This week I've been studying words--how to speak wisely. I've also been thinking about writing--how to portray characters who make mistakes without giving readers license to do the same. And today, I've been thinking about reading--how to have the Great Conversation with every author that I meet.
Generally, when bibliophiles pick up a book, they have one of two reactions, and both make me smile. About half of the bookworms will read a novel from cover to cover, swoon over the dark-haired Mr. Handsome, squeal over the climax, and finish by saying "I love that story!!!!!!!" [insert all caps]. The second group will read the book like they're going through a buffet line, picking out all the things they like, telling the other assembled guests rather loudly what they don't like, and ending up by giving it a stringent evaluation as if they were trained chefs grading a student's work.
Both personalities are valuable--it's good to read a story with emotion, and we don't have to sit in a circle holding our paperbacks like wizened old gnomes. So by all means, keep the enthusiasm or the connoisseurship as you prefer, but don't be afraid to take the evaluating as deep as you can go.
I'll fully admit that I fall into the latter group described above. I use exclamation points as little as possible (it is a deeply held principle on my part), and I love using a little snarkiness when I find something I don't like in a book. But ever since May, I've been reevaluating that method of reading, because, left to itself, it's a little prideful.
It all started when I bought The Great Books Reader at our annual homeschool convention. So far I've only read the introduction, but the introduction was so rich and deep and stunning that I had to stop there and think on it for a while. John Mark Reynolds, the general editor, said:
Furthermore, separation from our ancestors has made us prejudiced. It's easy to love the familiar, but past ages come to us in new ways. For instance, they bore or disturb us. The dead say things we would or could not say and in ways that appall, bless, and startle us....
We must turn to books and be willing to have open minds as we do so. They're like us in their humanity but different in their time. This difference sometimes will make no difference, but at other moments it will allow [the author] to speak prophetically. The best revelation of men as they are today often comes from men long dead....
Most of us simply do not pursue the Way, the dialectic, "the Great Conversation" long enough. What do we mean by the Way? Reasoned discourse in a community. The path of knowledge. Following the argument moved by love in pursuit of God. Embracing anything that is good, true, and beautiful, and thinking on those things. -The Great Books Reader, Edited by John Mark Reynolds, IntroductionAnd I realized when I read this passage that often, entirely too often, I'm prone to have a one way monologue with the books I read, and miss the entirely deeper meaning. This year, I'm realizing just how much is out there in the literary world that I don't take the time to understand.
Take Scripture, for instance. We read it through our very modern eyes and understanding, and often miss what God really intends to say because we don't understand the culture or the time of its writing. I once had the privilege of listening to Ray Vander Laan speak. He's a Christian speaker, who went through the process of being ordained as a rabbi so he could have a better and more Jewish understanding of the Scriptures. Vander Laan illuminated many passages of Scripture as he spoke, but one in particular was Psalm 23. In the verse where the psalmist says "He maketh me lie down in green pastures", we Westerners often think of a fat white sheep in lush, green alfalfa. But in reality, when you go to Israel, the area where shepherds pasture sheep is very dry and barren. The sheep have to follow the shepherd from one little tuft to the next, each tuft of grass just enough for a couple of bites. On the stark hillside, one bite at a time, one step after another, the shepherd leads the sheep. Just enough for the next bite. So "He leadeth me" doesn't mean that God promises us a smart phone for each person in the family, and high speed internet, and a closet full of name brand clothes and a nice price on beef at the grocery store. It means he gives us just enough to live, one step at a time, as we follow Him. I wouldn't have known that with just a straightforward reading.
We bibliophiles, just like we read the Bible through 21st century Western eyes, also read literature through 21st century Western eyes as well. And sometimes we do ourselves a disadvantage as we do so, because we're bound by our limited knowledge. We're quick to think we understand. Quick to condemn wrong. Quick to applaud the faintest hint of right. But it would serve us well to be much more thoughtful, and to look at reading as having a conversation with the author.
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: James 1:19Instead of being quick to judge, it's good to think over things, to say Why does the author think this? and then, even more important, What circumstance in their life caused them to think this way? What was their culture, and their history, and their motivation for writing this way?
