Online Conversation | Reading as Regeneration with Jessica Hooten Wilson and Claude Atcho
The act of reading is fundamental to our understanding of the world and its Creator (the Word made flesh), and numerous studies have shown immersive reading to be an inherently creative and generative endeavor, enabling the reader to imagine more broadly, empathize more deeply, and occupy an expanded view of possibility. But in a world where electronic and social media constantly demand our attention, sap our focus, and crowd out uninterrupted pursuits, how can we better understand and enjoy the formative power of deep reading? What are the possibilities in our time of reading for regeneration?
On Friday, March 18th we hosted an Online Conversation with Jessica Hooten Wilson and Claude Atcho to discuss to explore how literature can rehabilitate our imaginations and strengthen us in the pursuit of holiness.
A special thanks to our event partners Fetzer Institute and Brazos Press.
Online Conversation Transcript | Jessica Hooten Wilson & Claude Atcho | March 18, 2022
Cherie Harder: We’re so glad to be able to welcome you today. We have a number of people who are joining us. And I want to add my particular thanks to our co-host in this effort, our friends at Brazos Press, as well as the Fetzer Institute, whose generous support has helped make this program possible. I’d like to add also a particular welcome to our nearly 100 first-time guests, as well as our guests joining us from all over the world from at least 15 different countries that we know of. So a particular shout out to those of you who are joining us from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Kenya, New Zealand, Nigeria, the Philippines, Thailand, Uganda, and the UK. If we have missed you somehow in that litany, please let us know where you’re coming from in the chat box. It’s always fun for us to get to see where people around the world are joining us from. So particular shout out to you from across the miles and the time zones.
If you are one of those 100 people where this is your first time joining us or 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 engage the big questions of life in the context of faith, and to come to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope this conversation today will be a small taste of that for you.
Our topic today might seem a bit surprising or counterintuitive. We often think of reading for pleasure or for information or even for recreation. But our guests today will advocate a radical reorientation to consider reading not merely as a form of entertainment or personal or professional necessity, but as a spiritual practice and a path to a renewed imagination and desire for holiness and justice: to read for regeneration. And our guests today will also offer ways of reading a variety of works that, in the words of one of them, joins the literary and the theological in ways that can prod readers from all backgrounds to sharper theological thinking and more faithful living. It is both a challenging claim and an enticing invitation, one that is served with energy, insight, and erudition by our guests today, Dr. Jessica Hooten Wilson and Reverend Claude Atcho.
Jessica Hooten Wilson is an author, professor, and the Louise Cowen Scholar in Residence at the University of Dallas. In 2019, she received the Hiett Prize for the Humanities from the Dallas Institute for Humanities and Culture and is the author of several works, including Learning the Good Life: From Great Hearts and Minds Which Came Before, Giving the Devil His Due, which received a 2018 Christianity Today Book-of-the-Year award in Arts and Culture, and her new release, The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints, which we’ve invited her to discuss today.
Joining her is Reverend Claude Atcho, who is a writer, pastor, and teacher and serves as the pastor of the Church of the Resurrection in Charlottesville, Virginia. He’s taught both writing and African-American literature at the college level and is a regular writer and podcast contributor for Think Christian, Christ and Pop Culture, The Gospel Coalition, and The Witness. His first full-length book, entitled Reading Black Books, published by Brazos, is due out on May 1st. So, Jessica and Claude, welcome. Great to see you.
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Thank you. I’m so excited to be here.
Claude Atcho: Absolutely. Such a delight.
Cherie Harder: Really looking forward to this. So let’s just start at the very beginning in that your two fascinating books make distinct but related claims. Jessica, you have argued that reading literature can, in your words, “baptize the imagination” in unique ways. And Claude, you’ve asserted or argued that reading Black literature unearths ways that God’s truth addresses the Black experience, which can prod readers towards sharper thinking as well as a more faithful life. Or, as you even say on the very cover, “making our life and faith more whole and just.” So I’d love to hear from both of you what led you to undertake these projects and how does reading literature either baptize our imagination or make us more whole and just. And, Jessica, maybe we can start with you.
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Sure. I really understand those things going together, so I’m sure when Claude unpacks this, we’re going to just be in sync here. But it’ll be fun to maybe tether out some of the differences too. For me, I wrote from personal experience of how I got to know who God was from the time I was a little kid, just being introduced to ways of knowing the Lord through Scripture. But then also a lot of my other reading was opening up my life experiences. And I found as I got older that that passion hadn’t just, you know, it hadn’t dissipated for me, but it had for a lot of my friends. And more and more it became, “Well, you’re a literature professor. That’s why you like books.” But no one else was reading books. And so I was in a lot of church communities where reading was not a constant practice for them, not even reading the Bible. I mean, at one point I had a conversation with someone who said, “Well, I don’t read the Bible, but I read Christian Living, which is the Bible in a more accessible form.” And I thought, No, no, no, no, it’s not. It’s not. We’re actually supposed to be reading the Bible as a lens then for also reading literature, for reading the world, and reading literature becomes a practice that actually opens us up to reading the Bible more. So these things are supposed to be constantly in conversation and they’re making us so much of who we are and then how we see. And if we’re going to try to move towards a vision that God has of the world, then we need a lot of different eyes because on our own we can’t see how God sees. And so it’s joining a communion of eyes. It’s really professing the communion of saints that we talk about in the Creed every single week. And reading is part of that participation.
