August 9, 2006

Dissecting a Frog

2006 1522 page6 cape begin with a whole frog* and with a sharp scalpel, tweezers, and magnifying glass and slowly peel away layers, muscles, blood vessels, and organs, laying each piece carefully aside and cutting deeper. By examining the contents of the tiny stomach, we are able to identify some of the small bugs the frog has eaten.
Perhaps we identify the little froggy heart. Though we call it a heart, it bears little resemblance to the ox heart we may have dissected the previous week. It is so-called more for function than form; while bearing many similarities, the cir-
culatory system of a large warm-blooded mammal works differently from that of a small cold-blooded amphibian.
And so it goes through the different pieces of what was a frog. After a time of careful study we may have a much greater knowledge of frog composition. For those studying these creatures such knowledge can be important in better understanding how a frog moves, eats, and lives.
2006 1522 page6But at the end of the process we do not have a frog. Instead we have a small pile of rather unattractive mushy stuff that once was a living, breathing, hopping frog. The process of exploration has also been a process of destruction.
Reading is a difficult task. We learn how to read in the early years of primary school, but we bring a lifetime of learning to reading and understanding. To do it well, reading is something that must be practiced with care and patience. Few of us do it well.
When reading the Bible we often assume the most profitable form of study is to take it apart piece by piece—perhaps delving into the meanings of the original languages—and the meaning will become clear. With such a background, we tend to then bring this way of reading to other pieces of writing, becoming literal, word-by-word readers. But this is just one way of reading. And, while useful to varying degrees, it can be likened to dissecting a frog.
To see a frog hopping across the dewy morning grass, frog-kicking across a shaded stream, or lying in wait for a small insect—to hear a frog croaking in appreciation of an approaching rainstorm or crying out in distress as it tries to escape a predator—is a long way from the dissection lab. The frog in context is a wonder of creation, a living reality that all the dissection in all the high school science departments of the world could never discover.
Context is important. Some would go so far as to argue that this realization renders the making of worthwhile dictionaries nearly impossible. The use of language changes with time, and words can have a variety of meaning at any given point in time, depending on context. As such, an appreciation of context is vital to the careful reader’s task.
 For example, the best tool for understanding a single Bible text is an overview of the Bible as a whole, its direction, purposes, and over-arching themes. To explore a word, sentence, or verse apart from its context can give shades of meaning. But if, when taken back to that context, the “dissected” meaning is inconsistent with the larger meaning of the chapter or book from which it was extracted, to insist on that meaning is absurd, and a serious example of bad reading.
Which is why I am surprised—in working with our church magazines—when an article is read as somehow undermining the core beliefs of Christianity and the church. Why would a magazine, whose primary focus is to share the good news of the church, encourage the faith of church members, and further the kingdom of God, simultaneously work to undermine it (consider Matthew 12:25)? The context must guide the reading.
Yes, as writers we struggle with inexactness. We don’t always express things as well as we might. But we also need readers who will read with broadness of mind and openness of heart.
Together we can all continue to learn how better to read—and not just to dissect, but to live it.
*Note: This column is not about frogs. And no frogs were harmed in the writing process.
Nathan Brown is editor of the South Pacific Signs of the Times and the South Pacific Division Record.