A Catholic Reader

Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

Menu Close

Tag: reading with understanding

The Greatest Book Ever Written!

bergsma bible basics for catholics

I am very big on the importance of reading things in their proper context, as you can see in my Four-Step Reading Method for reading with understanding. Earlier today, I was reading this article by Thomas P. Harmon on Catholic World Report, a review of John Bergsma’s Bible Basics for Catholics: A New Picture of Salvation History
. I haven’t read the book, but it sounds like a good one, chiefly because it presents the Bible the way it has traditionally been read – i.e., the entire Bible is about Christ. This is the way the first Christians understood Hebrew Scripture (the Old Testament) and it is obviously true of the New Testament.

Much of the exuberance of the early Christians stemmed from the extraordinary realization that the Scriptures had been fulfilled within their lifetimes and in their sight (one is tempted to say, right under their noses). Their exuberance is present in Peter’s speech to the crowds on Pentecost, when he points out Christ’s fulfillment of the promises given to David with a chain of references to the Prophet Joel and the Psalms (Acts 2:14-36); it’s also present in Paul’s speech in the Synagogue in Antioch, where Paul shows that Christ is the fulfillment of God’s dealings with Israel from Moses to David (Acts 13:13-41). Christ’s words in Matthew 13:17 nicely capture the bewilderment of the early Christians that so many of their fellows remained unmoved: “Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it; and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”

The message that Christ fulfilled the Scriptures was the bedrock of the early Christian mission to the Jews and the source of much of their energy. That exuberance has continued to be vital force in the Church ever since. But the message that Christ fulfilled the Scriptures has been obscured in recent years. …

I’ll get to why this message has been obscured in a minute. The important point here is that the Bible is one unified book, not simply a random collection of sacred writings. Like a novel, it has a plot with a beginning, a middle, and an end; unlike a novel, the story it tells is true, although not every “chapter” (book of the Bible) is factual. (More about that in a later post.) If we think of the Bible this way, we can see that reading a single chapter, out of the context of the whole, makes no more sense than reading just one chapter of a novel – we can’t really understand it, except as part of the whole.

By the way, we shouldn’t be led astray when we speak of “books” of the Bible. Before the invention of the codex (a book of individual leaves or pages, bound together within a rigid cover), written works meant to be preserved were inscribed on scrolls, each scroll being called a “book.” Lengthy works spanned several scrolls, or many “books.” Since the codex format allows entire works to be published in a single unit, we have come to think of a “book” as a complete work. But the ancient “book” was the equivalent of “chapter” in our modern parlance. (See my earlier discussion of the revolutionary advent of the codex.) Therefore, my suggesting that each “book” is like the chapter of a novel makes more sense than you might first think. Modern editions of ancient works still call the “chapter” divisions “books” (St Augustine’s Confessions, for instance).

icon christ creating
In the beginning:
Christ creates the animals
ghent altarpiece adoration of the lamb
End of the story: Christ triumphant

To give this analogy of the Bible and the novel, consider, too, that Christians regard the Bible as having one Divine Author, who used individual humans as His ghostwriters. Each writer (Moses, Isaiah, Matthew, John, Paul, Peter, etc.) wrote in his own chosen style, but wrote what the Author wanted to convey. (Plenty of successful novelists, who have contracts that require lots of new titles in rapid succession, create plot outlines and then entrust them to ghost writers.) So the Bible is the book, God is the author, the prophets, evangelists, etc. are the ghost writers. What is the story? It’s the story of the salvation of Mankind and all Creation, starting at the beginning (Genesis) and ending with the triumphant wrapping up of beginning to end (Genesis to Revelation). Some bad stuff happens along the way, but the Hero wins out and vanquishes the Foe, and the story has a happy ending. God the Son is the Word with which the story is told, as well as the Hero of the story. We are the readers being instructed and delighted by the story, but we are also characters acting it out.

These days, lots of people learn about the Bible in Bible Study groups – but how many of those present the Bible in the way I have just described? Very few. And yet, this is the way Christians have always understood the Bible – at least until the modern age, when modern Biblical scholarship began notice that the forest was made up of lots of different species of tree, i.e., to take into account different rhetorical contexts, genres, and styles of the individual chapters (this is called the historico-critical method). We began to think of them as separate “books” in the modern sense of being complete, discrete works. This is a problem that Harmon points out in his review:

The underlying assumption of most historical-critical scholarship is that, not only can we not rely on the divine inspiration of Scripture to provide unity to the Bible, but even the individual books and parts of individual books are the result of random, subrational processes. We cannot, therefore, find unity in the books of the Bible even on the human level. The result is that, when the unity of the Bible is denied, so also is its intelligibility. It is no wonder so many contemporary people find Christianity unbelievable when a large percentage of those who spend their lives studying the Bible think that it is unintelligible.

This is a problem that recedes from view when we return to the understanding that God is the author, that the Bible, although its individual chapters were produced by different ghost writers and composed in many different styles and genres, nonetheless follows the Author’s master plot. It is crucial that we know and remember this. Here’s Harmon again:

Without an appreciation of the intelligibility and unity of the Bible, history appears random and God’s salvation of men seems unlikely, uncertain, or impossible. The theme of fulfillment of the Scriptures is especially important now, during the Year of Faith and as the Synod on the New Evangelization in Rome is just completed.

mark shea making senses out of scripture

If you’ve decided to devote more time and attention to reading and studying the Bible in this Year of Faith, you might try Bergsma’s Bible Basics for Catholics: A New Picture of Salvation History, which follows the theme of successive covenants throughout salvation history. Another good book that helps the reader understand the Bible in the traditional way, to see it whole, is Mark Shea’s Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did
. Read well, and prosper!

