Tag Archives: notes and quotes

Two Ways of Reading

…I believe that most people who read the Bible as Scripture do so in one of two ways: compliantly or conversantly…

Compliant readers are individuals whose basic instinct is to read the Bible trustingly. Those who read this way accept the Bible’s claims, adopt its values, and embrace its assumptions without necessarily giving serious consideration to the implications of their consent. Rather than questioning or challenging the text, compliant readers take what the Bible says — or at least what they think it says — for granted. Their reading is appreciative and accommodating. It is neither confrontational nor contentious. Rather, they embrace the text “as is.”  Therefore, they choose to agree with — and submit to — the Bible’s assessment of things, even when this may be difficult to understand or morally troubling…

Conversant readers, on the other hand, are not constrained in the same kind of way. Rather than simply acquiescing to the text, their fundamental disposition is one of active engagement, sustained conversation, and critical evaluation. Conversant readers are ready to engage the Bible in a genuine dialogue whose outcome is not predetermined by the ideology of the biblical text. While they might agree with the views and values on this or that Old Testament text, they are just as likely to disagree. Conversant readers are discerning readers who accept what they can and resist what they must… Conversant readers do not feel obligated to agree with texts that violate the most basic dictates of human decency, and they are not prepared to remain obsequiously silent…

From The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy, by Eric Seibert.

Obviously this passage raises a question: what kind of readers are we? What kind of readers do we want to be? It’s worth thinking about. I would have said I was a conversant reader of my Bible — but after reading Dr Seibert’s book, I realize that I have missed an awful lot.

I would like to include more excerpts here from books I’m reading. I have numerous passages underlined and highlighted for further reflection, but I don’t always get back to them. I reviewed this book earlier this week, but there is always so much more to a book than can be discussed in a review. My Kindle informs me that I highlighted or bookmarked 76 passages in this book! That’s more than I’ll ever be able to quote here. But I’d like to lift a few of them at least to help round out the very limited perspective my review provided, and to stimulate thought.

Food for Thought: Restraint

These words from Gandhi were quoted in Quiet:

I have naturally formed the habit of restraining my thoughts. A thoughtless word hardly ever escaped my tongue or pen. Experience has taught me that silence is part of the spiritual discipline of a votary of truth. We find so many people impatient to talk. All this talking can hardly be said to be of any benefit to the world. It is so much waste of time. My shyness has been in reality my shield and buckler. It has allowed me to grow. It has helped me in my discernment of truth.

Could there ever be a sentiment more opposed to the whole concept of the blogosphere?

Marvelous luggage

Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror, and say, “Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.” After you have taken a good look around, you may decide that there is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered. Bodies take real beatings. That they heal from most things is an underrated miracle. That they give birth is beyond reckoning. (Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Practice of Wearing Skin”)

Am I the only one who has to do this more than once in my life?

When I was in high school, I worried so much about my weight that I developed bulimia. In graduate school, I took up running and slimmed back down, but I still bear the aches and pains of my foolish refusal to stretch out those muscles before or after running. Then I went through pregnancy twice — which was really not bad; I liked the fact that my body changed, and was supposed to. (I certainly liked the outcome of pregnancy!)

Now I’m in my forties and it’s wrinkles, fading hair, freckles, slower metabolism, and other strange developments that tempt me to dissatisfaction at least, loathing at worst. It seems to be a lifelong process, this coming to peace with one’s body. I seem to depart into this or that other vision at every phase, a vision of some other Janet with some other body. But my own body never departs. There it is, patiently waiting in the mirror to be noticed and accepted.

Barbara Brown Taylor proposes that choosing to live contentedly within one’s own body can be a spiritual discipline, an act of worship — not worship of our bodies, but of the God who made and loves them. It can reveal knowledge of God, who quite purposefully took on a body himself in the pivotal moment of human history, and he keeps it still. “Here we sit,” she writes, “with our souls tucked away in this marvelous luggage, mostly insensible to the ways in which every spiritual practice begins with the body.”

These are good words. Today I choose again to accept this “marvelous luggage” as God’s gift to me. Let that be a starting point to whatever new knowledge of him he wants to impart.


Bursting with God-news

The Annunciation by Jack Mattingly

Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:

“Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.” (Luke 1:28, The Message)

This afternoon I heard the song “Breath of Heaven” on the way home from the grocery store. It’s a song I’ve always assumed I liked, but today I realized: I don’t, particularly. It’s not really in keeping with the Scriptural account of Mary’s character in Luke 1. (I’m speaking from a Protestant point of view, by the way.)

