Why we should read more slowly—and live 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 was previously posted on 12th June 2015)

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13 thoughts on “Why we should read more slowly—and live more slowly”

  1. I agree – after years of trawling many chapters of scripture a day, moving fast and light, increasingly I want to read less and read better.

    Mark seems to be the hastiest of gospels – everything in a rush – and the pithy phrasing and constant refrain of ‘immediately’ ‘euthus ‘( 70% of all references in NT to ‘euthus’ found in Mark), gives it a real pace. As a young Christian I read it every week -ive run out of breadth these days and enjoy reading just pericopes at a time and chewing on them.

  2. I also agree. My Spiritual Director has taught me Lectio Divina as a discipline for engaging with scripture and hearing God’s voice through it. While it is not designed as a tool for Bible study but encountering the Living Word through scripture, I have discovered many details by using this method that I have previously missed.

  3. Exhausted and full of despair, Elijah wants God to end his life, but God’s angelic servant told him:
    “Get up and eat.” Elijah looked around. Near his head he saw some bread. It had been baked over hot coals. A jar of water was also there. So Elijah ate and drank. Then he lay down again.
    The angel of the Lord came to him a second time. He touched him and said, “Get up and eat. Your journey will be long and hard.” So he got up. He ate and drank. The food gave him new strength. He traveled for 40 days and 40 nights.

    So, no lengthy exhortations for Elijah to persevere because (God knows that) sometimes, we’re just so exhausted, at our wits end and at the end of our tethers to need anything other than sleep and sustenance, instead of sermons.

    No surprise, then, that those nuances which you’ve highlighted of Jesus’ care and compassion in the gospels bear such striking resemblance to Jehovah’s shepherdly ‘thoughfulness’ in this story from the OT.

    • David,
      Who is the Angel of the Lord here?
      As you will know Alec Motyer, marks out the Angel of the Lord as:
      “the double of Yahweh,” “a distinction without a difference”…striking people with such awe as onlt divine holiness can effect…bearing the divine Name, whose coming is the coming of the Lord himself… yet also represents some *accomodation* to the humsan situation…an outreaching ofmercy(without “diluting” of his full divine nature) even when appearing with sword in hand, his essential purpose is mercy … Whenever seen he was seen as a man (not winged as church tradition…

      In His essential nature God is Spirit, and invisible, but when he wants to clothehis invisibility in an outward shape is in a form uniquely suited t his nature.
      It was in the form that he created “man”.
      Hence, even the human form of the Angel marks him as God become visible.
      This revelation of the Angel of the Lord” thus leads us back to creation…
      BUt it also leads us forward to Jesus,
      Where else in scriptureis there one who is both distinct from Yshweh and identical with him: who without losing or even diminishing his divine essence and holiness, yet accommodates himself to thecompany of sinners, who can both affirm the wrath of Godand at the same timethe outreaching of divine mercy?
      Who but Jesus?
      The Angel is the chief Old Testament pre-view of the Second Person of the Trinity.”
      From “Loving the Old Testament”
      The Angel of the Lord are, as Mike Reeves puts it, appearances of Christ in the OT period.

      • Hi Geoff,

        As I read your words, I was also reminded of Gideon’s Christophany.

        ‘When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”

        “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.”

        The Lord turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” (Judges 6:12-16)

        Gideon prepares a make-shift offering, which, as commanded, he pours out as a libation. By consuming the sacrifice with fire, another hallmark of the Divine Presence is provided (Deut. 4:24; 1 Kings 18:38-39)

        In fact, this is an encounter with the prosopon or face of God revealed in human form, as you rightly say, the second Person of the Trinity:

        Similar to Isaiah’s vision filling him with instinctive dread (Is. 6:5), Gideon is awe-struck by the fact that he is face to face with the One who declared to Moses: ‘You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.’ (Ex. 33:20):
        When Gideon realized that it was the angel of the Lord, he exclaimed, “Alas, Sovereign Lord! I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face!”

