reading, and that I have something to bring to the text.
Upon that foundation of trust, I then need to let myself be engaged, moved, and changed. At the risk of alienating myself from everyone here, I have found this most fully with the great French novelist, Marcel Proust. For the past three years or so I have been working my way through the six volume In Search of Lost Time. I am in the middle of volume five and am starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel. I am reading Proust because I want to read what are considered to be the “greats.” I started this journey of reading the “greats” when I finished seminary and found myself with more time on my hands than I had been used to. Rather than doing work on the house, or striving to have a manicured lawn, I decided that it would be good to read. I have been consistently wrestling with the urge to catch up with everyone else when it comes to reading (see my desire to make lists of what I have read). I felt that my music degree and then a masters in Divinity did not give me the basic kind of literary background that one should have to be a well-rounded member of society. There are great stories, great works of literature in our history that I have not encountered, authors I have not spoken to, and I wanted to have a conversation. More than just dipping into a surface conversation, I wanted to join in the ongoing conversation that others are having when King Lear is mentioned, or On the Road is tossed off in a passing reference. I wanted to be able to join in the conversation. The literary critic, Harold Bloom, offered to me an entrée into the conversation with his book The Western Canon. While this book is at its root problematic in its cultural chauvinism, and compares everyone to Shakespeare (why they are not as good), Bloom is still a great guide into the room of great authors and poets. Bloom has led me on a chronological journey with Chaucer and Dante, walking with Cervantes and Dickens, Whitman and Dickenson, Milton and Eliot, Tolstoy and Freud, and others. With each author, Bloom would offer me some sense of what to look for, what makes this author great, and then suggest a book to read. With the introduction, I would then read; I would have a conversation. This is what brought me to Proust, because one does not just wake up one day and say, “I think I’ll read Proust.” There are usually circumstances that lead one to make such a decision. Proust has, among many other things, taught me how to read.
First, I condemn the academy that has taken Proust out of the hands of the people. The wall of exclusion that many have built around Proust is shameful; the idea that unless you are a scholar you have no place reading In Search of Lost Time is regretful. I will argue that Proust wrote for all people and his writings should be in the hands of all people; Proust has something of worth and value to offer. Granted, we need Proustian scholars because there are things happening in volume five that harken back to volume two in subtle ways that I am sure are brilliant, but I am going to miss. Proust is playing with time, with memory, with the narrator’s point of view in ways that I am going to miss and it is good for people more studied and smarter than I to engage in the genius of Proust’s writings. But there is still much for a simple reader, as myself, to find in the text.
Go back to trust. In my reading of Proust I have been reminded that it is important for me to trust the author. Proust does not start with a thesis statement, he does not immediately introduce the hero and then the conflict and then lead the reader to a place of resolution. It is a slow, careful walk that Proust is on. It is walking with a friend who is going to meander in one direction and then the other, and you have to trust that you are going to be led in a way that will be good. And then there is the rhythm of the writing. I am not reading Proust in the French; I never studied the language. I am reading a translation and trust that the translator is working to not only capture the words themselves, but the ideas, the patterns, the rhythm of the writing. As I read Proust I realize that there is a lilting, and beat, slow, and still, and methodical, and I need to let go and fall into that beat. I need to let the rhythm of the writing pull me into the time of Proust, let my rhythm give to Proust’s, let my memory become Proust’s, let my reality become Proust’s. It is not my time when I read Proust, but his. When I read Proust, it feels like we are getting nowhere, like we are not moving at all, but 100 pages into any of his volumes, I find that I am not where I started. It is not easy to let go and let the author take control of the pace and of time itself, but I have found that this is what Proust is inviting me to do.
This is part of the trust of reading. From novels to non-fiction to articles, we are called to offer a level of trust of the writer. This is a part of having a conversation with someone else. We cannot dominate the speaking patterns, the ideas, the memories of someone else. We instead can approach someone with an effort to receive their way of thinking, struggling, and being. With reading, I have to strive to trust that I will understand and be able to follow the author’s voice. I have to trust that the book has something to offer. I have to trust that the conversation will be good. If I don’t, if I read a book with a wall of distrust, then I am not listening, I am not engaging, and there is little room for me to grow or change.
I believe we can do this with a variety of books in a variety of subjects. Text books, novellas, graphic novels, and everything else are all mediums wherein the author is inviting, sharing, and looking for a relationship. I have been in many conversations where the other person clearly does not want to talk; that is its own place of frustration. But here we have someone that wants to talk. We just need to listen.
Movement 4 – Please Stop Talking
And what about those books that are not good? What about the conversation that becomes dull, dreary, or even offensive? I cannot tell you what is the right thing to do. For some, walking away is a good practice of self-care. If you are talking to someone, and they are verbally hurting you, if they are not showing any compassion towards you, then it may be best for you to walk away. Some books should not be read. Some books should not be written.
