Eric D. Barreto, ed. Reading Theologically
Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014
I was an idiot when I went into Seminary, or grad school to us church of Christ folks. I am slightly less of an idiot now. Whatever happened in seminary was nothing short of a miracle to get me this far. Of the many accomplishments I can boast, the ability to read is now one of them! As I read through the essays in Reading Theologically I was reminded of lessons I learned in seminary, ideas about the way in which we approach texts, biblical or otherwise, that help us to get the most out of them. I bought this book because a friend of mine, Jimmy McCarty, wrote one of the essays, but I think its value goes beyond friendship and shameless plugs.
“What’s wrong with the way I read?” One might ask. Everything. No, just kidding, but maybe some things. Think of how your favorite writer or preacher or professor got things out of a text, be it the Bible or a work of literature or anything else, and you just thought, “Wow, that’s insightful and/or authoritative!” Usually when I try to expound on these kinds of texts myself I feel less in control and way more like a bumbling fool, clumsily trying to show off the beauty of this precious object before I drop it and break it. That is because we lack the same kind of grasp of these texts as our admired authors do. I don’t understand texts as well as they do because I haven’t read them as well as they do. The chapters aim at presenting the basics of deep reading—the ability to really understand a text and to appropriate its ideas in a variety of meaningful ways.
Reading Theologically is a book written for seminarians, but all of the essays have value for anybody interested in improving the way they read and appreciate texts of any kind. It stands among a group of other classic texts like Adler’s How to Read a Book and Fee and Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, which it cites as supplementary reading. Many of the essays are written directly to its readers, addressing the hypothetical seminarian with statements and questions throughout.
I didn’t dislike a single chapter, but the ones that stuck out to me were the chapters: ‘Reading Basically’ (Melissa Browning), ‘Reading Generously’ (Gordon C. Liu), ‘Reading Differently’ (James W. McCarty III), and ‘Reading Digitally’ (Sarah Brubaker). In the chapter ‘Reading Basically’ Browning aims to orient us to the many textures of reading we do not normally recognize, like the way our bodies, communities, and worldviews impact and inform the way we read. In the chapter ‘Reading Generously’ Gordon C. Liu tries to bring the reader into a more mature way of reading “texts” be they books with arguments or argumentative people. His provocation is to get us to appreciate a thing on its own terms and glean a much better understanding than if we began with a critical eye.
In the chapter ‘Reading Differently” Jimmy McCarty (ahem, a friend of mine, ahem) contrasts three distinct readings of the same text. It is honestly not because I like Jimmy that I think this is the most valuable chapter here for churches. Rather it is because we have such a hard time seeing past our own readings in order to understand how someone else could read the bible so differently. Finally, Sarah Brubaker, in her chapter ‘Reading Digitally’ delves into the online world and the dynamics at work in the way we ‘read’ one another in the digital world.
When we recognize reading as a communal practice, we learn to pull up a circle of chairs, not only for other scholars whom we ask to join the dialogue but also for folks from our community whose lived experiences matter to our work (Reading Basically, 21)
Our commitment to our own conscientization, [that is] to our own liberation and the liberation of others, can allow us to read in ways that create space for transformation. (Reading Basically, 24)
As we read we must deconstruct with a vision of reconstructing. We must ask what voices are missing or marginalized, whose stories are overlooked. Reading toward conscientization means we ask difficult questions of those we invite to sit in our circle of chairs, for we are learning not only to read but to talk back to the text and challenge its claims. (Reading Basically, 25)
Reading generously in fact often depends on extending unflappable hospitality to texts and authors, especially in those instances when we find ourselves disagreeing with them the most. (Reading Generously, 68)
“Chu stands his ground. Yet notice that his position becomes clearer only insofar as he challenges himself to engage earnestly with the intractable and unforgiving stance of Westboro Baptist church. He does not dismiss the congregation for its blatant proclamations of hate…yet Chu carefully gets to know the church and its people. He refuses to entertain their beliefs like a tourist. Instead he honors their humanity and treats their adversarial reactivity with unusual dignity. Chu firsts confirms and respects the perspective of Westboro Baptist Church and then (and seemingly only then) crafts a critique of that perspective. (Reading Generously, 70-71)
Each group of people desires to be honest interpreters of the texts and confess the Christian faith. Why, then, do they come to such radically different interpretations of this one story? The short answer is: because context matters. (Reading Differently, 101-02)
[I]t is impossible, in the end, to stand in another’s shoes. Rather, we can listen to other people’s narratives, questions, and answers in ways that illumine our own narratives, questions, and answers. We can learn to think with, rather than above or against, others even if we cannot learn to think the thoughts of others. We can stand alongside others and listen even if our feet are never quite the right size to fit in anyone’s shoes but our own… To listen to others in this way is to practice what Ellen Ott Marshall has called “theological humility.” It is to allow God to be God and to refuse to let our experience and understanding of God be the final theological word. (Reading Differently, 103)
To read differently is necessarily to be continually called to conversion. (Reading Differently, 207)
Like any other public spaces in which people bump against each other, digital environments require prudence, integrity, and care. Occasionally, that means refusing to accept the terms of engagement one is offered or, in this case, using analog practices to resist certain digital assumptions. Accordingly, I will be using “analog” as a metaphor for the slow, continuous, idiosyncratic, and difficult work of reading and engaging viewpoints that challenge one’s own assumptions. For all its advantages, digital technology has made it far too easy to avoid this crucial work. (Reading Digitally, 111)
[These suggestions] are meant to form people whose digital interactions proceed in good faith. They do not, however, promise to be effective, if by “effective” one means “helpful for winning a debate and getting one’s way online.” (Reading digitally, 123)
As I read through these essays I was reminded of the many things I learned to do in seminary. At times I was reminded of the many things I forgot how to do, and in some cases the many things I never learned how to do. As a whole this is a great starting place for people who want to develop the skills necessary to best understand the things they are reading.