Why we need to read more slowly

ptg01678501I suspect that you are familiar with the modern proverb ‘The devil’s in the detail.’ It usually comes up when people are agreed on the general issues involved in a problem, but there is more to be done in working out the solution. But I was rather shocked to discover the original form of this saying: ‘God is in the detail.’ I am not sure whether the revised form came about because of its alliteration and rhythm (‘devil’ having two syllables like ‘detail’)—or whether it is because, in a world of small print and endless ‘terms and conditions’, we are increasingly impatient with having to go into the detail.

But when recently doing some work on Mark’s gospel, I was struck by how much there is of significance to Mark’s message about Jesus in the detail. You can see something of the attention to detail in this gospel by comparing Mark 5.1–2 with the parallel verses in Matt 8.28 and Luke 8.26 (always a good exercise when reading a Bible passage). Mark alone emphasises ‘crossing the sea’ and Jesus stepping out of the boat, betraying his interest in fishing which most likely arises from using Peter as his source. It was Mark alone who told us that Jesus was asleep ‘on a pillow’ in the boat (Mark 4.28); later, it is Mark alone who tells us that the 5,000 sit on the ‘green’ grass to be fed (Mark 6.39).

As I was reading through, three particular details stand out for me, one in each of the healing encounters that Jesus has in chapter 5.

The story of the ‘Gerasene demoniac’ in the first part of Mark 5 is full of drama and chaos—there seems to be a lot of shouting going on! As soon as Jesus steps out of the boat, this wild man, on the edges of civilisation in every conceivable way, charges towards him yelling—and Jesus has clearly been yelling back. The clash of cosmic powers in this man’s life results in a herd of pigs charging over a cliff, no doubt squealing on their way. Yet after all this noise, there is an unearthly calm; the man is sitting, ‘clothed and in his right mind’, and his neighbours find this more terrifying than anything, since all their assumptions about how the world is have been challenged. And here is the detail which struck me: the man was ‘clothed’. Where did the clothes come from? It must have been from Jesus or the disciples. Jesus doesn’t just restore the man’s sanity; he also restores his dignity.

The next detail comes from the story of the women who has suffered bleeding for 12 years. Her story is interwoven with another, and together they offer a study in contrasts. She is a poor, unnamed woman, whereas Jairus is a wealthy, influential man. And yet they are both in desperate need as they turn to Jesus for help. Jostled by the crowd, and too ashamed to make herself known, she did the only thing she could think of—she reached out and touched the tassel on the fringe of his clothing. And here is the detail: ‘Jesus felt the power go out of him.’ Jesus, word made flesh, filled with the power of the Spirit, wonder-worker and revered teacher—he felt the power drain from him. Healing was as costly for Jesus as it can be for us—it takes time, attention and energy, and he is willing to give all three to the woman.

The third detail comes in the other half of the interlocking. Once again, there is plenty of commotion when Jesus arrives at Jairus’ house. Not only are all the family mourning, the professionals have turned up to wail for a fee. Jesus throws them out (no gentle Jesus, meek and mild here!) and goes to the dead girl surrounded only by those of faith and hope. Once again, Mark is alone in recording the actual words Jesus speaks in Aramaic: ‘Talitha koum’. And what is the first thing that he does? If it was me, I think I would parade her in triumph as a sign of God’s power at work through me! But Jesus continues to be concerned for her welfare; he arranges for both food and privacy.

This tells us a lot about what is needed to read the Bible well. In an over-wordy age, we are not used to slowing down to attend to the detail of the text. But this can actually be more important than having the latest expert commentary to hand. In our world of speed-reading, speed-dating and speed-everything, we need to take time to learn how to read more slowly.

And these little, eye-witness details suggest something much larger about life. Whatever else is going on around, whatever is at stake, Jesus is relentlessly focussed on the welfare of the individuals he is dealing with. He attends to the details of their lives.

I wonder if that suggests something important for our busy lives too. Do we attend to people in the matters of detail? When someone is in front of me, do I give them my full attention, and set aside anything that might distract me? Am I prepared to give my time, my energy and my attention in the way that Jesus did? It’s not the devil, but the angel who is in the detail—the angel bearing good news of the kingdom of God, which grows one life at a time.

This article first appeared on Christian Today on 9th June

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5 thoughts on “Why we need to read more slowly”

  1. ‘In an over-wordy age, we are not used to slowing down to attend to the detail of the text. But this can actually be more important than having the latest expert commentary to hand.’

    This is the real challenge, though, especially for those of us who have academic pretensions. It’s imperative to keep up with the latest scholarship, be it in Theology or Biblical Studies or a related discipline, and reading (Scripture and other books) slowly often seems no more than an ideal.

  2. The original ‘devil’ was actually employed by lawyers to look into the fine print for errors, something that the Wikipedia entry doesn’t mention.
    I have always been captivated by Jesus’ compassion: the woman at the well is listened to, even though he is hot, dusty, thirsty, at the end of a long walk through parching desert.
    The Syro-Phoenician woman seem to have been a turning point: a sudden shocking faith that even crumbs are nourishment to the starving.

  3. Thanks Ian,

    Good stuff. I think this is generally of fundamental importance in reading Scripture and especially relevant to reading Mark.

    So, being prompted to do what comes readily, I have three notes on your details:

    a) in relation to the demoniac man being ‘clothed and in his right mind’ – is it OK to take this textual detail and take the further step (beyond the text) that his clothes (like his right mind) must have come from Jesus, when this further detail is more or less a ‘readerly interjection’ than textual detail?

    b) in relation to the woman with the flow of blood. One of the amazing feature of this story would seem to be that it didn’t take any attention from Jesus – it was all her initiative.

    c) I think it is interesting that in 5.29 she is healed as her flow of blood ‘withers’. An interesting converse echo of 3.1-5 – wholeness for her comes from withering, whereas wholeness for the withered man comes from restoration.

    • Thanks Pete.

      On a, I was struck by this note about clothing on reading it through for writing a study—I am not sure I had spotted it before. The man is clearly depicted as being alone, and if he is clothed the only possible source for the clothing is Jesus and his band of disciples. Mark’s account, despite the detail, is too spare to include the action…though it would be quite characteristic of Jesus (as we see in the next story) to ensure that this person is given material provision.

      On b, yes I agree with you that it seems remarkable that Jesus healed without any intention. I guess it is indicative of his will–that, had he known, he would have healed her. There is a parallel with Peter’s shadow and Paul’s handkerchieves in Acts 5.15 and Acts 19.12. I loved this comment on an evangelical commentary site: ‘Since the accounts in both Acts 5 and 19 are rendered as valid by most translations, they must stand, though we might prefer that they did not. The notion of remote healing through the agency of a talisman or holy relic seems to be at odds with the general tenor of the New Testament.’

      On c, yes, that is interesting. Mark appears to have an interest in this word. Matthew uses it three times, once in the Parable of the Sower, and twice in relation the temple fig tree; Luke once in the Sower (as he does not record the temple fig); Mark uses it five times, in the Sower, once in the temple fig, these two you mention, and once, rather oddly, about the ‘possessed’ boy in chapter 9.


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