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Reading Towards Bethlehem

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.

Categories
books culture life Theology

Thoughts on Christian Publishing

On Twitter, Jared Wilson flagged this list of the bestselling Christian books of 2016. I’ve seen previous iterations of this list, and each one that I’ve seen looks frighteningly alike. The gentlest way to say it: the Christian publishing industry is utterly dominated by therapeutic self-help literature. What’s more, the sheer amount of non-literature on the list is staggering; adult coloring books and joke books are all over the top 20, and “Jesus Calling” appears nine times in the top 100, thanks to various editions.

Now it’s always easy to overreact to this kind of thing. The reality is that times are hard for serious, substantial writing, whether Christian or not. Social media technology’s assault on concentration and thoughtfulness does not discriminate on the basis of religion. And the list isn’t all bad; there are plenty of good writers and good books on it.

What I’m more interested in though is the gap between this list of bestselling Christian books, and the evangelical online writing economy. Put simply, the contrast between the work that outsells all other work in Christian bookstores and the work that drives traffic and conversation in the evangelical blogosphere is astonishing. The two worlds look nothing alike. When was the last time you saw an article on your social media written in the first person voice of Jesus, assuring readers of prosperity and emotional centeredness? Have you ever seen a viral relaxation exercise from Desiring God, Tim Challies, Focus on the Family, or even Patheos for that matter?

Sure, there’s some silliness out there. Yes, the lows of evangelical blogging can be really, really low (you’d be better off with a coloring book than some sites I know of). But as I think about it, it just seems to me that even the ridiculousness of evangelical blogosphere is almost always ridiculousness you have to think about. Can the same be said about many bestselling Christian books?

As I look out on the confessional evangelical writing scene, I see a lot of good, even in places where I’d find much to disagree with. There is quite a bit of thoughtful, meaningful commentary out there right now. So when I see a list like this, I can’t help but wonder: Where’s the disconnect? Why am I seeing such a stark difference between the content I inhabit on a daily basis and the content that the average Christian is consuming at bestselling rates? I don’t have an answer for that.

There are a few things I do know:

  • The space right now for creative Christian writers is enormous. There is a real material need in American Christian culture for literary talent. We can’t talk to teenage and twentysomething believers about using their gifts for the good of the body of Christ and only point them toward vocational ministry or the mission field. Christian art matters (it always has), and it requires Christian artists. They won’t grow out of the ground; they have to be cultivated, encouraged, identified, and supported.
  • The impulse in Christian literary circles to divide “theology” from “Christian living” is a terrible rip off. It results in verbose, stiff, academic theology, and shallow bubblegum devotional lit. The sad fact is that some of the best evangelical theology is being produced by people who can’t write, in books that will never be read, all because somewhere down the line we Reformed evangelical types decided the humanities were not relevant in training theologians. Adult coloring books are that mentality’s harvest. This has to be reversed, and it has to be reversed by people who can think deep thoughts about God AND say them in beautifully arresting way.
  • You get what you pay for. These trends in Christian publishing aren’t going to be thwarted by moaning bloggers like me. They’re going to be thwarted by churchgoers who use their income to purchase good books by good writers. And for that to happen, those who are already reading good books by good writers have to tell others about them–including pastors.

I actually believe Christian publishing is primed for a sustained season of excellence, for reasons already mentioned above. But perhaps the biggest obstacle in the way of such a season is the church’s own passivity. For years many evangelical churches labored under the illusion that spiritualized entertainment was going to rebuild American Christianity and fill the pews. It turns out though that not even the church can out-distract Buzzfeed and Facebook. So what now? Maybe we should give the whole teaching thing another go round.

Categories
books What I'm Reading

What I’m Reading

I thought I’d share some of my current reads. Right now I have a list about 6-7 books deep that I hope to get through before my wife’s due date of August 1. We’ll see about that, I suppose.

Keep in mind that none of these blurbs are necessarily recommendations, for the simple reason that I’m currently reading them and haven’t finished yet.

One note: Please consider buying these books and using the links on this blog post to do so. I’ve recently become a partner in the Amazon associates program for bloggers. If any of these titles appeal to you, I’d be grateful if you use these links to make your purchase.

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski

This one is #1 on my summer priority list. The Zaleskis set out to do something of a 4-way intellectual biography of the most important members of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles WIlliams, and Owen Barfield. I’ve loved the legacy of the Inklings for years and have always read about them in individual biographical volumes of the writers. This work looks like a treasure trove for anyone interested in these incredible minds and how they intersected with one another.

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam
Robert Putnam is one of the most well-known and influential social scientists of our time. Bowling Alone is an older work, published in 2000, but it is frequently referenced as a seminal study on the disintegration of close social bonds in America.

A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness, John Piper

This is John Piper’s new book, which looks like a brief theology of Scripture and the Christian use of it. Piper is one of the few authors on my “Read no matter what” list (a list everyone should have, by the way).

The Moviegoer, Walker Percy

I haven’t read anything by Walker Percy, and from what I’ve heard this is the best place to start. I decided to jump into this one after constantly seeing references to Percy in some of my favorite non-fiction writing.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, Erik Larson

Erik Larson is quickly becoming one of the most celebrated history writers in the country. This book tells the true story of the Chicago Worlds Fair and the serial killer who stalked it. I’m very early onto this one, and already Larson’s rich prose and keen historical eye have me hooked.

Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey, Roger Scruton
Roger Scruton is one of my favorite living philosophers. I’ve read his books How to Be a Conservative and The Soul of the World. Modern Philosophy looks to be an introduction to contemporary issues in philosophical writing. Scruton has a gift for incisive scholarship, a crucial talent for any philosopher.