In “Breath of Heaven,” Mary talks about “a world as cold as stone.” But in Luke 1, she speaks of God’s presence in the world — of his “mercy upon generation after generation of those who fear him,” and of how he “fills the hungry with good things.”

In the song, Mary says, “Must I walk this path alone?” She imagines God is having second thoughts about choosing her: “Do you wonder as you watch my face if a wiser one should have had my place?” But in Luke 1, she’s not alone. She and Elizabeth have the great gift of companionship in their high calling. And her sense of who God is is anything but distant and aloof: “My soul exalts the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave…”

In the song, Mary says, “Hold me together.” In Luke 1, she says, “The Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His name.” (And later, when Jesus goes to the cross, Mary is one of the few who has the fortitude to stand near him.)

It’s an idea we try over and over: projecting ourselves imaginatively into the Christmas story. Sometimes it enriches our faith and our depth of understanding. But in this case I think it alters the story, shrinking it down into a rather desolate, impoverished mindset.

Though sometimes (for me) The Message can have a similar effect of reducing Scripture to language that’s almost too pedestrian, I think in the case of Luke 1 it captures perfectly Mary’s spiritual exuberance and moral stamina:

And Mary said,

I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.


Recent reading: “the encroachment of the buzz”

I read this the other day in The Lost Art of Reading by David L. Ulin. I wonder if anyone else relates.

This, I think, is something on which we can agree: to read, we need a certain kind of silence, an ability to filter out the noise. That seems increasingly elusive in our overnetworked society, where every buzz and rumor is instantly blogged and tweeted, and it is not contemplation we desire but an odd sort of distraction, distraction masquerading as being in the know. In such a landscape, knowledge can’t help but fall prey to illusion, albeit an illusion that is deeply seductive, with its promise that speed can lead us to illumination, that it is more important to react than to think deeply, that something must be attached to every bit of time. Here, we have my reading problem in a nutshell, for books insist we take an opposite position, that we immerse, slow down. “After September 11,” Mona Simpson wrote as part of a 2001 LA Weekly roundtable on reading in wartime, “I didn’t read books for the news. Books, by their nature, are never new enough.” Simpson doesn’t mean that she stopped reading; rather, at a moment when it felt as if time was on fast forward, she relied on books to pull back from the onslaught, to distance herself from the present as a way of reconnecting with a more elemental sense of who we are.

…These days, after spending hours on the computer, I pick up a book and read a paragraph; then my mind wanders and I check my e-mail, drift onto the Internet, pace the house before returning to the page. Or I want to do these things but don’t, force myself to remain still, to follow what I’m reading until I give myself over to the flow. What I’m struggling with is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there is something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it’s mostly just a series of disconnected riffs, quick takes and fragments, that add up to the anxiety of the age.

I don’t spend “hours on the computer,” yet I do find myself having to make more of an effort to “force myself to remain still, to follow what I’m reading until I give myself over to the flow.” I long for the time to sit down and read, but when it comes, I find it hard to settle in and focus. Like Ulin, I can make myself stick with it till I’m immersed, but it seems to take longer, or take more work, than it used to.


Whatever the answer, I’m glad for books — partly because they confront me with questions like this.

Courtesy of Stockxchnge

Quiet he lies

Courtesy of Stockxchnge

Our pastor has been taking a close look at what some of our traditional Christmas carols have to teach us. It’s making this richest of seasons even richer.

Yesterday while teaching on “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” he brought some lines from a poem by Luci Shaw to our attention. I wasn’t familiar with the poem, but it’s a wonderful discovery, honing in on some of the mind-blowing paradoxes of Christmas.

Here are a few excerpts:

Quiet he lies
whose vigor hurled
a universe. He sleeps
whose eyelids have not closed before…

Older than eternity, now he
is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught that I might be free,
blind in my womb to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth
for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended
I must see him torn.

–From “Mary’s Song,” by Luci Shaw. Read the rest of the poem here.

What words are bringing Advent into focus for you this season?


Living the questions

I love this quote from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet:

…Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves… Do not… seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will… gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

That seems to sum up so much of my life. Questions — about education, about nature, about faith, about marriage and parenting, about the future, about the past, about where and how to spend my life. They don’t really go away, though they do change form.

Be patient. Love the questions. Live along toward the answers.



