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On Meditative Reading
And ruthlessly slowing down
Did your parents ever tell you to chew your food 20 times before swallowing? I try doing that every once in a while and am amazed out how impatient I can be. I don’t know anything about the science, but it seems common sense that chewing food more times makes for easier digestion. We can’t digest steak whole, but sometimes that’s how we read texts that have the potential to transform us. If we want to digest it and be changed, we have to slow. down. and. chew.
In recent decades there have been many attempts at reading Scripture in light of ordinary habits of reading, moving from general hermeneutics to special hermeneutics. The idea of meditative reading moves in the opposite direction, starting with special hermeneutics, how to read God’s Word, and transferring to general hermeneutics, how to read any other book for transformation. If there is one word that captures the way in which we are to read Scripture, it is meditation.
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In his excellent book on Bible reading, Eat This Book, Eugene Peterson observes that the Hebrew word translated “meditate” is the same word used to describe a dog “growling” over a bone (see Isaiah 31:4). It conjures up images of chewing slowly, savoring, and relishing, as opposed to gobbling up the morning kibble in 3 gulps. Hence Peterson’s title, Eat This Book, which is also taken from the episodes of Ezekiel and John eating scrolls of prophecy (Ezekiel 3:1-2 and Revelation 10:9-10). The emphasis is on digesting God’s word, internalizing it, allowing “the word of Christ to dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16).
Philosopher Robert Roberts describes human beings as “verbivores”, creatures that eats words, from the Latin “verbum”, meaning word, and “voro”, to devour or swallow. This describes how words, like food, enter our bodies: through the act of eating and swallowing. The next stage would be digestion, so Roberts also describes humans as “word digesters”. He comments on Dueteromony 8,
“Whoever feeds on the word of God lives; whoever does not take this word into himself, ruminate upon it, swallow it, and digest it into his very psyche, starves himself as truly as he would if he quit eating physical food.”1
Some Practical Suggestions
There is something irresistible about words on a page. Next time you read, or even as you read this, try stopping mid-page and think about what you are reading. Your eyes will be drawn to the next sentence, the next paragraph, like a moth to a porch light. This also happens when you try stopping at the bottom of a page. Resist the urge to turn the page. Guard against the temptation to just continue reading passively because one sentence or one page follows another.
Unless you have already been reading for more than a few minutes, this will probably feel unnatural, like halting halfway through a bicep curl. In order to ponder and pray while reading, we have to develop the ability to pause mid sentence, mid page or mid chapter.
Weightlifters use a technique called “pause reps” where the weight is held for 3-5 seconds, sometimes at the bottom or midpoint of the lift. Doing this facilitates muscle growth that is not activated in simple fluid motions. Try using “pause reps” while reading. After reading a page, pause for just a few moments, perhaps just long enough to pray “Lord, open my eyes to see and my ears to hear.”
Also, when reading for transformation, limit the amount you read. Intentionally plan to read 1-2 pages, no more. Look ahead to the next page or two and identify your stopping point in advance. Or set a limit by timing your meditative reading, whether for 5 minutes, 15, or 60. Use a timer or alarm so you don’t worry about when you need to leave for work, go to class, or get the kids to school.
Some books facilitate this kind of reading more than others. Daily devotional readings that clearly set out assigned passages for each day help shorten and limit your reading. But that is only the first step.
It is all too easy to pick up a book like My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers or Morning and Evening by Charles Spurgeon, read a page, put the book down, and get on with your day. A simple solution here is to reread the passage. This can be done even if your reading is longer, say a chapter; read it quickly the first time, and then again a second time, but slow down. Additionally, if there are Scripture references, take the time to read those verses and meditate on them as well.
Do you want to become a better reader? I know I do. But beware our cultural propensity to equate better with more and faster. To borrow John Mark Comer’s title, perhaps we need to ruthlessly eliminate hurry from our reading.
Quote from John Webster
We do not read well; and we do not read well, not only because of technical incompetence, cultural distance from the substance of the text or lack of readerly sophistication, but also and most of all because in reading Scripture we are addressed by that which runs clear counter to our will. Reading Scripture is thus a moral matter; it requires that we become certain kinds of readers, whose reading is taken up into the history of reconciliation...Through the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ we are given the capacity to set mind and will on the truth of the gospel as those who have been reconciled to God.2
At the Cancer Clinic, a poem by Ted Kooser, one of my favorite poets. Reading poetry is a great exercise in the school of slowing down. Try setting a timer for 2 minutes, read this poem out loud, and then close your eyes and picture the scene that Kooser paints. What do you feel? What do you notice happening in your body? Perhaps a warmth in your chest, or the slight tug of a smile at the corners of your mouth? That’s what happens when we meditate and allow words to act on us.
What are some methods or tools you use to slow down when reading? Please comment and share your wisdom!
Limning the Psyche: Explorations in Christian Psychology, edited by Mark R. Talbot and Robert C. Roberts (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997).
Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 87.