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.

Ahhh…Summer, the Time of Beach Reads!

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish.

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Just link back to The Broke and the Bookish on your own Top Ten Tuesday post AND add your name to the Linky widget so that everyone can check out your list! If you don’t have a blog, just post your answers as a comment. Have fun with it! It’s a fun way to get to know your fellow bloggers.

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday Topic:
Ahhh…Summer, the Time of Beach Reads!

1.  The Blue Bistro by Elin Hilderbrand.  Set on Nantucket Island, as many of her books are, this is a sweet story involving (primarily) the restaurant staff of this popular eatery.  Perfect for a quick summer read.

2.  Home to Italy by Peter Pezzelli.  This is the first book I read by Pezzelli, and I was not disappointed.  It starts in Rhode Island with the death of Anna, Peppi’s wife, but it quickly transitions to Italy as he returns to the land of his birth, reconnects with an old friend, and falls in love again.  It’s predictable, but after a but of a herky-jerky start, Pezzelli settles into a quick & easy style that is perfect for a day at the beach.

3.  Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons by Lorna Landvik.  As with most (or all?) of her books, this one is set in Minnesota, and centers around a group of women living on the same street who decide to start a book club.   It evolves to much more than that, of course, and though the arc of the story is fairly predictable, it is well written and has a lot meat on the bones.  Landvik has an writing style that makes for a fast, easy and enjoyable read, perfect for the beach.

5.  Bitsy’s Bait and BBQ by Pamela Morsi.  I was drawn to this book by the eye-catching title, and found it to be exactly the right thing for a summer read.  It is set in the South, a setting I love, and it has the predictable love story.  However, the writing is engaging and the characters are loveable, so it makes for a delightful read.

6.  Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson.  This was Jackson’s debut novel, but the unusual title suggested right away that it would be a book worth reading.  I was not disappointed.  This is a Southern author whose works I love, and because characters reappear from time to time in different books, this first novel is the ideal place to start.  It is a quick and easy read, but truly enjoyable on every level.

7.  The Last Beach Bungalow by Jennie Nash.  A beach setting, which (obviously) is a great beach read.  I think I picked this up because of the cover art, and it was a lovely, if predictable, summer read.  Great for relaxing in the sun.

8.  The Wednesday Letters by Jason F. Wright.  I love epistolary novels, and this is no exception.  It is the story of a 39 year marriage, documented in a letter written each Wednesday by Jack to Laurel, and it plays out for their children, who are home to attend their funeral.  Though it sounds like a downer, it is not, and it is rich with all the elements of a classic love story.  Worth the time, and great for the beach despite the subject matter because it is quick and easy to read.

9.  Sweetgrass by Mary Alice Monroe.  I have read several of Monroe’s novels over the years, but I particularly loved this one.  I love the Southern setting of South Carolina, the typical “Southern” way (even in the way Monroe writes), and the cultural issues that she included.  It has an authentically Southern feel.  It also deals with some heavy subjects, but Monroe does not have a heavy hand, which makes it a lovely summer read.

10.  Hearts on a String by Kris Radish.  A story that illustrates a grandmother’s anecdote about the thread that connects all women, it is sweet and fun and easy to read.  Radish always has some fairly implausible element to her story lines, but in the end it doesn’t matter, because she touches you, entertains you, and lets you escape from regular life for a bit.  You will not be disappointed.