Reading is Critical to Ethics

This is a quote from an interview with Mary Gordon about her new book, Reading Jesus.

One of the things that I wanted to explore in this project is what kind of reading scripture demands. In one sense, it’s reading, just like reading the instructions for your DVD player, or King Lear, or a graphic novel. But that verb isn’t adequate for all these different experiences. This is a text that you may have thought—as I once did—was the Word of God, literally containing your salvation or damnation. It has a whole overlay of your personal history, your anguish, and the culture of the West. It has your coloring book and it has Bellini. It has the horrible ranting of anti-Semites and of people who hate the body, but it also has Oscar Romero and George Herbert. The Gospels carry so much in them, so the reading can never be simple. It is a uniquely complicated experience.

Simple reading is a simple matter of understanding a sentence and perhaps another sentence. Real reading means that you can understand the parts in terms of the whole and the whole in terms of the parts; that is, you can see how sentences fit into the total concept, i.e., how they develop and cast light on it. The New Testament is a very different document read as a whole. As a collection of sentences virtually any belief can be justified, the prosperity gospel being one bizarre example.

Ethics is almost always bound up with understanding. Poor readers will never have the insight and maturity of those that can understand difficult texts and ideas.

We are in danger of becoming a nation where reading becomes a curiosity. Oh, we’ll be able to read captions under photographs, see how much medicine to take, etc. But the ability to read in the light of our experience, to read in coordination with other reading, other sources, is an art that requires practice and application.

There is today a strange worship of the commonplace, of gut feelings and a casual disdain for the learned. It calls into question the continued development and survival of this civilization.

Of course, if this civilization is nothing more than an acquistive impulse tempered by occasional reservations, reading and thought are of no importance.

But I will continue to believe that there is a civilization here and that it is worth defending.

James Pilant