Close Reading in the Catholic Tradition

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The Catholic storytelling tradition is a way for Catholics to cultivate their faith through imagination. Catholic storytelling is a mixture of the highbrow and lowbrow; more sinners than saints, yet they live among each other (perhaps we are all both in our lives?).

The Catholic imagination is anchored in blood-and-guts: the collision of evil and grace in “The Exorcist;” the inability of people to truly see God among us in the work of Flannery O’Connor; the kitchen table discussions and family arguments in the fiction of Andre Dubus; the marriage of the sacred and profane in the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen; the strained but inescapable Catholicism in “The Sopranos;” the power of Christ as suffering body in the work of Toni Morrison; the mystical visions of Jack Kerouac; the hard-nosed urban faith of Rocky Balboa; the flawed men flailing for grace in the work of Martin Scorsese.

The narrative of Mass — from the former Latin to the vernacular in song — affirms that the world is both beautiful and broken. Christ shared himself through stories; so should we.

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If story is endemic to Catholicism, then not only reading and watching stories — but doing so with an understanding of technique and style — can increase our incarnational sense.

Consider it a literary Examen.

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Close reading is a Catholic action.

When we read closely, we pay deep attention to a text; we engage with words, sentences, paragraphs, transitions and meaning.

I think the difference between “reading” and “close reading,” typically, is such an attention toward language — the “how” of a text.

When we typically read, we look toward the content — the “what.” That is an important first step. When we read for the “how” of a text, we are affirming that imaginative literature like fiction, poetry and some nonfiction are texts written with distinct style.

I’ve always told students that you can’t go wrong with a close attention to words and sentences: the diction chosen by a writer and how that writer constructs syntax. All works of literature “teach” us how to read them through the writer’s conception of diction and syntax.

It is part of the initial challenge of encountering a work of literature that is new to us; our initial confusion or apprehension might arise from that hesitation. But I think that challenge is a healthy one. In attempting to understand how a writer imagines words and sentences, we enter into communion with them, their work and with language as a whole.

Close reading is slow reading. Close reading includes multiple readings; multiple encounters with a work to truly understand its rhythms. This is a process, certainly, but it is a process that offers genuine rewards.

Here is a short example of a close reading of a great Catholic writer: Graham Greene — from his essential novel, “The Power and the Glory.” The book’s opening paragraph:

Mr. Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder: out into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust. A few buzzards looked down from the roof with shabby indifference: he wasn’t carrion yet. A faint feeling of rebellion stirred in Mr. Tench’s heart, and he wrenched up a piece of the road with splintering finger-nails and tossed it feebly up at them. One of them rose and flapped across the town: over the tiny plaza, over the bust of an ex-president, ex-general, ex-human being, over the two stalls which sold mineral water, towards the river and the sea. It wouldn’t find anything there: the sharks looked after the carrion on that side. Mr. Tench went on across the plaza.

Tench appears insignificant against the world; he doesn’t even warrant the attention of the buzzards, who regard him with “shabby indifference.” Notice how Greene captures Tench’s frail response through the pacing of the sentence that follows: “a faint feeling of rebellion stirred” distances his reaction from any place of strength, and both his “splintering” finger-nails and feeble toss undermine his weakness.

The sentence that follows enables Greene to give us a view of this space: the litany of phrases placed together put all of these objects and spaces in one scope. The buzzard, Greene makes clear, might be more animated than Tench, but it is no better; it pales in comparison to the sharks. Greene returns to the main character in the final, terse sentence of the paragraph. The sentence length suggests that although Tench is frail, he remains resolute.

This is just a start. Rich, imaginative writing rewards our reading and re-reading. Trust and follow your instincts while you read, and you’ll begin to notice how texts open up their beauty and meaning to you. I can imagine such a reading of Green occurring when one gets to the end of a chapter; a return to the start of a narrative to truly dig into the writer’s deeper meanings.

To be certain, one can closely read a text and not be Catholic! Yet as Catholic readers, I believe that we can affirm our appreciation for the talent and skill of words — and the Word — through close attention and analysis. Those actions can enable us to recognize the power of Catholic storytelling, and, God willing, tell our own stories with energy, grace, complexity and resonance.