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Newsom to Candler students: Reading can be a spiritual act

By Molly Edmonds | Emory Report | Jan. 25, 2012

When Carol Newsom addressed Candler School of Theology students at spring convocation on Jan. 19, she was aware that her audience was thinking about other things – books they needed to buy and syllabi full of assignments for the new semester.

"You may have already totaled up the number of pages of reading for each class," she said. "I don't recommend it." Instead, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Old Testament asked students to consider how both academic and casual reading can be a spiritual act.

Reading, in a spiritual context, Newsom said, can transcend absence or death. Moses, told by God that he couldn't join his people in the promised land, "turns himself into a book that can go with the people and continue to be their teacher and guide," she said. "Every time that book is read, the mystery of absence and presence is enacted, an absence that cannot be denied but a presence that keeps transcending it." That book was Deuteronomy.

Secondly, reading is spiritual because it involves a mystery of lost and found. "When books are lost, we are cut off from important elements of our past, from our history, from aspects of our identity," Newsom said. She referenced her work translating the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were missing for almost 2,000 years. "We did not even know they were lost," she said. Students who find books they didn't know had been lost to them may find "these books may orient you to a way of seeing that you did not know was possible, may offer you a way of life you had not anticipated," she said.

The third spiritual element of reading is empowerment. It's a great gift for an individual to be able to read and evaluate text on his or her own, but Newsom cautioned students: Just because reading provides independence doesn't mean it should be done independently.

"Reading is empowering, but isolated. Idiosyncratic reading often leads nowhere useful," she said. "To be truly powerful, reading needs to be done in community, balancing innovation and tradition…That is how we try to read [at Candler]. We ask you to bring together your empowered reading – from your own particular experience and identity – with that of others differently situated, and with all the readers preserved in tradition who have gone before you and who read the same text in ways you would never have imagined."

Newsom concluded by sending students off to start the semester's reading by acknowledging that not all of it would be fun. "But from time to time I hope the magic and wonder – the sheer spiritual gift of what you are doing – will reawaken you… and bring you to a new sense of who you are and what you can be," she said.