Most readers are afraid to have conversations with the author, and I freely admit that I'm one of them. For one thing, what if I fall into error? I don't want to believe something wrong for a single second, and therefore it's a lot easier to keep literary judgments on a surface, moralistic level. But sometimes the Lord lets me wrestle through things--sometimes he waits for a few months before he reveals the right answer. And if in life, how much more in reading. If we immerse ourselves in Scriptures and prayer as we read fiction and nonfiction alike, then the Lord will faithfully make things clear to us. But it may take time, and we have to be patient.
For another, in this age of whirlwind activities it's just plain easier to make a snap judgement and move on than to take the time to really chew over it. But if we really love reading as much as we say, then it is vital that we learn not only to listen respectfully to the different viewpoints we come across, but also to patiently wait until the Lord reveals a concept in full to us. We're not entitled to be wise gurus in our Christian walk by the age of twenty. And being a true, thoughtful bibliophile takes years of work and effort.
The author may have faced circumstances we have never seen, and put forth a lifetime of study that we haven't even started. The authors may have lived during different times that caused for different methods and means of expressing themselves. The meanings of words change, and they might want to express a very different meaning than we understand the words to speak today. Take crude words for instance--they evolve over time, and words that were perfectly acceptable in the 17th century may be extremely offensive today. But just because a 17th century author used them doesn't mean he intends to be crude. In the same way, theological terms have different connotations now than they have in the past, and it's harsh to dismiss a man for believing a concept that you have grown up believing differently about, simply because he lived in a different time period.
Seest thou a man [that is] hasty in his words? [there is] more hope of a fool than of him. -Proverbs 29:20However, we don't want to go to extremes in being open minded. Some books are quite obviously trash and quite easy to throw aside. Over thinking is not a sign of increasing maturity, and if something's real broke, then it ain't worthwhile. :) We as the reader should be respectful of the author--but we should also be opinionated ourselves. Know your Weapon, know your ground, and if you're entering enemy territory, then be on guard accordingly. Conversations should not be ambiguous; they should be purpose-driven, and reach an ultimate conclusion. Christians have a clear and absolute standard of truth in God's Word. We should not compromise it or leave it behind when we pick up books by other authors. We should take it with us, and evaluate every book we read under its light.
The goal here is for us bibliophiles to converse rather than debate; to take time rather than making snap judgments; to think before we speak. To respect that which is respectable, and respectfully disagree when it is not. God has made his truth available to all human hearts, and though not all authors are redeemed, every author has access to beauty and truth if they will choose to accept it, and we should seek to find it in the books we read.
Some bibliophiles, as they read, prefer to taste the first year's harvest. It's sweet; it produces the same kind of fruit as another year; it's perfectly satisfying. But truly wise bibliophiles will take a book and read it, cultivate the thoughts in their mind, read it again multiple times, and think over the concepts it presents as they grow in maturity and the knowledge of the Lord. And then, after time has passed, they taste the deep fruit of personal reflection, and make wise and sure conclusions about a story's ideology and an author's spiritual understanding when he wrote it.
I'm excited to try out some of these principles I've talked about today with the literary selections in The Great Books reader. Thus, as I read this book, I'll be blogging about it under the name "The Great Conversation" and labeling the posts by numbers. Each chapter is designed for the reader to write a little bit about what they discover, and I hope to do that here. The posts won't be going up in any scheduled order; I have a great many books to read, and I'm content to pick it up a little here and there over the next months, and maybe even years. But I'll be sharing the journey with all of you.
This blog, for me, has been an opportunity to start the Great Conversation--with fellow bibliophiles, with the various authors I have read, with God, and with myself. Oftentimes I wrestle out a book as I write reviews. Sometimes I have deeper insight later on--sometimes I feel like I really hit what the Lord wanted me to say in short order. But in the end, if you scroll back through old blog posts, old reviews, old articles--it's all a conversation and a journey. A journey of learning to be quick to listen, patient in processing, and slow to speak.
It's a journey that I hope I'll continue for the rest of my life.