I happened to go by the local library recently during “Story Time.” Some 20 or 30 preschoolers were there with their mothers and some fathers. These adults were trying to herd them into a bunch and get them seated on the floor near the woman who was to read to them. She sat down and opened an oversized children’s book. The little people were chattering, wiggling, poking and some whimpering. Then she began to read.
Very soon the children became quiet and still. I was impressed. But what struck me was the way she read. Her voice rose and fell with the music of the story. Various characters in the story spoke differently. Surprises sounded surprising; danger sounded dangerous. And the happy ending sounded happy. Very simply, she read the meaning of the story and not just the sound of the words. I couldn’t help but think of how public Bible reading usually sounds. Most reading of Scripture is done in a listless, lifeless, muttering fashion that seems to communicate nothing more than the sound of the words without penetrating to the meaning of the words. Unless a person knew better, he might think the reader is really expressing disrespect for Scripture and apathy about its message.
Lifeless Bible Reading
The Bible is the most amazing and powerful literature on Earth. Open its pages to almost any passage and the depth and impact is apparent. It is packed with drama, imagery, human interest and divine involvement. It is alive with fascinating ancient history, soul-stirring poetry, stinging moral prophecy, gripping gospel narrative and riveting cosmic warfare. In spite of all this, it is often read aloud like a newspaper obituary.
Even preachers tend to read their texts as though in a hurry to get to the important part of the sermon-their own interpretations. What an irony this is. The preacher’s commentary on a text is emphasized over the reading of the text itself. With the sermon text often being the only passage read in the service, Scripture is reduced to a role somewhere below the making of announcements. We may ask, “How could you read the text aloud without the meaning coming through?” It is done all the time. Just as a sermon can be preached in such a way that the intended meaning of the text is not communicated to the audience, so can the text be read in such a way that its meaning is lost in the apathetic muttering of the words.
Advocates of expository preaching warn against preachers imposing their thinking on the text and preaching that as exposition. This is called eisegesis as contrasted with exegesis. Exegesis, so necessary for expository preaching, means “drawing out” of the text its meaning. Eisegesis means “bringing into” the text the preacher’s understandings as the meaning of the passage. There is a parallel to this practice in the public reading of Scripture. Expository reading is allowing the text to speak through the reader with its intended meaning. But when the reader’s vocal patterns and speech habits are imposed on the text, the intended meaning is smothered by this alien dialect. Just as the text must shape the sermon in expository preaching, so the text must shape the interpretation in expository reading.
What Is Expository Scripture Reading?
By expository reading I mean the reading of a Bible text with the intention of “exposing” its meaning. Expository preaching is that which allows the text to shape the sermon so that the intended meaning of the text comes through in the sermon. Expository reading of Scripture has a similar purpose. It is the reading of a text in such a way that the intended meaning of the passage comes through in the reading.
Expository reading of Scripture is not equivalent to “dramatic” reading. A dramatic reading is designed to impress the audience with the reading, with emphasis on the quality of voice, articulation, and vocal variety. It may sound impressive but artificial, calling attention more to the sound of the reading than to the meaning of the text. A dramatic style may seem staged and theatrical rather than simply expressive of the text’s meaning. Just as imposing on the text a poor reader’s speech patterns smothers the meaning, so the dramatic reading imposes on the text an affected style that can also obscure its meaning.
The human vocal mechanism has an amazing capacity for expressing a wide range of styles. We do this all the time in conversation. Just listen to the conversation at a family cookout-the variety, the drama, the animation. But our most expressive speech styles are seldom employed in the reading of Scripture. Instead we seem to go into a funereal singsong pattern when we read God’s Word. That style communicates boredom more than belief, for the reader and the audience.
Expository reading is essentially reading the meaning of the words instead of the sound of the words. This calls for constant attention on the part of the reader to the meaning of words. He does not just sound them and expect the hearer to draw out the meaning. He visualizes the meaning of all significant words. As a result, different words take on different tones as the reader focuses on their meaning. Contrasting ideas in a text are expressed with the thought in mind-light and darkness, godly and wicked, weeping and rejoicing. And the audience can hear the difference. A poor reading may indicate that the reader is bored with the text and thinks it of little importance. The audience will discern that interpretation even if they do not consciously think about it. This is why much public reading of Scripture does little to enhance the congregation’s appreciation of the Bible and may even cause them to see the Bible in a more negative light.
Expository Reading and Sermon Preparation
Expository reading of Scripture is vital to the interpretation of a text for sermon preparation. The primary expression of the interpretation of a text is not in preaching but in the reading of it. Every reading is an interpretation. Most of Scripture was written to be read aloud. Besides faithfulness to the original text, the quality of an English translation is determined to a great extent by its readability. The phrases should flow, with the familiar vocabulary and word order of the language. Paragraphing should guide the reader as to natural breaks in the thought. Metaphorical language should be maintained for the appeal to imagination.
Moving from the reading of a text aloud to the explanation of it in a sermon is a significant step. Let me emphasize this again: the more direct means of interpretation is not preaching but reading. We move away from the text and its central role in God’s revelation when we add our comments to the wording of the text itself. This is not to say there is no place for teaching and preaching. Rather it is to say that the more immediate and direct interpretive act is the oral reading of the text.
A central issue in the interpretation of Scripture is the locus of meaning. “Where is the meaning located in our encounter with a text?” Is it in the reader and his own thinking? Is it in the mind of the original writer? Is it in the interaction of the reader with the text? Or is it in the words of the text itself? The answer for most evangelicals is that the meaning will be found in the words of the text.
