At different times in my life, I have attempted to read each of these sacred texts on my own - and each time, I have failed. I have failed because the texts overwhelmed me. I did not have the background knowledge. I did not have a grasp of the vocabulary and syntax. I did not have a way of synthesizing actual meaning. And most importantly, I did not have a teacher.
Despite my failures in actually reading these documents, here's what I know. There are times when pieces of each of these sacred texts move me. When their words lift from the pages and transform my head, heart, and soul. And when this happens, it is usually because someone else has led me through a 'close reading' of these complex texts. Whether that 'someone' is a theologian - or a teacher - they use very specific close-reading strategies to make meaning from the text:
Spiritual leaders breathe life into sacred texts when they focus on:
- Word Choice and Syntax- Words of complex texts are chosen carefully, deliberately, and with intention. When we understand the power of each individual word, we have a deeper understanding of the text as a whole. Spiritual leaders spend a great deal of time dissecting sacred scriptures word by word in an attempt to wring-out a text's meaning. For a simple yet powerful example of how to zoom in on language aspects of a text, check out How to a Close Reading using "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" by Dr. Seuss. This is a great video to share with both students and teachers!
- Context - Talented spiritual leaders -- and teachers -- get this. Without understanding the context of the time, one may lose sight of powerful messages hidden within the text. Effective teachers of complex texts recognize when they need to provide context and how much background to provide. To help reconcile close reading and context, check out P.L.Thomas' excellent post on this topic - NEW CRITICISM, CLOSE READING, AND FAILING CRITICAL LITERACY AGAIN
- Meaning - Whether we're talking about religious or literary texts, this is where things get a little messy. I get the most meaning from texts when my spiritual teachers create opportunities for me to 'transact' with specific passages. That is, when me (the reader) acts and is acted upon by the text itself. This approach to making meaning from text, known as the Transactional Theory of Literary Work, was developed by Louise Rosenblatt . Rosenblatt's work is essential in understanding how we make meaning from from written work. Transacting with the text goes way beyond recitation, repeated reading, or literal interpretations; rather it is a personal relationship that exists between the passage and each reader. A written work does not have the same meaning for all readers because individuals bring their own unique background and experiences to the text. In a transactional approach to reading, written work may have a different meaning to each individual. Unlike the New Criticism approach, meaning does not just reside within the four corners of the page. Subsequently, meaning becomes messy - both in religion and in schools. We need to OK with that messiness of making meaning from text.