What if we viewed reading as not just a personal hobby or a pleasurable indulgence but as a spiritual practice that deepens our faith?
In her new book, Reading for the Love of God, award-winning author and Trinity Forum Senior Fellow Jessica Hooten Wilson explores how Christian thinkers—including Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Frederick Douglass, and Dorothy Sayers—approached the act of reading. She argues that the simple act of reading can help us learn to pray well, love our neighbor, be contemplative, practice humility, and disentangle ourselves from contemporary idols.
The Trinity Forum held an Online Conversation with Jessica on March 31 to explore how literature can rehabilitate our imaginations and strengthen us in the pursuit of holiness.
Online Conversation | Jessica Hooten Wilson | March 31, 2023
Cherie Harder: On behalf of all of us at the Trinity Forum, I’d like to add my own welcome to you joining us for today’s Online Conversation on “Reading as a Spiritual Practice” with Dr. Jessica Hooten Wilson. We’re so pleased to be able to be joined as a co-host with our friends from the Society of Classical Learning. So thank you for co-hosting this program with us. As well, we want to thank our friends at the Veritas School, led by headmaster Keith Nix, for serving as sponsors of today’s program. So thank you for your generosity and support.
We’re delighted that so many of you have joined us for today’s Online Conversation. I believe we have close to 1,600 people who have registered, and just appreciate the honor of your time and attention. We want to give a special shout-out to our 186 first-time guests who have registered today, as well as our over 100 international guests from at least 22 different countries that we know of. So a special hello to those of you joining us from Afghanistan, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Cyprus, France, Ghana, Indonesia, Ireland and Italy, Korea, Nepal, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, the Philippines, South Africa, Spain, and the UK. And if we’ve missed a country there, please let us know in the chat feature in the Q&A box. We want to send our special greetings out to you.
If you are one of those 186 people who are joining us for the very first time or are otherwise new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we work to cultivate, curate, and promote the best of Christian thought leadership and provide a place where leaders can wrestle with the big questions of life in the context of faith and come to better know the answers. And we hope today’s program will be a small taste of that for you today.
Our topic today may seem surprising or even a bit of a stretch. We often think of reading for pleasure or for work, and much of our days is certainly spent scanning and skimming the barrage of posts, pings, reports, and other forms of information or data that fill our phones and inboxes and clutter our desks and homes. But our guest today advocates for a radical reorientation in our thinking to understand and engage in the act of reading not merely as a professional requirement or personal pastime, but as a spiritual practice. And she argues that reading deeply and well can not only open a portal to a broader imagination, but is akin, in her words, to acquiring travel supplies for the good life and can help us better love our neighbor, practice humility, and even discern and divorce ourselves from the idols of our age.
It’s a provocative argument as well as an intriguing invitation. And it’s hard to imagine a scholar who could make it with the expertise, enthusiasm, or insight of our guest today, Dr. Jessica Hooten Wilson. Jessica Hooten Wilson is the inaugural visiting scholar of liberal arts at Pepperdine University and, I am very proud to say, a senior fellow of the Trinity Forum. She previously served as the Louise Cowan Scholar in Residence at the University of Dallas and received the highest prize for humanities from the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. She’s the author of numerous works, including I think at least two books on Walker Percy, as well as Learning the Good Life: Wisdom from the Great Hearts and Minds That Came Before, Giving the Devil His Due, which received a 2018 Christianity Today Book of the Year Award, The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints, and her most recent work, just released earlier this week, Reading for the Love of God, which we’ve invited her here today to discuss.
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Thank you so much for having me.
Cherie Harder: It’s really great to get to talk with you. And so as we sort of start out, obviously there are many different ways of reading, and the ways that most of us read on a daily basis—let’s say it doesn’t intuitively evoke comparisons to a spiritual practice. So what does it mean to read as a spiritual practice?
Jessica Hooten Wilson: If I had to start with a large umbrella, it goes under Colossians 3:17: “So whatever you do, do it all for the Lord Jesus Christ.” That should include reading. So that’s the starting point. Just everything that we should be doing, there’s a way to make things into spiritual practices when they’re done for Jesus.
At the same time, reading has a special place because we are people of the book as Christians. That’s what we were called for a long time. Revelation came not only through the Book of Nature, but also through the Book, through the Scripture. And God speaks creation into being. Jesus Christ is called the logos or the Word. God gives us the ten Words to live by. There was always an emphasis in the Christian tradition upon words and why they matter for the ways that we’re supposed to be embodied in the world. Where did we lose that? How did we lose that? That’s a story for a different book. What I was trying to do is regain that in giving people practical tips to kind of walk through, not only just the why, but more of the how. How do we do this? How do we reclaim reading for the love of God working in that sense that Colossians is talking about towards the end in Christ?
Cherie Harder: Well, one of the ways that you suggest doing this—in fact, you’ve even sort of structured your book around it—is by picking someone that you admire and emulating their approach to reading. I’d love to ask you about that. And in particular not only why that works or how that works, but you mentioned that you chose Flannery O’Connor as the first person that you emulated that way. And I’d love to hear why you selected her, but also what you learned from reading like Flannery. And then when you went on—and you said you also then went to Dostoevsky and Boethius—what did you learn by switching frames or channeling someone else that you admired?
