Why Careful Reading Matters (to Christians)

Why Careful Reading Matters (to Christians) December 21, 2013

David Moore, who blogs at www.twocities.org, conducted the following interview.

Last month, I travelled to Baylor University.  I went there to interview Judge/President Ken Starr (video will be released soon) and Ralph Wood, University Professor of Theology and Literature.

I have had the good fortune to interview many well-read people.  Ralph is in a select group with the deepest and broadest learning I’ve encountered.  His scholarship spans several disciplines.

Some scholars are better with the written word while others are more comfortable with the spoken word.  Ralph is highly skilled at both.

I met with Ralph in his two story study (complete with his own staircase!) high atop the Tidwell Bible Building.  Ralph’s well selected and well used library of 7000 volumes encases his intellectual bat cave.

Years ago, I started reading Ralph’s essays because of the glowing endorsement of Mark Noll.  Those essays are available free of charge at:


The following interview revolves around Ralph Wood’s terrific book, Contending for Faith.  If you enjoy the work of those who integrate the riches of history, cultural critique, theology, and literature, with the Bible, you will love Contending for Faith.

Moore: You grew up in East Texas, yet it was a Roman Catholic professor who had a big influence on you.  Would you describe the impact of this professor of literature?

Wood: His name was Paul Barrus, and he was chair of the English Department at East Texas State College, now known as Texas A&M at Commerce. Barrus was an Iowa transplant who had come southward so that his allergies might find some relief from the frigid winters of the Deep North. Though himself a convert to Rome, he never sought to bring his overwhelmingly Protestant students across the Tiber. Instead, he encouraged us to plumb the depths of our own traditions by exploring the moral and religious riches of literary texts that were not overtly Christian—for example, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Melville; Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, and Henry James.

Nor did he ever use his Christian faith as an excuse for slipshod academics. On the contrary, he was the most learned man on the campus, fluent in German and French as well as literate in Latin. He was a living exemplar of Christian faith united with intellectual excellence, and thus shattered all of my stereotypes of Catholics as superstitious and authoritarian non-Christians. Instead, he introduced me to the great wealth of Catholic tradition, especially in modern fiction: Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, but most especially Flannery O’Connor. In fact, he brought her to our campus to lecture and read from her fiction in the autumn of 1962, her only Texas visit.

Moore: What are a few spiritual benefits that come from the study of literature?

Wood: The chief reason that Christians and others should cultivate the habit of reading literary texts is that they engender what I call “the sympathetic imagination.” They shake us free of the torpor that otherwise engulfs us, whether through the sensate entertainment of popular culture, or the trite pietism and moralism of most churches. Instead, we sympathetically imagine ourselves into worlds not of our own making. We learn to see and hear, to taste and feel, by way of plot and character, image and scene, rhyme and rhythm, both the wonders and horrors of our almost infinitely capacious universe. There we encounter realms that may be hostile and alien to us, as in the naturalism of Lucretius, the atheism of Camus and Sartre, the nihilism of Nietzsche. For if our Christianity is unable to engage what is radically opposed to it, it remains a cheap and flimsy thing—indeed, a sacrilege. But of course we also encounter many things from which we profoundly benefit: Homeric and Virgilian heroism, the afterlife as Dante brilliantly conceives it, the complex conflict of good and evil in Milton, the depths Christian devotion in the poetry of George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins, the bracing Christian honesty of Dostoevsky, etc.

Moore: You have spent much time reading, reflecting, teaching, and writing on Flannery O’Connor.  How does her understanding of the far-reaching effects of human sin give us better clarity on our own understanding of sin?

Wood: Her work illuminates the two kinds of sin, neither of which is obvious to people, whether believers or unbelievers. On the one hand, she discerns what is often profoundly destructive in the lives of high-minded intellectuals, self-important artists, and especially the well-intended efforts of social workers, psychologists, and moral reformers. In such stories as “Good Country People” and “The Enduring Chill” she unmasks the hidden pride of self-satisfied thinkers and writers who (very much like herself) are dependent upon the care of their parents. They would refashion the world when their own lives need a radical remaking. In “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “The Lame Shall Enter First,” she gives powerful narrative embodiment to those who can allegedly love others whom they know only abstractly while they are unable to care for their very own kin.

On the other hand, O’Connor targets her fellow Christians whose faith is shallow and sentimental. She brought the matter to sharp focus when she said that sentimentality is to Christianity as pornography is to art. It engenders easy arousals, unearned emotions, pious feelings of warmth and comfort. Theirs is a faith that has not been tested in the fires of doubt and suffering. “Revelation” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” are perhaps her best satires of such pornographic Christianity.

Moore: You like writers (O’Connor, Chesterton, Tolkien, Lewis, et al.) who demonstrated a great sense of humor.  (We could add satire, irony, and comedy as well.)  Why do you think the best Christian writers have a great sense of humor?

Wood: I would also declare that all Christians, not only these splendid writers, should have a keen sense of the comic. The most obvious reason is that, when our loves are ordered to the love of God, so that we take Christ and the Gospel as the only realities worthy our total devotion, then we cannot take ourselves too seriously. Chesterton famously said that seriousness flows out of us naturally, like the seepage of a fetid pool. It is easy to be serious, he said, hard to be light. Satan, he added by way of a witty pun, fell by the force of his gravity. Laughter, by contrast, requires a leap, a conquest of our leaden sobriety, a triumph over our sinful insistence that everything centers upon us. “The unfallen angels still fly,” Chesterton concluded with another clever metaphor, “because they take themselves so lightly.”

