I have never done this thing before, this deep reading and discussing a challenging text over a long period of time.
I had no skills to evaluate a book beyond whether or not I enjoyed reading it.
How do we think about ideas in a story if we feel as if we don’t even know where to begin thinking? How do we say This is valuable; this is worthy of contemplation if we have a difficult time following the plot and the big ideas seem obscure and inaccessible?
1. Be willing.
Willing to try something difficult. Willing to spend the time. Willing to take it slow. Willing to suspend judgment. Willing to commit to discussion.
2. Use the 5 Common Topics of Invention.
The truth is, you have deep wells of knowledge and experience in your head. The tricky part is accessing and synthesizing it!
We think by asking our brain questions. We gather an “inventory of ideas” by asking questions. If we ask questions in community, in discussion with others, more ideas are available for our inventory, and each idea unlocks previously unexplored rooms of thought.
If you know the basic questions of the five common topics, you have the tools to access and synthesize thoughts and ideas about anything.
[If you are looking for an accessible exploration of the five common topics and ideas for implementing them across all subjects, I suggest reading The Question. I’ve shared examples of discussion here, here, and here.]
3. Accept the open-ended.
This is an easy one for many people, but not for me. I want a beginning and an end. I want to know that I have comprehensively covered everything in between. With the right answers.
There is no end. There are no right answers. There isn’t necessarily a product or “artifact” to show for your work, for your time (unless you write a paper, create artwork in response, or teach what you’ve learned—hence the blog posts).
Accept that the more you contemplate, the more doors you will open. Doors that will lead you into new rooms with more doors.
Accept that one question might keep your mind occupied for hours. Don’t be in a hurry to move on.
A few friends and I have been talking about Hamlet since August of last year. Here we are, eight months later, and we’re still on act 2, scene 2. We still don’t understand everything about the text up to that point, and we never will. We have only used the first two topics of invention.
But the conversations have been rich and illuminating and profitable, whether there have been eight of us or only three.
At our first discussion meeting (after watching the movie together during two previous meetings) we spent time defining “Hamlet” (the play and the characters). At our next meeting, we defined “ghost.” Our discussion included talking about how we think of ghosts, what the play had to say about ghosts, as well as how Shakespeare’s culture in Elizabethan England defined and thought about ghosts, so we pulled in some circumstance there. During our third discussion, we talked about spying as an opener and then compared revenge and avenge.
This month, we again used the topic of comparison to gather an inventory of ideas.
Our brilliant facilitator Mindy (who is learning along with us), started out by asking us if we ever in our lifetime have acted crazy in public for a specific reason or outcome. Have we ever felt the need to put on an act in public? What was our motivation?
She then read Hosea 9:7
"Because your sins are so many and your hostility so great,
the prophet is considered a fool, the inspired man a maniac."
By the end of act 2, scene 2, Hamlet has started acting crazy when he is in public. He has often spoken truth while coming across as insane. He has just devised a plan to use the play to expose his uncle’s guilt.
For the purpose of comparison, we read aloud 1 Samuel 21:10-15. David has escaped danger in his homeland, only to find himself in danger among foreigners. He uses insanity as a defense mechanism. We then read Psalm 34, which David wrote at the same time. We wondered if he had spoken this Psalm in the midst of this foreign culture, would they have considered his words crazy?
It was time to compare Hamlet and David.
How are they similar?
They are both young men.
They both feel threatened.
They are acting crazy to protect themselves. [This led to a discussion about why exactly Hamlet was acting crazy. Did he fear for his life? Was he trying to distract everyone from his real intention, which was to discover the truth—ultimately risking his life to do so? We discussed whether his acting crazy was pivotal to the plot, or if it just served the theme.]
They are both in a royal court. They are both acting crazy in front of a king who holds power over them.
They are both good with words. Hamlet has his soliloquies, David his Psalms.
They are both moody.
They are both heirs to a throne, but both are in a waiting period.
They are both wrestling with thoughts of killing the current king, but they both consider it a moral dilemma.
They are both speaking truth [if one considers David’s Psalm], but the truth sounds insane to those around them.
How are they dissimilar?
David is not in his “home” court in front of the king he is destined to replace.
David is acting like an animal (clawing, slobbering).
[David was a shepherd; he is now experienced in battle. We’re not exactly sure what Hamlet’s experience has been, but he seems to have been classically educated.]
They are in different eras and cultures.
“Honesty is the best policy, but insanity is a better defense.” ~Steve Landesberg
Mindy then had us read aloud 2 Samuel 12:1-14. David is now king, but he is filled with guilt over the affair with Bathsheba and the death of Uriah. Nathan confronts him and exposes his guilt by telling a story about a rich man who takes the one ewe lamb that belongs to a poor man.
It was time to compare Hamlet and Nathan.
How are they and their actions similar?
They are both confronting a guilty king.
They both use story to expose the guilt.
They are both risking their lives to expose the guilt.
How are they dissimilar?
Hamlet is more conflicted and scared than Nathan.
Hamlet is unsure of the king’s guilt, but Nathan knows that David is guilty.
The play Hamlet devises is the exact reenactment of the deed. Nathan speaks in allegory.
[Hamlet is related to the king and heir to the throne. Nathan is sent by God to confront David.]
And then Claudius and David.
They are both kings who have done something wrong. [Specifically murdered a man and took his wife.]
They both feel guilt.
[Death is a result of both kings’ actions. Their actions weaken their kingdoms.]
Claudius tries to pray, but he doesn’t seem to be a moral man. He doesn’t confess to sinning against God. He is angry and fearful that his actions should be exposed.
David understands his moral failure. He feels remorse. He repents and experiences redemption. [Psalm 51]
[David is the rightful king. Claudius is not.]
Claudius dies in the end, but God spares David’s life because of his repentance. David loses his son as a punishment instead.
We ended with a somewhat spontaneous decision to add Jesus (as a young man on earth) to the comparison.
Hamlet, David, and Jesus were all young men, heirs to a throne, in a waiting period. All spoke truth that sounded insane to those around them. Hamlet and David were wrestling with thoughts of killing the current king. The followers of Jesus expected him to overthrow the oppressive Roman empire. Hamlet, Nathan, and Jesus all confronted leaders indirectly using stories, allegories, or metaphor (all were protecting themselves or buying time). Jesus was not scared or moody or unsure. Jesus was God.
The exciting, wonderful thing is that you can compare any two things, and your conversation may not resemble ours in any way—but you will still come away from the discussion understanding the play, human nature, and big ideas in a more profound way.
Give it a try!