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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
Bible Christianity Theology

How “Red Letter Christianity” misunderstands the Trinity

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Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor from Liberty University and a research colleague of mine via the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has written a helpful perspective on the popular “red letter” interpretation of Scripture. Christians who identify themselves as “Red letter Christians” argue that the recorded words of Jesus deserve special attention and/or status of interpretative control in reading the Bible. Unlike a more traditional evangelical hermeneutic, red letter interpretation does not begin with the assumption that all of biblical canon is authoritative, but imparts authority to non-Jesus texts to the degree that they appear consonant with the “message” of Jesus.

Dr. Prior’s piece lays out a few of the problems with this interpretative approach. Excerpt:

Furthermore, isolating the red letters apart from their narrative context breeds contempt for that context, particularly the hard parts of Scripture. This leaves believers with no adequate answer to the kinds of charges made increasingly by anti-theists. Thus when Richard Dawkins asserts in The God Delusion that the “God of the Old Testament” is “jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully,” too many Christians are ill-equipped to respond.

Yet, Dawkins’ hermeneutic—which consists of interpreting passages completely severed from the interpretative framework of the text as a whole—is not all that different from the hermeneutics wrought by the “Jesus-first/Bible-first” dichotomy. Under this spell, Christians are left much like the Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century who are said to have drawn the carriage curtains closed when rolling past the mountains because they could not reconcile such wild irregularity with a worldview based on order and symmetry.

“Contempt for context” is well-said. The “red-letter” hermeneutic unwittingly creates an internal dissonance within the biblical narrative. One cannot logically receive the claims of Jesus’ divinity without also receiving His claim that He fulfills the Old Testament Scriptures, a claim that is incoherent unless one believes that the entire biblical canon is already authoritative and divine by the time Jesus comes to fulfill them.

Yet this isn’t the only problem with the red-letter approach. In fact, I would argue that the disregard for context, while a serious problem, is tertiary compared to the difficulties it creates in Trinitarian theology.

The doctrine of the Trinity teaches not only that God exists as One in three distinct Persons, but that those distinct Persons relate to one another in God’s redemptive work. Thus, the Father sends the Son to redeem humans by paying the penalty for sins back to the Father (Romans 3:25). Even more, the Father raises the Son from the dead to in order to vindicate the Son’s claim to be one with His Father. He raises the Son BY the power of the Holy Spirit, which the Son gives to those adopted into Him by the Father (Romans 1:4, 8:11). So each Person of the Trinity serves the Others in an eternal, God-glorifying mutuality of redemption.

Now red-letter Christians would agree that the Holy Spirit inspires the words of the Bible. But by privileging the words of Jesus as some sort of hermeneutic control over the rest of the canon, they obscure the relationship between the Spirit and the Son. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of the Son. The Spirit that inspires the writing of Scripture does so in service of the Son. That’s why Jesus tells the disciples that the Spirit would bring to their remembrance all Jesus had told them and would guide them into all truth (John 16:13).

This means that when Jesus speaks, He speaks by the Spirit, and likewise the Spirit speaks the words of the Father and the Son. So what Jesus says is true and trustworthy and eternal not primarily because He is a distinct Person of the Trinity, the Son, but because He speaks by the Spirit the words of the Father.

So that leaves with us an interpretive choice to make. Either the Spirit has spoken by the Old Testament prophets and by Paul, James, Peter, etc, or He hasn’t. Either the Holy Spirit has inspired the whole Bible, or it hasn’t. We may choose to believe either way, but we cannot believe in some Holy Spirit inspiration for certain Scriptures and less of it for others. Being genuinely Trinitarian in our theology and our worship requires humbly acknowledging the incredible way the Persons of the Trinity speak and act in harmony and accordance with one another. When Jesus speaks by the Spirit, He speaks the words of God. When Moses and David speak by the Spirit, they speak the words of God. The only way to get around this is to say the Spirit did not inspire these other writers, which of course leads to a total collapse in any rational confidence in the Bible.

A much better course is to affirm that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit from the Father and of the Son, spoke through the authors of Scripture in an authoritative way for every context. The fulfillment of all inspired Scripture happens in the person and work of Christ. So all of the Bible points to Jesus, not because His spirit is distinctly true apart from the other Persons of the Trinity, but because the Triune God uniformly speaks the truth about Himself. Rejecting “red letter Christianity” is necessary if we are to properly understand the nature of our Triune God, and worship and trust Him as He desires.