Read any work with greater understanding

Owl reading a book

You’ll grow wiser as you read!

I thought I would offer here the following method of analyzing any serious work, which can be used by intelligent readers with no particular expertise in the subject matter of the work being read (I’ve also published this over on my Catholic Social Teaching blog). This is a method I developed for my Humanities students at the University of Southern Indiana, who were usually not accustomed to dealing with primary works and needed some guidance in developing good reading skills. This method is intended to be used for “non-fiction” works of all sorts, although it can (and has) been adapted for reading literary (poetic, fictional, or dramatic) works.

I will confess that this method (which the students found very helpful, not only in my class, but in upper level classes in their majors) is one I boiled down from Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book (which I’ve referred to several times before). One way in which I’ve improved on Adler’s method (if I may say so) is to put “evaluation” last – with undergraduate students particularly, who seem to have remarkably few analytical skills, it was necessary to emphasize that an opinion must always be predicated on knowledge and understanding of the matter being opined, otherwise it is just prejudice (i.e., literally, judging before having knowledge or understanding).

Anyway, I offer this method to my readers, as it may be useful in reading all sorts of works in fields in which one is not particularly well-versed. If you use it consistently, over time you’ll find that you can read all sorts of serious works with greater ease and understanding. You’ll also find, as you read a broader range and more books, that you begin to hear a kind of ongoing conversation amongst the books of your acquaintance. As you’ll see, the absolute key to understanding any work is context-context-context!

Four-Question Analysis of Any Work of Non-Fiction

You’ll find as you go through this method that the keynote is “context.” No work is self-interpreting, neither should it be read simply against the background of the reader’s own experience or opinion. To learn from any work, one must be careful to read it by its own lights in order to understand what the author was trying to convey. Once this understanding has honestly been reached, one should see how the work has contributed to, or perhaps even diverted, the historical discussion of its subject matter. When this has been done – and only then – can the reader arrive at an intelligent evaluation of the work.

1. The Rhetorical Context: What is it about as a whole?

  • What kind of work is it?
  • What is the central thesis or claim? How does the author support his argument?
  • What kind of audience does the author seem to address?
  • What purpose is the author trying to achieve?

There is nothing more surely guaranteed to produce misunderstanding than  to fail to read a work in its proper context. This is true of everything from the Bible to the instruction manual for an appliance. Consider how disastrous it would be to read the Bible as if it were merely an instruction manual, like the one that comes with your toaster or hairdryer (undeniably, many people have tried to do so), and or to fail to notice that Jonathan Swift is being satirical when he suggested in “A Modest Proposal” that English overlords deal with the overpopulation of their Irish subjects by eating their babies as a delicacy.

2. The Argument of the Work: What is said in detail, and how?

  • What are the key terms and what is meant by them?
  • What are the author’s leading propositions?
  • What argument does the author present, and what are its components?
  • How do the different parts of the argument work together to support the leading propositions?
  • Does the author solve the problem he  addresses? If not, does he recognize or acknowledge that he has not solved it?

Understanding key terms is crucial to comprehending what the author is trying to say. Once again, context is important in understanding terminology correctly. Then again, it is important not simply to understand individual examples or claims, but to understand them in the context of the work as a whole – are they major claims, or do they support some proposition? Are they statements the author makes, or propositions he is refuting?

(In a fictional work, you should consider the theme of the story. What point is the author making about the way life is, or the way we should live? Do the choices and actions of his characters realistically support or illustrate that point?)

3. The Significance of the Work: The work in literary, historical, or cultural context

  • How does it relate, or respond, to other works?
  • How does it relate or respond to the cultural conditions in which it was produced?
  • How does this work reflect, change, or advance a particular understanding of human concerns?

No work stands completely on its own, nor does our attempt to understand it occur in a vacuum. Again, context is key to understanding the significance of the work. In this case, this means that we should consider how this work relates to others on the same, or similar, subject, how it changes or adds to what we already knew or what had already been said on the subject, or even how this work has changed the ongoing “discussion” represented by its particular literary tradition.

4. Evaluation of the Work: To what extent does the work express or illuminate Truth?

  • Would you say that the work is true, in whole or in part?
  • What specific valuable and true insights does the work provide?
  • To what extent does the author’s analysis or account seem incomplete?
  • In what ways does the author seem uninformed, misinformed, or illogical?

Intellectual honesty mitigates against crude dichotomies of right and wrong; a qualified appraisal is often more appropriate than an absolute approval or disapproval. A work which is mistaken or illogical in some regard may nonetheless offer insights worth gleaning. We shouldn’t disdain Aristotle’s ethical insights simply because he erroneously believe that frogs are spontaneously generated out of pond water, nor dismiss Nietzsche’s diagnosis of modern problems out of hand simply because his prescription for solving those problems seems so wrongheaded. Anyone who truly desires to grow in wisdom must restrain (and retrain) the impulse to rely on gut reactions or to give thumbs up/thumbs down evaluations of serious works.

So there it is. Try it, you’ll like it. And if you don’t, let me know why.