To Preach a Book: Analyzing

[ 7 minutes to read ]

Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.
~ 2 Timothy 4:2
Follow one preacher’s journey preaching through a book.

[I] had spent the daylight of one afternoon playing with a friend. We played ball, rode bikes, dug in the dirt, and generally maintained high activity. That evening, he asked me if I had ever seen a certain movie. I told him I hadn’t. Most of my early childhood was spent with a snowy black and white picture on a TV hooked to an antenna atop a tall metal pole beside our house. We picked up three channels and sometimes four in exceptionally good weather. He had a color TV and a VCR.

He pulled a VHS tape from the shelf and put it in the player. I can’t remember the name of the movie. I want to say it had the word “ninja” in it. It was a low budget action flick with a rice paper thin plot that was mostly an excuse to string together a bunch of martial arts fight scenes. I had seen some of the old, overdubbed Kung Fu pictures and always enjoyed the action. I don’t remember much about it, but I’m sure it was every bit as cheesy as it seems it would be.

We began watching, me for the first time and my friend for the nth time. He really liked the movie and had watched it over and over for who knows how long. Seeing it repeatedly had not dulled his enjoyment of it, but it had sharpened his perception of it. As it played, he added bits of commentary. Many of his comments were pointing out discontinuities in the film. At different points in the same scene there would be differences in the actors involved, costumes, props, etc. Of course, I hadn’t noticed it until he pointed it out.

I’m sure he hadn’t sat down with a clipboard and deliberately analyzed this straight to VHS movie. He had watched it so many times he began to notice these problems. I’m sure, after he had noticed a few, he began to look for them more consciously. While I wouldn’t recommend investing time in analyzing low budget actions flicks from the 80s, the act of repeated viewing, or reading in our case, is necessary to analyze any work.

Repetition

Before I am ready to begin working on a passage or a sermon, I have to analyze the book and identify aspects of it that will help me find the overall controlling theme. Repeated readings are necessary, but it helps if I have some idea of what I’m looking for.

I chose the book of Ruth, so I immediately know the biblical genre of the book. It’s an Old Testament book and that means it is one of four main genres—law, history, poetry/wisdom, or prophets. Ruth is a book of history, but what kind of a book of history? I am ready to start reading.

On the first round of readings, I am not deliberately trying to notice anything. I want to read the whole book in one sitting, mainly to get a feel for the story. I may notice something or think of some questions in these readings. If so, I will write it down and go on reading. I’m not ready at this point to start researching and investigating. I first read Ruth in the KJV. I preach from the KJV and it is the translation I have predominantly used and am most familiar with.

I also read the book in other translations. Every reading helps me see the book as a whole. Different translations help me see it differently. The KJV was translated into very early modern English and uses archaic words and idioms. I sometimes assume I know what a word or expression means, when further study shows me I wasn’t right. I read the book of Ruth in the CJB, NASB, ESV, and NIV translations. I may like or dislike what a translation says. I may agree or not, but they are like first order commentaries on the text because they are what various scholars believe the original words to mean. I also read Robert Alter’s translation of Ruth in his collection titled, Strong As Death Is Love.

These readings were helpful in getting the big picture of the book in mind. I didn’t notice anything major among the translations that warranted further study. I’m likely to come across some translational issues as I do the deeper, line level study of the book, but I’m still not there yet. I am now ready for the next step.

Divisions

Earlier, I asked what kind of historical book Ruth is? Several readings confirmed that Ruth is one story and not a collection of stories, like Judges for instance. If I were classifying the book of Judges, I might call it episodic history. All the events in Ruth are connected and interdependent as one leads to the next from the beginning to the end, so Ruth is one story.

I am realizing as I try to describe my process, I am explaining some things I’ve never tried to explain to anyone before. I am using and going to use a bit of shop talk that I will try to explain. We should’ve learned much of this in high school literature class. Maybe we did, but have forgotten it. I may need to spend some time working on terms I use. There are various methods of literary analysis and I’ve noticed a number of terms that are inconsistent among different uses. I will try to explain the terms and the way I am using them as I go.

What do I mean when I say Ruth is a story? I am referring to the form of the book and not whether it is fiction or nonfiction. In Aristotle’s Poetics, he defined a story as a narrative that has beginning, middle, and end. He arrived at this conclusion from analyzing ancient stories to his day. He meant that a story is unified and cohesive, leading to a resolution. The beginning starts the story, giving an opening image that gets out of balance in some way and leads to the middle. The middle continues the story as resolution of the imbalance is sought and leads to the end. The end is the resolution where the imbalance is overcome and the closing image of the story is typically a reverse, or mirror image of the opening. Ruth definitely fits this description.

At this point, I need to start dividing up the text of the book. I am not referring to preaching units at this point. I am analyzing the story, so I want to divide the book into the different scenes of the story. A scene is a smaller unit of the larger story. Just as the whole story has beginning, middle, and end, scenes also have beginning, middle, and end. A scene has an opening image and inciting action that causes change leading to a resolution of the scene. I am looking for the smallest unit of the story, which satisfies that description.

I started this process for Ruth by taking the Word document of the AV text of the book and removing all chapter numbers, verse numbers, and spacing. I ended up with a document of the text of the whole book that looks like one long paragraph. You can find that file here. I printed the file on a single sheet of 11×17 paper. In this case, the book is short and I could fit the entire text on the front of an 11×17 sheet.

I took that sheet and read the text over and over and over again. I don’t know how many times, but it was certainly several times. I read and looked for scenes and began marking the text up to identify the scenes and the components that made up the scenes. Here is what that sheet looked like when I was done. You can click on the thumbnail to enlarge it.

I identified six scenes that satisfied the beginning, middle, and end form of story. You will notice the marks and notes I put on that sheet. I will explain those later, but for now I want to talk about finding the controlling theme. During this process, I identified the controlling theme as finding rest, and noted that in the upper right hand margin. I circled the word rest twice in the text. It actually occurs a third time, but I didn’t realize the significance of that third occurrence until later.

In the AV text, the word rest occurs three times (Ruth 1:9; 3:1, 18). Each time, the Hebrew word is different. The two main occurrences (Ruth 1:9; 3:1) capture the concept of rest as what is found in the home of a husband—love, peace, security, abundance of provision, continuing life through children and grandchildren, etc. The ideal of rest is present throughout the entire book and works on the different levels of want and need for the main characters. I will explain more about that later.

I have a lot to work with as I move forward in studying the book. I don’t consider my initial decisions to be final. They will need to be tested and refined as I continue to work through the book. I realize I could open up commentaries and other books on Ruth and get all this already broken down for me. At this point in the study, I haven’t opened any of those books and it will be a while before I am ready for them. First, I need to know what I think and understand about the book before I ever hear what others think about it. Second, you will notice when you read some different commentaries and books that they don’t all agree on how to break a book down or even on what the primary message of the book is. I will refer to other books as a check on my work later, but I’m not ready for that at this point.

Up Next

In the next post, I will write more about the scenes and how I divided those up.

This post is part a of series. To read the entire series from the beginning, go here.

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