The locus of meaning question is critical for expository preaching. But it is no less critical for expository reading. Most public reading of the Bible is done in such a way that the hearer must discover the meaning for himself. The words are not read for their meaning but for their sound. The sound of the words presents the symbols to the mind of the hearer that he must translate into meaning as the reading occurs.
Marshall McLuhan’s quip, “The medium is the message,” has often been quoted to emphasize the importance of the means of communication for shaping the message. Research by speech communication scholars has demonstrated that 70 to 90 percent of the impact of a persuasive speech is in the manner of its delivery rather than in the content of the speech. This may well be true with sermons as well. It is also true of the public reading of Scripture.
A preacher who first interprets the text orally through reading it aloud will be much better prepared to add his commentary to it for the sermon. The purest form of interpretation of Scripture is the effective reading of it. Most preachers, however, skip over careful preparation for reading the text. They may do a thorough exegesis. They may diagram the text. They may research text background. They may study the context. But they do not give it a voice in its own terms.
Letting the Text Speak
Expository reading requires careful preparation, particularly in the early development of this skill. Later a reader can “sight read” a text with good effect. The central problem is shifting the style of the reading from habitual speech patterns comfortable to the reader to patterns that allow the meaning of the text to come through. The reader will study the text carefully and mark it for emphasis, for pauses, for inflection, and for other factors that will make for effective reading.
Every language has its music. The meaning of the words is central, but the expression of those words is critical as well. The melodic patterns, pronunciation, vocal tone and rhythm are all part of the language. Expository reading calls for allowing the original writer to be heard in English or Spanish or Korean, with its normal sound. The reader in any language will read with the music of that tongue so that the original writer seems to speak that language.
Expository reading takes into account the genre of the text. Different kinds of literature should be read in different ways. Robert Jacks, in Just Say the Word, identifies three basic kinds of texts for reading: didactic, narrative and empathic. Didactic texts are driven by ideas. Narrative texts are driven by the story. Empathic texts are driven by emotion. Each kind of text is read aloud in a way different from the others. Within these categories are numerous other factors that require a particular style of reading.
Each of these kinds of literature has a sound in the reader’s language that fits the genre and expresses its particular dynamics. We do not read the Nativity story in Luke 2 the same way we read the theology of Romans 3. Nor do we read the poetry of Psalm 23 in either of those styles. Our aim is to give the text a voice to the contemporary audience, so we read it as the literature requires.
Any oral reading of a biblical text is an interpretation of it. Not only does the reader indicate what he thinks it says, he expresses what he thinks it means. He tries to recover for himself and his audience the original intention of the text writer. He intends to give the text a voice. To do so he will have to overcome the common disconnect between what he has in mind and what his speech actually expresses. He will have to move out of his comfort zone and become a servant of the text rather than a master of it.
Planning an Expository Reading
Planning an expository reading is very similar to preparing an exegesis of the text. The primary difference is that you are thinking about the text as oral rather than written. You want to hear the text rather than just read it. You want to express it instead of just analyzing it.
Instead of marking your Bible, I recommend copying the text in larger print and marking that copy for your analysis for oral interpretation. Answer for yourself the following questions, realizing that many of them require you to express a particular interpretation of the text:
1. What kind of literature is it: didactic, empathic or narrative? This will set the pattern for your vocal variables as you read, either to communicate ideas, feelings or a story.
2. What seems to be the writer’s purpose for the material? What does he want from the audience?
3. What seems to be the writer’s attitude or state of mind as indicated by the words of the text and context?
4. What are the words you want to emphasize in each sentence or phrase? Underline them with single or double lines. These are interpretive decisions, so you must base them on the passage as a whole and allow the text to speak as intended.
5. Where do you think you should pause and for how long? Mark your reading with one or two slashes to indicate a one-beat pause or longer.
6. What new characters, circumstances or ideas appear as the passage unfolds? Introduce a new character in the story with a slight pause and an emphasis on the name or identification (Tada!). Do the same with a change of scene or the introduction of a new element in the writer’s argument.
7. What questions does the writer or a speaker ask? Allow a pause for the question to register with the audience. Be sure to ask it with
the inflection appropriate to a question.
8. Which ideas in the text are striking-a surprise, an unconventional view, an unexpected twist in a story? Allow your voice to communicate the impact of these ideas on the original audience.
9. What is the melodic pattern most appropriate for this text in light of the type of literature and the attitude and purpose of the writer? This is the “music” of your voice as you read.
10. How will you allow your voice to communicate the various meanings of words in the text? Remember: think it, see it, feel it and then say it. The vocal mechanism has a marvelous capacity for communicating your understanding of a word, with the image and emotion it carries.
11. If the writer himself were reading the text aloud to this audience, how would it sound? Try to make the material your own and allow it to speak through your voice for the contemporary audience.
12. At what rate should you read it to reflect the significance of every word and phrase in the text? This will usually be a much slower and more deliberate rate than with normal speech, with meaningful pauses at the appropriate places.
Reading the text in an expository fashion is a learned skill for most of us. By temperament and personality, some may naturally be more expressive in any form of speech. But that natural expressiveness may yet be eisegetical, with the reader imposing himself on the text instead of letting it speak. Whether the reader is expressive or inhibited, the aim is to read the text in its own terms. The principle is simple: we aim to read the meaning of the words and not just the sound of the words.