A Reading Life (prt 13): Being a Steward of Stories

 

By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

You may recall the post in which I said I read voraciously in high school, primarily those books in the school library that intrigued me the most.  Because I read so much of what I wanted, I failed to read books assigned to me by teachers. I went for years without touching those classics that most students read: Hawthorne, Lee, Hemingway, or Twain; but it was not a total loss.

My favorite teachers were eleventh- and twelfth-grade English teachers.

My eleventh grade teacher, Mr. Mitchell, taught American literature. He introduced us to Joseph Campbell’s hero myth and drew out all of his lessons on that premise. We watched movies from Star Wars Episode 5 (the best of all Star Wars movies) to The Crucible and The Witness. We read Native American literature and the poems of Dickinson. He introduced us to the plays of Arthur Miller. Death of a Salesman was memorable.

My British lit teacher, Ms. Brunnel, introduced us to Beowulf and Shakespeare in a way I’ve never read them before. We also read The Canterbury Tales, which played into my religious imagination and expanded my idea of the church as a pilgrim community made up of storytellers and stewards of stories.  She also snuck in Greek mythology, which fascinated me to no end–especially her feminist take on Medea.

What these teachers did differently than the rest was assume that we weren’t going to read outside of class. They made time in class so that we can read the books together. This was brilliant because (1) they assumed correctly–I never read assigned texts at home; and (2) reading together taught me the power of being part of a reading and interpreting community.

Little did I know how this practice of corporate reading would shape my understanding of the Bible and of church.  Church is, after all, a reading and interpreting community, and many books in scripture are meant to be acted out, if not in the reading of it, then in the living of it.  We need to remember that ancient Greek practices of playwright and of rhetoric shaped and informed the writing of the New Testament, which is written in Greek.

Reading literature also payed the bills.  When I graduated seminary, I landed a high-school history teaching position at a local Christian academy. I taught history, so it was an easy fit.  By the third year, however, the school needed a literature teacher and asked me if I was interested. I said yes and put Joseph Campbell, community interpretation, and storytelling to work once again. It was a fun and joyful year; and teaching grammar made me a better, more precise writer.

It was the year I caught up on my reading. I picked up books such as The Old Man and the Sea; The Great Gatsby, and Night. I studied the technical and aesthetic aspects of poetry.  I fell in love all over again with the concise art of short stories.  I read To Kill a Mockingbird, which inspired courage in ministry as it related to race reconciliation; and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by the amazingly moving Maya Angelou.  Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt expressed an immigrant’s point of view of poverty, not to mention McCourt’s unique run-on sentence writing style.

I realize now that both my teachers and my teaching of literature ignited a fondness for reading the Bible and of reading in general.  I believe that people who thrive are those who have mentors who shape their worldview and then, in turn, mentor others.

This is what it means to steward stories– to be a caretaker of those narratives that frame and shape our lives, and to encourage others to articulate the deepest notions of what it means to be human, individually and together.

A reading life is a life in community. It is one in which we learn how to read and interpret the words that build worlds. It is a life that leans upon and into others who have taken great pains to be stewards of stories themselves, for in this, the words we have are those in earthen treasures ready to be explored anew.

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A Reading Life (prt 12): An Impasse and Seasonal Affective Disorder

Image result for lucy psychiatric booth christmas

By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

I must apologize, everyone. I have not been in the mood to read or write lately. I blame it on the recliner and cold weather. My cat may be in on this too.

Its been an arid month: no inspiration to read anything, no impetus to write. I had an existential crisis just today: How come I don’t feel like reading? What about my “A Reading Life” blog series?

It was just, “Meh.” I suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder when I lived in the north, but haven’t since I moved south. This is nowhere near as bad, but I have a feeling that people who do suffer with SAD during winter can relate. Where has all that passion gone?

Now I just sit in my recliner when I am not cleaning, exercising, playing, cooking, or doing churchy things. I read a devotional. I catch up on the news. I (gag) scroll through social media. I fall asleep with my cat on my lap, a cat who finds her way over to me whenever I am in a resting position.

This is not new for me just as I’m sure it inflicts other bibliophiles. You’re in between books. You pick up a book here or there and nothing really captures your heart. There are false starts and impassioned leafing through of pages. No titles catch your attention. You wonder why half the books on your “to read” pile are there in the first place.

Even the old love affair with book catalogues grows stale, and your eyes wander to other things. I started watching a lot more television. That’s always a bad sign.

I don’t know how it is for others, but for me, reading and writing go hand-in-hand. If I am reading a lot then I tend to write a lot. If my reading tarries, my writing dries up. The muses fall silent. The Television turns on, and it is a distraction.

I decided today that I must move on. I can’t stay in this malaise forever, and I need something to get out of this rut. We went to our local used-book store (a weekly routine), and I determined to find something to read.

Sure enough, I returned to that genre that has saved me on more than one occasion: long-form essays, usually in the tune of a memoir or travel narrative, which have appealed to me during times of melancholy. They are short so there is no serious commitment. They are not laborious, so they tend to be compelling and artistic. They inform, but are personal enough to get me out of myself–to move my sense of consciousness beyond my little world and into the larger world where life moves on.