The writers I’ve worked on are comic also in their understanding that the Gospel is a comic proposition at its core, even though it addresses the worst evils. For example, Dante called his splendid 14th century epic poem La Commedia, or the Comedy, without adding the word “divine.” He didn’t need to. He knew that tragedies, for all of their deep insight into human pride and presumption, issue finally in irremediable death, albeit often a redemptive death, as in the case of Oedipus the King. Like most comedies, by contrast, the Gospel issues in radical rebirth and newness of life, in the great wedding feast of the Lamb, in the Beatific Vision.

Moore: Your concern over American individualism and its devastating impact on the church is clear in your book, Contending for the Faith: The Church’s Engagement with Culture (Baylor University Press). The apostle Paul wrote much about spiritual growth that must spring from within and not apart from the Body of Christ.  Elaborate a bit on your concerns and what correctives can help us make our way back to a more biblical understanding of Christian growth.

Wood: In teaching my wonderfully receptive and overwhelmingly evangelical students here at Baylor, I have great difficulty convincing them that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian, that our faith does not depend on a primarily private relation to Jesus, and thus that we cannot be Christians apart from our baptismal participation in his Church. Their blindness in this regard is not their fault: this is what their churches and our individualist culture have taught them. They have a hard time discerning, therefore, that Christian faith is a gift that comes to us only through our bi-millennial communal Tradition, that it is what has been handed down to us by our Christian ancestors (who often suffered and died for it), that the Bible itself was canonized by the Church, so that we cannot interpret it aright except with reference to the creeds and doctrines and moral practices of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” In sum, we will continue mangling the Gospel and turning away many souls from it, until we learn that the Christian community always precedes and sustains our personal faith in Christ.

Moore: How is remembering that all of us are sinful, and yet no one beyond redemption, a huge asset in reading well?

Wood: I try to remember that the Church has never declared anyone to be definitively damned, not even Judas Iscariot, much less Hitler and Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, nor our fellow Americans and our Allies who incinerated Dresden and Hamburg, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That is to say, we differ from these monsters of history only in degree, not in kind. They are what we could have (and still may yet) become. And we undergird political and economic systems that produce such malefactors.

This means that lasting literature should open us to the subtleties and complexities of sin and salvation alike. If a writer has utter scorn for characters, treating them with obvious contempt, I can’t take that writer seriously. But if a novelist also sentimentally refuses to judge a character’s faults, sentimentally overlooking their sins, then I have a similar disregard for the artist.

Moore: If you could wave a wand which would make every American Christian “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” (as the Book of Common Prayer says of Scripture!) five imaginative works, which ones would you pick?

Wood: Allow me to say first of all that I would urge my fellow readers simply to be readers. Ours is increasingly becoming an a-literate culture. This means that we are not illiterates who lack the ability to read but that we are a-literates who possess that ability but largely fail to exercise it. We are creatures enslaved to our movie and televisions screens as well as the various electronic messaging systems.

The average American college student, for instance, has seen more than 100 films for every book he/she has read. And they can no longer live and move and have their being in the world without keeping their eyes fixed on the instruments held in their palms. When I ask my students whether they could give up these instruments just for the 40 days of Lent, they honestly and thunderously answer: NO! I remind them that anything we cannot do without is an idol, but this does not slow their/our rapid descent into the electronic messaging system called Hell. There we will have communication without community.

Hence my double plea to them. First of all, become readers of any and everything: newspapers, magazines, Harlequin romances, detective stories, as well as novels and plays and poems. For reading is itself a moral act. As George Will once said, there is more imaginative life to be found in reading any cheap thriller than in watching the most sophisticated film. He is not dismissing the cinema, but simply pointing out that it forms images for us, and thus threatens to make us dependent on such previously-formed depictions.

Words on a page, by contrast, require us to turn them into images and ideas, and thus to habituate our minds to thinking about something other than ourselves. Reading is thus an intrinsically moral act. This leads to my second plea: I remind my students that, without such thoughtfulness, we are not likely to cultivate an inward life of critique and assessment, of prayer and contemplation, and thus of a truly human existence. And so, at last, my favorite five authors and books, though in no particular order.

Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

George Herbert, Collected Poems

Gerard Manley Hopkins, Collected Poetry

Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins

Flannery O’Connor, Complete Works

Moore: When you are reading a book, how do you capture the most important material?  Do you highlight, make marginal notes, etc.

Wood: I read ever so slowly, letting the words echo in my mind’s ear, hearing the sentences roll through my brain in the hope that they might improve my own sense of syntactical order and euphony, thus savoring the images and metaphors, the patterns and sounds. I do indeed underline and scrawl notes in the margin. Books are meant to become our friends, and you cannot really count a book as a friend until you have made it a well-marked companion.

Moore: What are some of your next writing projects?

Wood: Nothing special, since I spent such a long time and expended so much effort in turning out Chesterton: The Nightmare Goodness of God. I mainly respond to requests for essays and reviews and lectures that come from various sources, both collegial and ecclesial. And since le bon Dieu has already provided my biblical allotment of years plus one more, I would like to spend the remainder of my career helping younger scholars make their way in both the academy and the Church. Suzanne and I also have two young grandsons in whose lives we hope to have a significant place as they grow to maturity.

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