Monday, December 31, 2012

Reading and Reading

One of my back-pocket dreams is to be a novelist.  To get the ball rolling, I thought I might start to read or re-read, as the case may be, "the greats" (an open admission of backwards reasoning and specious motivations).  I want to write good ones, so I thought I might immerse myself in works generally accepted as timeless and well-written.

Most lists and commentaries have To Kill a Mockingbird near the top (1).  My recent experience of reading it as an adult, at leisure, was totally different from "reading" it as a teen for class.  At leisure, I'm free to read it as the author intended. I absorb the man Atticus Finch from many angles, so that by the end, I've fully formed the picture of a great and honorable, if flawed, moral giant. I've come away better man, or at least inspired to become one.
Atticus Finch with his kid

As a high-schooler, we "covered" the book, and I "read" it largely with an eye to answering exam questions, which, of necessity, called for highly-analytical and -exegetical answers. English was my favorite subject, but I wanted to get good grades, too.

The distinction reminds me of a passage from Soren Kierkegaard, in which he analogizes reading a letter from a lover to reading the Bible. Both include clear passages and obscure passages:
When you read God's Word in a scholarly way --we do not disparage scholarship, no far from it, but do bear this in mind: when you are reading God's Word in a scholarly way, with a dictionary, etc. you are not really reading God's Word -- remember what the lover said: "This is not reading the letter from the beloved." If you happen to be a scholar than please see to it that in all this learned reading (which is not reading God's Word) you do not forget to read God's Word. If you are not a scholar, do not envy him: be glad that you can start reading God's Word right away! If there happens to be a wish, a command, an order, then --remember the lover! -- off with you at once to do what it asks (2).
When I read the four gospels, I'm provided with a multi-angled view of Jesus, so that, immersing myself in the text, the person of Christ slowly unfolds before me, within me.  The images of Christ and of Finch come not from learned commentaries (which have their place), but from their words, the words of others about them, and, most of all, by their decisions and actions, taken with full knowledge of their consequences.

"Running is a simple sport. You don't need all the zoopy zoop." -Squires
The explosion of commentaries, and "study bibles" -- whose notes, in many cases, overwhelm the text itself -- reminds me of the explosion of marathon race "series" in the runnerverse, including the "Rock N' Roll" series, the "Allstate Life Insurance [breath] 13.1 [City Name] Marathon®" series (3).

In each case, they seem to have taken something raw and beautiful -- Long Distance Running, the Scriptures -- and cheapened it turn a profit, to the chagrin of those who truly loved the original.
More Jesus, less exegesis.

Elite masters runner, Pete Magil observes in a recent Running Times column on the proliferation of big frills, costly races:
Don't get me wrong, there are ways that races have improved. For one thing, there are more of them--lots more! And more people running them. That's good for the sport, good for the nation's fitness, and good for race directors. And big race events, from the Carlsbad 5000 to the New York City Marathon, are like nothing we boomers could have imagined.
Still, I can't help feeling that this is one more experience we've allowed the market to take away from us, repackage, and then sell back at an inflated price (4). 
I join in Pete's ambiguous feelings.  In the case of the the study bibles, they help the reader through the text, and provide some food for thought. But some seem to get it dead wrong. I once saw an "Extreme Teen Study Bible."  It seems to me that a book should be about its subject.  But this one takes the focus off the subject (the person of Christ) and makes it about the reader ("the extreme teen"), promoting a kind of self-centered, self-absorbed way of reading. I don't want my daughter to be told to be extreme or cool or whatever. I want her to be herself and, as herself, to encounter the text. I want her to write her own commentary in the way she lives her life as a consequence of her reading and her encounter with the person revealed by the text.

In the end, give me Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Lee, Dostoevsky, Forster or whoever I may be unsettled by what I read, but you can keep your training wheels just the same.

(1) Heck, the American classic even made UK-based The Guardian's list.
(2) Kierkegaard, Soren, "For Self-Examination."
(3) For a devastating commentary on this phenomenon, see Jeff Edmonds' "A Somewhat Cranky Defense of Democratic Eltisim."
(4) Magill, Pete "The Price of Competition."

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