Claude Atcho: I love that. And yeah, even that phrase, “a communion of eyes,” that was sort of the inspiration for my book as well. You know, just thinking about these are lenses that sometimes we don’t put on and sometimes views that we don’t step into, speaking of African-American literature. And so, you know, these are the books that I’ve loved for quite some time. And truthfully, just reading them and sort of pondering how do I read these books as the one who belongs to God’s kingdom? And how do I read these as a Christian? How do I deal with these difficult but important and deep questions? And so I wrote the book that I wanted to read. I wrote the book that I needed as an undergrad. I needed as a middle-schooler, I needed as a high-schooler. And I just didn’t have it. And so I wanted to contribute to that kind of communion of literary saints and works. And so that was really the genesis for me.
And yet similarly, you know, the transformative power that happens when we attend to works like Morrison and Ellison and Wright and Baldwin, there’s so much power there. And so I wanted to try to be a guide to those texts and then to put them in conversation, mix the close reading with Christian reflection, and to bring the sort of power and the questions that these wise writers are engaging, and then bring them into the light and sense of God’s kingdom where we can see affirmation, correction, extension, depth, uncovering, and just a more holistic formation for what it means to love Jesus, to love others, and to be faithfully engaged in a world that’s complicated.
Cherie Harder: Both your books follow a sort of somewhat similar kind of organizational structure. You look at a variety of different readings and kind of tease out some of the themes. But you both deliberately have chosen literature. It’s all story, all literature. And so I’m curious about that and whether you think that there is something unique about story that teaches us or reveals things that not just argument or analysis can’t, but perhaps even other creative forms such as poetry or painting can’t. Jessica, perhaps you can tackle that first.
Yes, absolutely. So I often quote Alastair MacIntyre, the philosopher at Notre Dame, who says, “We cannot know how we are to act unless we know of what story we are a part.” And Matthew Mullins also wrote an entire book enjoying the Bible where he talks about the Bible as poetry and story. And most of the Bible, that’s what it is. It’s the story that God is revealing himself writing through us. You know, as I tell—I teach third and fourth grade Sunday School—and so I’m always telling them season one is the Old Testament, God revealing who he is. Season two is the Gospels, Jesus showing you that he’s fulfilling the Old Testament. Season three is Acts of the Apostle. Season four is the church; the Holy Spirit continues the acts of the Apostles and the church. And then of course season 5, Second Coming. But when we’re looking at what the story of God is, we have a role to play in it. And that role is being provided by the grace of the Holy Spirit to act out God’s story.
But we’re not the heroes of the story, right? We’re not the architects of the story. As one of my friends constantly points out, thinking about architects, we’re the living stones. We’re characters in that plot. So we have to see ourselves rightly in that story. We can’t decide that we are the author of our tale, and I think it’s actually a freeing as well as a humbling experience to read these stories and see our role in it rather than think, “I have to make this up as I go. I have to know how the story ends. I have to choose the right way of being in the middle of it and being the hero and declaring myself the protagonist.” And a lot of that’s not true to our experience, which is why it causes dissonance from that ideology that you have to actually be in control of your story.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. Claude?
Claude Atcho: Yeah. You know, it’s interesting to think about story and then to connect that to so much of what both of our books are doing, which is engaging with novels. And, you know, I was thinking about that. I do engage with a couple of pieces of poetry, but primarily novels. And that’s exclusive for Scandal of Holiness. And so I was thinking about this in just the power of novels to immerse you in a story and to remind you that we are creatures that live inside of a story, whether we want to acknowledge that or not. And, you know, I was thinking about Ralph Ellison, who wrote Invisible Man, which is one of the books that I discuss in Reading Black Books. He gave this lecture about, I think it was titled, “The Novel as the Tool for American Democracy,” you know, so very ambitious, you know, and bold claims and all that. But I think there’s something to it where he talks about, you know, novels are a special form of literature because they don’t just have the power to entertain, but they immerse you in something. And he uses the phrase they’re “capable of deadly serious psychological and philosophical explorations of the human predicament” is the way that he talks about it. And I think there’s really something to that. And when we read novels, you know, we have this concentrated experience, right? We’re immersed in the language and the world that somebody else has crafted for us. And so because of that, there’s so much power there. Which is why reading well and practicing that as a virtue can be so generative and transformative just because of the form of the novel and the connection to story.
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Yeah. If I could tack on to just what—I love what you’re saying—because I think that’s true. You’re being immersed in it, which is why our books are second to the novels. Right. So Lauren Winner points out in the foreword, she says Jessica talks about the power of novels, but then she wrote a book that’s not a novel. It’s totally true. But what we’re doing wouldn’t exist without the novels. Whereas you don’t need our books, right? The novels are the primary, the story is the primary. But you want to have the novels in conversation. You want to have a teacher for the novels or with the novels. And so we’re the second role in that, right? It’s the immersion in the imagination that happens first with the stories and then second, what does it mean? And the dialogue and the intellect gets involved. But that’s the second part of it.
Claude Atcho: Absolutely.
Cherie Harder: I want to unpack that reading well in just a second. But first, I kind of want to pick up on something that you said, Claude. Maybe I can toss this question to you first and then later to Jessica—which is, given the formative power that’s sort of inherent in the novel, any time there is formative power, there’s also deformative power. That power can be used in different ways. And you have actually picked in your book a lot of very difficult works that have a lot of darkness. They’re reflecting the realities that took place, even brutality. And so would be interested in hearing how you distinguish between good books and bad books, formative books for the good and distorting or deformative books.
Claude Atcho: That is a great question that I wrestle with and I’m excited to hear Jessica answer in a few moments. I think, you know, so part of this is, I want to say, becomes a little bit subjective, but I think on the other hand, you know, it comes down to dealing with is this book, is the novel, really dealing with the truth? And is this speaking from a vision that is actually in line with the truth about human beings and the human condition? That doesn’t mean it needs to be doctrinally aligned the way you look at a statement of faith. But is this running with the grain of how the world really is? I look for that. I also distinguish if a work is really ideological in a way that actually isn’t truthful to the complexity of being a human. I also, you know, maybe the best way to think about this is just bad writing. You know, stay away from bad writing. And then you’re usually in, you know, in safe quarters.
