I received a copy of Jeffrey D. Arthurs’ Devote Yourself to the Public Reading of Scripture: The Transforming Power of the Well-Spoken Word as part of Kregel Academic & Ministry Blog Tour Service which provides free copies of new releases to bloggers in exchange for a review of the book. I have just finished this small volume – a paperback of 137 pages.
While there are some weaknesses to this volume, I would recommend it to every pastor and intend to give it to folks in the congregation who serve as readers. Read on for my fuller thoughts on the work and some snippets from the book.
One of the powerful quotes in the book actually is from Lee Eclov, Senior Pastor at Village Church in Lincolnshire, Illinois, who while recommending the book writes:
“We drain away the power of the Word with its unpracticed, and uninspired public reading. We put more thought into the announcements than we do the reading of the Word; we invest hours in music rehearsals but read the Bible without so much as a once-through. But imagine a Scripture reading that was fresh as rain, as weighty as stone tables, as surgical as a blade, and as welcoming as a Father’s letter to a long-lost child.”
Arthurs repeats this concept in his introduction:
“The Word of God is bread for our souls, and we are fed when we hear the Word well read. Unfortunately, when it is not read well, listeners do not ingest it. Scripture reading is often the low point of an already lethargic service. Surveys of church members rank the public reading of Scripture as one of the dullest portions of the gathering.” (pg. 11)
Chapter 1. Building an Appetite
In the first chapter Arthurs attempts to convince us that the significant and public reading of Scripture is an important and missing portion of many of our church services – and he accomplishes this task admirably.
He boldly confronts our lack of Scripture reading in “bible-believing” churches stating, “In many churches, public reading of the Bible is little more than homiletical throat-clearing before the sermon.” (pg. 14) He notes the significant benefits the church is missing out on, “When the Bible is read well, it can minister as deeply as a Spirit-empowered sermon. Hearing the Word read without commentary reminds us that God inspired the Word and now illumines those who hear it.”
Arthurs then provides several logical arguments for the importance of public Scripture reading:
- The Bible says to read it publicly (1 Tim. 4:13).
- God transforms us through the reading of His Word, His Word is powerful (Jer. 23:9, 29; Isa. 55:10-11; Heb. 5:12-13, and his list goes on!).
- We join in the tradition of what the people of God have always done (Ex. 24:3-4,7; Deut. 31:10-13; Josh. 8:30-35; Ex. 23:14-17).
- The Bible is meant to be read aloud.
- Hearing the Word of God is different from reading it silently.
Chapter 2. Setting the Table
In this chapter we are taken through the basic steps of preparing our Scripture reading – and yes, Arthurs insists, Scripture reading should include preparation!
- Understand what the Scripture reader’s responsibilities are.
- Understand what the Scripture reader’s responsibilities are not.
- Prepare oneself spiritually.
- Prepare oneself mentally.
- Prepare oneself emotionally.
- Prepare the script.
- Prepare the setting.
And yes, Arthurs provides lots of feedback on how specifically to accomplish each of these steps.
Chapter 3. Inviting the Guests
Arthurs understands that making Scripture reading a major portion of the service may cause significant unrest within a congregation – and so this chapter provides guidance on bringing Scripture reading gradually into the service. His steps include:
- Start with the leadership.
- Cast the vision to the congregation.
- Create a reading team.
- Make something that is better than what they have.
Chapter 4. Serving the Meal (Communicating Through What We Look Like)
Ready to feel a bit overwhelmed? Okay, you (and I) probably are already a bit overwhelmed. We are coming to a deep recognition of our incompetence in public reading, but its about to get worse. In this chapter Arthurs addresses distracting mannerisms we use unconsciously, the proper use of gestures, posture, movement, facial expressions, eye contact, and “proxemics” (that is, the use of proximity to the audience).
Chapter 5. Serving the Meal (Communicating with the Voice)
“To read well is a rare accomplishment. It is much more common to excel in singing, or in public speaking. Good preachers are numerous, compared with good readers.” – John Broadus, pg. 90.
In this chapter Arthurs provides instruction on projection, phrasing, pauses, pace, pitch, and punch. If you haven’t been overwhelmed to this point, you will be now.
