The Disciplines of Knowing: The Humanities (4)
Is our generation somehow above the discipline of reading?
Bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas when you come—and the books, especially the parchments. 2 Timothy 4.13
In his commentary on 2 Timothy 4.13, John Calvin issued a resounding affirmation of the importance of reading, and a rebuke to those who have let this discipline go into decline: “It is evident from this, that the Apostle had not given over reading, though he was already preparing for death. Where are those who think that they have made so great progress that they do not need any more exercise? Which of them will dare to compare himself with Paul? Still more does this expression refute the madness of those men who ― despising books, and condemning all reading ― boast of nothing but their own ἐνθουσιασμοὺς – ‘divine inspirations’. But let us know that this passage gives to all believers a recommendation of constant reading, that they may profit by it.”
Central to the benefit to be derived from all humanistic studies is the discipline of reading. As Bethany Williamson wrote in a recent issue of the Christian Scholar’s Review, “At the crux of ‘the humanities,’ literature reminds and teaches us what it means to be human.” Reading – poetry and literature, art and music history, history, philosophy, and more – enables us, according to Williamson, “to inhabit the world more compassionately and charitably.” She encourages readers to “engage in the practice of slow reading, delighting in the turns of phrase, sparkling syntax, broken characters, and beautiful imagery that stir our souls toward beauty, worship and repentance as we learn first to see and then to empathize with the struggles, sufferings, and stories of others.” She insists, “the practice of close reading can be an exercise in spiritual formation, for through it we learn what it means to show charity and hospitality toward authors, characters, and fellow readers…” Such reading can make us “attentive, alert, and alive.”
Those are solid commendations of a discipline that is sadly in decline among the members of the Christian community. Many believers have replaced reading with listening – to praise music, podcasts, and news bites – and have devoted what reading they actually do to scanning the relatively insipid postings on their social media pages. It’s all many of us can do to find the time to read the Bible, much less anything else that might help us increase in the knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Calvin recommends “constant reading”; Bethany Williamson encourages “slow reading”; Susie and I want to affirm your current practice of reading, and encourage you to put away as much as you can that clouds available time for reading, and take Calvin’s and Ms. Williamson’s exhortations to heart.
I want to urge you to rediscover the beauty, wonder, and delight of poetry. The state of much modern poetry does not encourage us to take a liking to verse. Much of it is formless, without rhyme or bright images, and too self-referential to offer much in the way of reliable meaning. You can slog your way through the free verse introspections of contemporary poetry, but by the time you give it up, you may wish you’d never started in the first place.
I encourage you to pay attention to poetry that uses classic forms – structure, meter, rhyme – and works to bring pleasure and meaning to the reader, not just the poet. Poetry can teach you to read closely and slowly; it allows you to peer “into the depth of a moment” (to quote Molly Peacock); it confronts you with compelling images; and it can reach into the recesses of your soul, to reveal things you may not have previously known to be there, or to be wanting there.
Poetry helps us learn how to look at the world as part of a larger whole that is fraught with significance throughout, and that ultimately encourages us to worship and praise Him Who made and upholds this amazing cosmos by His sheer, powerful Word.
Emily Dickinson was not a Christian. But she could not help but see God’s handiwork in the simplest, most ordinary aspects of creation:
How happy is the little Stone
That rambles in the Road alone,
And doesn't care about Careers
And Exigencies never fears –
Whose Coat of elemental Brown
A passing Universe put on,
And independent as the Sun
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute Decree
In casual simplicity –
Find a few poets like Dickinson – Wendell Berry, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Richard Wilbur – and learn to read their poems closely and slowly. You will find your soul stimulated to know the One Who gives such gifts of composition to people.
He’s the same One Who filled more than half of His Bible with poetry.
We should also read from a wide range of other kinds of literature. No one I know is more consistent or fruitful in this than my wife, Susie; so, I asked her for some comments on the value of reading literature. She told me that, besides helping to make her a better editor, reading widely allows her to encounter a wide range of interesting people and fascinating stories. It helps her see into the souls of people, and to understand why they do what they do, and how others often suffer as a result, which increases empathy and compassion in her.
Susie finds reading delightful. She marvels at the beauty of words and syntax, and the variety of ways they are combined to communicate ideas and describe people. She loves learning new things and relearning old ones as she reads; and she is particular about the need to hold a book in her hands while she reads, for the sheer aesthetic enjoyment of turning pages (I’m an e-reader guy). Books show us about the dangers of sin, about ordinary people who are interesting in extraordinary ways, and about the power of words to move people, and of God’s Word to move the cosmos.
I put a few of Susie’s favorite authors before her for a quick response: Anne Tyler – “Her people are infinitely ordinary and interesting.” Sue Grafton – “She understood people and their depravities, and that our sins don’t only affect us.” Wallace Stegner – “His is beautiful and descriptive writing.” Ann Patchett – “She tells a good story with characters who are intricately described.” Fyodor Dostoevsky – “He describes people and their souls so well.” Barbara Kingsolver – “What an excellent writer!”
That’s enough to excite me to improve my own reading habits. We hope it will do the same for you.
Reading opens an infinite number of interesting pathways to Jesus. The more you read, the more you’ll see Him back of every person, every story line, every image, and every rhyme. As Hopkins wrote, “Christ plays in 10,000 places”, and He is “lovely to look at” in the literary works of people from all places and times.
1. How would you describe your own reading habits at this time? Can you see a way you might increase your reading?
2. Why do you think so many Christians read so little? What can you do to encourage them?
3. Do you have a reading plan? Have you ever thought of developing one? Do you have a friend or friends with whom you could read and discuss books? Do you think having that would help you read more?
Next Steps – Transformation: Find three hours in the coming week for reading. What will have to go so that you can do that? What will you read? With whom will you share what you’re reading?
T. M. Moore
One place to begin learning is in understanding the times and the world around us. Our book, Understanding the Times, outlines the broad scope of what we need to understand to live as witnesses in this secular world. Order your copy by clicking here. To see how and why the small stuff of your life matters, order a copy of our book Small Stuff (click here).
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.