Issue 14 | Where Punctuation, Lit Crit 101, and Holy Scripture Meet
The first season of my podcast, Chris Stapleton, quotes from Wendell Berry, and more.
Hello, y’all. Happy July. As some of you noted — and thanks to the two of you — there was no newsletter last month. That’s because I took the month off, and I took for granted that you wouldn’t mind. I hope you enjoyed your Junes.
Here are five things I’ve been doing lately:
Writing (sort of) about the Bible as literature;
Releasing season one of ‘Writers and Writings’;
Listening to Chris Stapleton;
Renaming myself; and
Reading John Green and Wendell Berry.
1. Where punctuation, lit crit 101, and Holy Scripture meet.
A while back, you may remember, I mentioned a book by Matthew Mullins about a literary approach to reading the Bible. Last week, I engaged with Matt about what his idea might look like in practice. It’s published at Common Good. Here’s part of it:
Once at church, in a college-aged gathering, I heard a speaker make a raised-voice point about the gospel of Christ beginning with the sonship of Jesus. That Jesus is God’s son, he said while chopping his arm at the air the way guys did at the time, forms the basis of Christian teaching. In his non-chopping hand, the speaker had his Bible open, as were ours, to the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, and he camped out on verse one. “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” Now, you may be able to make a case about sonship as the starting point for understanding the Christian gospel. But this verse isn’t it.
What the speaker ran into wasn’t necessarily a theological issue, at least not at first, but a grammatically one. He essentially saw a comma in the text and interpreted it like a colon. And it seems like he confused the two meanings of the word gospel, too. What he read, and taught, as a grand theological pronouncement is better read as a fairly simple clarifying clause. Not “This is the starting point for the gospel: Jesus is the son of God,” but “I’m about to give you the biography of Jesus, who is God’s son.” But the better reading is a bit beside the point. I recall this instance often because it illustrates pretty simply the way reading the Bible (or anything) requires following along with stories, recognizing vocabulary, and, yeah, paying attention to punctuation. Reading scripture depends on reading.
Which, as an English scholar, is an aspect of enjoying the Bible where [Matthew] Mullins can supply help.
Okay, given we embrace the literary nature of the Bible, what are we to do with the fact that so much of the scripture is in poetic form?
I'm big on what Alan Jacobs calls “reading at whim.” And I'm actually a proponent of this with regard to the Bible specifically. Even though Jacobs applies reading at whim more broadly to reading, I think if we were to stop only reading the Bible for those very instructional purposes and start reading it for whim and pleasure, my sense is that it might start to change our relation to the Bible for the better.
It worked for me. I was doing this over the winter. I just got obsessed with the story of Samuel, and I had never really attended to the story in this way. I probably read the first five or six chapters of 1 Samuel about 20 times during those months. I kept coming back to it again and again and again, and I love that story now. I knew it before, but I didn't love it. I encourage people to pick up the Scripture and start to read it at whim.
Another really important reading strategy is to slow down. Stop reading like you've got to get at some goal. I'm not saying reading plans are bad or that church group readings are bad. We read through the New Testament three years ago at my church, and that was great. But if we're talking about strategies of reading that can shake up your expectations and reform your values, I say pick up a passage you really like or a verse that's stumped you or a psalm that you just think is beautiful and just sit with it. Set a timer for eight or 10 minutes, sit down with your passage and read it a few times, and then sit and reflect, meditate, close your eyes — don’t worry about where your brain goes, it's fine. I've found this to be helpful in realigning my expectations of reading the scripture.
Like basketball or piano or really anything, reading is something we can do well or poorly — and we can get better. What are some ways we can improve as readers in that respect?
Probably the two most important, really practical, technical questions from a literary standpoint are, first, to stop asking of a text at hand, What does it mean? Not forever. But if you need to ask a question, one you might ask is, How does it mean?
