Reading for the Love of God: How to Read as a Spiritual Practice
By Jessica Hooten Wilson.
Brazos Press, 2023.
Hardcover, 208 pages, $24.99.
Reviewed by James E. Hartley.
“Until very recent years, civilized folk took it for granted that literature exists to form the normative consciousness: that is, to teach human beings their true nature, their dignity, and their rightful place in the scheme of things. Such has been the end of poetry—in the larger sense of that word—ever since Job and Homer.” Since Russell Kirk wrote these words in 1977, matters have drifted further from this ideal. Jessica Hooten Wilson is disturbed by the state of reading, particularly among Christians. Why? Because, she argues in Reading for the Love of God: How to Read as a Spiritual Practice, God is disturbed by the lack of attention to books.
The problem is not illiteracy; the people for whom Wilson writes obviously know how to read. The problem is that people do not know how to read well. “Why and how we read matters as much as what we read. If we are poor readers, an encounter with the Word will not do much to make us his people.” It is more than just poor reading of the Bible, though. Christians don’t know how to read books outside the Bible; they lack appreciation for the Great Literature she so clearly loves.
Wilson is far from the first to argue that people should read more widely than they seem inclined to do. Thoreau is as forceful, and only slightly less polite: “We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate; and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsman who cannot read at all, and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects.” While this book replicates the sort of advice given by Thoreau and in Adler and van Doren’s How to Read a Book, Wilson insists it is not simply a repackaged version. The primary difference? After noting that the place holding title of the book was indeed How to Read as a Christian, Wilson declares, “there is a different way of reading for Christians than for others.” Her subtitle is meant quite literally: “reading is a spiritual discipline akin to fasting and prayer.”
Reading books is becoming a lost art. A depressingly high number of my students are incredibly reluctant to even start reading assigned books for classes in their major. Finding new ways to demonstrate the wonders of reading books is an imperative need. For years, in numerous talks and essays, Wilson has been taking up this challenge. As she notes about herself, “Give me ten minutes with the most hesitant of Christian readers, and I will invite them to fall in love with God through fiction.” Reading for the Love of God is an evangelistic work. The reader will not miss the visceral enjoyment she derives from reading Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Douglass and Julian of Norwich. The liveliness she brings to her conference addresses leaps off the page.
Beyond the idea that everyone would enjoy life more if they read more, Wilson relies heavily on Augustine to explain why Christians need to be reading more than the Bible. In On Christian Teaching, for example, Augustine explains why we need to read science: “Just as a knowledge of the habits of the snake clarifies the many analogies involving this animal regularly given in scripture, so too an ignorance of the numerous animals mentioned no less frequently in analogies is a great hindrance to our understanding” (R. P. H. Green translation). More broadly, to understand the Bible, it is necessary to understand how words are used, the objects to which the words point, and how to discern the difference between literal, figurative, analogical, and moral interpretations. We need non-canonical literature to develop this understanding. Augustine’s argument can seem to be a more erudite version of a tedious 10th grade English class.
Wilson most emphatically does not want readers to draw only that lesson from Augustine. While there is a use value in reading literature, we also must learn to enjoy it. “Reading beautiful literature increases our capacity to behold, to pay attention in order to see, and to enjoy useless goods.” We should read O’Connor for enjoyment, not to reduce her stories to some sort of simplistic lesson.
If reading literature brings such joy, why do we need someone to tell us that we are missing out? Here, Wilson’s argument becomes puzzling. “The early church assumed the necessity of being a bookworm to know God and make him known” (emphasis added). What caused the decline in reading? Christians lost their bookish nature with the introduction of spaces between words and even more importantly the invention of the printing press. To say that these claims are outside the mainstream of historical thought is a bit mild.
Why is this unusual narrative of the long decline of reading after the Golden Age important for Wilson’s argument? She is setting up a contrast to explain that she understands why people have a hard time reading. In the past, it was easy to “imagine why a farmer might kick off his boots after a day of sweat and dirt to read a good book.” These days? “I emphasize with the struggle that a twenty-first-century accountant, for instance, might feel trying to transition from the headache of the screen to the demands of a literary sentence. Your brain has been frazzled by your work all day while your body has been inactive. If anything, one may assume that zoning out and turning on a podcast or a television show would be easier since those activities require little participation.”
Set aside the matter of whether a farmer in the twelfth or nineteenth century or an accountant in the twenty-first century is more mentally exhausted after a day of work. That is not relevant to Wilson’s underlying argument. The real reason that she thinks people don’t read these days is that single word— “screen.”
What is so bad about spending all this time on computer screens? More interestingly, do people read less because they spend time on a computer? After all, right this moment, you are looking at a screen and reading a review of a book about reading. Wilson’s book is available on Kindle and those lectures I encouraged for viewing are on a screen. Yet, Wilson empathically says, “[W]e have to be aggressive in turning off the screens… After you remove the time wasted on technology, you may find more time available for reading. You can bring a book with you wherever you go.”
Physical books are better than things on a screen. Why? Physical books are necessary to achieve what she describes as the highest end of reading. We read for many purposes, including for enjoyment and for knowledge. When we read well, we attend to the literal and moral meanings inherent in the book. Reading is a complicated interaction between a reader and an author and a text. All of these things are true for all readers. But, for Christians, Wilson argues, there is the additional spiritual aspect of reading. To fully enter into the spiritual practice of reading requires the highest form of reading: contemplative reading.
The screens get in the way of that contemplation. “Our active life, fostered by topological reading, will be frenetic, fruitless, and unsatisfying without contemplation, which is a way of knowing the Maker of all meaning.” Christians have lost the art of contemplation in the twenty-first century. The screens have created minds which are constantly on a rabid quest for the next hit of dopamine. Reading literature, reading stories simply for the joy of watching the story develop and contemplating the beauty of the story, is a way to create pauses in our lives when we can contemplate God.
Slow down and read. Or as the Psalmist puts it: “Be still and know that I am God.” You can start by getting a copy—a physical copy—of Wilson’s book. Or even better, as I have no doubt Wilson would agree, pick up a copy of any of the books in her appendix, “Reading List of Great Books.” O’Connor, Dostoevsky, Douglass, Austen, Solzhenitsyn, Ellison, Sayers. It makes no difference where you start. Just pick up and read.
James E. Hartley is Professor and Chair of Economics at Mount Holyoke College.
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