Jessica Hooten Wilson: So The Scandal of Holiness that came out last year is based on that premise that most of the things we actually do in the world are imitations of the kind of people that we want to be. So when I was writing this book and I was kind of walking through the how-to tips and the practical application, I thought, you know, even if you get to hear all the right things, what’s going to make you want this? How are you going to see it in a narrative, in a life? And I think we need that desire to come out, and it’s going to come out most through the stories that we know, the people that we want to be like. For me, it was Flannery. I was 15 years old. I wanted to be a writer. I was a Christian, but I was also drawn to the dark and to the gritty and to the mysteries of human pain and suffering and violence. And those big questions were pressing on me even as a teenager. And I didn’t know how to answer that tension. And a professor gave me Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” And I thought, “Who is this guy? This is a great story.” And come to find out, it was a Catholic woman in the South, and I imitated her story. I won this national short story contest where Hillary Clinton gave me an award at the Kennedy Center, and I thought, “Whoa, this is the answer to all of life! I just have to imitate Flannery O’Connor.”
So I think it was influenced first by kind of the praise of people originally—you know, when I’m a teenager. And then it turned into more and more, Wow, she helps me understand what it means to forgive. She shows me what it looks like to stare in the face of a temple of the Holy Ghost. And what does that look like in a hermaphrodite? What does that look like in the poor little girl? What does that look like, you know, in the slave? What are all these dimensions of what it means to be human? So when I was looking at Flannery and how she was writing about these enduring questions, that she doesn’t just come at them with a blank slate, she comes at them with a treasure trove of her own reading life that she is then bringing to the front when she writes.
And I started reading through her library, looking at how she read, which influenced how she wrote. And as I began digging, I saw the sacramental vision that I had not had access to in my upbringing. I had not understood the world in that way that she saw it. And the ways that she read were striking to me. They were shocking. They were new. And they really have lasted and caused a lifelong investigation.
Cherie Harder: Wow. That’s fascinating. You know, I’m sure many people who are listening right now, some folks might think that’s sounds fascinating. That sounds really intriguing. Very few people are thinking that sounds light and easy. And yet you have encouraged readers to think of reading well and even reading as a spiritual practice as at least akin to play. How should reading be like play?
Jessica Hooten Wilson: That’s a great question—because it’s not easy. I wouldn’t want to say that it’s easy. But in the same way that play is enjoyable and you’re bringing yourself into the game, right? There’s not a formula, there’s not a form that you have to fit into when it comes to play. But it’s more fun when you know the rules of the game. It’s more fun the more that you practice, right? It’s more fun when you learn all of that and then you get to play more freely. Whereas, you know, if you went overseas and you were trying to learn a game you’ve never played before and you don’t know the rules and you’re trying to be thrown into it and you feel lost and “I’m not any good at this” or “I don’t want to play” or “That doesn’t look like fun. Why are they having fun at it?” It’s this sense of confusion you would feel. So it is something that looks from the outside like it’s very difficult. But when you’ve been invited and you understand the parameters suddenly [it] becomes freeing. It becomes more like a dance. And I want that kind of freedom for people. But I won’t say that it’s a freedom that doesn’t have rules to the game. It definitely does.
Cherie Harder: One of the—not rules of the game—but suggestions that you set up I thought was intriguing, which was to always read for delight before reading for critique or even analysis—you know, to kind of enjoy first. And there’s going to be a certain tension with that in that not all books, certainly not all reading material, leads us towards truth. You know, some, whether just unintentionally or intentionally, from the author or the narrator or the narrative itself, will lead us away from it. And you even talked about how Augustine made that distinction. So I’d love to hear your thoughts on reading for delight, as well as reading with discernment and how one kind of balances both the imperative of joy and the imperative of necessary discernment and wisdom in sifting through what we read.
Jessica Hooten Wilson: I found that a lot of this starts early. When we’re young, we’re drawn to certain books. Anybody who’s gone to a library with a child, they pull things off the shelf. They get enamored with it. They’re not thinking. They’re not intellectually analyzing the material in front of them. And that joy is something that I think is the natural part of our first experience of reading that we have to get back to. Too often we’re taught away from this, even from the time we’re in school. There are certain schools and certain ways of teaching that force children to think as they read, and they would say that that’s a good thing. Like, “Think while you’re reading.” “Ask critical-thinking questions.” “The goal of the reading is to create a critical thinker.” I think those are wrong-ended goals to have that in mind, to force children away from their delight into the analysis right away.
And Flannery had this problem when she would go and speak in schools. She writes this, I think it’s a talk, “Total Effect of the Eighth Grade” or something along those lines—it’s in her Mystery and Manners collection—in which she says, you know, you’re doing things backwards. You really should have these students first love the literature, read it together, enjoy it. And then you go and you analyze it and you discern, “Is this true? Is this good? Is this beautiful?” And ask all sorts of enduring questions about the work. But that first experience, that’s what’s going to create the lifelong habits of loving reading, is if we constantly stir up [those] beautiful emotions, the right emotions, the ones that match the substance of the text, and that we’re being formed in such a way that we want more of the good thing over and over again. It creates an appetite in us that we practice by habit to constantly be drawn toward the good.
So when you’re talking about discernment, how do we discern? A lot of it has to do with taste and curating our taste. Because Augustine, to quote him—as you said, I quote Augustine all the time in the text—he says, “To a sick person, even sweet bread tastes bitter.” So we do have to curate a taste where we understand if this is something that’s good for us or not, so that we can taste the sweet bread for what it is and not taste it as bitter. And at the same time, then we can tell the difference, that when we’re tasting something that truly is bitter, we don’t continue eating it because we know that it’s not good for us and we know that it’s not something that’s palatable or should be palatable or should be appreciated. And that’s more of a taste and less of an intellectual analysis, which, as I said before, comes second.
