Finding the Words Again
Somewhere along the way, we forgot how to read. The sounds, the structure, the sentences, they are all still there. We can decipher the letters to understand the words of a text, a status, a blog, a journal, or even a novel. And that’s reading of a sort.
But then there is the reading that requires so much more skill, investment, and participation. This kind of reading is more than the translation of symbol to sound. This kind of reading is nuanced. It notices the momentum of the words put together, the structure of the language, and the literary devices used to express something more than the words alone. This kind of reading is not what we think of as reading. It’s more what we think of as art.
I’m struck by this art/reading when I read Rilke, or Faulkner, or Tennyson. And even, dare I say, when I read the words of Sam Smith, John Lennon, or when I read the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., or listen to the bass tone of Garrison Keillor share the Writer's Almanac. In the hands of these artists, words are more than information. More than sound. They are a number of things: a collection of murmurings, a lyrical sonnet of wonder, a poetic cry for justice, a guttural moan of pain. They don’t just inform, they proclaim. They encounter. They are words that look you in the eye. As readers, we have an invitation to work with these words - to agree, to disagree, to say we see the same thing, or we see something different. As readers, it is up to us to engage the words, and then, possibly, to respond.
I’ve noticed that Scripture is often read much more like information, like a historic transaction that has given us the final word of God. I’m a trained theologian. I know how to successfully argue for that last sentence. But I also know that when we read the Bible like that, it becomes insular, like a book of history that we try to keep alive propped up by threats and ultimatums. It’s not art/reading. It’s reading for a test. And it’s reading for a test that fewer and fewer people want to take.
But, what if we learned how to read again? What if we stopped trying to take the test? What if we just experienced the encounter? This is how I am reading the words from Isaiah 58:5-9 in the lectionary this week:
Would that today you might fast
so as to make your voice heard on high!
Is this the manner of fasting I wish,
of keeping a day of penance:
That a man bow his head like a reed
and lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!
I can choose to read this text as one steeped in grief, a poetic cry to enter suffering, and as an invitation to wonder how I might encounter God in that place. Or I can choose to read this text as a moral lesson, reminding me of all the ways that I have been unpious and bad. We often avoid the prophets because we can only take so much of that kind of judgment. Or we avoid Scripture altogether because the words seem too hard, too distant, and we just can’t fill the gap between the reality that we live in and the reality that we see images of in Scripture.
But what if we were invited to let go of the idea of the test? To see Scripture as written art? As a gift passed down to us of how other people have understood the voice of God? And how that voice stands as one along side us, not one singular and above, but from the sidelines of human history? Then we would run into the arms of the prophets saying, “Yes, yes, we see that too! Yes, yes, we want that too!” Then we might move towards encounter, towards participation, towards real hearing. Then we might remember how to read.