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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“Slow reading” is rooted in Lectio Divina

 

Slow reading is the "Christian" thing to do.

 

Everyone who knows me knows that I am an avid reader.  I used to knock out a book every week or so, sometimes two books if I had to read for classes.  When I had children, reading became a rare recreational activity.

Now that my children are older, I try to read more often.  Instead of enjoying a beloved book in a plush chair, however, I find that whatever book I pick up becomes lifeless.  It is not that the books I choose are boring, so much as it is my pace of reading: I am reading too quickly.  I read like I go through life sometimes: rushing to get everything in before my next chore.

About six months ago, while lamenting my inability to enjoy anything I read, I stumbled upon an article that discussed the emerging ” slow reading” movement in book club and literary circles.   Slow reading, according to the article, is the act of reading something in a purposeful and intentional way in order to enter into the world of the text.

It is called slow reading because, much to my delight, there are other people like me who are sick of having to rush through some great literature, both classic and modern.

Although the movement is growing nowadays (especially in a lagging economy), Christians have done slow reading with the Bible for hundreds of years.  Only, we do not call it slow reading; we call it “Lectio Divina.”

Lectio Divina is an ancient spiritual discipline that means “divine reading.”  Christians have incorporated Lectio Divina into their daily spiritual diet in order to “meditate on God’s Word day and night” (Psalm 1:2).

It reinforces the idea that God’s Word is “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12).  In other words, those who engage in Lectio Divina come to the Bible with attentive ears, knowing that reading is as much about formation and inspiration as it is about getting information.  It makes us listen to God’s Word, not just read God’s Word.

In Shaped By the Word, Robert Mulholland writes: “Instead of rushing on to the next sentence…you seek to allow the text to begin to become the intrusion of the Word of God into your life…It is to allow the text to master you.”  We do not consume the text as if it was fast food; we are consumed by it and compelled to respond to God in new ways.

Lectio Divina is easy to do either individually or in a small group.  First, find a quiet place free from distractions.   Pick a text that inspires spiritual reflection, such as a psalm or a lectionary text (see http://www.textweek.com for instance).

Next, read the text to yourself, and then read it aloud the second time through.  Do not rush when you read it; rather, let the words fill your ears and your spirit.  Listen to the nuances in the language; feel the words form in your mouth and flow outward from your very being.   Hear the words as God’s personal love poetry to you.

Read the text a third time, and sit quietly for a few minutes while you let the words echo in your mind.

After several moments of silence, identify what portion of the text grabbed your attention or made a significant impact.  Spend time thinking about what God is speaking to you through the text.  Finish your time of meditation by asking God to help you respond to the text.

In the busyness of life and in the chaotic schedules of work, family time, and life-as-usual kind of stuff, the growing fame of slow reading in society is a healthy one.  It is a means by which we can enrich our relationship and experience of God.

Check out one of my favorite blogs devoted to slow reading by English professor, Tracy Sheeley.