WORLD | How to read thoughtfully | Emily Whitten | March 22, 2014

Let me preface by saying that this brilliant article was originally published at World Magazine.  I am a subscriber to that magazine, and it is full of great articles, book reviews, movie reviews, and more.  If you like the following excerpt, and I hope you do, head on over to World Magazine to see what else they have to offer.  The subscription really is worth it.

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How to read thoughtfully

Books | The Bible and literary criticism

Posted March 22, 2014, 09:58 a.m.

Many intelligent, capable Christian authors and literature professors have sought to connect the Bible with the stories we read. But Christian literary criticism doesn’t seem to trickle down to the general Christian populace—except for criticism of one book, the Bible. That’s where crucial questions are asked: What authority does the author have? What about the reader? And how is God able to communicate to us?

As a book reviewer, among the many influential ideas I have borrowed from Biblical Criticism 101 is the idea of the Trinity. Communication within the Godhead Himself is described in this way: An author (God the Father) speaks, a Word (Jesus Christ) is spoken, and an interpreter (the Holy Spirit) then interprets that Word. As I have sought to apply this framework to the stories I review, I have come to see three links in the chain that must be counted: the author, the work itself, and the audience. From formalism to feminism, so many of the errors I have encountered in my reading tend to exalt one or two of those links to the exclusion of the rest.

The author

Christian circles hold widely the idea that a book exists first and foremost in the mind of its author. In that view, the author defines the meaning of a work. The author alone can unpack characters, setting, or what is meant by the entire story. Later cultures are often tempted to reinterpret the work in ways obviously contrary to the author’s intent (such as the search for phallic symbols in Jane Austen’s work). I can understand why it’s tempting to do so.

As Christians see liberal Bible scholars dethroning God from His place as final arbiter of what the Bible means, it’s easy to make a one-to-one transfer to human works of art. But if we believe that God, as author, has the final say over what the Bible means, then shouldn’t human authors—made in His image—have final ownership of their own writing?

Here are a few problems with that supposition. First, God is authoritative in defining His work and communication in a way human beings are not. Man does not create ex nihilo, but rather, we draw from the stories and music of language around us. We inherit many ideas, symbols, and meanings of which we often are not even aware. Conversely, God does not borrow from anyone in His creation of meaning. He sees His Word truly and exhaustively in a way that human authors simply cannot see their own work. So, while God does have ownership of His work, ultimately He—and not human authors—owns our work, too.

Because man is made in His image, I, as a reviewer, ought to consider how a human author interprets his work. Good authors are often very insightful about their writing. It takes a lot of time and effort to get as close to the subject matter as the original author. But because human authors are finite and often misinterpret their own work, Christian reviewers must still weigh the work itself. We must also consider how that work interacts with its audience, including reader groups, genres, and the history of literature. Ultimately, an author’s view of his or her own work is important, but not authoritative.

In practical terms, the temptation to focus too much on the author’s faith and interpretation of a work is a real and constant danger. If an author or publisher is Christian, many Christians believe the work is Christian and must therefore be given precedence over the work of non-Christian writers. This kind of thinking dominates much of the Christian publishing industry and leads to sites like FamilyFiction.com that promote only one kind of overtly Christian author.

Yet, consider the portrayal of grace in True Grit by two very worldly filmmakers, the Coen brothers. In my review from 2011, I tried to show why that movie is one of my favorites. It was not intended to be a Christian film, but it nevertheless clearly portrays Christ and His justice in profound ways.

Overexalting the author’s role in storytelling denies the imago Dei present in non-Christians. It denies the fact that God has gifted many non-Christians far more than the average Christian in writing skills. And if we only take an author’s word for it, we will miss some of the greatest feasts of truth and beauty that God has prepared in our generation.

The work

According to the Bible, a book exists not just in the mind of its author and readers, but—as the Word is united but also separate from the author and interpreter—on its own.

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This article is continued…  How to Read Thoughtfully at World Magazine.  This is a subscription magazine, and the rest of the article is available to subscribing members.  It really is worth it.

Teaser Tuesday (14 Feb)

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
Grab your current read – Open to a random page – Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS!
(make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Today’s Teaser taken from:
 The Center of Everything by Laura Moriarty

“Someone needs to give the Pope thirteen babies. Just for a week or so. See how he likes no birth control then.”

Bonus Teaser:
The Breakdown Lane by Jacqueline Mitchard

“There’s a strange sensation – you recall it from childhood – about sleeping in the afternoon. You rise into a different world from the one in which you lay down. The shadows have been rearranged. There’s a sensation of sad sweetness, as if something has been overlooked. I used to feel it coming out of the movies just before dinnertime, after the matinee. How, I wondered, did Broadway actors face it, this bittersweet sense of time’s slipping past.”

Teaser Tuesday (7 Feb)

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
Grab your current read – Open to a random page – Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS!
(make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Today’s Teaser taken from:
 The Portable Ring Lardner

I and Carey and him set at the same table together for supper.  It to him half an hour longer’n us to eat because he had to excuse himself everyt ime he lifted his fork.

“Doctor told me I needed starch,” he’d say, and then toss a shoveful o’ potatoes into him.  Or, “They ain’t much meat on one o’ these chops,” he’d tell us, and grab another one.  Or he’d say “Nothin’ like onions for a cold,” and then he’d dip into the perfumery.”

“Better try that apple sauce,” says Carey.  “It’ll help your malaria.”

“Whose malaria?” says Ike.  He’d forgot already why he didn’t only hit .356 last year.

Teaser Tuesday (24 Jan)

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
Grab your current read – Open to a random page – Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS!
(make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Today’s Teaser taken from:
 I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman

“I’m sure this is a shock, although that’s not my intention, to shock you.  Up until a few weeks ago, I never thought I would have any communication with you at all and accepted that as fair. That’s how it’s been for more than twenty years now.  But it’s hard to ignore signs when they are right there in front of your face, and there was your photo in Washingtonian magazine, not the usual thing I read, but you’d be surprised by my choice of reading material these days.  Of course, you are older, a woman now.  You’ve been a woman for a while, obviously.  Still, I’d know you anywhere.”

Bonus Teaser taken from:
Family History by Dani Shapiro

“I start to move toward Kate, but she shakes her head, her eyes narrow in warning, and I stop.  She turns her back, squaring her little shoulders resolutely away from me.  The movie ends there.  I turned off the camera and stood alone in a crowd of parents, my arms dangling uselessly by my sides.”

Teaser Tuesday (17 Jan)

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
Grab your current read – Open to a random page – Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS!
(make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Today’s Tease taken from:
 The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

“He became my confidante, someone with whom I could share thoughts I could never voice…In exchange, he trusted me with his.”