How is your reading going? Is the train wobbling on the tracks yet? I’ve been reading Isaiah, and Carson’s notes and realising that there are some books and passages in the bible that require a different level of concentration, and a different level of academic discipline and awareness. Sometimes I just don’t have the time (or more likely, the inclination) to understand the specifics of his prophecies. It becomes a bit of a homogenous mush in my memory, shortly after reading it. Sorry Isaiah!
I’m reading a book just now called “How To Read A Book” by Mortimer J. Adler. It’s one of many that I’m dipping into on my Kindle. It’s helping me to think about the discipline of engaged reading. He identifies four different levels of reading:
Elementary (recognising the words without thinking about them)
Inspectional (systematic skim-reading to get the gist)
Analytical Reading (“asking many, and organised questions” of what you are reading).
The fourth level he calls Syntopical or Comparative Reading. This level requires the reader to read not just one book but many, placing them “in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve…the syntopical reader is able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books.”
Time constraints, mental disposition, priorities and environment are some of the variable factors we bring to our reading. Sometimes we are simply unable to get anything beyond an elementary reading of a passage because our head is not in the right place, or the passage is simply too complex for us. Our aim is to have at least an Inspectional approach to our reading. If we are skimming through it to gain the main points, we are still engaging with the text to a degree, and it will yield some benefit. But the truth is that we benefit most when we attempt Analytical reading (Syntopical reading is a highly advanced and academic pursuit, and advisable only once we have learned the discipline of Analytical reading.)
Adler describes valuable reading as not a passive activity, but an active discipline: it is “aided discovery”, not just reading for entertainment. To learn, we must think, we must use our imaginations, ask questions. This requires practice. Reading the bible daily challenges us to develop ourselves as readers, it challenges our capacity to learn. And it is the most valuable of teachers.
But in all this, it is important to remember that Bible reading is not just an intellectual exercise (though it is hardly less than this). When we engage with any other text, we grapple with the thoughts and ideas of an author and teacher who is not present with us. But with Scripture, the author is present with us, ready to hear our prayers, and help us to understand. The aim of scripture is that we learn, through reading it, to look beyond it and know its glorious Author.
So if you’re struggling, get the book out again. Try again, don’t give up. It won’t stay difficult forever: just persevere.