But I also think about—I think James Baldwin is a good example of this because the way that he writes, he writes difficult things, but usually always writes with a view of mercy towards human beings. And so he avoids some of the ideological dynamic where you can paint people too clearly as complete virtue or complete villain. And he really deals with the complexity of what it means to be human.
And I think that’s important because we talk a lot about the power of reading is empathy, which we’ll probably get to in some of the conversation today. But I was recently talking with a few professor friends when they pointed out some of the research around the dark side of empathy. I think that’s actually the title of a book. And the book speaks about how in the wrong hands empathy can be sort of overdone and it can polarize us where we become so particularized, we lose concern for the universal. And so I think sometimes that’s the way bad books work is not only may they be badly written, but they’re so ideological, they’re so running opposite the grain of the truth of the human condition, that in reading them we become so particularized that we forget the other. So I’ve begun to think a little bit about that. But yeah, that is the question that I find myself coming to every time I do engage with the text.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. Jessica?
Jessica Hooten Wilson: So I’m going to distinguish between how we read versus what we read. So I’ll focus on what we read because that’s what you’re asking. But a lot of it also has to do with how you read, because really good people can read really bad books and they’re going to be okay because they know how to read well. Whereas people who do not know how to read well can read the best of literature and read it poorly, and it’s going to have a malforming effect as well. So hopefully we’ll pull that out in a minute.
But just looking at content, so the transcendentals are very helpful here: truth, goodness, and beauty. And Claude was talking about the truth, and I think that is a necessary starting point. Right. Does it tell the truth about the world? And like Claude said, it doesn’t have to be a doctrinal truth. But is it lying to you about what human beings are and how you are in the world? So one of the classic examples I like to give is Disney sequels. You can’t attack the monolith of Disney, and there are some good Disney pictures. Encanto, I think, is one of the most Christian movies they’ve ever made. But at the same time, there are stories like Ariel Part Two. I don’t even know what the title was, but it’s just telling you the false idea of what authority is and the role it has in your life and whether disobeying your parents is a better way to be in the world. And it just kind of throws out natural law. It throws out all these things that we know to be true about consequences and actions, and it’s not consistent with who we are. So I think we have to look at stories about if they’re telling the truth according to how the world actually works.
Second is goodness. So Flannery O’Connor was big on this. She thought when you’re writing something, it’s not that you’re preaching somebody to be morally good. So you’re not always trying to look for like an Aesop’s fable or a life lesson out of literature. But is it sentimental or pornographic? Because if it’s sentimental or pornographic, those are basically the same thing in literature for Flannery O’Connor. Because what it is, if it’s sentimentalized, then it’s increasing emotion when the substance doesn’t deserve it, right? So in the same way that pornography, right, it’s the sex, it’s the emotional high of sex without the substance of something strong like marriage connected to it. So the same way with sentiment, like we get all these sentiments— Like, what was that Sarah McLaughlin commercial that used to be on where like made you feel very heightened emotions about pets dying or something? You probably remember, this was a long time ago. But I think that’s just such a great example of the false emotion connected to the weak substance.
And then third—Claude mentioned this kind of peripherally, bad writing—beauty. Beauty is supposed to lift us towards something higher. And if a book is poorly written, then it’s actually killing our taste. It’s making us accept less than what is highest in us. It’s making us immune to ugliness and starting accepting ugliness as the norm. And that’s not what we’re called to. We’re called to always be lifting higher and not be looking lower. So bad writing, the more that you support it and the more that you get used to it, you’re actually losing a part of yourself. You’re losing what you were called to be and what you could be.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. You both have mentioned how you read. So let’s just kind of jump into that right now. In many ways implicit in both of your books is advocating for a particular kind of reading. And I think it’s fair to say that it’s probably a very different kind of reading than we’re kind of naturally acculturated to. You know, with so much of our reading taking place over social media, our natural tendency is to kind of quickly scan, essentially kind of strip-mine the most shallow surface meaning and kind of move on. So how does one read well and how does one read literature well? Jessica, we’ll just popcorn back to you and then Claude.
Jessica Hooten Wilson: So I’m so glad you said naturally acculturated to because I think there’s such a distinction between natural versus our sinful proclivities. So we’ve become acculturated to certain ways of reading that are not according to our nature. They are according to our sinful temptations that have become our habits, that have become part of our natures in the world. But it’s not our natural state. I think our natural state, if you look at children, that’s not how they read. You give a kid a book and he’ll read it over and over and over again until he memorizes it and knows it and can read it back to you, even when he’s three. So our nature is to fall in love with what is good and to repeat it until it becomes digested and fully formed in us. That’s how our nature is. And then as we get older, we teach people, we nurture them to be utilitarian, to be those who consume, who pull apart things. We dissect it for classes and multiple-choice quizzes. We really destroy the natural way of reading for a different method of reading that is about use and relevancy and productivity. And those are things that are culture. But it’s not the church. It’s not how the church is supposed to read. It’s not how the church is supposed to look.
You should instead be approaching books the way you approach people. You listen. You shut up for an hour, right? You give of yourself and you wait to receive what they have to give. And you do that without assumptions that you don’t try to misread them. You don’t try to impose upon them what you would mean if you said that. You try to understand and you try to really hear what they’re saying. And I think that kind of practice, if we practice with books, we might be better at engaging people.
Cherie Harder: Claude, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that, but I’m going to add an additional question to that as well, which is one thing I notice about both of your books is that you always end with discussion questions at the end of each chapter to make this easier to read communally. So in addition to kind of commenting on that, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how our experience of reading and reading well is changed or challenged by reading in community versus reading individually.