Essays have always been an easy and quick escape in my reading repertoire. There are essays by Marilyn Robinson and Annie Dillard. There are anthologies, such as the annual The Greatest Essays publications. Several years ago I picked up This is New York by E. B. White, an essay that originally appeared in a travel magazine. That was SOME essay–an amazing tapestry of words and thoughts, and probably one of the best things I’ve ever read in my life.

It took me a while to find the right book. I perused travel, biographies, classics, mysteries, and the religious sections. I was tired, so I sat in a plastic lawn chair among the memoirs. I spotted an autobiography by Ephriam Tutt, Yankee Lawyer. I don’t know who Tutt is, but the inscription on the inside was to an “Uncle Harry” and dated Christmas day, 1943.

Parker Palmer’s Listen to Your Life was nearby, and it too had an inscription from Jen to Mitch: “Food for thought along your vocational journey.” It was dated January 25, 2002. Not quite Christmas day, but close.

I spotted some books I donated several months ago. I picked up several of them and saw my own notes throughout their pages. It is odd to see your handwriting in a book that is for sale, as if it was inscribed by some alien life force and is now staring back at you from across the galaxy. (If you go to the religion section and you find the print “The Library of J. V. LaGuardia”, wonder no more.)

And, back in the memoir section, I finally found a book worth reading. It is an essay just as I preferred, and published originally in Vanity Fair or some such magazine. It is by Pulitzer-prize winning novelist William Styron, Darkness Visible, about his bout with clinical depression. The subtitle (“A memoir of madness”) did not catch my attention so much as the writing did; and I didn’t get it because of my own lethargy. I got it because of its brevity and its well-written prose. It will do.

I realize now that my feelings of lassitude is not uncommon around this time of year. Many people get a little angst around the holidays. Charlie Brown bemoans of his own existential crisis to Lucy (psychiatric help for a nickel!) in the Christmas special my children and I watched earlier today.

But ’tis the season, and books will always find a way to speak into our lives. We will eventually move off the recliner and into worlds that words construct or conjure. It takes some time, and in only a few days that Christ Light will shine in the darkness of all our nights. And, eventually, this too shall pass.

A Reading Life (prt 11): The Bible, from a different point of view

By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.  

I attended a pastor’s Bible study recently and did not learn anything new.  If you are going to bring pastors together, then have something new up your sleeve: a new insight into reading the text, an esoteric resource that garners a cutting-edge interpretation of scripture, a new twist on an old tale.  But don’t spout lessons we have likely taught for years in Sunday school.

One of the greatest compliments I get as a preacher is not that a sermon was interesting or exciting, but that something new was learned.  “I never heard that before,” or “I’ve never read the passage like that,” is music to my ears.  It is impossible to hit a sermon out of the park every Sunday morning, but not to have at least one thing unique to each sermon–a new reading, an insight that is not cliché, a way to enliven the imagination.

I came into seminary with a formidable religion degree from college.  Classes were basic, therefore, and getting at something new was difficult.  But when I got into a New Testament course with a professor by the name of Dr. Carson, I got hooked on his methodology of reading the text.  I’ve never read the Bible that way!

Dr. Carson was from Union Theological Seminary and Southern Seminary, so he was able to bring a reading from two very different points-of-view.  As a way of protest, he threw out many tried and true historical-critical interpretations of scripture because of faulty foundations of reading, and relied on the purity of reading a text for what it says and how it is said, not from a translation.

Dr. Carson emphasized socio-rhetorical criticism, which was new to me.  Socio-rhetorical criticism explores how authors write what they write, why they write, how they write, and what they exclude.  The critic reads the Bible, noting that the order, shape, and context of the original language says something about the intent of the writing.

Rhetoric is the “art of persuasion,” and it asks questions of persuasion in the text.  Socio-historical criticism looks at the world of the text and how culture shapes literature, speech, and language.  It is a fairly recent criticism, only some forty years old.

This was a life-giving methodology for me.  I spent a great deal of time with Dr. Carson after that first course, and his recommendations went to the top of my reading list.  He recommended Vernon Robbins’ The Texture of Texts; socio-historical criticism by the likes of Bruce Malina, Jerome Neyrey, and others from the “the Context Group”; and a pithy book, Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition, by Columbia University professor Kathy Eden.

Since I love words and writing, a focus on the function and dynamics of rhetoric opened a new world of joy and wonder.  It added depth to the biblical story, and it provided applications that made sense and applied to real life.  It brought Jesus to life, too, and painted a picture in both testaments that sit squarely in a mysterious culture foreign — and yet similar — to our own.

As a Baptist, I like how that type of reading pushed against the powers of interpretation and the privileges of the academy.  It exposed assumptions of historical biblical criticism and up-ended mistaken interpretations–often perpetuated by those in power and the academic establishment–that failed to take the ancient world seriously.  It also has a global leaning, allowing other voices to shape how the text–and the persuasion and arguments therein–apply to a variety of cultures in our own day and age.

I am deeply indebted to Dr. Carson because he opened a new window of biblical exploration, and that interpretation plays heavily on my preaching and teaching.  If you ever visit my church there’s a good chance that you may not always agree with the content, but you will learn something new.