Serious Reading and Love Letters

What is serious reading? Consider the following episode about a “serious” reader.

How to Read a Love Letter (or email)

In April Kevin and Whitney moved beyond being “just friends” and went out on their first real date. By mid-May Kevin was thinking that “this could be love.” In June, however, before the young couple had said anything specific to each other about the relationship, Whitney traveled to Ghana with other members of their church on a two-month mission trip to an isolated rural area that did not have any email or phone service. Two weeks went by and Kevin didn’t hear anything from Whitney. Finally the team visited a city that had internet service and the anxious Kevin gets the precious email he has been longing for from Whitney.

He may read it three or four times, but he is just beginning. To read it as accurately as he would like would require several dictionaries and a good deal of close work with a few experts of etymology and philology.

However, he will do all right without them.

He will ponder over the exact shade of meaning of every word, every comma. The email starts off with “Hi, Kevin.” What, he asks himself, is the exact significance of those words? Did she refrain from saying “Dear Kevin” because she was bashful?

Maybe she would have said “Hi, So-and-so” to anybody! A worried frown now appears on his face. But it disappears as soon as he really gets to thinking about the first sentence. She certainly wouldn’t have written that to anybody!

And so he works his way through the email, one moment perched blissfully on a cloud, the next moment huddled miserably behind an eight ball. It has started a hundred questions in his mind. He could quote it by heart. In fact, he will—to himself—for weeks to come.[1]

This lovesick young man is a good reader because he scrutinizes the text for all the details, even the most minute. One of the most critical skills needed in reading the Bible is the ability to see the details. Most of us read the Bible too quickly, and we skip over the details of the text. However, the meaning of the Bible is intertwined into the details of every sentence. Our first step in grasping a biblical text is to observe as many details as possible. We want to see as much as possible. At this early stage of analysis, try to refrain from interpreting or applying the text. These steps are important, but they come later, after the observing step. Our first step is to read seriously, to note as many details as possible, to observe our text as closely as a CSI team reads a crime scene, and to probe into these details as energetically and seriously as Kevin did in reading his email from Whitney.

So, how do we develop the skill of observing the Bible? We read the text over and over, noting the details of the text. There are several basic features to look for that will help us to get started with this observation stage. These features include repetition of words, contrasts, comparisons, lists, cause and effects, figures of speech, conjunctions, verbs, and pronouns. This list, however, represents only some of what you might search for. Observation includes looking carefully at all the details of the text.

Keep in mind that we are not yet asking the question, “What does the text mean?” We are simply asking, “What does the text say?” We have not yet begun to explore the implications of our observations. Also, do not limit your observations to so-called deep insights or highly important features. At the observation step we want to see everything, all the details. Later in the book we will tackle the problem of sorting through the details to determine meaning.

Another thing to keep in mind as we begin is that reading and interpreting is a combination of analyzing small pieces of text and big pieces of text. We have to understand the small parts of the text (words, phrases, sentences) in order to understand the larger chunks (paragraphs, chapters, stories). However, the larger units of text also provide a critical context for understanding the small units. So the process requires a bit of both—reading the whole to get a general overview and then analyzing the parts to reveal the nitty-gritty details.

In unit 2, “The Interpretive Journey,” we dealt with the big picture (the whole). In the next few units we will focus on reading and observing the small parts. The present unit stresses the serious reading of small units of text, focusing generally at the sentence level. The second half of the unit will move us up to the paragraph level and unit 4 will help us to read multi-paragraph units (discourses).

Work hard! Dig deep! The feast awaits you!

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