Claude Atcho: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. So on reading well, I would echo what Jessica has said, and I think about, you know, if good writing takes rewriting, good reading I think a lot of times takes rereading, as Jessica’s talking about. And so I think about, you know, just the simple stuff of slow, deliberate, going back. And a lot of times, if you’re not interested in doing that, you know, maybe the book isn’t that great, isn’t that good, you know? And so I think, yeah, just the patience that we can engage with. And even saw my son just this morning, you know, lying down and looking at, you know, flipping through the pages of something that he’s seen over and over again. So just have that image in my mind while you were talking, Jessica. So, I think, you know, slowing down and I think that’s part of the formative power of reading is also how we read and we immerse ourselves in the text and we take it on its own terms, I think is the other thing. We—as you mentioned, Jessica—assume the best. And I think it’s taking the novel on its own terms and asking questions. So, you know, when you come to a place where you feel something in the story, you know, think through, why do I feel this? And then what is it in the language of the text? What is it in the action of the story? Like what is it in the actual work itself that’s producing this in me? And then to just, yeah, ask questions. What are the ideas at the heart of the story? What would I have done in this situation with this character? Why do I gravitate towards this character and not this other character? You know, how do I relate to the interior world of this character that the writer is putting forward? Why are they putting it forward this way? Where is the kingdom of God in all of this? Those sort of things.
And I think about, again, Baldwin’s novel, his debut, Go Tell It on the Mountain. You know, I think reading well in an example of a book like that is it’s all told in one day, you know, so it’s like, why would he do that? You know, why does he want to tell the story in one day? And then as you read, you realize that it’s all one day but then there’s flashbacks. So why does he give each character a flashback? What is he trying to do there? Why does he call this section “Prayers of the Saints”? And then as you look and you notice that each flashback is tied to kind of a moment of prayer. And so when you begin to ask these sort of questions, what is he up to? How does that impact me? Then I think you begin to, your slowing down in the work rewards you and you receive a greater gift through that.
And then to the point about reading in community, all of that stuff is difficult to do on your own. So you’re helped when you do that with others. They’ll see things that you don’t see. And it’s just like writing is generative. Sometimes we don’t know what we think until we write. Sometimes we don’t know what we think about a story or a book and its impact on us until we talk about it with others, until we hear the way, maybe the thing that rubbed us the wrong way, we hear how that was encouraging and how they connected with the character that we had a problem with. And through hearing that conversation, we realize that maybe we had a problem with that character because there’s something off in us, right? That hit a sore spot inside of us. And so I think getting to engage communally is really important because it slows us down. We process. And especially when, you know, in African-American literature, the form and the content is often difficult. And so we need to parse that out I think in community together.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. Just as sort of a case example of that, and I’ll just say as an aside, one of the things we do at the Trinity Forum are Socratic forums and reading groups, and there is such richness in hearing the different perspectives people bring to the same text.
And in your two books, there was one story that both of you highlighted, and I think there is only one. And it was actually a little bit surprising in that it’s not a particularly well-known novel, but it was Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain. And so coming from your two different perspectives, using very different literature, but with this one thing in common, I’d be curious about why both of you picked this work and what was so meaningful to you about it. And, Jessica, maybe we can start with you.
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Sure. So I fell in love with Zora when I was in college. There was something she had written—Claude’s going to know probably the exact quote—but it’s something she’d written where if she was treated poorly by white people because she was Black and she said, “I just feel bad for them that they missed out on the privilege of knowing me.” And for someone, you know, who was single and if I got rejected or didn’t get a second date, I would just quote Zora in my head like, I just feel bad they missed out on getting to know me, you know? So she was just—I just found her confidence so alluring. And, to me, the way she inquired of people, just looking at her biography, I just kind of became addicted to reading a lot of her work.
And it wasn’t until later that I read Moses, Man of the Mountain, and I’d already read maybe three books by her before that. And whoa! I had never heard the story of Moses told that way, where it just it made me re-see the story of Moses. I actually found myself reading her work and then going back to the Bible and reading it back and forth. And so even though she is not accurate to the Bible—that’s not what she’s trying to do—it still turned people back to the Word in a way that I found provocative. And so that’s why I dove into it. I thought, this is what good literature is supposed to do, is it’s supposed to make you dialogue with the things that are true, with the things that are constant, historical, permanent. And her book did that. And so, I mean, I don’t know how I could write this book without Zora because I’ve really enjoyed her literature so much. So she was definitely influential on the way that I think about good literature, but that novel in particular, when it comes to what points you back to the Bible and what gets you to be scandalized? Well.
Claude Atcho: Yes. Similar. I think I wanted to discuss this book in Reading Black Books just because it was not as well known as some of her other works. And also, you know, it is such a constructive example of what it means, in my reading, to participate in the story of scripture. And so that’s sort of the lens that I looked at Moses, Man of the Mountain through, was sort of, you know, here’s this writer who is doing something really bold and is putting their own kind of folkloric spin on the Exodus story. And again, I think, you know, as Jessica mentioned, it’s obviously not scripture and it’s doing its own sort of thing, but I think even that gesture—and it’s debated the way that the book is read—but I think even that gesture is instructive and constructive that we need to think about what does it mean to see scripture as a living story? What does it mean to see ourselves not as people who are detached from scripture, not people who come to scripture to mine a couple of truths from a culture far, far away and to bring them into modern life so that we can be better, but to really understand our whole existence is caught up in this story even right now.
