Religion & Liberty Online

Reading Well for Your Spiritual Life

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Jessica Hooten Wilson has produced a fascinating guide on how to turn reading into a spiritual practice that will enrich mind, soul, and character.

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Widespread literacy is taken for granted in America today. Our global economy, societal structures, professional success, and everyday activities depend upon our ability to read, even as our interest in reading books appears to be declining. Even among those of us who read as a pastime, we don’t always ask ourselves why or how well we read. For an activity that has the potential to profoundly shape our thoughts, feelings, and actions, however, these questions ought to merit some reflection, particularly for the Christian reader.

In Reading for the Love of God: How to Read as a Spiritual Practice, Jessica Hooten Wilson, Ph.D., has provided an opportunity for such reflection. This little book packs a big punch in its stated goal of imbuing the practice of reading with a spiritual focus and character. Wilson asserts: “I want to promote ‘spiritual reading’ because, as George Bernanos writes, ‘grace is everywhere.’… Everything that Christians do should be spiritual.” On the whole, the book succeeds in making a good case for this thesis and provides ample reasons and methods to grow in the practice of spiritual reading.

Readers may bring very different prior intuitions about reading to this book yet still find it informative and relatable. The initial chapters imply that a principal target audience is those Christians who think that “reading anything except the Bible is unnecessary.” One goal of this book, therefore, is convincing them that reading good literature well is in fact a very important practice, not only to deepen faith and to grow in virtue, but also to improve the reading of Scripture. In the face of Wilson’s persuasive arguments, which range from the value of exposure to truth, goodness, and beauty to the necessity for the Christian to engage with others’ perspectives of the world, such readers would have difficulty not being so convinced.

Wilson claims that “in reading other books, we practice reading the Bible, and in reading the Bible, we read other books by that lens.” This reminded me of Jordan Peterson’s concept of the “cultural lens” of Western civilization, formed by a “corpus of texts” with the Bible at its foundation, through which we learn to see the world. Wilson beautifully integrates the necessity of reading Scripture and the value of reading other books such that they mutually reinforce each other to form an authentically Christian worldview.

The merits of this approach appeal to both the aforementioned “Why read anything but the Bible?” audience as well as (and this is the camp I found myself in) Christian readers who already love literature but may still need to hone their love of reading so that it will become more spiritually fruitful. Readers who regularly enjoy fiction, poetry, or classic literature may benefit from the biblical grounding Wilson gives these genres with her claim that “the Bible acts as the standard by which all other reading is measured.” This may seem a strong claim to those whose reading lives range far outside the kinds of books the Bible contains (although there is already a wide variety to be found there); however, I found it a valuable reminder of the crucial, authoritative nature of Scripture for those Christians in danger of being identified, like St. Jerome, as “Ciceronians.” Again, Wilson’s discussion of the value of reading both Scripture and other works encourages integration rather than divorce of one’s literary and spiritual lives.

Reading for the Love of God is a series of thematic musings rather than a systematic work; you’re made to feel as if you were wandering through a literary garden rather than being subjected to a school curriculum. As such, while the lack of rigorous structure can lead to ambiguity and mild annoyance at times, it is a pleasure to read. Wilson draws heavily from the Western literary and philosophical traditions but treads lightly through their pages in her open and conversational style. The book is more of a “taste of Europe” tour than a week in Paris: favoring literary breadth over depth, the slim volume tells you just enough about a variety of novels, poems, and classic works to whet your appetite for more. Thankfully, Wilson provides extensive, age-appropriate reading lists in the appendices to satisfy this appetite.

The more casual, personable style by no means indicates a dearth of scholarly insights. The book is full of interesting facts about reading and literature that may be new to the reader, and its way of evaluating the process of reading from all angles gives the thoughtful reader opportunities to see the topic in a new light. Wilson offers such classic tools for reading as the four senses of Scripture, outlines helpful concepts like the distinction between utility and enjoyment, and introduces the reader to practices such as tropological reading. Here are some of my own gleanings and reflections sparked by following Wilson on her garden tour:

  • I learned that, until the 12th century, reading aloud in groups was the norm in the West (versus reading alone/silently).
  • I gained new insight into the value of obscure texts in Scripture from Wilson’s observation that glossing and commenting on them “distills the mystery” and lets the reader “converse” with the text. Whereas before, this account seemed to me a cop-out to explain away difficult passages, after reading Wilson’s take on the subject, some level of obscurity almost seems fitting so that readers learn to mine for themselves the truths contained in Scripture.
  • While learning about the practice of associative reading, I considered the meaning and power contained not only in a single word but also in that word used across time and space in conjunction with so many other, different words.
  • While reading about the importance of memory, I found myself thinking about how I could improve my memory and be intentional about what it stores, rather than just letting it absorb content passively. I agree with Wilson that memory is an embodied practice and a moral responsibility because good things ought not to be forgotten.
  • I nodded at her insight that “if the Word has become flesh … then we cannot create convincing messages with faulty forms.” Both form and aesthetics matter, and artistic form “illuminates the authenticity of the story.”

Readers will also enjoy the intermittent “bookmarks” that bring to life famous readers and authors of history: Augustine of Hippo, Julian of Norwich, Frederick Douglass, and Dorothy Sayers. Wilson uses these figures to highlight various characteristics of spiritual reading, including how literature can encourage change by providing a vision of the past as a foil of the present (Frederick Douglass), and how reading in other languages, especially in the original languages of texts, reminds us that “the world cannot be known only by ourselves” (Dorothy Sayers). I appreciated her efforts to include a balanced selection of both male and female authors, employing her own advice not to exclude the literary contributions and experiences of women in considering the body of great texts that has been handed on to us.

The reader will likely find many other insights in Reading for the Love of God and will certainly find inspiring rhetoric urging a closer look at the spiritual potential involved in reading. They may come to see the practice of reading, like Wilson, as “a spiritual discipline akin to fasting and prayer and one that trains you in the virtues, encourages your sanctification, and elicits your love for those noble, admirable, and beautiful things.”

The ultimate argument of this book is that “there is a different way of reading for Christians than for others,” because “the end of all our reading should be contemplation.” As, indeed, the end of all our lives should be, if Aquinas is right: “That which belongs principally to the contemplative life is the contemplation of the divine truth, because this contemplation is the end of the whole human life.” As Christians and as human beings ordered toward this end, we should take every opportunity to grow in our ability to contemplate divine truth, and reading as a spiritual practice is one way to do that.

Sarah Negri

Sarah Negri is a graduate student in philosophy at Baylor University.