“Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.” -Alasdair MacIntyre
A peer of mine, bemoaning the inept vacuum we were unfortunate enough to share, once called it, “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Having both read Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, we shared a good chuckle over that; a moment of shared community that was elevated above simple complaining by the nature of the comment. What a wonderful example of a Christian with a mouth full of books who sees every minute detail of life colored by a life of stories. With one simple comment, my colleague enriched the event of a broken vacuum with all the energy, philosophical angst, and theological meaning inherent within that moment in “Macbeth”.
A person able to speak literature into a moment of shared frustration over a broken vacuum cleaner is a person able to speak literature into moments of much greater import. Cases of law and jurisprudence, the fields of medicine and education, the spheres of government, the church, and the family all have their myriad moments that are best explained, informed, and colored by something from literature. The ability to make such an apropos comment comes at the end of a great deal of reading: it is the fruit of a lifetime of good reading habits.
These good habits are formed by readers who love stories enough to willingly be informed by those stories-readers who do not impose themselves upon the story but approach stories as events, as things that happen to them.
As Eli Wiesel once wrote, “story is something that happens to you as much as a car wreck or a job promotion or falling in love” (The Gates of the Forest). The event of reading a particular book can and should be so dramatic that it will propel us toward personal appropriation. For a Christian, this appropriation means that a story either draws us closer to Christ or away from him, just as any other activity either draws us closer to or farther away from Him. As a result, Christians readers keep certain principles in mind.
First, reading, like any other activity, ought to comply with the great biblical mandate to love God and to love our neighbor.
Christ summed up the law and the prophets with this command and our obedience to Him includes our reading. In many respects, our reading helps us to love God and to love our neighbor better. Stories, while not finally redemptive in and of themselves, can pull us toward God and toward the saving blood of Christ. The Christian tradition believes that only Christ’s redeeming blood saves from spiritual and physical death and only the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit transforms our actions into God-honoring actions, but literature serves as a helpful vehicle to lead us into a richer understanding of the world around us and a richer understanding of how God works within that world.
Second, reading leads us into a deeper understanding of self and of God.
John Calvin once wrote that “nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves” (Institutes of the Christian Religion) and Socrates believed that the key to living was to “know thyself.” While Greek philosophy and Christianity agree in principle that one must know oneself, they differ in two key respects. The Greeks believed that the knowledge of self was the final good, but Christians cannot agree with this. The Greeks also concluded with the humanists that we have the potential within ourselves to be godlike and dazzling as the stars. Christianity, on the other hand, believes that we are broken, lost, and self-defeated-that we clamor for noise and kick against all restraint so that we might, as Pascal aptly put, “lick the earth.”
The Scriptures and much of Western literature is rife with the truth, whether explicit or implicit, that outside of Christ, there is only death all of the time. Augustine elaborated as well on this theme of the Apostle Paul that all deeds, even apparently virtuous deeds, are motivated by a puffed up pride and are, therefore, still vices. “According to this view,” writes Caroline Simon, “the humility that arises from knowing who God is and who we are is the beginning of wisdom and the beginning of virtue” (The Disciplined Heart). Christian reading must, essentially, better inform our knowledge of man and our knowledge of God.
Third, and very simply, the act of reading should make us more compassionate, not less compassionate. I hope that needs no explanation.
What’s the point? Well, quite simply, just keep reading. It does a person good.