Random Thoughts on Reading

4:39 PM

I got into a very brief discussion about Biblical interpretation with an Anglican. Catholics and Anglicans support forms of interpretation other than the literal as valid (and maybe even more important) -- allegorical, anagogical (did I even spell that right?), and other ones I don't remember. 

And what made the conversation brief was I simply said, "Look. If I tell you, 'I like frogs,' and you interpret that allegorically, that's nice, that's cute, but you've missed the entire point of what I was saying. I merely meant 'I like frogs.'"

I don't like to call myself a literalist. It sounds too fundamentalist, which immediately ruffles intelligent feathers. I simply see writing as an extension of conversation. It's common sense: say what you mean, mean what you say. 

See, after blogging for...I think it's forever now...after blogging for forever, I learned quickly that people know nothing of conversations via writing. I'll write something. I'll take pains to include context and clarification and footnotes to further simplify things. It doesn't matter. People always take one sentence that stood out to them and run with it into whatever philosophical, moral, and rude train of thought they please. 

Which is obnoxious.

It's delightful if a random sentence of mine jogs an entire philosophical diatribe on some entirely unrelated subject. That's nice. I appreciate your kindness when you say you disagree with everything I said but I said this one particular thing very nicely. It's just...I didn't write to further personal thought processes or to clutter minds with pretty ramblings.

I have something to say. And I want people to understand the something that I say. Not even agree with it. Just to hear me out.

(Admittedly, sometimes I just ramble on -- like now -- and don't take particular care. But then I take responsibility for not being understood.)

Why bring this up?

(1) Authorial intention is a hot topic. Some smart people say that we cannot truly understand the argument of another author. 

(2) If that's too academic and vague, think of this: we (I) tend to scroll through blog feeds, websites, and Facebook posts just to mine funny or thoughtful or controversial statuses for an imaginary Pinterest account. I just scroll. The bolded words jump out at me. I latch onto those. I tend to ignore the surrounding context or argument or issue. I'm looking to justify my own position or tickle my bored fancy (or both, since being right is enjoyable). 

And maybe the internet isn't the place to hold rational conversation. Maybe the next Erasmus/Luther debate will not emerge via blog posts. Maybe important, serious conversations can only occur in $11.99 print editions ordered from Amazon.

The sad thing is, I fear I've taken my bad reading habits from the online world and transferred them to my "real world" reading -- my academics, my summer reading. Even worse, my Bible. I once read through the Norton Anthology of British Literature as a kid merely to underline and then carefully transcribe interesting quotations I found. Because I loved words, of course. And I loved random, disconnected ideas. I thought I was so clever and wise for reading and memorizing those words.

But they are words, words, words, as Hamlet lamented. The arguments, and the contextual meaning of those pithy phrases were the things that were going to shape me into a wiser, better, yes, smarter person.

My hermeneutics prof suggests that we should nix Bible verse memorization in lieu of Bible argument memorization. Instead of whipping out Romans 3:23, we could actually track the entire narrative of redemption found in Romans. I love this idea. It might mean the death of Bible verse ping pong -- an absolutely exhausting, ridiculous game that nobody except people picking a fight enjoys. 

In fact, the Christian culture focuses far too much on Bible verses. We use them almost mystically -- chanting them to ourselves for comfort or healing or contemplating them to achieve lowered states of consciousness or racking them up as Christian bonus points or, as mentioned, stringing them out to argue our own opinions on everything. Or take Bible stories. I've come to wince at teaching Sunday school or children's church or vacation Bible school, because every single Bible story is basically a blank slate on which to project the desired moral lesson. The story of David and Goliath is all about courage or boldness or humility or faith or _______. And obviously, those things are all true...but are they the point? And what are we missing if we gain knowledge but miss the point? 

Maybe we should stop reading as merely information gathering but instead read as conversation. It's common courtesy. When I am writing, I am a person. I may be touching upon extremely controversial things, extremely polemical things, but I want to be heard as a person -- not as another cog in the position I support. Slow down. Read the entire work. Read it twice, maybe. Ask it questions. Try to understand. And only when you understand somebody can you criticize her position.


The aforementioned hermeneutics prof asked if the ability to analyze literature is a life or death situation of the mind. Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book basically flat out says that reading keeps the mind alive. A classmate suggested that it's not literacy, per se, that keeps the mind alive, but the ability to ask questions and track with a narrative. (Illiterate countries are often rich in storytelling.) And I think that's true.

In a literate country, though, I think that Adler is 100% right. I go to a super academics-focused school, but I come from a church and a community that doesn't make analyzing great works of literature a priority. My family is all about books...and to varying degrees we enjoy analyzing them. I learned quickly that just because a person can read doesn't mean a person can formulate arguments well or can think critically. The people here at Hillsdale who are truly the wisest, sharpest, and best-educated are those that ponder over books in a laborious fashion -- not just underlining cool or key points but outlining the argument in the margins or wrestling with the book in a voluntarily-written essay.

The people who can least track with an argument are those who have little interest in books. Not that they aren't clever or awesome people...but their theology, philosophy, and critical thinking suffers. Their mind's world is just not as rich as it could be simply because it's limited to the emotions and thoughts encountered only in their immediate environment.

And that's the thing -- our environments, our own thoughts thought twice, our experiences are not the extent of the world or even of our own human nature and certainly not of God. This is why reading well is so critical. That or holding thorough conversations with people who've read the great books. 


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2 impressions

  1. Hm, I think I may know the Anglican in question. :)

    In response, Aquinas, Summa Theologica:


  2. Well, I only read your bolded sentence near the end, but it was great, and I think it's going on my fake Pinterest account! haha, kidding, kidding!

    Good points in here. We've touched on some of the theories you brought up in my Media and Communication Theory class. If I follow your argument, it is our narrow, fishing habits of reading that lead to misunderstanding the authors intent, rather than simply a lack of need or possibility to understand that intent. That being so, we are not absolved of responsibility for failure to understand said intentions. Absolutely a critical idea to nail down, especially when it comes to scripture - the words of a God whose nature, plan, and promises are best understood through them. (Sorry for the big words, that was just how my thought process went.) Thanks for your writing, it was really interesting. Hope I understood it! :)


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