G.K. Chesterton on “tired democracy”

Do we think of democracy as the pinnacle — the culmination of long striving toward a fuller expression of human ideals — the summit of human progress?

G.K. Chesterton, writing in 1925, points out that such a view may have it backwards:

If there is one fact we really can prove, from the history that we really do know, it is that despotism can be a development, often a late development and very often indeed the end of societies that have been highly democratic. A despotism may almost be defined as a tired democracy. As fatigue falls on a community, the citizens are less inclined for that eternal vigilance which has truly been called the price of liberty; and they prefer to arm only one single sentinel to watch the city while they sleep. (The Everlasting Man)

America is only a couple of centuries old, but when you consider the consolidation of power in this country, and the various ways we hand over our freedom and privacy, it appears fatigue has set in already.

Pathological — or “normal”?

In my study of growing up in a networked culture, I meet many children and teenagers who feel cast off. Some have parents with good intentions who simply work several jobs and have little time for their children. Some have endured divorce — sometimes multiple divorces — and float from one parent to another, not confident of their true home. Those lucky children who have intact families with stable incomes can experience other forms of abandonment. Busy parents are preoccupied, often by what is on their cell phones. When children come home, it is often to a house that is empty until a parent returns from work.

For young people in all of these circumstances, computers and mobile devices offer communities when families are absent. In this context, it is not surprising to find troubling patterns of connection and disconnection: teenagers who will only “speak” online, who rigorously avoid face-to-face encounters, who are in text contact with their parents fifteen or twenty times a day, who deem even a telephone call “too much” exposure and say that they will “text, not talk.” But are we to think of these as pathologies? For as social mores change, what once seemed “ill” can come to seem normal. Twenty years ago, as a practicing clinical psychologist, if I had met a college junior who called her mother fifteen times a day, checking in about what shoes to buy and what dress to wear, extolling a new kind of decaffeinated tea, and complaining about the difficulty of a physics problem set, I would have thought her behavior problematic. I would have encouraged her to explore difficulties with separation. I would have assumed that these had to be addressed for her to proceed to successful adulthood. But these days, a college student who texts home fifteen times a day is not unusual.

High school and college students are always texting — while waiting in line at the cafeteria, while eating, while waiting for the campus shuttle. Not surprisingly, many of these texts are to parents. What once we might have seen as a problem becomes how we do things. But a behavior that has become typical may still express the problems that once caused us to see it as pathological. Even a typical behavior may not be in an adolescent’s best interest.

It’s a good question: is using technology this way pathological, or normal — or both?

It’s interesting that Sherry Turkle would get to this question on page 178 of Alone Together, because as I’ve been reading I’ve been remembering my own high school years. I can tell you right now that I would have been driven off a cliff if I’d been expected to “talk” — text, email, whatever — as continuously and excessively as today’s teens, by all accounts, do.

More to the point as I’ve thought back to high school, I’ve considered how back then I had some problems relating and growing up, and they expressed themselves in a way that was undisputedly pathological: an eating disorder. As I’ve been reading about the kinds of insecurity experienced by teens tethered to their social media and cell phones, I’ve  thought, “Why doesn’t this have a name? — Technology Disorder, or Facebook Nervosa, or… something? How is this not unhealthy and damaging to the development of a mature self?” And I’ve remembered a discussion last spring in which a high school senior told me that without Facebook, her “life would be ruined.” But if someone’s sense of self is that fragile — is it ruined already?

Then again, maybe it’s not fair to focus just on teens. Here’s one more excerpt, this one from page 160:

We may begin by thinking that emails, texts, and Facebook messaging are thin gruel but useful if the alternative is sparse communication with the people we care about. Then, we become accustomed to their special pleasures — we can have connection when and where we want or need it, and we can easily make it go away. In only a few more steps, you have people describing life on Facebook as better than anything they have ever known.

Chesterton’s advice to writers

Some passages just need to be shared. This one is from the chapter “The Romance of Orthodoxy” (in Orthodoxy). Chesterton is on his way to a larger point, but I have to stop and smile here for a bit:

Most of the machinery of modern language is labour-saving machinery; and it saves mental labour very much more than it ought. Scientific phrases are used like scientific wheels and piston-rods to make swifter and smoother yet the path of the comfortable. Long words go rattling by like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves. It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. If you say “The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognized by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment,” you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the gray matter inside your skull. But if you begin “I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out,” you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think. The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard.

Off to a day of one-beat words…