And so I think, as you mentioned, Jessica, Zora’s Moses defamiliarizes you with sort of like, “Oh, I’m just going to take Exodus, you know, I know that already.” You know, you read that book and then you’re like, “Do I really know Exodus? Do I really know Numbers? Do I really know this stuff?” And you have to go back because she writes it and puts her own spin on it, but has clearly, clearly studied the text and made changes in line with her prerogative. And she’s done it as somebody who knows the material that she’s working with. And so I found it really as a sort of touchstone to talk about the importance of the Exodus in the Black Christian experience, which is then the importance of the Exodus in the Christian experience. And that’s instructive for all of us. And I think it gives us encouragement on what it means to see ourselves as participating in the story of God even now.
Cherie Harder: We’re at a time when reading in general is in decline, reading literature is in particular decline. And by all the different studies, each generation is reading less than the one before it, comprehending what they read less, reading for pleasure less, reading literature less. And of course, this seems like there’s not only kind of educational and civic consequences of that, but as people who worship the Word, presumably there are spiritual consequences of that as well. I would be curious what both of you believe the implications are for ourselves and our soul as well as our society. And then any thoughts or guidance you have for people who may be interested in rethinking looking into literature for themselves or for their children? Jessica, maybe we can start with you.
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Yeah, I think this is so big because right now reading is seen as privileged. You know, I’m writing a book right now on reading for the love of God. And when I was sharing it with someone, this idea, they’re like, “Oh, that’s so privileged that you’re going to write this book about suburban housewives sitting around getting to read.” You know, I was a classist. I was being accused of being a classist to think about reading. And I thought, no, I’m really trying to protect humanity here. I mean, what I believe is that can you imagine anything more countercultural right now than someone to sit and really listen to another person through a book, to engage what they’re having to say, to not be distracted by technology, to not be focused on busyness and productivity and work, and not be focused on just hedonism or entertaining myself or patting myself on the back with what I’m doing, but just reading and enjoying that?
I mean, [inaudible] says, “We were made to be lovers, not laborers.” So we’re not made primarily just as workers, but we are made to behold God. We are made to enjoy God. We are made to enjoy one another, to love one another. And so the practice of reading keeps us in that humble charitable stance that needs to be part of our makeup and needs to be our habit and our practice. And the more that we remove that practice and we only focus on what is useful and what is going to make us good consumers and producers, we’re losing what it means to be a human being. So I can’t think of anything more countercultural than to convince people spend more time reading. It looks wasteful to you, and it might feel weird when you first start back to it. But it’s not. It’s actually reminding you of what you’re made for.
Claude Atcho: Yes, I love that. And then I think if you can link that into the communal piece that we were talking about earlier, if you can read and then read together with others and build that sort of community around this formative life-giving practice, I think that’s where we see growth and connectivity and flourishing in a lot of ways. When I think about what we lose when we’re not reading, I echo everything Jessica said and also I think about if part of the gift of literature is empathy, we obviously we lose that. I think about Martha Nussbaum. She talks about the power of reading creates these links of possibility between people. And so we lose those. And, you know, it doesn’t take a genius among us to see that we’ve lost that already, and we’re deeply at odds and we’re deeply confused and we’re deeply polarized. And so we need anything that we can get that reorients us back to what we’re made to be together. So reading is a gift in that sense.
And then I think too, just the incarnational act of reading, it helps us be better lovers of our neighbors, lovers of the world, lovers of God. Because I think so much of, you know, Philippians 2 obviously is a passage that is so beautiful to the Christian gospel about Jesus looking not to his own interests, but to the interests of others. But Paul gives that encouragement to the Philippians, to his audience. And I think about reading—when you read, you are looking to the interest of another. You’re immersing in a perspective and in a story. You’re inhabiting something that you don’t have total control of. You engage with it, but as Jessica has said, you sit, you submit, and you grow in humility by entering this world, and that forms us and that will help us as we actually do that in embodied flesh with one another.
And if I could even draw back to Ellison, who I love, in that speech that I referenced earlier, he talked about America being in moral decay and basically wanted to blame it all on the novelists, that we’re not telling the truth in our stories. And so it’s kind of half our fault. And maybe today the truth is being told in our stories, and maybe it’s our fault because we’re distracted and we’re not taking up together—and I really would emphasize together, because it’s hard to do on our own—but taking up together this task of reading, which is one gift among many that can help us flourish.
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Yeah. So can I just add one more thing? So this is great. I feel like Claude and I should go on tour. We’ll just go. We’ll go to—
Claude Atcho: I will ride your coattails to as much success as possible.
Jessica Hooten Wilson: But I just thought, okay, yes. Humility, empathy, charity, togetherness, community, also freedom. I don’t want to neglect that because I can’t help thinking of all the dystopic novels that I read. Who has the power? Who’s in control? It’s always the people who are reading and keeping the books from everybody else. And when you look at Frederick Douglass, you look at his biography, and he’s like, “When I heard that it was unfit for slaves to read, I thought, well, then I need to read and then I’m unfit to be a slave.” Right. That’s where the power was, you know. Or James Baldwin, another one: “I read myself out of Harlem.” Right? Like this idea that you’re reading yourself into a state of liberation, like you read to be free from the culture that lies to you, from the advertising that lies to you, from the media that lies to you. You read for that kind of liberation of your soul and then you liberate others with you.
Claude Atcho: Yes. So good.
Cherie Harder: We could keep talking, but there are lots and lots of questions from our viewers all lined up. So we’re going to turn to those in just a second. And just as a reminder to everyone watching, you can not only ask a question, but you can also “like” a question. And that gives us an idea of what some of the most popular questions are. So first question from Rick Lawler, sort of paraphrasing slightly, “What books did you read as children and young adults that helped form each of you into the people you are today?” Claude, let’s start with you.
