Reading, right and wrong

Not to sound all judgy, but I tend to think that there’s a right and wrong way to read.

For those who were raised as Christians, there’s a tendency to read the Bible piecemeal, where we pull out a line or two from what is a diverse collection of writings cultivated over many generations, and apply those lines to our lives like they are uniquely relevant, regardless of any context from the letter or book or song from which they came. It’s a little nuts, when you look at it that way.

Then there’s the other way, where you read a book or song or letter as a whole work, written by a person for an audience in a context, all of which shape how you understand the parts and whole of it. Which is sort of how we read everything but the Bible.

(By the way, I really don’t know if believers of other religions read their holy books piecemeal, the way we do. Feel free to weigh in if your wizarding coven reads random lines from JK Rowling books with a sense of ultimate meaning applied to your individual life.)

Anyway, I like trying to read books of the Bible the way I would any other book on my shelf – as a whole piece of literature, with an author and an audience and a purpose. And I’ll admit to gagging a little when someone takes a Biblical reference horribly out of context and applying it as a universal dictum.

In a funny little twist, I found myself tonight reading a (non-Biblical) book in a very “Bible-reading” kind of way. 

It’s actually kind of a complicated book, not unlike the Biblical ones. I posted a photo of it recently that convinced a whole one (1) person to read it. It’s Discernment by Henri Nouwen, with Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird. Except it’s actually a work by Christensen and Laird weaving together unpublished diary entries of Nouwen’s into a pretty convincing facsimile of a unified book. Which is honestly pretty close to what the Bible is full of.

I underlined four phrases in the span of three pages that really spoke to me. (That’s kind of how we read the Bible, most of the time.) “Nouwen” quotes Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain (which I have never read but have owned long enough that I think that should count) describes a Hindu monk thus:

“He would simply make statements of fact, and then burst out laughing – his laughter was quiet and ingenuous, and it expressed his complete amazement at the very possibility that people should live the way he saw them living all around him.”

Later, “Nouwen” says, “How like God to speak through an unexpected source in a surprising way.”

Describing another person in Merton’s life who was known to be “too impractical,” Merton (via “Nouwen”) says “people who value material security unconsciously venerate people who do not fear insecurity.”

Then “Nouwen” ends the section saying “Friends may be guides who see what we may not be able to see ourselves.”

I find myself orbiting around these four relatively decontextualized quotes. Two could spawn pages and pages of observations. Two raise questions to sit with for hours.

  1. That ingenuous laughter of complete amazement “at the very possibility that people should live the way” we all are living? To quote that other great text, “Take a look around you, Ellen! We’re standing at the threshold of hell!” There are so many ways that the way we live should spark amazed, confused laughter that it’s hard to know where to start. Lately, I begin with this podcast by Ezra Klein, “The ‘Quiet Catastrophe’ Brewing in Our Social Lives,’” which reflects on the way we have engineered a world and culture that breeds maddening levels of isolation. But you can find a million other ways that what we take as “normal life” really merits smh befuddlement.
  2. One of those befuddling ways of our lives is our manic clinging to material security, while also venerating as “authentic” those who don’t fear insecurity. As I ramp up for another Franciscan retreat, both my itch for material air cover and St. Francis’ total embrace of radical insecurity echo this observation.
  3. If it is really “like God to speak through an unexpected source in a surprising way,” where do you see those unexpected sources around you? And what is God saying through them?
  4. If “friends may be guides who see what we may not be able to see ourselves,” what are your friends seeing in you that you’re missing?

Look, I still think we tend to do more harm than good by reading texts haphazardly. The end result is usually more comfort for what we already believe and not enough challenge for growth. But maybe sometimes, it’s right to read the wrong way after all.

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