Learning to Read

I read quite frequently. We all read articles, blogs, websites, road signs, cereal boxes, and bills. Many of us read novels, memoirs, and non-fiction books written by literary giants and brilliant minds. I read all of those and more, but I recently learned a lesson about reading I won’t soon forget.

I was with a few friends reading and discussing the following passage from the gospel of John. Normally when I read the Bible, my analytic mind likes to dissect the nuances of the passage, look up the meanings of the original words, and try to grasp the lesson in the passage and the passage’s contribution to the greater narrative of scripture. It’s left-brained merriment. But this time was different.

We were looking for clues about Jesus’ method of conversational relationship building and for the first time I was paying attention to body language. And that was just the beginning.

At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:2-10)

I pictured those men with their cruel smiles, using this woman to ensnare Jesus. I imagined them rigid and proud. I imagined her standing there – broken, shamed, mortified. I wondered about the crowd and I pictured them gawking and pointing at the woman, glad to have a scapegoat to distract anyone from their own sin. When I considered the scene it gave Jesus’ movements a new depth.

He knelt and began tracing his finger through the sand. Why? I’d never thought about it before. I’d always wondered about what He wrote, but perhaps the message wasn’t what he did with Hand but what he did with their eyes.

There was a woman caught in the scornful gaze of everyone. The compassionate Son of God refused to be baited into quibbling over law but gave a foreshadowing of what He would do on a cross a while later. He did something abnormal, weird even and I imagined all those eyes shifting to Him.  No more comments about the woman, instead the questions orbited His bizarre behavior. “What’s he doing?” “Why’s he playing in the dirt?” “What could this mean?” I imagined the woman finally breathing. I wondered if this magnificent act of humility won her heart. The words faded away and the volume of Hid body’s language filled my soul.

Why hadn’t I paid attention before?

Frankly, I wasn’t reading well. I was so busy playing with the bark I missed the incredible forest around me. I focused so hard on the words I missed some of what was being said. That experience changed the way I read forever, and hopefully how I write.

What are my characters doing when they speak? Is he chewing a toothpick? Is she twirling? His head is in his hands, but are his fingers moving? She’s staring at the computer, but are her ankles crossed beneath her chair the way mine are as I write? If so, why? The added depth of body language; I hope I don’t miss anymore.


  1. Ryan,

    Although I am frequently impressed by your sense of writing appreciation, this post is the statue of liberty to Minnis. I call this technique “look at the little birdie!” Learned authors so infrequently add anything like that by accident or coincidence. The modern day manifestation of this that comes to mind for me is the thought of the same modern-day situation. Imagine a criminal trial in court. Attorneys, like writers, rarely do anything not previously well thought out. So here is the prosecutor, waving a book of statute during opening or closing statements. “the law says if the defendant did ABC then he is guilty” often times, through the body language, what he is hoping to convey to the jury is “don’t look at the poor defendant who might have made one bad decision. Look at the law and the law alone so that you can convict this person amid whatever doubt you may have.” Conversely, a defense attorney may be seen waving about a legal pad or notebook, which might say “this case is just a bunch of questionable notes on paper. Don’t look at the defendant! look at me! Can you really cast no doubt on any of this? Don’t look at the defendant and see a criminal. Look at me and hear about a person who has been brought here before you today in shackles, irrespective of all the good in him”

    You get the picture. Recommended reading for something similar to this is “A&P” by John Updike. Pay more attention to the description of the clothing, the scene, and the body language than what is said aloud. It’s the only way to understand what’s actually going on in that short story, especially in terms to what is actually spoken and how the various actors feel about the situation.

    1. Good insight. I’ve never heard of A&P, but I’ll look for it. The legal illustration is vivid, I’ve seen in many times in the great Grisham movies and it’s neat to imagine the strategy behind the attorney’s actions. Thanks for contributing.

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