Chapter 6. Adding Some Spice (Creative Methods)
I love this chapter – it provides all sorts of tips on how to innovate one’s public reading including:
- Reading passages unrelated to the sermon.
- Using Scripture throughout the service.
- Responsive readings.
- Using readers who embody the text.
- Have services that consist solely of songs and scriptures.
- Give listeners a response to be spoken at specific points in the text.
- Create a thematic reading that uses multiple texts to address a single topic.
- Read twice using different translations.
- Read the previous week(s) passages when preaching an entire book.
- Conclude the sermon by re-reading the passage preached upon.
- Providing a brief introduction.
- Commenting briefly on the text as you read it.
- Encourage private reading during the week which is then joined with public reading in the service.
- Present a passage from memory.
- Use proxemics.
- Recite and memorize a verse each week.
- Hold a “Bible Marathon.” – That is, use multiple readers and read a significant portion of Scripture (e.g. the Pentateuch, the Gospels).
- Incorporate unscripted Scripture recitations on a specific theme or topic – allowing the congregation to provide Scriptures they love that apply to the topic.
- Project the text onto a screen.
- Use music – e.g. for interludes (“Selah”) during a reading of the Psalms.
- Use visual arts – e.g. mimes or painting.
- Experiment with lighting (more, less, different kinds).
- Utilize sound effects – e.g. crickets during a night scene, rushing waters during a scene by a river.
- Mime the text or use sign language.
Chapter 7. Adding Some Spice (Group Reading)
Arthurs final chapter tackles how to read the text as a group. He writes in part:
“Create the script to bring out the ideas and emotions of the text. For example, after you have identified the climax of the passage, you could voice that section by having the entire group say the line in unison with full voice. If your study of the passage reveals a contrast of ideas, you could split the readers in two, giving a line to each side. If the text is full of pathos, begin with the whole group in unison, but then drop voices one at a time, slowing the rate until the final reader almost whispers.” (pp. 118-19)
The most innovative idea though is certainly the juxtaposing of the Scriptures with contemporary strands. Arthurs writes,
“The script begins with the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 and then extends that line through church history to show that the long line of stalwart saints continues to this day. I once heard a group of teenagers read Proverbs 6 and 7 on sexual purity, inserting titles from magazine articles.” (pg. 120)
The book concludes with several example scripts which can be utilized to form one’s own ideas.
The book includes a DVD, which is nicely produced, and includes several different segments on it. I believe there are two teaching segments (I did not watch them, I hate watching video) and then there is a solo reading and two group readings. These were helpful to visualize the concepts he had recommended throughout the book – though especially with the group readings I would have done things differently – but to each his own.
There are only a few weaknesses in this book:
- The book opens one’s eyes to the potential of public Scripture reading, but it is also overwhelming. It might have been better to write a beginner’s book and then an advanced book. I am concerned that giving this to some congregants will make them feel incapable of public reading. I know for myself, even reading books on preaching, I sometimes go back to watching a sermon (yes, even though I hate watching video) of some famous preacher and seeing how few of the techniques are actually put into practice helps me feel somewhat competent again.
- Throughout the book the author references web urls, sometimes extremely long ones – one in particular in several lines long. This is unfortunate and unwieldy. I would recommend in future editions using a URL shortener like bitly to make short, usable links. If you happen upon the super long link, instead of trying to type it in just go to the Wikipedia article on the referenced author.
- The final weakness I hope will be rectified in a future edition, namely, the lack of an online community to foster discussion about this topic. It would be a great opportunity for Arthurs to have a forum in which folks could share their methods, a place to upload and post scripts, links to videos of folks who are actively utilizing the methods, and so on. This would also simplify the URL issue in the book – URL’s could be posted on a links page on the site and the footnotes could reference to visit the site rather than directly referencing the URLs. This would also be helpful b/c web sites are notoriously transient – and what may provide info. one day will not the next (vanishing into the ether). A website is much easier to update with new links than a book – which can only be published in a new edition.
This book should reside on every pastor’s shelf. It isn’t the best book I have ever read, but it is the best book I have ever read on the topic. I hope that Arthurs will continue to refine this work and publish a second and perhaps a third edition and that Kregel will support such an endeavor. I believe Arthurs could create the standard textbook for practicing pastors as well as seminaries on the topic.