When I was in high school I wrote a poem for a girl in my English literature class. No, I’m not joking. I was young, dumb, and in like, and a steady diet of homeschooling had left me with few vehicles with which to express my feelings. So, I reached for poetry, and courageously put my soul and my singleness into verse. A couple years later we were both at her wedding—though I was watching in the third pew from the back (it worked out for all of us).
Unfortunately, this was to be one of the last times in a long time that literature would play a meaningful role in my life. I enrolled in an excellent Bible college, and it didn’t take long for any substantive trace of literature, poetry, and fiction to evaporate. My intellectual world was too awash with systematic theologies, books on baptism, Christian situational ethics, and New Testament surveys. Two semesters of “Great Books” supplied my sole ration of literature in those days, and by that time my attitude toward my old collection of Twain, Hemingway, and Austen was nostalgic but unserious.
It has always bothered me that I had to get clear of my theology-centered Christian education before I was reminded how much stories matter. That’s why I wish Karen Swallow Prior had written On Reading Well years ago. Her new book is the moral apologia for literature that many Christians, especially we Reformed types, need right now. Though the book is valuable (if imperfect) for its reflections on living the virtuous life, its greatest contribution is a vibrant paradigmatic exercise in how to not just look at great stories but to (to adapt C.S. Lewis) look “along” them.
Rather than stitching together another encyclopedia of “great books” for Christians, Prior organizes the book around virtue itself. Part One is given to the Four Cardinal Virtues (Prudence, Temperance, Justice, Courage), Part Two to the three Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, Love) and Part Three to the Heavenly Virtues (Chastity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, Humility). Each virtue is assigned to a specific work of literature that Prior summarizes and analyzes. She shows her skill in opening up each literary work succinctly and convincingly, so that On Reading Well can ideally be read alongside each discussed work but not exclusively so (appropriately, each discussion contains spoilers).
It’s not difficult to imagine someone critiquing On Reading Well for its exclusive use of Western books and stories. While such criticism isn’t unreasonable, it’s important to note that this is not a book about essential literature for every Christian, nor is it an implicit evaluation of the “greatness” of certain cultures. This is a book about reading, not writers, and as such Prior has given her audience a sampling of literature that will be readily accessible to most.
Every chapter is two things: first, a theological/moral discussion of virtue and how to attain it, and second, a literary analysis that illuminates moral narrative and helps us find ourselves in the stories.
When it comes to the literary analysis, Prior is clearly in her element, and it’s hard to imagine a Christian writer doing a better job than this. Of The Great Gatsby’s materialistic title character (who is the subject of the book’s chapter on Temperance), Prior writes that his long sought after love interest, Daisy, “is for Gatsby like the volumes of books that fill his library shelves: with pages uncut and unread, their value is in what they symbolize, not what they are…His desire has been for something that does not even exist, and he has no taste for what really does exist.” Gatsby’s intemperance in his pursuit of pleasure, Prior writes, deadens his spiritual senses, precisely because pleasure is inescapably spiritual:
Human beings are creatures who are rational as well as spiritual and who, as such, do not approach pleasurable activities purely physically. The temperate person is one who “understands and these connections between bodily pleasures and the larger human good, and whose understanding actually tempers the desires and pleasures.” Temperance is liberating because it “allows us to be masters of our pleasure instead of becoming its slaves.”
Such a morally oriented discussion of Jay Gatsby would surely be anathema in most university classrooms. Deconstructionist literary theory’s reduction of themes into sociopolitical tropes is an acid to reading well, and Prior’s thoroughly Christian, thoroughly researched command of this and the other pieces of literature is nothing less than a spiritually vivifying antidote.
Another wonderful example of Prior’s steady hand around literature is her chapter on Faith, which discusses Shusako Endo’s devastating novel Silence. Those who have only seen the Martin Scorcese film will have missed out on the brilliant way that Endo uses form to communicate meaning. How should we interpret the agonizing denouement of the book? Prior’s observations here are not just insightful, they’re empowering:
The narrative structure offers the most significant cue for how to read Silence. It begins with a prologue by a third-person narrator. Then the first half of the book shifts to first-person narration in the form of letters written by Rodrigues. But once Rodrigues is captured…the narrative point of view shifts back to the third person. The last chapter of the novel introduces a new narrative style in the form of diary extracts from a clerk with a Dutch merchant, followed by an appendix consisting of diary entries from an officer assigned to Rodrigues’s residence…
These narrative points of view taken together and in order effect a movement that begins at a distance from Rodrigues and his experience of faith, then moves closer, then moves away again, and then, finally, moves even further away…This interplay of subjective and objective, as well as limited and omniscient points of view, complicates the reader’s experience and suggests implications and applications of the story’s content beyond the pages of the book—in a way similar to how a parable works.
Prior admirably weaves together technical literary analysis and moral insight into a readable and re-readable whole. Rather than admitting any partition between form and content, Prior’s take on literature is holistic, applying a theological and moral framework to both style and message. This is much more helpful than either rote worldview tests on one hand or biblically tepid “cultural engagement” on the other.
If I have one mild critique of On Reading Well, it would be directed toward the non-literary parts of the book. Prior’s discussions of the virtues are reliable and spiritually faithful, but occasionally they feel too stitched together from various outside sources. On Reading Well is heavily notated, which is no surprise for a book about books, but many of the citations feel weighted toward the more didactic sections. There’s nothing wrong with quotes, of course, but the constant citation of outside sources—including books and articles from a very wide spectrum of theological traditions—gives certain sections a disjointed feel, as if we are reading a summary of the best stuff Prior found on the topic rather than a writer’s focused engagement of the ideas.
That aside, On Reading Well is a joy. For Christian book lovers already well versed in these stories, this is a treat of moral conversation and insight. For Christians who want to break into literature, this is a fine starter text to inspire your search for Christian truth in fiction. The church owes Karen Swallow Prior a debt of gratitude for reminding us of the spiritual power of imagination, and for modeling so well how to receive that power. Here is a book to read well.