In studying literature there is this technique known as “close reading.” Essentially it means to study a complex and worthy text with careful attention to what it is actually saying. Close reading takes time, looks carefully, and does not rely merely on a personal response to the words. It aims for deeper comprehension and understanding.
Close reading means you have to slow down. Pay attention. Not impose.
As I have had to use this idea of close reading, both in studying Scripture as well as the graduate studies I’m working on, I’ve been struck by how it reflects a posture similar to what we practice during Lent. Slowing down. Paying attention. Being willing to hear.
This past week I’ve noticed it’s this “being willing to hear” part that is not always so easy.
There are multiple areas in my life right now where critical feedback is like a strange friend helping me to pay closer attention. It is painful, I’ll admit. But like the “faithful wounds of a friend” that are more to be trusted than the kisses of an enemy (Prov. 27:6), I can sense the growth and goodness at the other end of a sometimes painful process.
As a writer, it’s always scary to have other people read your work. Your words are your babies. You love them, even if they’re a little ugly and unbecoming to some (and you know this may be true). The fact is you gave birth to them, and they are hard to hand over to someone else to be criticized or rejected. As I’ve stepped into this graduate program for writing, it is like handing over my babies every week for a regular beating. Even though this process of critique is a large part of why I decided to do the program— knowing the only way to grow is to submit to learning what I don’t know— it takes the wind out of me each time.
But I am learning to breathe. Getting sucker punched is truly good for me. I am already feeling a renewed vigor and sense of freedom as I’m shown areas of weakness in my writing, and how I can do better. It makes moving forward feel exciting.
In relationships this is no less the case. No one likes to be shown their failure. Even in something as little as serving food to my family, I feel myself glow inwardly every time the response is praise and enthusiasm to what I have offered, and inversely grow defensive or disappointed when they think it is sub-par. At the same time, I know that only hearing the good is not true to reality. And if I want to aim for wholeness in my relationships, I know that means hearing where I’m missing the mark as well as where I’m super wonderful.
Yet here is where the learning curve is for me lately: on some base level I understand that I am both loved by God (and my family) and that I fail to love God (and my family). I also know that repentance is a necessary part of relationship- primarily with God, but also in a sense with others. But sometimes that is all just too broad. I need specifics—a “close reading” of myself. I need to be able to bore down into the particulars of how I love and fail to love. Perhaps doing this work of understanding ourselves in both our gifts and our gross failures is part what it means to grow in wisdom, to comprehend “what is the breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of God, to “work out your salvation” even as God works it out so powerfully in you.
I have never been one to invest a lot of time or energy in personality tests (probably says something about my personality). When we moved to China we had to take the Myers-Briggs as part of our training and I still can’t remember which one I am. I’ve also never done a deep dive into the Enneagram even though at one point I was interested in it after reading about it’s origins in the early church. There is something off-putting to me when we explain ourselves by our numbers or letters to others all the time, as if everyone else is so interested in understanding how we tick (again, my personality coming out here).
But the other day, I listened to someone explain the history of the Enneagram in a really helpful and compelling way. It made me curious to explore it more as a tool for repentance and re-aligning my heart to Jesus and to others, rather than as purely a way of knowing and becoming my best self. If nothing else, a way to get specific about both the way I’ve been made to love and the ways as a sinner I fail to love— like critical feedback on a paper. A way to “notice” on a deeper and more accurate level. It also made me think that it could be helpful in trying to understand and empathize with the differences in others I am in relationship with. Like my husband. My kids. My community.
I want to end here with a phrase from the book of John that I keep circling back to in these weeks.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
This reference to Jesus, the Light of the World, is often used during Advent, but I’m finding it a sort of lodestar as we do any sort of work of repentance. The Light is powerful. Never underestimate it. Even as we walk through darkness, or look at the darkness within ourselves or our world, and even though for a time the darkness is not dissipated, the light shines and illuminates. And the darkness has not (and cannot) overcome it.
Not being an expert in any of these areas, or one to speak with much authority, I humbly offer a few links that have been if not helpful, at least interesting to me as I’ve tried to be open to paying closer attention.
Enneagram for Wholeness- This is the interview (referred to above) I listened to this week. Disclaimer: I found the interviewer somewhat irritating. Thankfully, the guest does the majority of the talking. Just my two cents.
Jesus and John Wayne- In light of being willing to look more deeply (take “notice” is our theme!), and after seeing a vast array of people diving into this book, I started reading it. Halfway through right now and I have questions. I think cultural criticism is important. Some books I’ve read recently have been helpful even if hard to read. I think there are some real and valid observations in this book particularly. So I hope it’s not just “being defensive” that makes me not all fan-girl over this one. But I’m struggling with the narrative lens she uses to sweep everyone into a vast movement of motive for power that I’m not sure is always fair or accurate. The interview with Tim Keller (linked below) was a good follow up to this read.
A couple helpful reviews of the book:
This reviewer points out what is one of the more helpful contributions of Jesus and John Wayne— namely the “observation that evangelicalism is less defined by theology and more by culture.” Something Tim Keller also says is a weakness of American Evangelicalism in particular. Something we would do well to think about… closely.
Accusations aren’t Evidence— another helpful review with a bit more nuance and critique to it.
Tim Keller interview- I stumbled upon this talk and for some reason, after reading Jesus and John Wayne, with all of my questions and critiques, I found his words helpful. Encouraging. Pastoral. Wise. Humble. In an age prone to hero worship and celebrity culture especially in the church, I appreciated his thoughts on all of it. There is both nuance and reflective criticism here and both are needed.
That’s all folks! Thank you for coming along as I read and think through life and faith this week. I’ve been so encouraged by your response and interaction.
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