Also by this author: The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints, Reading for the Love of God, The Liberating Arts: Why We Need Liberal Arts Education
Published by Baker Publishing Group, Brazos Press on March 28, 2023
Genres: Academic, Non-Fiction, Christian Life, Theology
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What if we viewed reading as not just a personal hobby or a pleasurable indulgence but a spiritual practice that deepens our faith?
In Reading for the Love of God, award-winning author Jessica Hooten Wilson does just that--and then shows readers how to reap the spiritual benefits 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.
Accessible and engaging, this guide outlines several ways Christian thinkers--including Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Frederick Douglass, and Dorothy L. Sayers--approached the act of reading. It also includes useful special features such as suggested reading lists, guided practices to approaching texts, and tips for meditating on specific texts or Bible passages. By learning to read for the love of God, readers will discover not only a renewed love of reading but also a new, vital spiritual practice to deepen their walk with God.
Near the beginning of Reading for the Love of God: How to Read as a Spiritual Practice, Jessica Hooten Wilson addresses why we should read fiction, responding to arguments in some Christian circles that we should only read the Bible. Other topics that she covers include the difference between using and enjoying books, how reading can help us develop greater virtue, and how we can rightly interpret books through the “trinity” of rightly balancing the text, the author’s intent, and our own takeaways, instead of forcing the text to mean whatever we want. She also shares “bookmarks” between chapters about the reading lives of Augustine of Hippo, Julian of Norwich, Frederick Douglass, and Dorothy L. Sayers. These sections are thoughtful and encouraging, and the latter two are my favorite parts of the book.
There is a recommended reading list at the end that offers many wonderful selections, but I want to offer one quick warning. She includes the graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred in her list for school-age readers, and although she mentions that it’s more for the 10-12 age range, it is an adult book. The main character is an adult, and the graphic novel includes vivid on-page depictions of racial violence, attempted rape scenes, and a lot of talk about rape. Some older school-age kids can handle that, but it would terrify others and was never intended for that age group.
Reading and the Bible
Hooten Wilson emphasizes that enhancing our reading skills through literature will help us better read, understand, and appreciate the Bible. She makes excellent points about how learning to read different literary genres will help with biblical interpretation, and she makes a convincing case for how practicing our interpretive skills and becoming more fluent with metaphor and other literary devices will enhance our experience with the Bible.
However, I felt that she sometimes went too far, making it sound like Bible-reading is an activity for the well-educated and well-practiced. God intended the Bible for everyone regardless of their socioeconomic class, abilities, or educational level, and even though reading the Bible badly can have negative consequences, this book focuses more on our own literary skills than the power of the Holy Spirit to reveal truth to us, convict us, and comfort us through Scripture. Hooten Wilson provides excellent next steps for people who want to deepen their relationship with the Bible, but I wished that she had articulated additional vital context around this.
This book is highly academic in content and tone, and even though I enjoyed this book and found it very enriching, it is only for serious readers. Hooten Wilson writes about highly abstract concepts in complex ways, and she often uses specialized vocabulary without explaining what she means. She also makes lots of references to monastic practices and obscure literary works that even highly bookish Christians are unlikely to be familiar with. This book shares rich scholarly perspectives, but it is not for reluctant or casual readers, especially since Hooten Wilson only acknowledges the worth of popular-level books in the special section on Dorothy L. Sayers.
It disappoints me that Christian books about reading are almost always written at such a lofty level that they are inaccessible to the people who need them most. I read hundreds of books every year, including dozens of academic ones, but I still felt that parts of the book were beyond me. If someone wants to begin getting more serious about reading, I would recommend Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well as a more accessible alternative with similar themes.
My other concern is that Hooten Wilson was always the expert in the anecdotes she shared, never the person learning something new. Only one anecdote bothered me in and of itself, and that is the chapter-opening illustration about a time when she set up an undergrad student for embarrassment to make a point during class. The other anecdotes don’t involve power differentials and were perfectly fine, but taken together, they give the impression that the author needs to feel superior. I am sure this was unintentional, but I wish she had given examples of times that she lost an argument and learned something new.
Overall, I enjoyed Reading for the Love of God, appreciating Hooten Wilson’s unique insights and her scholarly perspective on the spiritual importance of reading. This book is deep and thoughtful, and there are a lot of important messages about reading great books to expand your mind, enhance your understanding of Scripture, and become closer to God. However, this book is so dense and academic that it is only for scholarly readers. I wish that this book could be an on-ramp for people who want to get more serious about reading, but it will probably just make them feel judged, lectured at, and so overwhelmed that they give up. This book has great value for people who inhabit the author’s literary world or are so well-read that they can make the leap, but I hope that the she will consider ways to effectively reach popular audiences in the future.