Cherie Harder: Well, I’m sure a lot of people are thinking, “Well, how do we do that? How do we curate our taste?”
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Yeah, well, I think it’s— this is going to be an uncomfortable starting place because I would say first it starts with Scripture. And this goes all the way back to Augustine, to Saint Basil, to Origen. Some of the early church fathers, they talk about the necessity of Scripture forming that taste. So that might be an uncomfortable answer. But when things align with the beauty and the truth and the goodness of the Scripture, if that is your taste rubric, you’re going to be able to taste those things out in the world. So if you know the Bible so well that it really has formed your taste, it’s going to affect the kind of literature you read and how that is going to feel for you. Right? So I would say that’s the first.
And then the second is going to be the authorities that go along with it. So there’s certain authorities in your life that you should trust and respect for how well they know the Scriptures that they can then point out to you the right texts, texts that are beautiful and good and true and so forth. That’s what I mean by “right.” And so you would want to have a certain level of trust in authority. And in our current culture, we don’t have that trust in authorities. Authorities have broken our hearts. They’ve been unveiled as wrong. It is hard to find the right teachers that we can trust for what to read and how to read, and we become very hesitant to trust any experience outside of our own or any guidance outside of ourselves. And I think we have to, in some ways, trust parts of the tradition, trust some of these authorities in the tradition, like Augustine. I would say he would be a great teacher. He can lead you to some of the right sources. So we have to return to that. And so both of those answers, I think, are rather uncomfortable when it comes to how to curate a good taste.
Cherie Harder: Well, in a way that kind of leads back to something you mentioned earlier, which is, you know, Christians used to be known as a very bookish people. And you’ve mentioned the early church fathers actually wrote entire books on how to read. You know, as you mentioned, we were known as “people of the Book.” And it’s a relatively recent historical phenomenon that Christians in the aggregate have lost so much taste for reading. So I wanted to actually ask a question of you that you posed in your book, which was when and why did Christians stop being a bookish people?
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Yeah. And it is a really, I mean, it is a really long story. I kind of summarize it in the book as much as I can, but there’s really good books on this. So David Lyle Jeffrey wrote People of the Book in which he kind of explains the history of this. There’s also a book by Manuel called A History of Reading. Alberto Manuel writes that, and it’s so good, but it’s an overall secular viewpoint, but the Christians fit within the story. You can see why people overall lose this desire for reading.
To summarize some of the things that I’ve seen over time— and it is weird to go back, if you read something like Jerome in the fourth century and he’s saying, “Why do women not keep up with their reading of Hebrew these days?” He’s like lamenting how Christian women can call themselves Christian if they’re not keeping up with their Hebrew. Like it’s— that’s so far and so foreign from where we are now, where most of us can’t read the Bible in Hebrew and in Greek at all. And we still call ourselves Christians, you know. So how did we—?
Cherie Harder: I would be among them, yes.
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Right, exactly. So how did we get to this place of, like, we once upon a time all thought that was so necessary that we knew the Bible and we knew it in its original language, and then we read all of the sources on the Scripture as part of that, to where we are now, where we don’t. We read Bible verses in only chunks, you know, on our walls and Hobby Lobby or printed on the walls of our church. And that’s the Scripture that we get. Or that’s the literary experience that we have, right? Or what we read in school.
So that transition takes place over so much time that it’s hard to encapsulate that last 2,000 years. But one of the things that happens most recently would be the development of screens. And I think a lot more people have talked about this. Andy Crouch, you know, you’ve had him on in conversation—explaining the ways that this has moved us out of the reading experience and the reading life. And even people who love reading have talked about, over the last few years, they’ve found themselves distracted from the reading experience and so used to taking bite-size chunks off of social media that they don’t know how to process books and to read tomes of books the way that they used to. So for us, most presently, I would say the concern with screens is that it’s really distracting even more from us being people of the book the way that we used to be.
Cherie Harder: You know, it’s fascinating. We think about reading as a very solitary activity. But you’ve mentioned in your work that reading actually predisposes us—it equips us and predisposes us—towards engagement. And, you know, I think you and I have even talked about this before. There’s just a whole raft of social science data about how the more time spent with screens, the less time the average person actually spends socializing, talking with other people, volunteering, voting, giving, involved in outside activities. And with reading, for whatever reason, it is exactly the reverse, that actually the more time one spends reading in a solitary activity, the more likely one is to have friends, to vote, to give, to volunteer, to belong to different organizations. What is it about reading that equips us and orients us towards engagement with others?
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Okay, I’m going to give a weird analogy. You’re not going to see this coming. So when I’ve worked at universities in the past, I’ve been kind of frustrated with student development. I’m thankful, I’m so thankful that they do all the work they do. So this is not, like, harping on student development. But one of the things that they do is at the beginning of school years for first-year students, they throw parties essentially for days. Right? They want to get all the students to feel like they belong. And so they get them hyped up and have all these experiences that get the students to be really excited about college. But all the research shows that people feel most connected to other people—the sense of belonging that you desire—when they go through crisis, when they go through suffering. Those kinds of relationships actually strengthen the bonds, not parties or superficial experiences or hyped-up highs.
And yet— And college is not the only one who does this. You know, youth groups do this. There’s all sorts of ways. I think screens is one of the ways. I’m using this as an analogy. Screens give us this endorphin rush. There’s a lot of things that take place on screens. I don’t think Trinity [Forum] Conversations is one of them, right? This is more of a slow, long engagement. Big questions, thoughtful. There’s hundreds of people here. We’re having a conversation. It’s a different kind of use of a screen. But everyone knows there are ways that screens make you passive, receptive, entertain, lowest common denominator, advertising, marketing to you, exploiting your appetites. There’s lots of ways that screen does that. In opposed to the challenge of reading, thinking outside of yourself, going through the suffering of the characters, going through their problems, facing the doubts or the concerns or the pains or tragedies of their lives. There’s a way in which books ask something of you that screens do not ask of you. There’s a party element to the life on the screen and the life in the Gnostic world that you are in control of. And there’s something that the book asks you to submit to where you give up and relinquish that control and thus hopefully become a different person in the process of that reading experience.
And so I would say that’s what I’m hoping to see more of, is that the church becomes, again, those people of the book that really try to make others belong and strive for a deeper connection versus the party atmosphere that our world always is tempting us to do.
Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating. One of the things that sort of struck me about your book, which is a little bit out there, is you are a bit of an advocate for reading out loud and have mentioned that this was essentially the norm until about, say, the 12th or 13th century, which makes sense. You know, without the printing press, books were harder to come by. And it struck me because, well, our mutual friend and your fellow senior fellow, Dana Gioia, is also a big advocate of reading poetry out loud. And so I’m curious what you would say that we get or benefit from or learn or internalize from reading aloud with others that perhaps would be less accessible to us, reading alone, silently and solitarily.
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Oh, this is so good. I’m going to forget all the things that I want to say because there’s just so many. So I’ll try. I’ll see what I can get at. So one of the ways that I know that Dana does this, he does this because he believes language is a lot more like music. And so we share in the experience of the music. We can hear the rhythm of the language. We can enjoy its beauty more when it’s done orally, when it’s a shared experience in that sense, right? Dorothy L. Sayers would say this too, with dramas, that she believed that there was this connection, this community that is built upon being part of the experience, participating in the drama when it’s played out on stage. That same kind of thing can happen with reading fiction that happens in poetry and drama. And Ross Douthat actually just wrote a piece this last week where he was talking about what is wrong with the world, in a sense, when it comes to humanities and the loss of our desire to read old books. He said, I’m the problem, but I find that I can also fix the problem when I read 19th-century novels aloud to my children. And suddenly this very simple act, I can become part of the solution, right?
And I think that that’s true. When we’re reading, we’re sharing, we’re participating, we are enjoying the beauty. We’re slowing down. We are recognizing the words for what they are. We’re not skimming, we’re not paraphrasing. We are actually chewing each syllable. We’re tasting the word. It becomes more of a visceral and embodied experience, which is something that we all long for. We long to feel soul and body connections. And too much of our world experience is a loss of soul and body connections. And instead the word becomes the thing when you say it out loud, right?
Bonhoeffer, when he was in, you know, writing The Life Together, and he was dwelling on this experience of reading out loud, he was basically saying, it reminds you that you’re not an individual, but that you’re part of a whole. And to read out loud does. It not only— it becomes this—I wish I had a whiteboard—it becomes the text word. So it’s the words of that author, but then it’s also you are joining the author. So there’s a connection with that other person. And then whoever’s listening is also joining the experience. So you suddenly read in the context of neighbors and community and you feel like a person among persons. You don’t feel like an isolated individual, a lost atom, a lost sense of self. All of those pieces come back together.
So that’s a really— I hope it was a full answer, but I feel like I could go on and on and on about this because I think it’s such a necessary part of the reading experience.
Cherie Harder: No, that was great. In just a moment or two, we’re going to take questions from our viewers. But before we do that, I sort of feel like we can’t transition to audience questions without asking you about love, in that most spiritual practices are at their root about cultivating our capacity for and orientation for loving wisely and well, whether it’s ordering our loves or growing our capacity for grace and love or putting love into action. And would love to hear from, you know, ultimately how you believe reading grows our capacity to love wisely and well.
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Such a good question. This should be the highest end of every activity that we do. And Walker Percy, a novelist that you said I’ve written on—I adore him—he said that the word “love” is like a well-worn poker chip. We’ve used it so often, we’ve worn the edges away from it. And instead the word does have edges. It has richness. It has meaning to it that we have to reclaim because it should be the end of everything. I think of Julian of Norwich, where at the end of all these revelations, she’s been struggling with these spiritual mysteries, trying to ask these deep theological questions. And God basically silences her with a dialogue where he’s like, “Who showed you all these things? Love. Why did he show it? Love. Why are you sharing it? Love. Love is the meaning.” And it’s just this beautiful encapsulation of our whole lives is moving towards the love that moves the sun and stars, to quote Dante. It’s the end of everything. And in that sense, this is where the reading experience becomes so much more than solitary. Because it is not just about you and your self-improvement alone in your room. It has a purpose that extends beyond the self. It’s vertically for the love of God, and then it pours out horizontally into the love of neighbor. And reading is just one of the resources and practices in which we get to practice the love of God and then showcase the love of neighbor. So I’m hoping to draw people back into that imaginative way of understanding their reading life and their reading experience and thus to see why it matters so much.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Well, I see the questions kind of lining up. And just a reminder to all of you who are joining us, you can not only ask a question in the Q&A feature, but you can also “like” a question, which helps give us some idea of what some of the most popular questions are. So a question from Victoria Martineau, who asks, “What advice would you give to parents and teachers who are raising/educating children that read voraciously and consistently turn naturally and intuitively to the dark side, i.e. to works that celebrate the sinful and the destructive?”
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Well, if they’re celebrating the sinful and destructive, I would not say that is a natural turn. That is an unnatural turn in the human person. So, yes, the world is completely corrupted by sin. I’m going to give example from my son. My son was trying to explain why he wasn’t going to clean his room. He’s eight. And he said, “Mom, you just have to understand this is the way that I am. This is how I best function is with a cluttered room.” And I said, “No, that’s not the way that you are, i.e. the natural state of you. It is actually the state of the fallen human person. And you’re going to participate in God’s kingdom by bringing order back into the small space he’s given you.” Right?
And I think this is the same with the reading life, that you have to recognize the inclinations towards celebration of the dark. And I want to be very clear: celebration of the dark becomes a problem. Those who are inclined toward the dark in a Flannery O’Connor sense, which was me as a teenager, there’s something there that you should guide your children through. You should be like Virgil guiding them through the Inferno. Guiding them through the Inferno so they know how to see it, how to imagine it, and what its place is in the entire map of salvation. Because there’s a place for the fall in salvation. There’s a reality to suffering and darkness and violence. And it is there. So we can’t ignore it. We are not supposed to love it, right? But we need to know it. But see that it also— we then move through purgatory. Then there becomes an instrumental use of suffering that leads us to paradise, leads us to the beatific vision. And so it has a place in the overarching story. There’s creation, fall, redemption, restoration. And so to showcase that for your students and say like, this is only one part of the story. It’s not the beginning and the end. And thankfully, it’s not the whole.
Cherie Harder: Oh, that’s great. So a question from Heidi Hodges who mentions that she— basically asked, “What advice would you give to someone who has recently discovered the joy of reading after years of required school texts that wrecked it for me. [Inaudible] and then went on to a great liberal arts school with a mom who was all about classical education. How can I, as a young, committed Christian, best help to encourage this rediscovery of joy and reading within my own culture and demographic?”
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Oh, so good. That’s a great— I am really grateful that the Society of Classical Learning and Veritas are hosting this because, of course, I am a big supporter of both SCL and of Veritas. I did their commencement over a year ago. So I just love those organizations, and so I enjoy these kinds of questions where people are really wrestling with what does it mean to return to a love of reading, which those organizations support? The love of reading should be shared. And so don’t keep it to yourself. I enjoyed—this was only a few months ago—I enjoyed getting to read aloud at a pub, our local brewery, where I was reading some Dorothy L. Sayers to a group of maybe a dozen people. And we were just sharing the reading experience. I think that’s important to do. There’s groups like the Well-Read Moms Book Club where every month you meet with a group of people—and, again, it’s an authority thing, they’re giving you a reading list—but you can tell that it’s been a curated and thought-through reading list, that you then get to explore some of these classics that maybe you missed in your liberal arts degree. There’s organizations like The Catherine Project, which offers free classes in Plato’s Republic or Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and you can participate in that kind of reading group. So I would say the more that you can find communities of readers, the longer that joy of reading is going to continue. Because again, if you’re doing this as a solo endeavor, it’s much harder to keep that initial joy or that initial desire. You need a community, you need people doing this with you and being part of it with you.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So Elena Forsyth asks, “How can I learn to read like an author or an imitation of another person?”
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Hmm. So I give four different bookmarks in my book, and I did this because I tried to go across time and place in the way that I chose different people because I don’t think there’s one way. Again, I wouldn’t want to give a formula. I just want to give examples of “here are some companies of readers that you can imitate.” And so I tried to look at what they’re doing. So I looked at Augustine and how did he read and how can we imitate some of the ways that he read? And Julian of Norwich, Frederick Douglass, Dorothy L. Sayers. And trying to examine the ways they read. So it is helpful to look at their reading life and how it beared fruit.
This is a lot harder with living people because you don’t know the whole course of their life and what kind of fruit they’re going to bear long term. I do believe some of the most helpful models have already died, and that’s not because I don’t believe there’s any living models. But you really get to see the whole trajectory of a life. In Scandal of Holiness, I quote an old pastor we had when we were living in Alaska as a kid, and you used to say, like, how are you doing? And he would say, “I don’t know. I’m not dead yet.” And what he meant was, I haven’t finished my life to know whether it was a good one, that you need this entire life. We’re in the middle of our stories. We can’t tell if it’s all good. So when we’re looking at reading lives, we want to look at some of the ones that came far before us. What practices did they have and how can they then help us in our current cultural moment by taking some of those practices and regaining them so that they’re not lost?
Cherie Harder: So a question from an anonymous viewer who asks, “Outside the Bible, what book has had the greatest influence on you?”
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Oh, Flannery. I mean, I think that’s probably a given. Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. She has shaped me in ways that I can’t even name anymore. Like, my first book is on Flannery and Dostoyevsky, and one of the reviewers commented—this is a dozen years ago—he said, “The problem is I can’t tell the difference between what Hooten Wilson thinks and what Dostoyevsky and O’Connor think.” And I was like, yeah, me neither. Like, I have no idea at this point how to sift through that because it has become such a part of the way that I see the world. It’s difficult for me to sift through what they’ve taught me versus what I know. And I think that just what they’ve taught me is what I know. So Flannery would be one of the most influential people on my thought and imagination.
Cherie Harder: That was sort of an unintended compliment, wasn’t it?
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Yeah, exactly. It was supposed to be backhanded. Like, as a scholar, you should stand above these subjects and make sure that you analyze them and dissect them like you’re dissecting a frog. And I just don’t do that when I write about literature.
Cherie Harder: So a question from Charlotte Orikhov who asks, “How do you navigate reading so-called secular books that might include amazing literature, language, and themes, but also dark topics as well? Just because we read text, does it mean we advocate for all the actions included in them? How do we teach ourselves to read deeply and widely, engaging with the world, but also reading with discernment and in conversation with Scripture?”
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Yeah, so definitely I spent an entire chapter on this because this is such an important question. So in one sense we have to divide even secular into many different versions. So we have pagan authors that came before the revelation of Jesus Christ, so before his incarnation and crucifixion, etc. And that writing is often partially true, but not all the way. So it gets us to a point, and there’s some beauty that we can attach to that and understand. We can say that they’ve seen much of the picture and not the full picture, but they’re not antagonistic to it. Once you have the revelation of Christ, you basically have the secular world divided into two different audiences. You have those who are haunted by it from the past. So there’s some lingering, there’s some hints. I’m thinking of people like Zora Neale Hurston or Cormac McCarthy who it just, it informs so much of what they’re doing. They’re not writing against it, but they’re also not writing within it on purpose all the time. And so we have to discern that. Then there’s those who are antagonistic, but at the same time that they’re antagonistic—I’m going to quote Flannery. Flannery said that in Mark, the demons are the first ones to tell us who Jesus Christ is, right? The Son of Man. And that’s still a good enough witness for the Bible. So I think that there’s a sense—or to quote Dostoyevsky, in which Ivan Karamazov writes this whole antagonistic piece against God, and Alyosha says, “Your piece praised him, not reviled him as you intended to.”
So I think we have to still be discerning with all three categories within the secular world. In what ways is God so big and powerful that he overrides the intentions of the author and is able to reveal himself in spite of their antagonism, in spite of their lack of faith, in spite of their lack of knowledge of who he is? Where can we still see him at work? And that’s where we have to have hearts to be able to do that and also learn the craft of trying to do that there.
I would add one more thing there. There is a difference between propaganda and bad philosophy too. Some works are just going to throw in propaganda. There’s going to be contemporary relevant issues that they just try to stick in there. Most of those are not going to tempt your heart. Right? Because you’re going to see them for what they are. They feel like propaganda. They feel like you’ve just put a poster of Mao into a book for no reason. You’re going to be able to cite it. The bad philosophy oftentimes is going to play with your heart. It sounds true, but it’s not. It is the kind that— like “believe in yourself.” And G.K. Chesterton says the only people who believe in themselves are in the insane asylum. It sounds true. It sounds good. But it’s messing with the truth. So I think as discerning readers, when we get to that step of analyzing it, we have to analyze, like, is that propaganda because we can throw it away. Or is it philosophy? And if so, what’s the partial truth? And then what’s the lie? And think through that.
Cherie Harder: So we have two questions, one from Joshua Lund and one from Phil Thompson, and they’re fairly similar in terms of themes. So I’ll just lump them together and read them to you. Joshua Lund asks, “How does one encourage and press our fellow believers to engage in more reading? As you and others have noted, the distrust of experts, even among Christians, is high and pushes against an imperative to read the words of those scholarly voices.” And somewhat relatedly, Phil Thompson asks, “I’ve run into Christians who refuse to read anything other than nonfiction and the Bible because they say they should only read things that are ‘true.’ How do you convince them that there are great truths portrayed in fiction?”
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Okay. So those, yeah, those are two different questions. So one is on the evangelization of reading in the churches. And I think this is where you have to be the model, right? You have to be one of those living models that is bearing fruit. And this means you cannot just pay lip service. I can’t stand it when I’m on a panel of people and they ask, like, “What’s your favorite book?” And I hear someone give an answer and I’m like, “When was the last time you read that? Like, do you still read that?” Because I’m just not sure that people still read the fiction they pay lip service to or could have, you know, a deep conversation about the Iliad anymore. So you have to actually be the kind of person you’re saying that you respect and admire. You have to be reading The Iliad at home for fun. And that’s where Ross Douthat says, like, “I’m the problem.” If we’re not doing that, how can we just keep telling people to keep reading? So that’s the first part.
The second part is the nonfiction question versus fiction: the Bible’s fiction! And that’s going to make so many people mad. But what I mean by that is not that it’s not true. It is true, but it’s narrative. It uses the same fictional techniques as narratives. It’s telling stories. It’s also filled with poetry and songs. C.S. Lewis says it’s the only myth that became historical fact. Like, it is still a myth, but it’s a true one. And so if we’re going to understand how to read poetry and narratives, we have to be those who are well versed in it. If you don’t know how to read poetry, how are you understanding the Psalms? How are you understanding the Magnificat? How are you understanding Deborah’s song in Judges? And if you don’t understand narrative devices, how do you understand the Gospels? How are you reading those stories? The Bible is not a didactic nonfiction collection. In fact, it is a collection of stories that we are supposed to see ourselves within and then see how God is writing our story. What kind of characters are we called to be? And how does God make us into those kinds of people? So for me, the fiction aspect is a really important one. We should be reading the good stories so that we know how to read the Scriptures well.
Cherie Harder: Right. So an anonymous viewer asks,” I would expect a literary culture to be resistant to political extremism, but that doesn’t seem to necessarily happen. For instance, the Russian Revolution seemed to follow a high point in Russian literature. Why do you think that is?”
Jessica Hooten Wilson: I think it’s a class system issue, to be honest. So the thing is about the Russian Revolution, a lot of it has to do with classes. So you have the intellectual elites being influenced by bad philosophy, and then you have the masses, uneducated in their Orthodox culture, in their tradition, being led astray. And so it becomes more of a game where you have a few people controlling the whole group and people like Dostoyevsky, these literary figures, these sideliners, they can’t change the whole attitude of the masses by themselves. So I don’t know that there’s a complete answer, but I don’t think that it’s a mistake to say that when you lose the literary culture, you lose a lot of the hope of overcoming some of those revolutions.
This is what Solzhenitsyn would say is, once the propagandists have won, it’s more difficult for the literary to be recognized. And The First Circle by Solzhenitsyn I think is a really good example of this, because he even walks through the literary education of characters, like when they’re in college and they’re being taught how to read literature, but all they’re being taught how to do is read propaganda and write more propaganda. They’ve lost the sense of multiplicity of voices, a polyphonic narrative, people in dialogue. And our culture better be careful because we are becoming less of a literary culture. We can’t listen to opposing viewpoints without just saying, “Oh, that’s stupid” or “that’s wrong.” And we don’t know how to say, “You know what you said there had some inclination of truth, but I’m not sure that you came to the right conclusion. I wonder if—” And we just don’t have an ability to engage literarily even in our civil discourse anymore.
Cherie Harder: So a question from Elizabeth Wicklund, who asked, “What might it look like for Christians to read aloud in community with one another? Is this a communal activity, e.g. reading aloud in the presence of one another, or reading aloud alone? And is one better than the other?”
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Now I think they’re both fantastic. I also— this is why I defend audible books against people who say that that’s not really reading. I think it’s very much reading. It’s just a different kind of reading, a different kind of experience, especially for those who have different abilities. There are some people that can’t focus on pages and words as well, and I think we denigrate their reading experience if they have to listen to it, and that becomes a problem. So audible reading, listening to reading, can be just as valuable. Reading alone sometimes makes you slow down. It can help you to capture the voice of the author. It can help you to capture the experience of the sentences as well. So I think that’s valuable.
Sometimes reading in groups can be accountability. So our family reads every single night before my kids go to bed. We always are reading something together as a family, and thus we also have shared experiences, lots of shared inside jokes from the material, shared ways of viewing the current situations that we’re in, shared vocabulary, shared language.
When it’s brought to the broader church, this is where I feel like classes, small groups, book clubs, these kinds of things, become really valuable in addition to our Bible studies, to also have a shared reading life. More of the 19th-century Russian salons or French salons where you would have people over and you just enjoyed something being read aloud together. Right? You don’t have to know what you think about it. You don’t have to pick something that’s politically provocative or culturally relevant. It can just be something to be enjoyed together.
Cherie Harder: In some ways, that’s a segue to a question from Janet Bowman, a former University of Dallas student, who asked, “Can you give any practical advice for starting a book club that doesn’t feel too academic, is accessible to all types of readers, yet has the buy-in and beauty of a university seminar?”
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Oh, I don’t know about the second part of it because then it becomes more academic, doesn’t it? So I was invited two years ago to join a book club that was started by Lazy Genius. The idea that everyone would just bring whatever they are currently reading that month and share it with everyone else, which means none of us bring any judgment into the circle. Every single person has their own reading, and what you find is that your reading habits and preferences are going to also be changed by those in the group. So several of us have been turned on to books that we would not have picked up ourselves, that maybe have challenged us or have asked more of us than we would have asked. I think that has been really helpful because we’re just each bringing it to the table. We’re not saying, like, “This is the best book I’ve ever read,” but it’s more like, you know, “I think this book was challenging for me because it helped me understand this perspective” or— and everybody’s like, “Oh, I’m going to write that down. I’m going to add that to my Amazon wish list.” And I think you need that kind of easygoing setting, especially for non-readers to bring them in and share, again model, what it is that you’re reading and see if other people want to read it too. I don’t know that that’s going to feel like a seminar. I think that’s going to be less of a seminar environment, but I think it’s still a really great thing to do.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So Abigail Raleigh mentions that she is a PhD candidate in English Lit and asks, “Do you have any suggestions for reading well and viewing reading as a spiritual practice when I have stacks and stacks of books I have to read every week?”
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Yeah. I don’t think that you’re in the monastic stage of reading, to be honest. So in my book I distinguish between the scholastic and the monastic modes. Both are valuable for different ends. The scholastic mode has a purpose and the monastic comes often before or after that mode, depending on your vocation, your own personal calling. Some of us are never going to be called to be scholastics. I have been called to be a scholastic. It doesn’t mean that I see it as a higher or lower than the monastic setting. I think the more broad calling is the monastic. Now, while you’re in the scholastic mode and you’re being asked to read these texts that are for assignments that you have to scholastically endure and study, you should have your own monastic reading too. And if you’re being asked to read a ton of 18th-century British literature, then you should be reading The Tale of Despereaux on your nightstand, or you should be reading something like Great Gatsby or something that is not in your wheelhouse, that you’re not thinking that you have to study, that you only get to enjoy, that gives you that freedom to remember what it is that you loved and why you loved it and hopefully helps continue that love as you’re in the process of studying these other things.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So a question from Michael Evans, who asked, “Do you have any tips to busy executives who are starved for margin in their lives to establish a healthy personal discipline for reading so that they can develop or further develop a passion and consistent practice for reading as a spiritual discipline?”
