Ah yes, your preaching class is requiring you to read something by St. John Chrysostom. I’m so glad — when you get to know a great preacher like Chrysostom, you may end up with a mentor for life. And you might not pick him up on your own, right?
But first you have to learn how to read him.
Fourth century rhetorical Greek translated into 19th century English is challenging. Reading dense theological texts is always challenging.
Learning to Read All Over Again
This gives me a chance to explain one of the key ways you need to learn to read in seminary.
Last time I wrote I suggested you needed to master at least three separate ways of reading to do well in your assignments and not get overwhelmed.
Strategy #1: For Dense Theological Texts
The first of those ways of reading is designed for dense theological texts. You most often need it in history classes when you are reading primary sources, especially from the early Church or the Middle Ages.
You were probably hoping for a way to speed read this stuff. You are out of luck. This is one of two forms of seminary reading that is probably actually slower than your ordinary pace.
There are three challenges with much theological writing — including Chrysostom’s preaching.
1. The material is more dense than you are used to. The writers discuss abstract concepts and build arguments rather than aiming for simplicity.
2. The style and structure is completely unfamiliar.
- Great 4th century theologians essentially wrote in an oral style. They use rhetorical tools designed for your ear, not your eye. Some people do best to read them aloud and listen.
- In the high middle ages, a Scholastic theologian like Thomas Aquinas wrote with a structure designed like a conversation — until you know which part actually expresses his own views you can be completely befuddled.
3. Often the conceptual world is very different from our own. Fail to notice that Anselm is thinking in terms of Feudalism and its system of justice and you won’t track with his argument.
These factors can conspire to leave you completely lost as your eyes keep plowing forward. You have to slow yourself down and make sure you grasp the flow of the work.
There is a way, however. And it is worth it.
Here is my simple and succinct plan to make sense of even very difficult theology from past eras. Follow these steps and you’ll be fine.
Before you open the book…
First ask some questions.
Figure out why the text was assigned. Find out in advance what to look for once you open the book and read. Do you have to write a paper on it, or spend an hour or two discussing it? Can you tell from the syllabus what key topics you ought to be looking for?
Find out in advance what is inside the covers. If you know what the text is going to be about you are less likely to get lost. Who wrote it? When? Where? Why? Skim through the introduction to the volume in which you find the text. There might be other references to help you, like Quasten’s Patrology, for material from the first five centuries, or volumes on one author, like Augustine Through the Ages.
All of this orients you and will make it easier for you to understand the text and gain what you need from it.
When you start reading…
Then, work through paragraph by paragraph (or numbered section by numbered section). Number the lines on a sheet of paper, and have your pen ready.
- Read the first paragraph. Write a one-line summary on the first line of your paper. Don’t allow yourself to say any more than that.
- Read your one-line summary of the first paragraph, then read the second paragraph and write a one line summary of that one.
- Read your two one-line summaries, then read the third paragraph. Now write a one-line summary of that one.
- Keep going like this all the way to the end.
- You never summarize more than a paragraph.
- Your summary is never longer than a line.
- Your sheet of notes becomes a quick summary of the argument and key issues.
Reading through your notes each time reinforces your understanding of the whole, and helps you see where each part fits in. You never feel lost.
Then when class rolls around you show up for discussion with the text and your summary notes. You’ll be able to jump in easily, and you’ll sound really smart.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments — and if you liked the post, please share it using the buttons below!