By Carol A. Newsom, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Old Testament
Charles Howard Candler Professor of Old Testament Carol Newsom opened Candler’s Spring 2012 semester with this convocation address mining the spiritual dimensions of reading.
It’s the beginning of a new semester. You’ve met your classes, picked up your syllabi, and, if you’re really obsessive, you’ve totaled up the pages of reading for each class—though I don’t recommend it. It doesn’t take long to realize how much of our lives are preoccupied with the business of reading. It’s what we do, several hours a day, every day. It’s not only academic reading; there’s the morning newspaper, the instructions on the back of the oatmeal box, the daily e-mail and Facebook posts, the chapter in the novel you got for Christmas.
We live in a sea of reading, and like fish, we’re mostly oblivious to what we swim in. At most, reading is simply instrumental, something we do to accomplish the task at hand: prep for class, research a paper, find the information we need. We seldom stop to consider the act of reading itself—how peculiar it is, and what its spiritual dimensions might be. So I think it’s worthwhile to pause and reflect a bit on reading—and I mean reading almost anything—as a spiritual practice.
Reading is not a natural activity for humans in the way that spoken language is. Children are biologically primed to learn spoken language, so they just pick it up. But not reading—reading has to be taught. When I was growing up in the 1950s, parents were discouraged from teaching their children to read. It didn’t matter if your child was ready to read before first grade; it was best left to the professionals. And I wanted to read so badly. My mother tells me that when I was five, she would read storybooks to me, and as I sat by her side, I would cry because I could not read them myself.
When I finally got to first grade and we learned to read, I was ecstatic. I remember how we would go around the class, reading the sentences in turn. My first reader was one of the Dick and Jane books that people poke so much fun at, but I took the drama of Dick, Jane, Sally, Puff, and Spot with utmost seriousness. Every sentence, I thought, should be read with the maximum intensity of dramatic emotion. So when it came my time, I would give it my all: “See Spot run. RUN, SPOT, RUN!” But silly as I was, I got one thing right: reading was magical and powerful, and it was worth being excited about. Even a little overexcited.
One of the things we often forget about reading is how recent an activity it is in relation to human history. Reading and writing are barely 5,000 years old, and widespread literacy is a product of just the last few hundred years. In antiquity, when literacy was limited, reading and writing were treated with some ambivalence. In one of the dialogues of Plato, Socrates famously casts aspersions on the written word in contrast to face-to-face dialogue. “Writing,” he sniffs, “is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question, they preserve a solemn silence.” The problem with writing is that the author is absent. There is no real presence, so it is not as good as direct speech.
I’m not interested in the debate as to which is better, but I think Socrates, despite himself, identifies one of the things about reading the written word that is spiritually fascinating: Reading mediates to us the mystery of the dialectic of presence and absence.
Socrates was right about one thing: the very act of reading something means that the author is not present. Even with a phone call, you hear the physical voice of the person. But when you receive a letter or an e-mail, there is nothing physically present to you of that person. But that letter, that written word, refuses—defies—the banishment of pure absence. Through those marks on the page or screen, your friend, your lover, your child is somehow present to you, despite his or her absence.
Almost every documentary that explores the experiences of soldiers at war will focus at some point on the role of letters: the letters that soldiers write to their loved ones back home, the hunger with which they receive letters from home. The anguish of absence is soothed by the presence-that-marks-absence-yet-defies-it that comes from reading the words of a loved one. War letters are particularly poignant because of the hovering possibility of the ultimate absence: death. And yet the written word has long been one of the ways in which humans attempt to transcend the separation that death brings. It is common for soldiers to write a letter to be delivered to their families only in the case of their deaths, a letter that speaks for them even after they are gone. By mediating presence and absence, reading is one of the ways we regularly acknowledge but attempt to transcend the separation of death.
Moses commanded them:…when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the location he selects, you must read this Instruction aloud, in the hearing of all the people.
From Deuteronomy 31:10-11 (CEB)
Moses knew this. In Deuteronomy, he commands the people to gather every seventh year at the Feast of Booths and publicly read the Instruction aloud. Context helps: Moses had led the people out of Egypt, into the desert, and had mediated the covenant with God at Sinai. Relations with the people were not easy. The forty years in the wilderness were not Moses’ idea of a bonding experience, but he was their leader. Yet as they stand on the border of the promised land, God tells Moses that he cannot go with the people. He must die on the far side of the Jordan.
Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell speech to the people, telling them everything they need to know—their history, the laws, his admonitions. But he doesn’t just tell them; he writes the teaching and gives it to the priests. Facing his death, knowing that he cannot cross over, Moses turns himself into a book, a book that can go with the people and continue to be their teacher and guide. And every time that book is read, the mystery of absence and presence is enacted, an absence that cannot be denied but a presence that keeps transcending it.
So, the first of the spiritual dimensions of reading is the way it involves us in that mystery of absence and presence.
Now back to Socrates. When it was suggested to Socrates that one of the marvels of writing was that it preserved words precisely and indelibly and so freed people from the labor of memorizing, Socrates sniffed that it allowed people to neglect their memories, making them more ignorant than they previously were. He has a point. In cultures where both literacy and orality were strong, it was customary to memorize even written texts. The Bible calls this “writing on the tablets of the mind.” The book was simply a back-up system. But people can cease memorizing and passing on tradition, and books can become lost. The second thing that the act of reading helps us ponder is the mystery of remembering and forgetting, the mystery of lost and found.
Socrates was right that the more we rely on books, the less we rely on our memories. But written texts, too, are fragile things (including electronically written texts, as we all know from hitting the wrong button on our computers). When books are lost, we are cut off from important elements of our past—cut off from our history, from aspects of our identity.
I know this firsthand. For over thirty years I have been part of the international team of translators of the Dead Sea Scrolls, books that were truly lost for almost 2,000 years. The first text I was assigned was a beautiful collection of mystical songs for the Sabbath. When they were handed to me, only two or three members of the team had ever read them. I was one of a handful of people to have read these texts since the destruction of Qumran in A.D. 68. Bringing these lost songs back to life for others to read was one of the most meaningful things I have ever done. And they were no mere curiosity: They have helped us understand the origin of practices that are still present in modern Eucharistic liturgies and synagogue prayers. We did not even know they had been lost. But when they were found, we understood our history and our identity in a subtle but important new way.
…there the king read out loud [to all the people] all the words of the covenant scroll that had been found in the Lord’s temple…All of the people accepted the covenant.
From 2 Kings 23:2-3 (CEB)
The book of 2 Kings preserves another account of a lost and found book—a discovery with terrifying implications. During repairs conducted on the temple during the reign of Josiah, a book is found. “A scroll of the teaching,” which, we are to understand, is a form of the book of Deuteronomy, apparently lost for centuries and now rediscovered. The narrative presumes, though it does not explain how, that the very book that Moses had written had been carelessly stored in the temple, neglected and forgotten. Then by accident (or was it Providence?) the book was found and read anew before the one king who would grasp the gravity of the situation—that the people were not in compliance with the teaching—and would undertake to fulfill the requirements of the covenant. This patient book had waited, and finally, it had found its ideal reader.
The experience of the humanists of fourteenth century Italy, in what we call the Renaissance, was one in which the rediscovery of the classical literature of ancient Greece and Rome opened up the sense of a new age dawning. Many of the books that had such transforming power on them were, of course, never truly lost; they were in monastery and university libraries, but they had ceased to seem relevant and were forgotten for centuries. Eventually, when the time was right, these patient books found their ideal readers again.
Your own history with the classic texts of Christian theology may not be too dissimilar. The works of Augustine, Hildegard, Aquinas, Luther, Wesley have never been lost, but they may not have been known to you. Encountering them here, now, may be like coming upon a great, lost library that you are just now finding. And you may be the ideal reader they have been patiently waiting for. The transformative power of your reading of them may truly speak to you of a past you did not know. These books may orient you to a way of seeing that you did not know was possible, may offer you a way of life you had not anticipated.
So, reading mediates the mystery of absence and presence. It leads us to ponder on the complexity of forgetting and remembering by means of books lost and books found. But there is one more gift of reading to be named: empowerment.
