I love to read promiscuously.
If you've followed this blog for any length of time, perhaps this is something you've noticed.
Many, perhaps even most, well-meaning Christians from my conservative circle would consider my reading habits excessively liberal. In fact, I've been pressed to defend my preferences more than a few times. Some of the titles I've read could easily have been chosen as fodder for the book burnings I witnessed a few times as a child.
Still I read on.
Now and then my quest feels daunting. I'm always grateful to receive encouragement from Christian intellectuals whom I respect. For the past several months, I have enjoyed being part of the growing community at Tim Fall's blog, Just One Train Wreck After Another. Not long ago, Tim posted a review of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior, Professor of English at Liberty University.
The mere idea of Booked intrigued me immensely. Tim quoted Prior's insights on what reading promiscuously means and why it is an important habit to cultivate. I had never heard of an Evangelical apologetic for reading indiscriminately before. The day Tim put up his "Hooked by Booked" review, I flew straight over to Amazon and loaded the book to my Kindle within seconds.
What a joy it was for me to read Dr. Prior's insights! In Booked she articulates the need for stories with candor, grace, and wisdom:
I know that spiritual formation is of God, but I also know -- mainly because I learned it from books -- that there are other kinds of formation, too, everyday gifts, and that God uses the things of the earth to teach us and shape us, and to help us find the truth.
I am certain that God is leading me on my quest. He draws me farther and deeper with my reading; consistently nudging me through the Holy Spirit to probe and listen carefully, and to examine ideas in the light of Holy Scripture.
As Prior says,
. . . God who spoke the world into existence with words is, in fact, the source of meaning of all words. My journey toward that discovery is the story of this book. I thought my love of books was taking me away from God, but as it turns out, books were the backwards path to God, bramble-filled and broken, yes, but full of truth and wonder.
In Booked, Prior parallels key moments of her own coming-of-age story with the literature that helped shape her. I was thrilled to find several titles featured which are also part of the reading lists from The Well Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer (Jane Eyre, Gulliver's Travels, Madame Bovary, and John Donne's Metaphysical poetry), as well as other titles from authors we WEMers are familiar with now (Dickens and Hardy). Prior cleverly connects her own unique memories with poignant literary scenes any avid reader would find apropos.
Discovering truth is a process that occurs over time, more fully with each idea or book that gets added to the equation. Sure, many of the books I read in my youth filled my head with silly notions and downright lies that I mistook for truth, but only until I read something else that exposed the lie for what it was.
Prior points to John Milton, who held that "the best books to a naughty mind are not unapplicable to occasions of evil"; whereas "bad books, to a discreet and judicious reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn, to illustrate."
Since reading Booked, I've thought a good deal about how literature has shaped my life. There are titles which stand out, in hindsight, as having proved crucial to my formation. Perhaps some of my reflections might show up in future blog posts here.
For me, the experience of reading has always felt much like entering into a conversation. And fittingly, classic literature is sometimes referred to as the "Great Conversation." Through reading widely I'm learning how to listen, discern, and empathize -- how to "examine everything carefully and hold fast that which is good."
I read to better understand both my world and myself. Great literature delights, elevates -- and at the same time it humbles. I am grateful that God often uses it to coax open the eyes of my soul. Ever so patiently He leads me to glimpses of Himself in nature and in the highest works of art which humankind has made.