The power of reading … slowly

  
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Some things are best done quickly.

Being reconciled with someone, for example (Matt 5:23-25); or putting some distance between yourself and idolatry (1 Cor 10:14); or listening (Jas 1:19).

But on the whole, hastiness isn’t a very healthy thing in the Bible. The feet of the wicked always seem to be hastening off after their latest wicked plan (Prov 6:18). In fact, hastening off after anything that you desire isn’t a good idea and usually results in getting lost (Prov 19:2). And of course, the man who is hasty in his words? “There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Prov 29:20).

In the coronavirus bubble that many of us have been occupying in recent months, I’m sure I’m not the only one who has rediscovered the value of slowing down.

My daily Bible reading and prayer, for example, is the best it’s been for a while. Rather than hastening out the door to catch the morning train, I take the 12 slow steps up to my home office, ignore the computer that is silently begging me to turn it on immediately, and sink into the old armchair of my mother’s that sits in the corner. I pick up two yellowing books that I unearthed while sorting out my library—an aging copy of Search the Scriptures, and an even older copy of the Revised Version of the Bible—and spend a blessed half hour in quiet reading and prayer. I’m not late. I’m not hassled. And when I finally answer the computer’s pleas and turn it on, I’m ready to be its master rather than its servant.

I’d forgotten that I owned either of these old books, and how wonderful they both are. Search the Scriptures (first published in 1949) points me each day to the shortish passage I’m supposed to read next (which is half the battle), and poses two or three insightful questions for me to ponder. And in the (unlikely) event that I use it every single day without fail, I will get through the whole Bible in three years.

As for the Revised Version, I’d also forgotten what a joy it is to read the Scriptures slowly. The RV forces you to do that. First published in the 1880s as a comprehensive update to the King James Version, the RV sits very much at the literal or ‘formal equivalence’ end of the translation spectrum. It tries to preserve the word order and idioms of the original language, while also retaining as many of the classic formulations of the KJV as possible. The result is a whole foods Bible rather than a processed one—it takes more time and effort to digest, but the health benefits are real.

For example, quite often the RV retains the more concrete idiom or imagery of the original, and thereby brings a more vivid image to mind. To give a small example, Luke 4:36 in the popular NIV translation reads:

All the people were amazed and said to each other, “What words these are! With authority and power he gives orders to impure spirits and they come out!”

The RV puts it like this:

And amazement came upon all, and they spake together, one with another, saying, What is this word? for with authority and power he commandeth the unclean spirits, and they come out.

The differences are subtle, but they add up. The RV’s language paints the picture of amazement ‘coming upon’ all of them, almost as an external force or experience that descends on them at the same time. They then speak together, ‘one with another’, evoking the image of each person turning to someone next to them and trying to understand what is going on.

‘What is this word?’, they ask. Following the Greek, the RV leaves ‘word’ as singular, emphasizing the simple authority of Jesus’ command that the ‘unclean’ spirit come out. And by using the word ‘unclean’ (rather than ‘impure’) to describe the demonic spirit, the RV sets off a resonance in my head regarding the potent Old Testament category of ‘uncleanness’.

There is no question that the NIV is easier to read, just as white rice is quicker and easier to cook and goes down more smoothly than brown. And just as there is a time for white rice, so there is a time for simpler modern translations (such as reading aloud in church). But chewing over the RV has enabled me to metabolize the riches of God’s word more slowly and appreciatively.

It has also pushed me to consider new ways of reading familiar texts. Here, for example, is how the RV renders Luke 5:21-23 (after Jesus has forgiven the sins of the ‘palsied’ man who was ‘let down through the tiles with his couch’):

21 And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, who is this that speaketh blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone? 22 But Jesus perceiving their reasonings, answered and said unto them, What reason ye in your hearts? 23 Whether is easier, to say, Thy sins are forgiven thee; or to say, Arise and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins …

That ‘whether’ at the beginning of verse 23 opens up a way of reading Jesus’ words that I’d never considered—i.e. that the comparative ease of telling a paralytic his sins were forgiven (as opposed to actually healing him) was the real question that the Pharisees were thinking about.

The episode concludes with Jesus healing the ‘palsied’ man, and note again the small but significant differences that emerge in the RV:

So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” (NIV)

… (he said unto him that was palsied), I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy couch, and go unto thy house. (RV)

The NIV makes Jesus’ instruction to the man quite functional, almost curt: “Get up, take your mat and go home”. OK, all fixed, you can go now. The RV’s more literal rendering preserves the extent to which Jesus is giving the man his life back. ‘Arise’ (there’s a pregnant word!), ‘and take up thy couch’ (that’s something you can do now, pick things up), ‘and go unto thy house’ (for the first time in who knows how long, you can go under your own steam to your own house).

I guess the benefits of slow Bible reading are one aspect of the benefits of reading anything. If reading the RV is brown rice, and reading the NIV is white rice, what does that make watching a Youtube daily devotion (of which there seems to have been a proliferation in recent months)? A jatz cracker?

Reading takes time and mental effort. But we learn and digest things through reading that videos or podcasts can’t supply. In a long-form article or book, we can follow a mind-changing argument, make new conceptual connections, and explore implications at a level that simply can’t be achieved in audio-visual media. It works the other way of course—video and audio have their particular strengths and uses (I speak as a podcaster!).

However, reading Christian books is on the wane. And I fear that if that steady decline continues, the result will be a palsied Christian mind, flabby and immobile on its couch, unable to think clearly and deeply, and ill-equipped to bless others.


PS.

  • I was tempted to qualify that rather strong conclusion by acknowledging that of course this is the sort of self-justificatory thing that someone who has spent most of his life writing and publishing would say. But I decided against it, because the truth is the opposite. I have spent most of my life writing and publishing because I’m convinced that books and writing have a unique power to teach and communicate the truth—a power that I see sadly and increasingly neglected.

  • I did say last week that this next episode would be about the essential purposes and methods of Christian ministry—sorry to keep you hanging on. Should be next week!

  • And if you want to get hold of your own Revised Version? They are hard to find in print these days (keep an eye out in secondhand bookshops). There are certainly digital versions available (on YouVersion, for example). The American Standard Version of 1901 is very similar to the RV, and is available in Accordance. The trusty New American Standard Bible is probably your best bet to buy a ‘slow reading’ Bible in print.

  • And for this week’s random image? Perhaps some whole foods.