Claude Atcho: Sure. Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this recently. So a formative book for me as a young adult was actually Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. I read that, I want to say, I think later part of high school. And, you know, part of the story is this young, beautiful man has opportunity to basically do whatever he wants and indulge in decadence and hedonism, and sort of the stains on his soul come upon his portrait instead of on himself, so he thinks. And it is pretty didactic towards the end. But, you know, for me, I’ve always loved that because it was a challenge to me to think about what does it mean to really live the good life and what voices—virtue and vice—would I listen to. That had a big impact on me. I would say, you know, even as a kid, like the Hardy Boys, like that was just stuff I just stayed up late reading and enjoying. Ender’s Game was another one. I think my teacher gave it to me in fifth grade and I just devoured that and it just set me off. So I was so much so blessed to have the right book at the right time from teachers, librarians, and primarily my mother. And those set me off on a trajectory that just enjoyed to this day.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. Jessica?
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Yeah. So I mentioned in the opening of my book that I was really obsessed with Mark Twain. I loved anything funny. So Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. I loved the adventures of T.H. White, Once and Future King. I loved any of those stories that I got to be a hero, you know, on a journey. I also really loved Roald Dahl for a long time. I think I read Roald Dahl from elementary but just all the way up through junior high because there again were those kind of freedom from whatever else the culture was saying. And just the idea of the things, the fantastical, the things that could happen, the way that you could imagine, and I love that invitation in literature, just like Once and Future King or Tom Sawyer or any of those, just that life is an adventure. And the book that I wrote is an adventure in sanctity, but it’s no less an adventure. It’s actually a better adventure. This big journey that we’re on towards something that’s otherworldly, really. That’s transcendental. That’s eternal and exciting. So I love stories now that kind of tap into that same kind of adventure.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. I want to combine a question from an anonymous viewer and a question from Connor Sweetman. Both of them are asking you about your reading habits. So our anonymous viewer asks, “How much time do you both spend reading literature weekly amidst your many other responsibilities?” And Connor Sweetman asks, “What kind of daily or weekly practice of reading literature do you each have?” Jessica, let’s start with you on that one.
Jessica Hooten Wilson: So I also want to differentiate my job as a reader because that’s different. So even in Britain, professors are still called readers because most of your day is made up reading. So my work day is filled with reading. So I probably read three or four hours a day, but that’s because that’s what I do for my job. So aside from that, I read every single night and I read every single morning. And I read a novel and usually a poem before bed. If I’m super tired, it’s just the poem because no matter what, I’m going to read before I go to sleep. And in the morning, it’s scripture. So I usually start my day with the Bible. And again, busyness, life happens. So if it’s super busy, I listen to the Bible being read to me as I walk my dog and I try to do two things at one time, which is not ideal. But I know that’s kind of the reality. Also for having small children, you might be thinking of ways of like how does that work? So I listen to Audible with my kids in the car and we do like BBC dramas. So they have the old audios of the performances of Charles Dickens or Dorothy Sayers or something, and my kids love it. That’s better than movies. That’s better than screen time for them. They have Lord of the Rings memorized because we listen to it in the car all the time. So we just have constant books in our house as just kind of part of our day regularly.
What about you, Claude?
Claude Atcho: I love that. Yeah. So, you know, vocationally I’m a pastor, so I’m, you know, reading a fair amount just from that: scripture, theology, things like that. So yeah. Scripture in the mornings. And then a similar to Jessica, I usually do my novel reading in the evenings. I aspire to read more poetry. So I have a couple of different volumes that I just kind of keep around and poke into here and there, one of which Jessica contributed a chapter to. Can you remind me the title? Thirty Poems to Memorize…
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Thirty Poems to Memorize Before [It’s Too Late]. So good.
Claude Atcho: It’s really, really good. And so that’s one that I have in my backpack and try to poke around and enjoy. And I just try to keep books everywhere, and I will just go on binges where, you know, that’s all I’m going to do with the open time that I have. I love a novel and, like, I want to devour it. So I would say, yeah, I kind of have, if you’re able, you know, a morning and evening routine and then just have books everywhere. If you’re not excited to read, swap out whatever you were going to read for something else, like there’s—just go for it. There’s so many books. We’re not going to get to all of them, but we’ll enjoy them in the new heavens, new earth. But for now, I would just say, you know, find what you like and jump into it as much as you can.
Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Patrick Fallon, and he writes, “I know a lot of people who seem to be so caught up using their cell phones almost on a constant basis that they apparently have no time or interest to read a book, either electronically or an actual book. How do we gently challenge friends and family members to get into reading a book?” And then there’s a related question from Richard Jordan, who says, “How can we structure student assignments to get them more interested and excited about reading books?” Claude, maybe we can start with you this time.
Claude Atcho: Yeah, I would say buy your friends books. So if you know them well, they’re on their phone all the time, you know, don’t just correct them. But if you know them, you know what they might like, buy them two or three books and say, “Hey, I think you should read more, spend less time on your phone, and I want to help you. I think you’d like these books. Here’s the three I bought for you.” And so I would do that. You know, I would love if someone did that for me, if they saw me on my phone all the time. So do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So I would try that. Yeah.
You know, I’ve not been in the classroom as a teacher in a while, so I would love to hear what Jessica would say on this. I think if you can just—good, old books that you think would connect with your students, give them to them and find— I think the assignments that can be creative like— So, okay, here’s one thing: my teacher as a sophomore, Lowell High School in Massachusetts, Susan Silk, we were reading A Separate Peace and she had us act out part of the book. And so there’s a part of the book where, if I remember right, I think it’s Jean and Phinney maybe are the two characters, and they’re best friends, but one of them is a little bit jealous of the other. So we acted it out. There’s a scene in the book where the jealous one shakes the tree while the popular one is climbing, and he falls and he breaks his leg. And because we acted that out, that part of that story sticks with me to this day, because at that time it taught me so much about, you know, my best friend on the basketball team who was better than me, more popular than me. And it revealed a lot of my own jealousy and emotions, not just through reading the book, but through reading it and then acting it. So I would say if you can kind of get creative stuff like that, which I’m sure teachers are doing all that, but that’s what I would offer. That obviously had an impact on me if I’m saying it now, all these years later. So things of that nature that invite them to kind of embody the story.
