In How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler, one of the founders of the Great Books tradition, divides reading into two different skills. The first he calls “structural,” and the second he calls “interpretive.”
Structural reading looks to understand the structure of the entire work: What are the main themes? What is the primary goal or thesis of the book? What is the book trying to communicate in broad terms? Understanding the whole gives the reader insight into reading specific sentences or paragraphs.
Interpretive reading begins with the sentences and paragraphs. This approach carefully examines the specific parts of the work, using a knowledge of grammar and a sensitivity to the flexibility of words. From the specific sentences and paragraphs, one builds a picture of the book as a whole. A skilled reader uses both approaches, often simultaneously, looking at both the whole book and its parts to try to build a coherent understanding.
The most important of all the Great Books is the Bible. At Gutenberg, we approach the Bible both structurally and interpretively. During this fall quarter, students at Gutenberg are reading a number of books of the Bible as part of the Western Civilization and Great Conversation courses. Some are reading large sections of Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy. Others are reading II Samuel, Job, and Ecclesiastes. After each book or section, students come together to discuss the assigned selection and practice the skill of structural reading of the Bible.
Students also have an opportunity to practice interpretive reading of the Bible. In a course we call Microexegesis, sophomores spend most of a year reading through the Gospel of John sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph. Later as seniors, they explore theories of Bible-reading in Biblical Hermeneutics, a class that delves deeply into specific passages.
Because the Bible is so important and complex, one might ask if structural reading makes any sense. After all, some scholars and pastors have written tomes about a single verse, and so reading the entire book of Deuteronomy, for instance, will miss too many details. After a short amount of reflection, however, it becomes clear that all those exhaustive researches depend on the reader’s perspective on the whole of the book or the whole of the Bible. In simpler terms, one’s theology affects one’s reading of the text.
On the other hand, one might ask if interpretive reading makes any sense. After all, in many cases the apparent reading of a sentence may be misleading without the whole context to make sense of it. Again, though, after a short amount of reflection it becomes clear that the whole context must be constructed from the meanings of the parts.
Thus, reading the Bible requires both skills. For a grand symphony made up of individual notes, both conductor and musicians must perform their parts well to create beautiful music. So it is with reading the Bible. The reader needs to have skill with both the whole and the parts and gain an awareness of how each part influences the other. We at Gutenberg are thankful to be part of a college whose curriculum helps students continue to develop their skills of reading the greatest of all the Great Books.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Colloquy, Gutenberg College’s free quarterly newsletter. Subscribe here.