The Spiritual Value of Reading Secular Literature

The Spiritual Value of Reading Secular Literature August 21, 2014

IMG_5438I recently gave a presentation at Education Week at BYU on this topic. I offer here a brief summary of my lecture. It builds on a theme of a number of my previous posts about reading.

It is a fair question to ask: why should I read a good novel, some poetry, a biography, or a book of essays when I have work and service and other good deeds to do? Why should I read literature when I could be reading the scriptures or a book on a religious topic? In other words, what justifies reading, especially when it is creative, fictional, literary?

I think this might be the wrong question to ask or the wrong way to go about the problem. For one, if we really don’t have any time for reading except for a few verses of scripture each day, then perhaps something is wrong with how we are stewarding our time. We should be reading the words of the Lord and other inspired works but we should also be reading “out of the best books” as we are commanded in Doctrine and Covenants. We are commanded to serve the Lord with all of our heart, might, mind, and strength. How do we serve him well if we are not thoughtful, reflective, judicious? So we might ask ourselves: as a general rule, do we live with a commitment to seek entertainment or learning and edification? Are we using our minds passively or proactively?

I believe there are four spiritual benefits to an active commitment to lifelong reading.

1) it increases our capacity to identify and resist evil

A passive mind seduced by endless entertainment is a mind vulnerable to seduction and deception because it is a mind that has almost no will of its own. We cannot expect to resist evil without an active commitment to embrace the good. There are many instances in scripture where we are reminded that we should be as serious about identifying the good as we are about avoiding the bad. For example:

D&C 98:11:

And I give unto you a commandment, that ye shall forsake all evil and cleave unto all good

Moroni 7:19:

And if ye will lay hold upon every good thing, and condemn it not, ye certainly will be a child of Christ.

We are falling short of our discipleship of Christ, in other words, if we are not fully engaged in a pursuit of all that is good and beautiful and praiseworthy. We are also perhaps overestimating the importance of ideas when we imagine that life’s energies ought to be spent making sure we and others are thinking correctly. Our chief fear should not be being wrong. The purpose of life is not to be right. It is to be good. And as long as we are faithful to what God has revealed, we have the leverage and the freedom, even the responsibility, to think broadly, creatively, and responsibly about every realm of truth. This makes our mind an instrument the Lord can make better use of in his service. As Hugh B. Brown once put it, “We must preserve freedom of the mind in the church and resist all efforts to suppress it. The church is not so much concerned with whether the thoughts of its members are orthodox or heterodox as it is that they shall have thoughts” (An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown, p. 135). I have written elsewhere about the value of scholarship in this regard.

2) we assist in the ongoing restoration of all things

That is a bold statement, but revelation often hinges on our mind’s capacity to ask a new question and new questions arise with new information and new context. From small and simple things can great understanding come. Brigham Young said famously that all truth belongs to Mormonism. This isn’t arrogance. It is what any religion that is serious about its claims about reality would by necessity have to admit. To believe in the universal claims of one’s religion requires a believer to then be serious about understanding all truth. It is easy to be flippantly dismissive of ideas that appear to contradict revelation without any study or effort, but charity requires us to be careful about dismissing ideas out of hand. As President Dieter F. Uchtdorf said recently about the importance of historical research, “A small amount of additional information—and perhaps a bit of context—makes a wondrous difference in our capacity to understand the meaning of words and the meaning of life’s circumstances.” We would assist the work of the Lord, in other words, with a commitment to seek new information and to check our contextual understandings to make sure they are sufficient to make good judgments. We are as likely to mistake error for truth as we are truth for error, so being faithful to God requires circumspection and being slow to judgment.

3) reading teaches compassion, not identification

On this point, I quote the incomparable C.S. Lewis:

“Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into subindividuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the greek poem, I see with a myriad of eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.” (An Experiment in Criticism, 137-8).

There is a great deal of wisdom in this statement. There are many false substitutions for this unique experience of being able to find ourselves in the moment of self-transcendence. Jesus said we could find ourselves by losing ourselves in service and love of our fellow beings, and it would seem here that Lewis believes that literary experience offers something similar. It enhances our sense of who we are at the same time or in the very work of imagining and understanding others compassionately. We are vulnerable to false substitutions because individuality is a wound; it is the mark of our solitude, and we seek, often unsuccessfully, healing from our solitude through mass emotions offered by an entertainment culture that is willing to satisfy all of our appetites without asking anything in return. I can think of no better reason why cultivating literary taste can help us to resist the seductions of this world.

4) reading enhances critical distance and facilitates critical thinking

If we are reading and spending our leisure time simply to find confirmations for our worldview or self-gratification, then we are not going to receive this benefit. Good reading is a form of careful listening. If we are eager to be corrected, to see the world in a new and better way, then reading can provide the means by which we come to see ourselves and others in proper context. We are, by nature, world-makers. We live inside an idea of the world that we have generated by habit, culture, upbringing, and a myriad of external influences. What a pity it would be to spend one’s life buying, eating, clothing ourselves, consuming culture all according to standards of taste established by someone else or, worse, established by corporate interest in our dollars. The great energy of novels comes from the clash between worldviews. We see characters struggling to see themselves. We see others trying to communicate the limits or blindspots in their worldview and we come to understand that individuals are limited and conditioned and that we need each other. The good news is that we can slowly come to see limitations and we can gain enough distance from our biology and upbringing and habitual perceptions and thoughts to gain a margin of freedom to change.

I finished my lecture by talking about two of my favorite writers, Marilynne Robinson and Derek Walcott. I have written previous posts about Robinson and much of my scholarship has been focused on Walcott, so I won’t repeat my thoughts here, except to say that in these two cases, I have had the unique opportunity to come to know them in the flesh. And in so doing, I have appreciated all the more the remarkable inspiration that they possess and that is evident in what they write. I have wrestled with their ideas, I have learned from their exceptional facility with language, and I am a better person for having worked hard to interpret them as carefully and as responsibly as I can. Not everyone has to be a scholar to gain these benefits. It helps, of course, to read great and challenging literature with others and to engage in thoughtful and responsive dialogue with others to assess what it is that a great work causes to happen within us. Doing this often enough, we find that we become more careful thinkers, more attentive listeners, and more capable of receiving insights. This is not an entertaining but rather a profoundly fulfilling experience of discovery, akin, as Lewis notes, to what we experience in worship, in service, and learning of all kinds.



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