The curse of too much reading

JPS points us to a post by Kevin Edgcomb:

I curse my studies. Sometimes, anyway. What good is it to be following a Bible reading plan for the faithful when half of what is going on during my reading is (Lord, have mercy!) a critique of the translation, a mental retroversion to the Hebrew and/or Greek involved, mental notes on historical illumination and literary parallels, and all manner of distractions. The wonder is often gone. I hate that.

The same experience can afflict the classicist, who can no longer sail with Telemachus in a black ship across the wine-dark sea to see fair-haired Menelaus, for all the scholarly footnotes that howl in his head. 

Is there much practical difference between this and being unable any longer to read the book in question?  Is a textual scholar — let us say one with perfect command of Homeric Greek, who has memorised the scholia and knows every volume of important scholarship published in the last millennium — perhaps the least able, of all men, to read the Odyssey any more?

Kevin rightly observes the problems in bible reading for those with too much head knowledge.  It has been many years since the ordinary off-the-shelf bible-reading guides have been of much service to me.  They are aimed at some common average, of sympathies and intellect and attitude; and perhaps few of those inclined to study, even as amateurs, will fall into that group.

I say this with regret, not pride.  I am the loser, not the gainer thereby.  I have not gained in knowledge of God; I have merely become unable to learn from some who know more than me on every important point, except in matters of manuscript studies.

How easy it is for the less perceptive to suppose that they have “risen above” this sort of guide, when in truth they have merely become  unable to read it and profit from it, for all intents and purposes.

What shall it profit a man, if he knows every footnote in Nestle-Aland, and loses his soul?  In my time of dying, which may be very much sooner than I suppose, how much of that to which I have devoted my life will seem other than dry and dusty shreds of paper?


8 thoughts on “The curse of too much reading

  1. you should try Mark Allan Powell’s book ‘Loving Jesus.’ It is his attempt to help other who suffer through these issues. As one who used to aspire toward a career in biblical scholarship I can say that it has helped me.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Seth. I can’t say that I *suffer*; on the contrary, I am altogether too comfortable! But I’ll look into finding the book.

  3. Wow, join the club! It is very difficult to balance my love of learning about the Bible and the Fathers with my very real need to connect with my God. I don’t think I have any other solution, except to pry myself from my books from time to time, shut up and pray. Given the demands of work and, of course, this consuming hobby, that happens far too little, but it is important. If I spend too much time in my head, I’m asking for trouble in the rest of my life.

    Pray for me as I seek that balance and I’ll return the favour (I’ll do it anyway, but it is nice to know that someone else is praying too).


  4. Phil,

    Your thoughts are mine. The days rush past us like thunder, and leave little behind them except fading memories. The most ‘important’ piece of research has perhaps a life of a mere 10 years. Where now are the compilers of 19th century compendia, fabulously learned? It’s *fun* to learn more and more, like a drug. But it’s so easy to acquire a swollen head and a shrivelled heart. Famously university teachers grow accustomed to being surrounded by students who are either less educated or their intellectual inferiors, and grow arrogant with it. We are at no such risk…. or are we?

    I think that so long as we realise this, and don’t come to despise the ordinary believers — often far closer to God than we are — as too often people in print seem to do, we will come to no real harm. We’re only engaged in a high-status form of trainspotting, when all is said and done. Little that we do will have any lasting effect. Let us pray for the grace of God and the help of the Holy Spirit.

    I’m no spiritual giant. One tip that has worked for me, in case it helps anyone else: I often have to go away during the week. I have a checklist of things to make sure are done before I leave. The final item is to pray before I leave the house, that it will be safe from fire and thieves etc; and I stick in a prayer for someone else at the same time, so that it isn’t just about me. It may not be much, but it forces me to briefly but regularly talk to the Lord. Habit is much, in human beings. Starting our journeys with prayer is something, I rationalise.

  5. I ran across this post in a search of your site and was struck by it; it puts me in mind of St. Augustine words:

    “What is the trouble with us? What is that? What did you hear? The unlearned rise up and take heaven by storm, and we, with all our erudition but empty of heart, see how we wallow in flesh and blood!”
    Confessions, 8.8.19, tr. Msgr. John K. Ryan (1960)

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