I want to know why. I want to know where someone is coming from when they are writing something inflammatory, or uninformed. I recently read Bernard Lewis’ book What Went Wrong, where he describes the Ottoman Empire, the Islamic presence in the East as well as in Europe and asks why, from his description, the West rose as a culture and civilization and the East, the Islamic and Arabic nations seemed to crumble and fall. It is a book that is flawed in the approach, the thinking, and the conclusion. It is a book that is steeped in a particular ideal of cultural dominance that starts with a point of view and then stays with that point of view. Lewis is a very smart man, he teaches at Princeton, he has done a lot of research and is seen as an expert in this area. But he comes from a specific point of view. I read the book, knowing that I was not going to agree with Lewis’ premise (which could be a flaw on my own part), but I wanted to understand. I wanted to have a sense of where Lewis was coming from, what he was thinking, and where I believed he went wrong.
I have read books on church growth that I have found abhorrent and counter to the person and ministry of Christ. I have read books on stewardship that seemed more focused on the dollar than on the salvation of the least. I have read books that were poorly written, meandering, and non-sensical. Some of you have said that if you do not like the book you walk away, and I admire that. I wrestle with a neurosis that leads me to a place where I feel like I have to finish the book. And so I stay with the book and ask why. I stay with the book and try to find my places and points to respond. I stay with the book and try to discern if there is still something that I could learn. I do not want the conversation to be a waste of time, so I stay engaged, and look for the value that I can find in even the worst book.
Sometimes I can stay with someone who I disagree with and stay in a conversation with them. I do this, not to prove that I am right or to pull them to my side, but more out of a respect for the individual and for the relationship. There is something deeper that keeps us together. This is an ethic of relationality that I try to take to my reading. The author is a person, a child of God, and I want to hear what the author has to say. I may not agree. I may be scribbling in the margins my responses. I may be groaning out loud while read, annoying my family, but I want to stay connected, to hear, and to respond.
Movement 5 – If I Could Have a Word
Writing is a big part of reading. It isn’t fair to write something, to say something, and then to walk away and not listen for a response. Those of you who preach, what does it mean when someone says, “good sermon, pastor”? It usually means they listened but didn’t engage. But what does it mean when someone says, “interesting sermon, pastor. I would like to talk to you about one of the points you made.” Maybe it means that you are going to be criticized and you get defensive, or maybe it means that you made a point that is really sticking with someone and they want to go further. The feedback can be good. The feedback adds a depth to the text.
In 11th Grade we were reading Romeo and Juliet and we were told what to feel and exactly what the play meant. We were told what the happy parts were and the sad parts and how we were supped to react. There was not a conversation. I was recently working on T.S. Elliot’s poem A Love Song to J. Alfred Prufrock and went online to get a sense of what the poem was about. I wanted context, I wanted a little bit of the back story. I found multiple line-by-line analysis telling me what the poem meant, what it was speaking to, and how I was supposed to feel. This is offensive to the reader. To be told exactly what the text is about, to be told how we are supposed to respond, react, and understand the text is offensive to the reader. I think there is value to pointing out side paths, interesting moments, places where the author is doing something great, but not to force a modernistic, monolithic truth down the throat of the reader. We need to have a chance to speak, a chance to feel, respond in our own way.
A side note – part of the polarization of our culture is caused by “experts” telling us how to feel. A politician says or does something and we are given the analysis and the response that we are supposed to have before the ink dries. The truth is shaped, molded, and dictated to us without any input from our end or any opportunity to stop and reflect. This is not a good thing.
Just as we should have a chance to talk when having a conversation, just as we have a chance to ask clarifying questions, to speak to a particular point, or to respond with our own insights, we need to have an opportunity to respond to the text. For me, I write. I don’t write reviews, but reflections. The review is one-sided, it is an analysis of the writer, a close peering at the grammar, syntax, and content. A review gives a summary, and then speaks to the strengths and weaknesses of the text. This is helpful is someone is considering reading a book, but it is not a conversation. Maybe, near the end of a review, we hear how the reviewer may or may not have been moved, but it is still one-sided, focused primarily on the text. A reflection is a way of saying, “I hear what you are saying, and I would like to add my thoughts.” A reflection comes out of engaging with the text.