        But the Lord said to him, “Peace! Do not be afraid. You are not going to die.” (Judges 6:22-23)

        As the former Cardinal Ratzinger explained of the relation of the Son to the Father: ‘Relation, being related, is not something superadded to the person, but is the person itself. Put more concretely, the first person does not generate in the sense that the act of generating a Son is added to the already complete person, but the person is the deed of generating, of giving itself, of streaming itself forth. The person is identical with this act of self-donation.’


        • David
          good morning
          The Gideon narrative is a powerful argument in favour – I wonder how you reconcile the equating by the NT the OT angel of the Lord as Michael – seen by triangulating Josh5:13-15; Rev12:7-9; Dan10:21, 12:1

          • Hi Simon,

            Good morning. As I explained above, in specific encounters, there are hallmarks of the Divine Presence, which indicate whether the encounter is a Christophany.

            These hallmarks are:
            1. Explicit or intimated revelation of ineffable divine transcendence, i.e. the prosopon or face of divine glory.
            2. Recognition of the Divine Presence through humbled reverence and worship and sacrifice.

            So, in Joshua 5:13-15, the evidence is unmistakeable. Unlike other angelic visitations in which worship is refused, Joshua’s worship of this Commander of the Lord’s armies is accepted and echoes the Lord’s instruction to Moses (Ex. 3:5)

            Similar to Gideon’s experience, in Judges 13, the angel of the Lord transforms Manoah’s hospitality into an act of worship and sacrifice. He ascends heavenwards in its flame, as He ‘inhabits the praises of His people’ (Ps. 22:3)

            When Manoah asked for His name, so that he might honour him when his promise of a son was fulfilled, the reply was:‘Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding’

            In contrast with this, the angel who is sent to Daniel describes Michael as ‘one of the chief princes’ and I’d admit that have some difficulty reconciling Jude’s contrasting example of Michael’s deference to Jehovah (‘The Lord rebuke you’ – Jude 9). However, this perfectly echoes the Lord’s prosopographic rebuke in Zech. 3:2-4 (cf. Ps. 110:1).

            So, although there is a Christophany of the ‘angel of the Lord’ in scripture, I’d say that there are persuasive implications that this is also the archangel Michael. I think more evidence is needed to make the case compelling.

      • Geoff – I love Mike and he is brilliant, but you quote him on this with a certainty that I think remains a mystery. Patristic and Reformed tradition do equate the angel of the Lord with appearances of the eternal logos (one of Calvin’s charges against Servetus whom he burnt at the stake was he rejected the idea the angel was Jesus). But no-where in the NT is the angel of the Lord identified with Jesus, which is surely very strange given the apologetic power such an argument could have made? Indeed, in Hebrews we are told No angel was ever called son, and in Luke the angel of the Lord is identified as Gabriel, and in Matthew an angel of the Lord rolled the stone away where Jesus body lay. Jewish tradition believes it is an angel, Michael. I am familiar with the arguments, but think we need to be cautious in making such definitive dogmatic statements and retrospective attributions.

        • Hello Simon,
          I have responded to you and David at some length but it hasn’t been put up, if received for any one or more reasons I can think, but don’t really know, as it wasn’t offensive, but I shall withdraw.
          David S, your contributions are much appreciated, as are yours, Simon. It goes without saying, although perhaps it shouldn’t the whole blog is appreciated.
          But to particularise on the Angel of the Lord,
          It is indeed sublime David S.

  4. Thank you Ian. We “surf” because we have to deal with floods of data and technoference.
    The danger is that we bring this surfing mentality to our Bible reading too.
    I have at least three methods of slowing myself down:
    1. I read the passage in Hebrew or Greek – the latter slows me down more than the former.
    2. I read the passage OUT LOUD.
    3. I write the passage out in handwriting.
    I am amazed how I discover new things which I have not noticed in the last fifty years.

  5. Howard
    how lovely to see you here
    it was a conversation with you when you stayed some years ago, that slowed me down, and drilled me down, in my reading. And free’d me from feeling I had to read great draughts each day. Thankyou

  6. I’ve always been grateful that my first degree in English literature and language taught me to home in on the details that make so much difference. It’s enormously enriched my Bible reading ever since.


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