In this episode of TGC Q&A, Karen Swallow Prior and Jen Pollock Michel discuss the question, “How does literature deepen our understanding of Scripture?” They address:
- Reading vs. comprehension (:28)
- Paying attention (1:10)
- How social reading has affected our comprehension (2:19)
- Reading difficult texts (3:47)
- Reading for formation (4:38)
- Practicing imagination (5:41)
- Required imagination (6:52)
Explore more from TGC on this topic:
Want to Read Great Literature? Start Here.
Why Every Story and All of Literature Is Christ-Haunted
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Jen Pollock Michel: Karen, how does reading and appreciating good literature deepen our understanding of the Bible?
Karen Swallow Prior: That’s an excellent question, because reading on one level is reading, and so developing an ability to comprehend a text and to understand what the text means in the context of the entire text is a skill that we apply both to reading the Bible and to reading good literature. One of the things that I often tell my students is that being a faithful reader of the text, neither adding to the text nor subtracting to it, is a quality of a good reader of the Bible and a quality of a good student of literature.
Jen Pollock Michel: I was thinking of just the discipline of paying attention. I can remember studying literature in my graduate degree and having to do like a close reading on a paragraph, like write 10 pages on this paragraph, from Bleak House. So you just learn to pay attention. Even just taking that into our reading of scripture is a really important practice. I mean, I’m actually surprised at how often I catch myself not paying close attention to the text. I was just recently in conversation, I was actually recently just teaching a text from the Bible and someone had come up to me afterwards and said, “I just really noticed this in the text. Had you noticed that?” I was like, “No, I haven’t.”
Jen Pollock Michel: It was just the posture of this woman, the story about this woman, and at the beginning of the story she’s standing, and at the end of the story, she’s actually kneeling at the feet of [Leisha]. We know from studying literature that everything is really intentional and essential, and even more so in scripture. But how often do I find myself caught off guard because I’m not paying close attention?
Karen Swallow Prior: Well, I mean, we all have that experience of reading where our eyes are skimming across the page and we’ve read a sentence or a paragraph or three pages before we realized that we really haven’t been attentive to the text. We haven’t been taking it in. That can happen all the time. But I think that one of the reasons that we have difficulty reading complicated texts today, including the Bible, is because so much of the reading that we do is just informational reading. It’s reading that’s designed to be read quickly like a tweet or a blog or even most news articles. Cognitive scientists have actually shown that when we read things like that, our eyes move differently and different parts of our brain are used.
Karen Swallow Prior: So we do that so much more. I think reading is increasing because of how widely available it is ib digital media, but what we’re doing is we’re taking those, that one kind of reading practice that applies to that, and then applying it to literature if we try to read that and the Bible when we do read that. But deep reading is a very different kind of reading. Reading literary texts is the same kind of reading that’s required when we read the Bible, because of course the Bible is a great work of literature. It’s more than that, but it requires the same kind of attention as you talked about in close reading. So reading literature is good practice for that.
Jen Pollock Michel: Well, I’m thinking about your book and just how much I’m appreciating. I’m not letting myself read the chapters that are covering the literary works that you have in your book. I’m making myself read the works first so that I can sort of force myself to pay close attention. I think the same is true even with the Bible, that often we kind of skip straight into a commentary.
Karen Swallow Prior: Yes, yes.
Jen Pollock Michel: Or straight into some sort of book that will help us understand rather than doing the difficult work of just reading, rereading, reading closely, noticing, underlying, seeing the things that are repeated. It’s hard because you’re right, we’re surrounded, we have so much access to texts that are super easy, that don’t require that kind of patience.
Karen Swallow Prior: So reading the Bible is clearly a formative experience. We don’t read the Bible just for information. We understand as Christians, that when we read the Bible, we are being formed, we’re being discipled. Of course, the Holy spirit is speaking into us because it’s God’s word and it doesn’t return void. Of course at that part is not true of literature, but the idea of literature being a formative experience is true. That’s why, if you just read the summary of something, the cliff notes or spark notes version of it, which I urge my students not to do, I hope they listened to me, it’s just simply not the same experience.
Karen Swallow Prior: You can read a summary of the plot, but it’s not the same thing as being formed by that deep engaged reading of the text. The same is true of the Bible. I mean, we don’t read a summary of the Bible or a commentary and get the same kind of formation that we get when we read it for ourselves and experience that reading.
Jen Pollock Michel: I was going to say it also forms in us imagination, that I think the reading of literature forms in us this, like we practice imagining and we actually do bring that to the Bible. It’s hard, I think, sometimes maybe grasp that, like can I use my imagination as I read the Bible. But it actually can really enliven your reading of the Bible as you imagine the people who are actually in these stories, that they’re real people, they lived real lives. I think so often we go to the Bible and we just imagine it as kind of this very flat landscape of, I mean, just these are just flat, two dimensional characters. We don’t see them sort of jump out of the page, in like reading literature, good literature. You actually encounter people who are so complex, characters that are complex, characters that remind you of what it means to be human, both the perils and the promises of being human. I feel like when I actually do read good literature and I develop those skills, it does enhance my reading of the Bible.
Karen Swallow Prior: I think that’s a really important point. I would even go so far as to say, it’s not only that we can use our imagination or even that we should use our imagination when we read the Bible, I actually think that there’s a way in which God intended and designed it to be that way. There’s a famous passage in one of my favorite books, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, where he talks about the power of God, the implications of God’s commandment not to carve images. He talks about how the God of the Old Testament was a God who wanted to relate to his people through the symbolism of the written word, as opposed to the image of an idol or a picture. Now, that’s a pretty profound and deep thing to unpack in a short period of time. But the implication is simply that God chooses to communicate with us through the word, and that actually requires us to use our imaginations because it’s not already a picture.