Reading, and Rereading Scripture

One often hears in testimonies that every time you reread the scriptures, you will see something that you have never seen before.  Such a claim likely functions in two different ways.  First, restricting oneself to a particular canon can and does produce monotony, so there must be incentives to go over the familiar again.  Reading a text, watching a movie, eating a new dish, kissing a person for the first time likely has a certain heightened degree of pleasure because it is “new.”  After that, there are diminishing returns.  Yet, there remains a promise of returns nonetheless.  There is still the pleasure of the “new” even in the familiar, we are told.

Second, the testimony of the “new” in the scriptures after multiple readings is sometimes presented as if it were a special quality of the scriptures, one that they uniquely bear.   The interaction between the spirit and the reader opens up new readings that were previously not possible because of a prior deficiency of the reader, or perhaps a new situation in the reader’s life gives a different meaning to the text.  The scriptures uniquely offer the “new” because they function differently from other kinds of literature, movies, food, or lovers.

It seems to me that these two explanations for the reasons that one encounters the “new” in the scriptures offer two different accounts of what scripture is.  Is scripture a canon, or is scripture an incantation?  Is scripture a limited set of authoritative texts, or does the authority of these texts derive from special qualities uniquely held by them?

I confess that I discover, and rediscover the “new” in the scriptures all the time.  But I have also found that I discover the “new” in my spouse recently as well.  I have also recently been rereading several books that I had read very closely just a few years ago, and yet rereading them has produced a whole new set of insights for me.  It seems to me that finding the “new” in the familiar is more about how we come to relate to the familiar, and the kind of care we give it, than it is about any particular quality of the familiar.  Of course, the “new” was there all along in something as static as a text.  It is only “new” to me because something about me has changed, not that the text has transformed itself for me, but me for it.  In this sense, there is nothing unique about the scriptures in being capable as documents to speak to us differently over time.  The key is that in order for the scriptures (or our spouse, other literature, food, etc) to transform into something new, it is us who must first transform.  Only as we change can rereading produce the pleasure of the “new.”

7 Replies to “Reading, and Rereading Scripture”

  1. TT,

    Great post.

    I have been thinking about similar things. My thought was that many read the Scriptures as a divinatory or oracular practice. The Scriptures contain esoteric truths and depths of meanings beyond the superficial surface, and it takes skilled interpretive techniques to unlock these hidden meanings.


  2. TYD,
    Yes, that is exactly what I am after here when I speak of scripture as “incantation,” which I really just picked because it seemed to ring well with “canon.” I’m interested in the discursive and material ways that scripture comes to be “special,” or “unique” relative to other kinds of literature, from the font, paper weight, binding, etc, to discourses about the effects scripture can have on the reader.

  3. I think there is at least another function in the concept that the scriptures provide new things to people as they continue to read them. I think it reflects the idea that God puts things into the scriptures depending on our circumstance or at least God speaks to us through the scriptures, permitting us to see what we need to see. In a sense, the text is secondary. Rather, the text acts as an intermediary between God and personal revelation.

    I resonate much more with the idea that the texts alone do nothing without the reader. Rather, we bring ourselves to the text. In fact, we must do it. The mere fact of reading a text is impossible unless we bring something to the text. Thus, one’s experience with a given text is a function of one’s experiences before encountering the text. Much of my perspective is shaped by reading works in translation. Often, translators must provide footnotes explaining cultural references, historical allusions, they must provide enough background to allow the reader, who is from a completely different world, a way to relate with the author. Even the most familiar of words can have radically different connotations in a different language and culture. This is why reading can be such a painful process, and why some works are quite impenetrable unless one reads quite a bit in preparation. Some books can never be read for the first time, because the first time you didn’t really “read” the book. Maybe the third or fourth time through are you able to read it for the first time.

    This is another reason why I feel we simply cannot limit our reading diet to simply the canon or the scriptures. One simply must do a lot of reading outside the Bible to appreciate the bible. The more one reads outside the standard works, the better one can begin to appreciate the standard works.

    But what we bring to the text is not just our culture but our maturity. Reading Shakespeare as a high school student for a class, and reading Shakespeare as an adult are two different things. Life experiences allow us to have a different encounter with the text.

    I’m somewhat critical of the notion that we see new things in scriptures because God opened our eyes, allowing us to see them, because often I feel that this somewhat discounts or obfuscates the process that actually occurred. What happened is that you brought something new to the text, as should happen with any classic work. As we gain life experience we see new things because we have different interests, concerns, and problems, we have a variety of references to draw upon.

    Of course, as you point out, not only are we different people before encountering a text, but the texts we read can also change who we are and how we see the world. We bring things to the text, but we can also be influenced to the authors who bring something to us. Reading is very much a dance of minds.

  4. One interesting result from brain research is that it typically takes about 30 minutes of concentration on an item before it is recorded permanently in our brain. Very slow, daily concentrated meditative reading actually rewires the brain of the seeker and consistently builds relationships between different parts of a text. Attention to the definition of words results in our reinterpreting the meaning of basic words.

    This kind of reading reorders priorities, incarnates new paradigms instead of just telling us about them, and infuses a life with the sense of God’s presence.

    Perhaps “incarnation” is a better word than “incantation” for what the scriptures do, for the stories become weaved into the structure of the brain, not just as a story, but as a guide for making decisions, as a version of reality, and as a focal point for our strivings. Thus the claim in Alma 37:45 that the scriptures carry us beyond this vale of sorrow, instead of us carrying the scriptures.

  5. First, when you re-read a text, you are not the same person who read it the first time. Different person (more experiences, different perspective, etc.) gives a different reading.

    Second, your memory from an earlier reading or readings is fairly thin compared to the full experience of actually reading the text. Even if your experience of reading the second time is exactly like the first time, you don’t remember every word, every thought it stirs in you, every emotional response you had to the text. Even an identical encounter with the text will seem new, and your subsequent memory of the text will be richer after the second reading.

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