Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Brazos, 2018), and is published with permission.
I grew up in the church, but it took an unbelieving, liberal professor at a state university to teach me how reading well could make me a better Christian.
I had been led by the pastors, revivalists, and Sunday school teachers of my youth to believe that if one really loves God, one demonstrates it by one’s willingness to be a pastor (or, in my case, a pastor’s wife) or to travel as a missionary to a faraway land—the more desolate the better.
But I didn’t want to be these things. (I suppose it’s more proper to say I “didn’t feel called,” but it’s more honest simply to say I didn’t want to.) I wanted to be a student, a reader, a writer, and, eventually, a professor.
I didn’t know how to reconcile my love of literature and learning with my love of God. So for a while, I gave up God.
Then I met a professor in my PhD program who—although not a Christian himself—taught me about the rich intellectual and theological legacy of Christian writers. One was John Milton, who wrote not only one of the greatest epic poems in world literature (a Christian epic, no less), but also wrote a profoundly Christian defense of reading “promiscuously.”
Reading need not be merely an interesting pastime or secular scholarly pursuit, but has significant theological implications and practical applications for the Christian.
A loyal Puritan during the English Civil War, Milton linked censorship with the Roman Catholic Church (the political as well as doctrinal enemy of the Puritans) and found in his Reformation heritage a deep interdependence of intellectual, religious, political, and personal liberties—all of which depend, he argued, on virtue. Because the world since the fall contains both good and evil, Milton explained, virtue consists of choosing good over evil. He distinguished between the innocent, who know no evil, and the virtuous, who know what evil is and elect to do good. What better way to learn the difference between evil and good, Milton asked in Areopagitica—his 1644 pamphlet advocating for the freedom of the press—than to gain knowledge of both through reading widely?
Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger, scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.
Reading Milton and discussing his ideas with my professor in his office long after class had ended was when I came to understand that reading need not be merely an interesting pastime or secular scholarly pursuit, but has significant theological implications and practical applications for the Christian.
Literary reading doesn’t simply impart information or entertainment into our brains where it’s held as if in a sort of repository. Rather, reading widely and well shapes and forms our character. It cultivates virtue.
The word virtue has many shades of meaning, but it can most simply be understood as excellence. Reading well is, in itself, an act of virtue, or excellence, and it’s a habit that cultivates more virtue in return.
Reading widely and well shapes and forms our character. It cultivates virtue.
Literature embodies virtue, first, by offering images of virtue in action and, second, by offering the reader vicarious practice in exercising virtue, by which habits of mind—ways of thinking and perceiving—accrue. Reading virtuously means, first, reading closely, being faithful to both text and context, interpreting accurately and insightfully. Indeed, there is something in the very form of reading—the shape of the action itself—that tends toward virtue. The attentiveness necessary for deep reading (the kind of reading we practice in reading literary works as opposed to skimming news stories or reading instructions) requires patience. The skills of interpretation and evaluation require prudence. Even the simple decision to set aside time to read in a world rife with so many other choices competing for our attention requires a kind of temperance.
The skills required to read well are no great mystery. Reading well is, well, simple (if not easy). It just takes time and attention.
To read well is not to scour books for lessons on what to think. Rather, to read well is to be formed in how to think. Reading well adds to our life—not in the way a tool from the hardware store adds to our life, for a tool does us no good once lost or broken, but in the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us forever.
Reading for virtue means attending to the form of a work as well as its content. And because literature is by definition an aesthetic experience, not merely an intellectual one, we have to attend to form at least as much as to content, if not more. Form matters.
Attending to Form
For example, to grasp what The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn shows us about the virtue of courage requires understanding the irony the text depends upon. The central irony of Huck’s courage in protecting the runaway slave Jim is that it’s based on a malformed conscience and an erroneous belief that he is doing wrong (and risks it anyway). But we know that he is doing right. The story imparts virtue in the readers by requiring from us the intellectual and moral courage to distinguish between what society says is right and wrong and what is truly so. Readers who every now and then ask for Huck Finn to be pulled from school curricula are reading the content of the book but not attending to its form, thereby missing the irony by which the societal values the book depicts are not being upheld but are being corrected.
Reading well is, well, simple (if not easy). It just takes time and attention.
The 18th-century novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling also models the way good literature integrates form and content. The central virtue of this story is prudence, or applied wisdom. The narrative relays the hero’s long, adventure-filled journey in pursuit of prudence. But the form of the work—epic in length, filled with a panoply of characters representative of all of society, mostly humorous but at times serious—requires the reader to exercise his own prudence all along the way. As this novel delightfully shows, the act of judging a character in a story builds our own character.
Shusaku Endo’s Silence is intriguing, problematic even, because it centers on a 17th-century priest who apostatizes under exceedingly cruel circumstances of torture. What happens after that causes the reader to question whether or not his act constitutes a true abandonment of his faith. This novel thus provides a perfect opportunity to examine the theological virtue of faith. The hard questions the story raises (based on historical events) about the nature of evangelization, conversion, and true faith can’t be definitely answered about the fictional character and world because of the ambiguities of the story itself, which are further complicated by the form the narrative takes. But the purpose in reading this novel—or any novel—isn’t to find definitive answers about the characters. It’s rather to ask definitive questions about ourselves.
Great books offer perspectives more than lessons. As moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum explains in Love’s Knowledge, literature replicates the world of the concrete, where the “experiential learning” necessary for virtue occurs. Good literature is for the Christian a place to “test all things” (1 Thess. 5:21)—as well as to be tested, refined, and made more excellent.