Thou Shalt Read
By Karen Swallow Prior
November 8, 2011
I’m an English professor, so I’m a little biased when it comes to the topic of reading. I believe that reading widely and well benefits everyone. But for the Christian, reading holds particular theological and worldview applications. And I’m not talking just about reading the Bible, theology or guides to Christian living (although those are good for a Christian to read). I’m saying that the literary Christian is uniquely equipped to live out the Christian faith and to draw others to it because of a connection between being a faithful reader and a faithful Christian.
Of course, this isn’t a revolutionary notion. The belief in the centrality to the Christian faith of reading—the centrality of the Word—goes back to the Reformation. In fact, it goes back much further than that, all the way to earliest Scriptures.
The book of Genesis relays the story of a God who used words to speak the world into existence, a God whose first assignment to humankind was to name (not count, confine or classify) the animals, a God whose first official communication with His people consisted of His words literally written in stone.
The fact that “Word” is one of the names for God (John 1:1) implies that language is part of His very nature. Human language, then, is a reflection of God in human beings, created in His image. In the Greek, “word” is “logos,” and in both Greek philosophy and the Judeo-Christian tradition, its definitions refer to underlying structures of reason, logic, creativity and universal order. The practice of reading inherently develops an understanding of “logos,” of both words and the Word.
Indeed, Christians are known as “people of the Book,” an obvious reference to the Bible, the book of Books, which forms the center of our faith. Naturally, Christians should spend time reading this Book and promoting its spread throughout the world’s cultures through translation and missions.
But reading other books is crucial for the Christian as well.The same skills developed in reading books well assist in reading the Bible well. In fact, some of the most profound misunderstandings I’ve encountered regarding the Christian faith—whether from believers or non-believers—have stemmed from poor reading of the Bible: mistaking history for philosophy, for example, or poetry for science, or descriptive passages for prescriptive ones. In my experience, those who know how to read books well—whether works of fiction, drama, poetry, philosophy or religion—are better readers of the Bible, too.
Additionally, reading the world’s literary masterpieces can be likened to fulfilling God’s command to the Israelites to seize the silver and gold from the Egyptians and put it to the Lord’s service. St. Augustine argued that because all truth is God’s truth, Christians can put the “Egyptian gold” of secular philosophy (or, I would add, literature) into the Lord’s service. And since Jesus said that the Truth will make us free (John 8:32), the truths we find within literature also help to free us. I think of the insights that can be found in the work of Homer, for example. Biblical examples of those who plundered the literary gold of the pagans include Daniel and Paul, both of whom were learned in the knowledge and books of their surrounding cultures and used that knowledge to point unbelievers to God and to glorify Him.
Furthermore, when we enter new worlds by reading literature, we imitate not only Daniel and Paul, but we imitate Christ also, who, according to Philippians 2:5-8, humbled Himself by becoming human in order to experience our humanity with us. When we read literature that depicts lives, places and experiences different from our own, we, like Christ (although in pale imitation), humble ourselves by stepping outside the ego-centric world of ourselves in order to share aspects of human experience unfamiliar to us. This is just what I experienced as a modern, white, American woman reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, a work about a world and a people vastly different from mine. In this way, reading literature helps us to fulfill the command to love our neighbors as ourselves. The more we know and understand our neighbors, the better we can love them.
Reading good literature serves oneself well, too, in one’s Christian walk. Reading and weighing books in light of Scripture helps us to fulfill the commands of 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 to “test” all things; “hold on to what is good, and reject every kind of evil.” It’s important to note the order in which these commands appear. Before we can reject evil, we must hold to what is good. And before we can do either of these, we must test. Of course, we need not experience all things directly in order to test them. Literature offers a way to test ideas and worldviews vicariously so we can better distinguish good from evil, and crave meat not milk (Hebrews 5:12-14). When I read Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert as a young bride, I recognized for the first time my extreme romanticism, the worldview that led Emma Bovary into serial adultery and, ultimately, despair and death. In teaching me lessons that I never learned in Sunday School, church or the Bible, this novel changed my life and probably saved my marriage before I even knew what it might need to be saved from.
Christians too often reduce the meaning of “good” to the narrow definition of “morally good.” But in God’s perfect economy, “good” means both morally good (right) and aesthetically pleasing (beautiful). Thus, when God looked upon His creation and saw that it was “good,” it was good in both senses of the word, morally and aesthetically. The fall, however, resulted in not only the corruption of the moral and the aesthetic realms, but also in their severance from one another. Both the moral sense and the aesthetic sense need to be reunited and brought under subjection through Christ. Developing our taste for the goodness and beauty of literature helps accomplish this. Good literature (like all good art) brings goodness and beauty back in union with each other and with truth.
Yet, goodness and beauty have a cost; we rarely reap their fruits from mere, easy, mindless entertainment. Philippians 4:8 admonishes believers to think upon the things that are, as the verbiage of the King James Version expresses, “honest” and “just,” as well as “lovely” and of “good report,” of “virtue” and “praise.” Some mistakenly use this verse to argue for reading only sweet, innocent Pollyanna books. But such books are not just or honest depictions of the human condition or the fallen world. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, for example, fits all of these descriptors from Philippians 2:8. Those who object solely to the subject matter of a man’s sexual relationship with an adolescent girl need to consider how the book treats the subject lest they commit the same error of those who claim that the Bible endorses polygamy and misogyny. Depiction is not endorsement. Practiced readers understand this difference and recognize how the form of a work shapes its content.
Literary works that are well-crafted, substantive, and that require some investment on the part of the reader for the good reward of understanding are most worthy of praise. Such are truly the lovely books. Such are the ones that Christians should be consuming and creating—and enjoying.
Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English and Modern Languages at Liberty University.