Arthurs, Jeffrey. Devote Yourself to the Public Reading of Scripture: The Transforming Power of the Well-Spoken Word. Pap/DVD ed. Kregel Academic & Professional, 2012.
One can only applaud Jeffrey Arthurs goal: “My vision is to increase the quantity and the quality of Scripture reading in church services. We need to do more of it, and we need to do a better job of it” (pp. 11-12). Over the past 40 years I have heard some excellent reading of Scripture; but I have heard less than satisfactory reading, more often that I want to admit. Thus, I concur with the last part of Arthurs’ goal—we can and should always do a better job of public reading of Scripture. Arthurs’ book provides a valuable resource to address this issue. The book is well organized and easy to use for follow up and referencing.
As I read the book, while very helpful and encouraging, I kept sensing that it is directed to churches with non-liturgical worship. In several places, his analysis or suggestions reflect little or no awareness of the historical liturgical pattern of Scripture reading throughout the 2,000 years of church history that is still the largest portion of Christianity. Chapters 3 and 7, in particular, reflect this bias. At the same time, this bias is helpful for those in liturgical churches to reflect on the value of its heritage and even strengthen its resolve to continue such things.
He uses the concept of preparing and eating a meal (following Eugene Peterson’s simile) to examine the various aspects of public reading. The simile works well for this topic. In chapter 1 (“Building an Appetite”) Arthurs provides the Biblical foundation and historical continuity of the public reading of Scripture. Unless we see this foundation and historical awareness, we can easily dismiss the importance of the public reading of Scripture.
Chapter 2 addresses the importance of proper preparation for reading. This is more than quickly reading through the text. Rather, Arthurs includes spiritual, mental, and emotional preparation. This is followed by a making and using prepared script. At first this seems odd, thinking, “Don’t we read from the Bible?” As he illustrates, a separate sheet of the prepared text allows the reader to mark the text with highlights and special notations for reading.
Chapter 3 (“Inviting the Guests”) is geared specifically to non-liturgical churches by changing the church culture to accept and expand its public reading of Scripture. Certainly this is a laudable goal and an encouragement for those churches that have very little Scripture reading in worship. For those already immersed in the culture of pervasive public reading of Scripture, this chapter reaffirms such need.
In Chapter 4 Arthurs addresses “Serving the Meal: Communicating through What We Look Like.” He addresses not just the voice (chapter 5), but posture, mannerisms, gestures, facial expressions, eye contact. The discussions of movement and “proxemics” (the use of space) while useful for general reading, are less helpful for liturgical churches (dictated by sanctuary design and history). Overall, this chapter is superb because it addresses those things that we seldom think about or examine; and it is immediately practical.
Chapter 5 (“Serving the Meal: Communicating with the Voice”) joins chapter 4 as critical for improving public reading of Scripture. As the quote from Mark Twain notes, this need includes clergy: “The average clergyman, in all countries and of all denominations, is a very bad reader” (p. 89). He uses the alliteration of six P’s to cover all aspects related to voice (projection, phrasing, pause, pace, pitch, and punch). Excellent resource chapter.
Chapter 6 (“Adding Some Spice: Creative Methods”) illustrates the difference between non-liturgical churches and solidly liturgical (for whom most of these items are already in place). Nevertheless, it is helpful for those within a liturgical tradition to review each of these and realize why we do incorporate them. For instance, his suggestions include:
Read passages other than sermon text: The lectionary readings include at least three readings (OT, Epistle, Gospel) plus a Psalm.
Let Scripture pervade entire service: The liturgical (Reformation/Lutheran) development has been exactly on this point.
Responsive readings: This is already done through the Introit (with Psalms).
Stand for reading: In liturgical services we stand for the Gospel reading.
Give listeners a response: That is built into the liturgical services (either spoken or sung responses).
I am glad to see Arthurs address group readings in chapter 7, as they can be very effective in special services. I would not see it as a regular Sunday morning feature of public reading. Thus, Christmas eve, Maundy Thursday, or Good Friday would be appropriate.
In the accompanying DVD Arthurs demonstrates the key points throughout the text. This is helpful and gives the visual appreciation of oral reading. He demonstrates how even little non-verbal expressions can aid or hinder public reading of Scripture.
Arthurs is imminently qualified as a theologian and oral interpreter to address this important issue. He offers many valuable aids in helping congregations and individuals (pastors! and readers) improve public reading of Scripture. This is a book worth reading, reviewing, and learning techniques to deepen this critical aspect of worship.
Note: Thanks to Kregel Academic & Professional for the review copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.