And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
A thought has recently occurred to me that reading is a spiritual act. Many religions have some sort of document they proclaim as inspired or at least helpful in the journey of life, and this is no more true than of the Christian religion. Christians believe that God wrote a book, the Bible, and that it is inspired, inerrant and infallible. Thus, Christians are required to look at the act of reading as a spiritual act. God has ordained that we learn about him not by talking, not by physical exertions, not by singing or giving alms or fasting or even (by itself) prayer. Instead, he decided to give his revelation by way of a book, and he ordained reading as that peculiar means by which we learn about him. And when we ponder reading in itself, it is peculiar, for reading is the strange means by which we converse with the dead and those scattered across our globe. Men and women lying in their graves speak to us through their written words, and pilgrims living in distant lands converse(d) with us through reading. This is not natural in the sense that it complicates instead of simplifies. Even readers like myself would argue that it would have been a lot less complicated if God had revealed himself through a movie or a Tweet. The gospel in 140 characters would be far easier to interpret than the Bible. The glory of God, however, is not confined to a Tweet, and he wisely chose reading a book like the Bible (full of stories, poems, genealogies, letters, prophecies) as his primary means of communicating with us. I wish now in this post, to ironically pen an argument in defense of putting the book down.
We never finish the book. I found myself reading through a book of CS Lewis quotations the other evening and was reminded that he observed again and again the differences between a literary reader and a non-literary reader. The non-literary reader reads a book once and is done with it. The literary reader isn’t so proud to think he can get everything out of it one time through, but he revisits it over and over to mine it for all its worth. He never finishes the book. He never, ever, until his eyes fail or his spirit takes flight, stops being a reader. To stop reading is to stop being spiritual. This type of literary life that I wish to promote and practice is founded on that principle. But I believe that, with anything, a good can be taken too far, and this past year or so has once again taught me that extremes are dangerous. If our reading leads to a cold-hearted, priggish, individualistic mindset, our reading is all in vain. If our reading leads not to worship it is egotistic. If it leads not to love, it is worth nothing and we are nothing.
The thought occurred to me recently as I have been reading through the New Testament. The more I read, the more I find I am told to stop reading. The gospels constantly point to a Savior who kept seeking solitude and prayer, who taught and commanded us to pray more than to read. He consistently taught about a different Kingdom and the attitude of a life of faith — a life not lead merely by sight. The gospels do not present a man who only read but one who spent his time serving others. The book of Acts shows a group of people who read the scriptures and let them spur them on to love and good deeds. The epistles, the more I read them, portray a life primarily lead by faith and prayer.
Now, faith is more common to us than we would allow. The newspaper we read contains characters who we’ve never met, who live in a country we’ve never visited, doing things we’ve never experienced. Yet by faith we believe our newspapers (for what they’re worth). When I read Shakespeare, I ultimately accept his existence by a type of faith, for my five senses tell me nothing about his existence. Reading then, because it is spiritual, involves faith. However, the more I read the New Testament, the more I see a call to a higher faith: The type of faith that is more firmly convinced in the cherubim I’m reading about than the chair I’m sitting in.
One book and a couple of chapters stick out to me more than any on this subject. The book of Hebrews cannot be sincerely read through without the reader feeling a spectacular need, desire and longing to fall on his knees and cry out to his Father who sympathizes with him. Inasmuch as this is the effect of Hebrews, the book is still a letter and was meant to be read in one sitting. We read, read, read, read and then take a step back and ask ourselves “so what?” And Hebrews takes the solitary, prayerful man of the Gospels, places him on his throne, and demands that we fall on our knees and acknowledge his ability to be our mediator. It is a fantastic book that must be read and read often. It is a fantastic book that tells us to stop reading.
Another section of scripture is the fourth and fifth chapters of 2 Corinthians. In my opinion, this is the Apostle Paul’s greatest argument he gives for a life of faith. Lewis’ popular essay “Weight of Glory” takes its title from 4:17 (so I assume) in which Paul states that we have a future glory that we cannot fathom. This glory is so momentous that we not only look to it as in some emotionally driven hope-filled ecstasy, but in a rational and intellectual conviction that that other world exists. “For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” If this is true it completely changes the way we view the world. Once again, we see Paul pointing to something higher than reading. As significant, and spiritual as reading is, it is not the end, it is a means to a better end.
Nearly all literature does this. It is not surprising to find many students perplexed about our world. We are told in science class that we are meaningless, yet in every other subject area we see this uncouth feeling spilling out in literature, art, music etc. that utterly defies a meaningless existence. For our purposes here, literature is one area of the creative arts that stirs us to read more and read less. Few Dickens’ characters are seen reading and the same goes for nearly every other piece of literature. Dickens should — instead of merely producing a longing for more Dickens — produce in us a way of viewing the people around us as intelligently designed spirits who are fundamentally comical. Great poetry causes us to question the world while seeing it from a different vantage point. Non-fiction should be much more than just head knowledge. If all our reading is nothing but that head knowledge, we miss the point. I find this post specifically being directed at myself. Too often I get wrapped up in finishing the next book without first enjoying the book I am currently reading. Too often I find that my love for reading takes place for my love for people. This is the great temptation. The call then is not to read less but to read more purposefully. Let what you read take you to another place, but when you return home don’t forget those distant shores you have visited. Take what you have learned from that land and allow it to change the one you’re in. For reading is not an end in itself but a spiritual experience pointing and prodding us to a life of love and new lands.