We are inundated with information – billboards, commercials, cereal boxes, social media, and the deluge of emails. “Read me, read me—RIGHT NOW!” they shout.
So we do.
Well, sort of. Basically, we skim. We have to. Send me an email over 300 words, and it just sort of happens. I’m sorry, but it does. We look for key words; we look for headlines and block quotes; we look for text in bold.
We are teaching ourselves to read poorly. We cannot get the main point of an essay if we only read 25 words of the 5,000. And if I Google something complex and skim the search results – maybe even click a link or two (including the Wiki page, of course) – then I know “what’s what” right?
No, I don’t. And no you don’t either. We are kidding ourselves. As Tony Reinke has written:
The Internet presents random fragments of information that flow at us in a stream—a Facebook status update, a new Tweet, even a random email—and attention gets chopped up into small, disconnected fragments throughout the day. The internet encourages superficial browsing, not concentration. (Reinke, Lit!, 141)
Might we even call this pull towards “browsing, not concentration,” a form of illiteracy – not the inability to see words and vocalize them, but illiteracy because we lack the ability to slow down, to digest, to process?
I’m sure researchers have studied this. Recently, for example, Desiring God released a large survey of how our smart phones and social media are changing us (the former: here and the latter: here). And while I’m not sure how I would quantify the type of illiteracy I’m talking about, I do know that I can feel it when I open my Bible in the morning to read. Too often I blaze through a chapter in the Bible at the same speed by which my thumb navigates my iPhone’s screen. This isn’t good. And too often, even when I put in the time, I get little out of it.
It’s into this type of world and this type of reading – a world of sloppy reading – that good preaching should offer the sweet fruit of a close reading of the Bible.
When I Say “Close Reading,” What Do I Mean?
Close reading (and close preaching) sees details, the leaves on the trees. But at the same time, close reading doesn’t become myopic. It keeps an eye on the forest, making the proper connections to broader themes. In other words, close reading sees the Big Story that contains all the little stories.
Close reading explores motive. It requires empathy. Yes, a character did X, but why did he do X? What was he after? Close reading, as one preacher has noted, asks what is the thing behind the thing?
Close reading attempts to understand unfamiliar words, strange concepts, and awkward sentence structures. Just what is that preposition doing there? And why is this word left out and that word included? Why did a character do what they did? Is there a cultural dynamic taking place that I need to become familiar with to understand this passage?
Close reading attempts to understand how the occasion behind the writing affects what is said and done (and what’s not said and not done). And what can we know of the events surrounding the passage that influenced the author to write what he wrote? For example, close reading considers things like what was going on with Israel when the passage was written. Was the passage before David or after? Before the exile of the southern kingdom or after? And in the Gospels, we might ask, where is Jesus at in his ministry? The beginning or the end? Is he in a Gentile region or a Jewish one? And of Paul’s letters, if possible, we might seek to place them in the context of his three missionary journeys recorded in Acts. And of Peter’s letters, we might ask if there was a specific emperor he had in mind when he says things like “honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). (I personally think Peter had Nero in mind which influences how we read the passage.)
Additionally, close reading considers how a passage has been interpreted over time. If the passage is in the Old Testament, did any New Testament authors comment on it? And with an author like John, can we see any developments from his Gospel account to his epistles, which are generally understood to have been written later. And how has the passage been interpreted throughout church history? And how has contemporary scholarship challenged or affirmed traditional readings? Close reading asks questions like these.
The Harvest of Close Reading
These are just a few of the things to consider when reading the Bible closely. And this means that close reading is work – a lot of work. It takes time, concentration, and quiet. It is demanding. I know.
But in my experience, the harvest is worth it. The fruit is sweet, and it can feed people. It feeds me. And this is what good preaching does, or at least should do. It should feed people something worth eating.
By this, however, I do not mean that good preaching is a lengthy, boring presentation of the process of discovery. It’s not that at all. If it feels that way, I’m doing something wrong.
Consider the example of a farmers’ market. A farmers’ market doesn’t exist to lecture us on all the work that goes into growing a peach. Rather, it works like this. When you stop by a farmers’ market on a Saturday morning, what they are saying, in effect, is this:
Hey, here’s some good fruit for you to buy. Check it out. It took us awhile, but let’s not talk about that now. Just know we’ll be here every Saturday morning this summer with awesome produce.
We know it’s hard work running a farm; they don’t have to tell us that.
But Close Reading is Not Just for Preachers
Growing your own observations may feel overwhelming, but it’s the job of all Christians, not just the professionals. This is what it means to meditate on the Word of God.
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. (Psalm 1:1-3)
I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word. (Psalm 119:15-16)
This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. (Joshua 1:8)
I think Jesus, at least in part, has scripture mediation in view when he tells us to love God with all of our “mind” (Matthew 22:37).
I suspect that if we did press a farmer at the market with some questions about the process of farming, they would tell us that we could do the same thing they are doing, that is, if we just had a little coaching.
They might say,
Oh, you’ll never have acreage and whatnot, but if you are motivated, anyone can grow a few tomatoes in their own backyard. It just takes time and practice. But you should do it. They’ll taste great, and this way, you’ll be more excited to share them with your friends and neighbors.
Sometimes preachers subtly communicate that what they are doing upfront could never be done by those in the pew. This is wrong. We preachers are supposed to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry” (Ephesians 4:11-12), which, at a minimum, must include helping others grow their own fruit, their own observations about the Bible. If we are not doing this, the Bible might as well be in Latin and we might as well be pre-Reformation priests.
Good preaching then, like a farmer at a farmers’ market, should commend the fruit to others – the fruit of a close reading of the Bible. Just think of what the other extreme is. God forbid we preachers should posture ourselves as magicians holding on to our secrets. And, God forbid our published sermon notes would have a footnote that reads: “Professional driver on a closed course. Do not attempt at home.” May it never be! Rather, the subtext to good preaching should say:
Hey, taste this. Isn’t it good? It took me a while, and I had to pay close attention, but I’m so happy it feeds you. And, oh by the way, I think you could probably do this at home too. Let me help you see how.
Some Tips on Growing your Own Fruit
If your life is inundated with words and information, if your reading looks more like skimming than reading, you are probably normal. But normal means that this skimming probably creeps into your Bible reading as well. And a great enemy of careful, fruitful observation is when sloppy reading becomes habitual.
I don’t know how much you currently read your Bible. Let’s just say you read four chapters a day. (I pick that because that’s the pace to read the Bible in a year.) If this is you, maybe take a month to not read four chapters a day. Instead, just read four verses, maybe from a Gospel or a New Testament letter. And then do it again the next day – the same four verses. And then, read them the next day too. And the day after that. Write out the questions you have about the passage. Pick up a study Bible and read the entries. Pray. Read the verses again. Pray. Read them again. List your observations. Ask more questions. Why is that word used? Why would the person in the story do what he or she did? What is the thing behind the thing? Do this, not in one day for fifteen-minutes, but do it for two weeks, fifteen minutes each day.
This is hard work; I know. It takes time, concentration, and quiet.
But eating a Honeycrisp apple straight from the tree, a tree you planted and watered and weeded and pruned, is worth it. You’ll taste the difference, and you’ll probably want to share it with your friends.