We all do stupid things sometimes. I, for one, left the lights on in the bus not too long ago (luckily my boss caught my mistake before the battery died). Yet, we shouldn’t let these momentary lapses of judgment get us down. The truth is, the fact that you can read this sentence is proof positive that you are a genius. Have you ever considered how complicated reading actually is? If not, allow me to impress you with your own skills.
When we write, we choose letters that represent certain sounds. These sounds are described by linguists as phonemes. If we organize those phonemes correctly, we get a morpheme – the smallest unit of meaning. Consider the following two words as an example: dog and hog. Dog and hog are both morphemes because they represent units of meaning that cannot be broken down any further. The words are differentiated by the phonemes “d” and “h.” The two phoneme’s don’t carry any meaning on their own, but when added to “og,” they create words that we can understand. The amazing thing is that we are so smart that you don’t even have to stop to consider what phonemes are being combined – we immediately recognize the morpheme.
More than that, we are so smart that you can handle multiple morphemes at a time. For instance, I could add a prefix such as “un” and a suffix such as “ly” to a morpheme, and you know what it means. When I say “undogly” you don’t stop to consider how all three morphemes work, and, unless you have a mean streak, you aren’t even troubled by the fact that “undogly” is not a “real word.” You simply recognize that these three morphemes create a new word with a new meaning – and you know what that meaning is.
This process, where we analyze the phonemes and morphemes, brings us to what is known as the “lexical meaning” of a word. Most of the time you can do this without any help. If you find a word particularly tricky, you have the skills to open a dictionary and figure out the word’s meaning. When you stop to think about it, you are a bit of an expert with lexical meaning. My guess, is that you were able to handle the 398 words you have read so far without even breaking a sweat.
But what happens when we put words together? What happens when we create a sentence? When we read a sentence we move from lexical meaning to structural meaning. We aren’t just concerned with what the words mean, but what they mean when they are together. This is a big deal and it takes a considerable amount of expertise. Consider for instance the following words: genius, I, read, a, can, I because, am. We know the lexical meaning of each of these words. Yet, because they lack structure, they are nothing more than words. Yet, with a little bit of structure, a whole new level of meaning emerges: “I am a genius because I can read.” Now we are not only analyzing the lexical meaning of the words, but we are analyzing the structural meaning as well. And again, we did this without even breaking a sweat.
The entire process was summed up by a graphic in Dr. Blacks, “Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek.” I have borrowed it, and slightly altered it.
This picture shows the basic process we go through every time we read anything – including the Bible. The only step that isn’t included is simply an extension of syntax where we ask how sentences are related to each other in a paragraph, and how paragraphs are related to each other in a book. While the words describing the process may sound daunting, we go through this processes automatically every time we read. If this seems like work for a genius to you, don’t worry, you are one!
To become a better Bible reader we need to do two things. First, we simply need to read the Bible. We have the tools we need. We know how to find the lexical meaning of words and we know how to determine their structural meaning. We really are experts experts at reading, we simply need to apply our expertise to the Bible.
Second, we need to slow down. Great Bible readers not only read the Bible, they study it. They take the time to dwell on the things that they do naturally. They look up words that the think they know the meaning of to help them explore its nuances. They dwell on sentences that seem fairly clear so they can understand it with more precision and more clarity. Great Bible readers take the skills they have already mastered and apply them regularly and thoughtfully to reading the Bible.
If you find this interesting, you should get a copy of Dr. David Alan Black’s, “Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek“. Most of this post comes from what I learned reading that book.