Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Vacation Report: Books, Beaches, etc.

Hanging out at beaches for the past few days, looking at the ocean, listening to the gulls, watching little kids, body-surfing, and reading of course. Just picked up my sister-in-law's new book, The River Wife. Gut-wrenching first-chapter. And cool to hold a book in your hand that's dedicated to your big brother! BTW, if you want to read the first chapter, click here.

Also started reading The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts. This book was highly recommended at Hearts & Minds BookNotes. Published in 1994, it is an extended meditation on reading in the modern world. Birkerts says that around 1700 the nature of reading changed (because the availability of the written word changed). Reading before that point had been intensive, while after that point it tended to be extensive. In the early days, the printed word was not profusely available. People might own only one or two books, and these they read "intensively." That is, they read the same book repeatedly over many years, meditating on it, memorizing passages, dwelling with the words. The modern reader, however, reads "extensively." The printed word is available in wild profusion. We moderns read broadly, while our ancestors read deeply. We read horizontally, they vertically. We are able to garner more information, from a wider variety of sources, in a matter of minutes, than our ancestors could in a lifetime. As a result we have a great deal of knowledge, but perhaps (this is Birkerts' surmise) less wisdom.

Well, that's all very interesting to me. I read about all that while sitting in a beach chair, intermittently looking up and noticing that the tide was going out, the expanse of wet sand between my feet and the water's edge was broadening, the surf sounding distant now, and the cries of gulls and children somehow more lonely. On the same beach I continued to read Eugene Peterson's The Jesus Way. Here, on page 158, Peterson explains the meaning of the Hebrew word midrash. Peterson says that midrash refers to "the activity of a person who seeks the meaning of the word of God." And he quotes Elie Wiesel:
If we are realistic persons, honest persons, alert persons, then midrash will enter our lives.
Perhaps midrash as an activity, a particular way of reading the Scriptures, is something like Birkerts' "intensive reading." Peterson quotes Wiesel again:
Nothing is worthwhile compared to this--searching Scripture, asking questions of the text, seeking the truth of God's Word.
Or, in other words, midrash.

And it occurred to me that that is exactly what I've been doing lately in reading through the Gospel of John. I've been practicing "intensive reading." I've been seeking God in the Scriptures, asking questions of the text, etc. I'm not trying to glorify myself here, or to suggest that I am achieving some great thing. It's something anyone can do, and yet I know that for most of my life as a believer I have not done it. I've been cursory, impatient, and selective. I've been reading horizontally, quickly moving on as if the truths of God are easily digested.

Anyway, I cherish these Wiesel quotes. I cherish the insights of Peterson and Birkerts. And I'm very excited about my sister-in-law's new book.

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