by Nathan Brown
We begin with a whole frog* and with a sharp scalpel, tweezers and magnifying glass slowly peel away layers, muscles, blood vessels and organs, laying each piece carefully aside and cutting deeper. By examining the contents of the tiny stomach, we are able to identify some of the small bugs the frog had eaten.
Perhaps we identify the little froggy heart. Though we call it a heart, it bears little resemblance to the ox heart we may have dissected the previous week. It is so called more for function than form—while bearing many similarities, the circulatory system of a large warm-blooded mammal works differently to that of a small cold-blooded amphibian.
And so it goes through the different pieces of what was a frog. After a time of careful study, we may have a much greater knowledge of frog componentry. For those studying these creatures, such knowledge can be important in better understanding how a frog moves, eat and lives.
But at the end of the process we do not have a frog. Instead we have a small pile of rather unattractive mushy stuff that once was a living, breathing, hopping frog. The process of exploration has also been a process of destruction.
Reading is a difficult task. We are told we learn how to read in the early years of primary (grade) school but we bring a lifetime of learning to reading and understanding. To do it well, reading is something that must be practised with care and patience. And few of us do it well.
When reading the Bible we often assume the most profitable form of study is to take it apart piece-by-piece — perhaps delving into the meanings of the original languages — and the meaning will become clear. With such a background, we tend to then bring this way of reading to other pieces of writing, becoming literal, word-by-word readers. But this is just one way of reading. And, while useful to varying degrees, it can be likened to dissecting a frog.
To see a frog hopping across the dewy morning grass, frog-kicking across a shaded stream or lying in wait for a small insect — to hear a frog croaking in appreciation of an approaching rainstorm or crying out in distress as it tries to escape a predator — is a long way from the dissection lab. The frog in context is a wonder of creation, a living reality that all the dissection in all the high school science departments of the world could never discover.
Context is important. Some would go so far as to argue this realisation renders the making of worthwhile dictionaries near impossible. The use of language changes with time and words can have a variety of meaning at any given point in time, depending on context. As such, an appreciation of context is vital to the careful reader’s task.
For example, the best tool for understanding a single Bible text is an overview of the Bible as a whole, its direction, purposes and overarching themes. To explore a word, sentence or verse apart from its context can give shades of meaning. But if when taken back to that context the ‘dissected’ meaning is inconsistent with the larger meaning of the chapter or book from which it was extracted, to insist on that meaning is absurd — and a serious example of bad reading.
Which is why I am surprised — in working with our church magazines — when an article is read as somehow undermining the core beliefs of Christianity and the church. Why would a magazine whose primary focus is to share the good news of the church, encourage the faith of church members and further the kingdom of God, simultaneously work to undermine that (consider Matthew 12:25)? The context must guide the reading.
Yes, as writers, we struggle with inexactness. We don’t always express things as well as we might. But we also need readers who will read with broadness of mind and openness of heart. And together we can all continue to learn how better to read — and not just to dissect, but to live it.
*Note: This column is not about frogs. And no frogs were harmed in the writing process.