With the majority of the books I read I try to offer a reflection. I may take a basic theme that the author offered, or an idea, or a moment in the book that spoke to me, and then I will follow where the theme might lead. The key part in this is that I am now speaking. I am saying, “I really liked what you said about apples. I would like to share more about apples from my experience.” Those who follow my reviews on Goodreads must be confused because they are more like essays than reviews. They are, as Montaigne, the original essayist, suggested attempts. They are attempts at a response, the beginning of a thought that is not fully researched, thought out, or developed. This is having the opportunity to speak back to the book, to offer your own thoughts. I start with a thought from the book and then let the thought then go in its own direction. Jennifer Michael Hecht wrote the wonderful book Doubt: A History where she goes through recorded time and invites the reader to meet different doubters and doubting movements in both Western and Eastern society. It is a very enjoyable walk through history. When I read this book I felt moved to offer a reflection after each chapter. She was writing to the heart of my own profession, and I could not stay silent for the entire book. I needed to respond and reflect. Each doubter stirred my own thoughts, my own wonderings, and from reading that book I have a collection of about ten essays on faith from different perspectives. A ten chapter review would just be long synopsis of the book. Each of the ten essays stand on their own as individual reflections and responses to a chapter. They continue the conversation.
Remember Gadamer’s idea of hermeneutics. When the horizon of the author intersects with the horizon of the reader, something new is created. The reflection that I write is giving space for that new thing to exist. It is creating a space for that new thing to find its own life, and it will be different for each person. Perhaps this is why I rub up against the idea that there is only one way to encounter and experience and understand a text. There are an infinite diversity of readers and so there are an infinite amount of responses that one can find to a single text. This is why it is important to give space to those responses; it is giving space to something new.
I do not always write in response. There are times when I read with other people and the response becomes the conversation. I highly value reading with groups because then the text is opened up that much more. With each reader comes a different horizon of experience, and in the interchange of all of our experiences is something new, and this is exciting. Reading with others is a great way to be challenged, to wonder, and to explore a thought with someone in real time. It is continuing the conversation.
Movement 6 – And Other…
I have been focusing on books, but there are many other things to read. And, in practice, there are different ways of reading. I highly value reading journals, periodicals, and magazines. The challenge I have with these works is that they bring a never ending, unforgiving weight of guilt. I will not read The New Yorker. It is not because of the writing, which is excellent, or because of the philosophical bent of the magazine, but because it comes out every week which is horrific. I do not need a stack of unread New Yorker magazines in the corner of my office mocking me, shaming me, and reminding me of all that I have still to do. I subscribe to Harper’s and The Atlantic because they are mercifully published once a month, which is still more than I can keep up with. I read The Christian Century because I went to Andover Newton and I need to keep up with my liberal, progressive people. I read The American Baptist Quarterly because I’m a true, loyal American Baptist, and I read The Journal of the American Academy of Religion because I need to be reminded of how much I don’t know.
I will not tell you want to read when it comes to periodicals, but that you should read periodicals. These are the fresh ideas, the cutting-edge notions. It is important to stay with the ideas that are still new, that are just being toyed with and considered. The periodicals also give us an opportunity to step into a different world if it is only for a minute. If you really are looking for a joy, read the Journal of the International Double Reed Society, it is a hoot. It is rare that I read an article the same way I read a book, but every now and again I find something that moves me and calls me to respond. Instead I am looking to listen in on a very current conversation.
I do believe that reading needs to be a discipline. We need to make time for reading, put time aside, have the place where you go, the space you need, for there are many other things in our day that will distract us from the text. If you need to set aside an hour each day, then do so. One does not usually end up reading in the same way that one ends up watching another cooking show on Netflix or videos of bathing owls on YouTube. Reading demands discipline.
There are many other texts as well; web sites, blogs, even Twitter feeds. By rights, you could take my approach to books and bring it to movies, to music, to the visual arts. I have only offered some initial thoughts, some scratching ideas, an attempt at reading. There are conversations waiting to be had, if we only take the time to engage.
Movement 7 – And Now the Religious Part
This is a gathering of people of faith, not literary scholars. This is a gathering of people who have placed the Bible in a different category from all other literature of the world. I value the Bible and consider it as an authoritative source of my faith. But I bring a similar approach to scripture that I bring to all other books. What is a sermon but a practice of engaging a text, listening to the text, and then responding and expanding the conversation? It is a response that invites a community to be involved. What is prayer with scripture but reading and listening, falling into a different pattern, a different world, and then seeing where you are led. It is a conversation, an interaction. And when we read scripture we believe that God is present in the receiving of that holy text. Why not with other books and texts?
When reading the horizon of the author intersects with the horizon of the reader, and I believe the presence of the Holy Spirit is action and moving as well. I believe that the Holy Spirit is a part of the conversation, the new creation that is occurring. And now this means that the text is not ours to control or to consume, but instead to fall into a new thing that the Spirit is doing. This is a living conversation. This is a creating moment, and I believe God is active in each and every creating moment.