I take this in part from the famous book about reading poetry by John Ciardi called How Does a Poem Mean? If you ask how not what, you start paying attention to the structure of a text. The way a verse means is by using metaphorical language. The writer calls the word of God a light and a lamp. When you focus on the structure of a text, you realize that the structure, the form, is actually inseparable from what we often think of as “content.” We're told all throughout the Bible that scripture is God-breathed, that scripture is to be delighted in. What's significant about this particular use of “light” and “lamp.” Start asking how does a scripture passage mean.
The second practical question is related. Once you start to pay attention to how the text is structured, you can start asking, How else could the author have said this? How else could the psalmist have said, “Turn to God's word when you need instruction”? Maybe he could've said something like, your word is a river. Or he could've said point blank, “Turn to God's word when you need instruction.” Be he didn’t. So, we need to ask what about “light” and “lamp” are so integral to the passage’s meaning?
If you learn to ask those two questions — How is this text meaning? and How else could it have been structured? — and thereby to start to pay closer attention to the form in which a passage or chapter or book is written, the world of reading and understanding the more literary aspects of the text will open up to you.
If you want, you can read the whole thing, which is a sort of hybrid essay-meets-Q&A thing, here.
2. 🎧 Today is the launch of Writers and Writings 🎧
After a lot of work, and seemingly more delays, we finally pushed the first season of my podcast, Writers and Writings. Because it’s a sort of micro-season, all five of the episodes are now live. Check ‘em:
01. “You Never Write Enough. But They Do.”
Talking about writing practice with Cameron Alexander Lawrence and Dave Harrity
02. “And Then There’s *Writing*”
Talking about the craft of writing (and reading) with James K.A. Smith
03. “In Which I Learn about James Weldon Johnson”
Talking with Noelle Morissette and Shana L. Redmond
04. “This Is That, Only Different”
Talking about allusion with Lydia Millet
05. “Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say”
Talking about words with Marilyne McEntyre
Come September, we’ll roll out season two episodes once a week. Until then, you know, feel free to binge-listen to these.
Oh, and don’t forget to subscribe to my show at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. You can also follow along with the Writers and Writings newsletter. And if you’re feeling generous, share the show with someone who might like it.
3. We can’t stop listening to this Chris Stapleton song.
Part of the reason I skipped this newsletter in June was that we moved to a new state. It came accompanied with exhilaration and exhaustion, as these things do. For the half-dozen rides back and forth to Atlanta, Hannah made a playlist. It includes this newer song by Chris Stapleton, and we can’t stop listening to it. Neither of us really listen to country music, and there’s really nothing dramatic or life-changing about our move. But for whatever reason, this resonates:
4. And now, a dad story.
My daughters, for some reason, are all about pretending they have different names. If they start playing any game or just running around outside, they want to change names first. They ask permission, which is nice. The other day, as we combined kickball with creek-jumping, Ellen decided she was going to be Lilliana and Elisabeth chose Belle. She’s always Belle. Then it came time to pick a different name for me. As the elder child, Ellen got the job.
And I was given the name, “Aaron. But a different Aaron.”
5. Here’s (some of) what I’ve been reading.
The Anthropocene Reviewed. John Green is the kind of writer whose work earns a spot on bestsellers lists just by virtue of being published. Often when writers achieve that level of notoriety, the work, as you know, becomes less interesting. Predictable. So far, these essays are neither.
Think Little. I’m working on an essay that riffs off of Wendell Berry’s essay. So I’ve been revisiting it, and sitting with it, over the past few weeks. Last week, on a cross-country flight, I read it again in full. And in an effort not to waste the opportunity, here are my highlights (literally):
A couple who make a good marriage, and raise healthy, morally competent children, are serving the world’s future more directly and surely than any political leader, though they never utter a public word.
A man who is willing to undertake the discipline and the difficulty of mending his own ways is worth more to the conservation movement than a hundred who are insisting merely that the government and the industries mend their ways.
But to be fearful of the disease and yet unwilling to pay for the cure is not just to be hypocritical; it is to be doomed. If you talk a good line without being changed by what you say, then you are not just hypocritical and doomed; you have become an agent of the disease.
A person who undertakes to grow a garden at home, by practices that will preserve rather than exploit the economy of the soil, has set his mind decisively against what is wrong with us.
Thanks for reading everyone. See you in August.