Even as a six-year-old, I knew that learning to read meant a kind of freedom and independence that I could not have without that knowledge. Once I could read, once I could choose my own books at the library, I had my own wings. The most powerful evidence of the connection between reading and empowerment is to be found in the laws and cultural rules designed to prohibit the teaching of reading to certain classes of people. Most notoriously in this country was the legal prohibition on teaching slaves and persons of color to read during the Antebellum period.
The Code of the State of Georgia from 1848 reads as follows:
If any slave, Negro, or free person of color, or any white person, shall teach any other slave, Negro, or free person of color, to read or write either written or printed characters, the said free person of color or slave shall be punished by fine and whipping, or fine or whipping, at the discretion of the court.
Even today in patriarchal societies, girls’ schools are attacked and their teachers threatened because reactionary forces know that educated women will not consent to be in a condition approaching slavery. And development experts agree that if you want to improve economic well-being, enhance health, and lower rates of violence, you teach women and girls to read. Reading is empowerment.
Although the reading of scripture has always been a central act of Christian worship, the low levels of literacy during many centuries of Christendom meant that most people did not read the Bible themselves, and in the Middle Ages, even when they heard it read, it was in a language that they could not understand. The rise of literacy in the modern world has been closely linked with the Protestant Reformation and the desire to empower the laity to read the Bible for themselves.It is bracing to read what Luther said in 1520:
“...would God that every town had a girls’ school in which young girls were taught a daily lesson in the New Testament, either in German or in Latin, so that by the time a young person had reached the ninth or tenth year, she would be familiar with the entire Holy Gospel.”
Within a few years, however, Luther had reservations about the undisciplined nature of much private Bible reading and so placed more emphasis on the catechism. And indeed, it doesn’t take long today, visiting Internet Bible sites, to wonder if “every man his own Bible reader” was such a good idea after all. Reading is empowering, but isolated, idiosyncratic reading often leads nowhere useful. To be truly powerful, reading needs to be done in community, balancing innovation and tradition, retaining but renewing.
Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading Isaiah. He asked, “Do you really understand what you are reading?” The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him.
Acts 8:30-31 (CEB)
The man in the passage from Acts is already literate in that he can make out the words from Isaiah that he is reading, but he confesses that he cannot make out the meaning of the passage. And so he appeals to Philip to teach him how to read with understanding. He needs a community of reading to help him make sense of what he’s read.
And that, of course, is how we try to read at Candler. Not just by putting in your hands the lost books of tradition and saying “good luck,” but by asking you to bring together your empowered reading—the reading you bring from your own particular experience and identity—with that of others differently situated who read differently, and with all the readers preserved in tradition who have gone before you and who often read the same text in ways you would never have imagined. I suppose you could think of Candler School of Theology as one never-ending and rather unpredictable “book club,” though if that’s the case, we may want to pay more attention to the refreshments.
I don’t expect that every moment of your reading for class will be full of ecstasy. But from time to time, I hope the magic and wonder of what you are doing—the sheer spiritual gift of reading—will reawaken for you the experience of the surprisingly vivid presence of the long-gone apostle Paul or the pungent letters of Susanna Wesley to John. That a book you never even knew was lost to you finds you again and compels you in a way that is almost physical. That your sense of empowerment—as reader, as interpreter—brings you to a new sense of who you are and what you can be.
And at those times, think back perhaps to that little child you once were, just learning to read, when even the most banal sentence was worthy of investment and you could imagine saying, “RUN, SPOT, RUN!”
Or as I would say to you now: “READ, FRIENDS, READ!”
What I’m reading now
Why do I read what I do? I try to read about people whose experiences are different than my own, hoping they will help me see the world I cannot imagine but very much need to understand. I’ve recently read the Hunger Games trilogy, which connects me with how young adults think about unexpected and often unfair challenges not of their own making that nevertheless require them to make life-changing decisions. Those of us a generation or two older should take these books very seriously. But I also seek out books about people not so young who have to face the possibility of life’s end. One of the most profound is by my friend, James Kugel, who was diagnosed with an apparently fatal cancer at age 54. Although, fortunately, he is in long-term remission, he used his experiences to reflect on how the sense of human finitude grounds our sense of the divine. In the Valley of the Shadow is one of the most original reflections on the foundations of religious belief I have ever read. He doesn’t offer an easy read or easy answers—but neither does impending death. But he is honest and generous and compelling. You want to read this book.