Jessica Hooten Wilson: So my husband and I put controls on each other’s phones so that we couldn’t, so I can’t download social media on my phone and he can’t download YouTube videos on his phone. The only problem is he actually forgot the code for controlling my screen time. So actually my phone is profoundly uninteresting to me now only because I can’t do anything with it. So I do agree with putting controls on it. I think we got that idea from a Trinity Forum conversation that you had with Andy Crouch and his daughter. Right. I just loved that idea. So we’ve stuck with that. So if you’re going to bring a book with you, like Claude said, don’t bring it on Kindle. Actually physically pack a book with you so that when you’re sitting in the doctor’s office waiting or whatever you’re doing, you always have something to be reading just for a few minutes at a time on a regular basis. So I always carry books with me. I carry books for my kids. I think we should do that.
For teachers: I know that teachers are under so much stress right now. I’ve taught K through 12. I’ve taught grad school, undergrad. We need to not be survivalist. And so when there’s a lot being asked of us, we need to think first things first, second thing second. And you know what’s good for those students. You’re not going to lose your job because they need you so badly. So focus on the first things first. Focus on reading. Read aloud with your students. Put all those second things second. Grading, assessment, accreditation. All of that is secondary to taking care of those kids in that room and doing what is life giving for you and life giving for them, which is just enjoy the books, enjoy the literature, read it out loud. That is the best 10 minutes you could spend in class, no matter what else has to get done, to read with them and enjoy that with them. That will make a greater impression on them. It’ll make a greater life source for you than anything else you could do.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s great. So our next question is directed towards you, Claude. And Andrew Steger asks, “Could you talk about the particular benefits that Black readers and white readers can gain from reading Black books? How do the best Black books bless those readers in similar and different ways?”
Jessica Hooten Wilson: That was a lot of alliteration.
Claude Atcho: So I would say one of the blessings of African-American literature is it is the human story from a perspective that has been neglected. And so we get to see universal truths through a particular lens and experience. And that’s crucial. That can’t be overstated. When I think about some of the responses to the killing of George Floyd and all of these different moments that we’ve had as a culture and as a nation over the last several years, I think about the friends of mine who could understand a little bit, even though it was not their ethnic experience or their racial experience, it was by and large people that had read in these ways because they could have those muscles of understanding and empathy. So I think we gain that.
And I think what African American readers, what Black folks gain is sort of the expansiveness of our culture where, you know, I remember experiencing things where it was said to me that, you know, being Black meant that I only did this and I didn’t do that. And I remember hearing that both kind of inside my community and outside of my community. And as I’ve read African-American literature, I’ve realized to be African American is to be human. And the beauty of that unfurls in so many ways. And so we gain that perspective as readers reading inside of our own tradition, as it were. And we also get to see the flavor and the beauty that comes with that. So I think in both senses, we gain an expansive understanding of both the particularities and the universal experience of what it means to be human and to be Black. So I would say those are really crucial. And again, as I’ve emphasized, then if you can read those together, the way that a community can flourish and grow is powerful.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Our next question is actually directed towards you, Jessica. Emily Winnenberg asked, “Jessica made a great distinction between what we read and how we read. Are there practices of reading, even reading good or worthwhile books where the practices themselves can be malformative? And how can we learn to read the things we read better?”
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Where the practices can be malformative… That sounds like we’re reading Lauren Winners. What is that? Christian Practices Used Badly or something? As far as the practices… Malforming… So the practices I mostly draw are from the Christian tradition. So my degree from Baylor is in theology and literature, and so a lot of my classes on reading the Bible in hermeneutics, I was like, “Why is this not happening in literary studies?” I’d have these literary theory classes that completely were oblivious to the tradition and the Christian ways of reading the Bible. And so I’m trying to draw this connection between the two. So a lot of those Christian practices, I’m not sure how malformed they can be because they have to do with piety, with lowering yourself before the book. They have to do with prayer, with reading towards contemplation, paying attention to the words that are before you, right? Playing with the words. A lot of it had to do with play. Really enjoying what you were reading in a great way. So I don’t know about malformative practices, but I do think that the church provides a lot of understanding of how to read well that we can then apply to literature.
Cherie Harder: So we’re rapidly running out of time, but we’ll take just a couple more questions. And I want to combine two for you, one from Rebecca Pennington: “How do you account for the role of teaching culture and ability to discern and choose what to read and how to read?” And then somewhat tangential, but we’ll just ladle it on top to kind of bring in as many questions as possible, a question from Danny Gans, “How do you choose your next book to read and what influences your reading choices?” Claude, maybe we can start with you.
Claude Atcho: Yeah. So the way I choose my next book to read is pretty whims— Like, just whatever looks interesting. Unless I have something that I’m really working on that I need to sort of follow an order trajectory. I mean, I love—my favorite places to be are a bookstore or library and I love to just kind of walk around the library, see what looks good, and just grab it, go, and have as many around as possible. I would say not being afraid to start and to stop a book. You know, you’re in charge of the book. You submit to it when you read it. But like if it’s not working, then onto the next one. So that’s sort of the way I kind of do that. So yeah.
Cherie Harder: What about you, Jessica?