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Yeah. You know, Jamie Smith would say you are what you love, right? And Annie Dillard says how you spend your hours is how you spend your life. So we have to think through that. There is a level of busyness, but it’s going to all be frenetic energy if there’s not space for contemplation. So the desire is there, which means we have to make room for it. I think I have two or three pieces of advice from people that I admire. Looking back at someone whose reading life I loved: Eugene Peterson. So Winn Collier’s biography, Burning in My Bones, he says that Eugene Peterson was such an overwrought pastor with a full schedule, that he never felt like he had any time, and he was losing even the desire to be doing what he was doing. He was in charge of a church. And so he started penciling in each week, an hour—I think it was twice a week—it would just say “hour with D.” Meaning Dostoyevsky. So twice a week he had a meeting that was unavoidable where he read Dostoyevsky. So he read two hours a week. We might have to pencil it in. That’s one way.
Two, there’s audible. Instead of listening to the news or instead of listening to the latest podcast, which is going to be a lot of relevant conversations and not always bad, but then put space, you know, listen to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Jeremy Irons reads them. They’re lovely. Just turn that on instead in the car and make space for that. And you can do that while you’re cooking. You can do that while you’re cleaning. You can do that while you’re mowing the yard. There’s other things in your life that you’re doing that you can listen to great literature while you’re doing it.
And finally, have a smaller goal. One page. Poetry—my friend Brett Foster, who passed away several years ago, used to say, poetry is not a big ask. They’re small. Poems do not demand a whole lot of you—to read one poem before you go to sleep. Your mind might completely change, your sense of peace might hopefully change, by just giving one page of time to reading rather than going through your calendar, checking your email before you go to sleep, looking at your social media before you go to bed. Any of the other things that we do right before we go to sleep, to have one page of text instead.
Cherie Harder: We’ll take a final question from Jeff Crosbie, who asks, “Philip Yancey has written that great literature ‘captures the sober reality of the human condition and offers at least a glimpse of vision that inspires hope.’ What’s an example of literature that does that for you?”
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Oh, wow. Well, I’ve said Dostoyevsky and Flannery a lot. Dante is one of the main things that I try to read every year. The Divine Comedy does that for me. Some more contemporary novels, but they’re still probably 20th-century: In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden, A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest Gaines. George Saunders does this in almost everything he writes, Tenth of December. So I would say there’s a lot. That’s one of the great things, actually, about the book. So maybe this was a softball question for the book. Because I get asked this question a lot, I ended up writing like a “here’s the writers who touch the sacred and the profane and these are writers that you can read” and [I] give an entire list just of those kinds of authors and their books.
Cherie Harder: Jessica, thank you. This has been a lot of fun. And thank you to each of you who have been participating. In just a moment, I’m going to give Jessica the last word. But beforehand, a few things just to share with each of you. First, immediately after we conclude today, you’ll receive a short feedback form. We’d really welcome your comments. We read every one of these. We do try to incorporate all of your suggestions into making these ever more valuable, and as a small incentive and token of appreciation for filling out that survey, we will send you a code for a free Trinity Forum Reading download of your choice. I will mention that our library of over 100 readings, so many of the works that Jessica has recommended are part of our library, and a few that we would particularly recommend to go more deeply into some of our conversation today, as well as some of what Jessica has covered in her book, include Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” Augustine’s “Confessions,” Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor,” “Moses, Man of the Mountain” by Zora Neale Hurston, and “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. So if you’re looking for suggestions, we would highly recommend those readings top of your list.
In addition, tomorrow we will be sending around an email with a link to the video of today’s Online Conversation, as well as a list of reading recommendations and resources to go more deeply into this topic. So be on the lookout for that email, and we’d love for you to share today’s Online Conversation with others, perhaps as a precursor to starting that reading group or even reading aloud with each other.
In addition, we wanted to invite each of you who are watching today to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who help further Trinity Forum’s mission of cultivating, curating, and promoting the best of Christian thought. In addition to being part of that community, there are several benefits of membership, including a subscription to our quarterly Readings. And I’ll also mention that our summer reading is going to feature selections from Kristin Lavransdatter with an introduction by our guest today. So you won’t want to miss out on that. A membership also includes a subscription to our daily “What We’re Reading” list of curated reading recommendations, and as a special incentive for those of you who join today or with your gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Jessica Hooten Wilson’s book, Reading for the Love of God. So we hope that you will avail yourself of that invitation and join the society.
In addition, we wanted to mention that coming up on Tuesday we’ll be dropping our next podcast. For those of you who are in or near Nashville on Wednesday, we will be hosting an in-person event in Nashville at the Montgomery Bell Academy with Dana Gioia and Mako Fujimura on the topic of “Can Beauty Save the World?” And we’d love for you to join us in person. In addition, our next Online Conversation will be April 14th with Professor Alan Noble on “The Burden of Living and the Goodness of God” and hope we’ll get to see you then as well.
Cherie Harder: Finally, as promised, Jessica, the last word is yours.
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Thank you so much. I wish I could fly to Nashville, but at least I’ll get to hear Alan. Both of us went to grad school together, so that’ll be fun. I’m giving the last word to Jesus. So this is from Matthew 13. This is Eugene Peterson’s translation. And it’s when the disciples asked Jesus point blank, “Why do you tell stories?” And his response is:
“You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this insight. Whenever someone has a ready heart, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories, to create readiness, to nudge the people toward a welcome awakening. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen until they’re blue in the face and not get it. And I don’t want Isaiah’s forecast to be repeated, that your ears are open but don’t hear a thing, your eyes are awake but don’t see a thing. Instead, you have God-blessed eyes that see and God-blessed ears that hear.”
Cherie Harder: Jessica, thank you. With hopes for all of us to have a more ready heart, thank you so much for joining us. Have a great weekend.