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Yeah, pretty much the same. I was actually having this last night because I am in the middle of like three or four novels and I’m not going to say what their titles are because they’re like, they’re okay, but none of them have that feeling where, like, I can’t put you down. So I’m just kind of wandering my shelves right now and I’ve just been picking books. So I buy books the minute they sound interesting to me. That’s why half-priced bookstores are the worst, because I’m like, “That looks good, that looks good.” So I just pile them on my shelves and then when I have time for them, then I’ll pull them down and get into them. I’m not afraid to put books down when they’re not interesting to me. I can come back. I might be misreading it. I might not understand it. Sometimes I have heard someone like Claude talk to me about a book and I suddenly realize like, “Oh, I was reading that wrong. Like, I wasn’t going there with that text.” Now I need to reread it, right? I need to read it in a different way. And so I think just sampling, being free, there’s all sorts of books on promiscuous reading, right? Karen Swallow Prior Booked: The Life of a Promiscuous Reader. Alan Jacobs’ Pleasures of Reading in a Distracted Age. So there’s lots of books that will give you the freedom to just kind of pick and choose and enjoy.
Cherie Harder: We’ll take one more question and I’ll toss this to either of you who want to handle it. This is a question from Darren Middleton. Do you think there is a uniquely Christian way of reading or a unique Christian literary criticism, one perhaps where we abandon ego, forget or pour out self, and mentally migrate, imagine the other, perhaps returning to oneself after reading with heightened appreciation for lives not our own?” Who wants to tackle that?
Jessica Hooten Wilson: Yeah. So this is, I’m actually writing a book on this right now, Reading for the Love of God, because I think I titled it when I was just thinking of it as How to Read as a Christian. And someone on Twitter said like, “I would never buy a book called How to Read as a Christian.” And I thought, “Oh, then I’m going to retitle my book and then you’ll buy it.” But how to read as a Christian should be different. If, like Claude said, if we believe in the incarnation, we function in a completely different way towards words than anyone around us, because we believe that the Word became flesh. So every word you read already has a two-fold reality. So every time you’re approaching, a word has a literal and a spiritual meaning every single time. So what does that do for our reading practices? Like, that in and of itself is going to change. If you imagine the Bible is the Genesis to Revelation, the beginning, middle, and end, then suddenly you have a different way of conceiving of stories and finding your place in that kind of story. If you believe in creation, fall, redemption, restoration, you have a different way of framing narratives and understanding how things fit in narratives. So there’s multiple ways that our stance towards reality, our vision, how it’s been biblically and informed by tradition is going to drastically change the way we approach literature compared to other people.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. This has been so much fun, Claude and Jessica. And in just a moment, I want to give Claude and Jessica the last word. But before that happens, a few things to let you know about. First, immediately after we conclude today, we’ll be sending an online feedback form. We encourage you to fill it out. We read every one of these. We try to incorporate your suggestions to make these programs ever more valuable, and as a special incentive to doing so, we will give you a discount code for a free Trinity Forum online reading of your choice. There are quite a few titles that actually track with some of the literary suggestions that our authors have made. A few that I’ll just mention right now: Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” George MacDonald’s “The Golden Key,” Dorothy Day, Wendell Berry with “Hannah and Nathan,” Dante’s “The Divine Comedy,” “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” and many others. So we encourage you to do that.
In addition, tomorrow we’re going to be sending around a video link, an email with a video link, which gives this edited version along with a list of recommended readings and resources. We really encourage you to share this conversation with others. Start a reading group, start talking about the joy of reading and what you have read and what it means to you and how it’s shaped your own thinking, imagination, and loves. So just want you to be on the alert for that. That email coming tomorrow, probably right around noon.
Also for the 100 or so of those of you who signed up to participate in our post–Online Conversation discussion groups, after this webinar is over, you can just exit as you normally would and then log in on the link sent to you. We’ll give everyone just a few minutes to gather before we get started.
Finally, we’d love to invite all of you watching to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people that makes the mission of the Trinity Forum to provide the platform for the best of Christian thought leadership possible. There are many benefits to being a member of the Trinity Forum Society, which includes a subscription to our quarterly readings, and as a special incentive our next Trinity Forum Reading is actually going to feature excerpts from Moses, Man of the Mountain. We didn’t plan that. It just worked that way. With an introduction by Sho Baraka. You won’t want to miss. And as an extra special incentive for joining the Trinity Forum Society, anyone who joins or with your gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Jessica’s book, The Scandal of Holiness. One thing I’ll also note: Claude’s book is not yet out, so we highly commend that book as well. And there should be in the chat box a special link with a discount for you to preorder a copy of that excellent work. So we hope that you will join the Trinity Forum Society and part of the community of people that makes programs like this possible.
We also have a number of additional upcoming Online Conversations as well as in-person events that are starting back up. All of that is available on our website at www.ttf.org. And if you happen to be in the Nashville area, we’d love to see you in person on March 28th with our in-person Evening Conversation with Arthur Brooks there in Nashville. Finally, as we discussed, I want to give the last word to Claude and then Jessica.
Claude Atcho: So a Baldwin quote. He says, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world. But then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
Jessica Hooten Wilson: I love that. So this is a poem. It’s a sonnet called “Reading” by Amit Majumdar, and it’s dedicated for Jorge Luis Borges. And I love this poem. I’m trying to memorize it. If one of you memorizes it before me, go ahead and post yourself online and show me what it looks like because I’m working on it. But:
I stand before the books as I might stand
beneath the sky. There’s stacks and stacks of self-
contained infinities demanding exploration.
I have neither maps nor ladders to pursue these stars,
these books that burn within themselves.
That’s when he comes and shows me where to start.
A blind librarian with a lantern and
a hand that takes my own. He knows the books
for me. He knows exactly where they are.
And when he points, I know at last where to
look. The deep sky he navigates by heart.
And as he shows them to me, one by one,
I find those stars opening into suns.
Cherie Harder: Jessica and Claude, thank you so much. It was great to talk with you.
Claude Atcho: Thank you.
Cherie Harder: And thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend