Post #4 in the series, “Reading, Faith and Culture”
Back when I first began to take seriously the claims Jesus made, I thought the key to making a reliable deduction as to whether I should believe them or not lay in reading the “right” materials, and plenty of them. That is, if I could get my hands on enough points of view, on enough apologia of the Christian faith, as well as enough attacks upon it, I should be able to strategically weigh things and make up my own mind on the matter. And quite nicely, too, thank you very much.
After all, as a graduate student in literature studying at Oxford University at that point, I came from a training long steeped in the adage that one must “verify one’s sources.” Absorbing vast amounts of history, criticism, literature, and, well, a conscientious pursuit of the “history of ideas” should put me in good stead, I felt convinced, when it came to deciding on which side of the line in the sand I stood.
Of course, what I didn’t see at the time was that Jesus stood there, too, albeit much more patiently. And on the other side of the door, so to speak, so that He wouldn’t intrude (more than necessary … Rev 3:20).
So I read and read and read. I turned page upon page through world religions, eventually cases for Christianity in particular, atheist rebuttals out of interest. I read through the creakings and groanings of generations of thought, banter, politics and poetry. I was a “professional” student; this was what I had ample opportunity to do. And though at first I felt a bit guilty for straying from the more specialized reading lists required by my specific field of study (Romantic literature at the time), I did begin to rationalize it with Lord Byron’s claim that in life, there is no such thing as a digression.
I thought myself thorough and fair. And, if I may say so – although realistically humble in my level of knowledge (for the more we read, the more we realize the less we know) – I deemed myself quite clever, at least, in my approach.
But what I also didn’t realize at the time was just how much our God is a God of quality over quantity.
Coming to trust in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior – and I mean that as a complete thought and life-changing truth, rather than as a cliché or automatic mumble of words – coming to such a faith, and the receiving of grace, is not just the result of some sort of “accumulation” of the “right” thing. It is not about the amount of acts one performs or arguments one absorbs; it is not about the totality of life experiences or the number of years one lives.
It is not even about the number of pages one turns.
These things may, of course, at times be contributing factors. And sometimes significantly so. But grace is the most perfect example of when a whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
And all we have to do is look around our fragmented world to see sum of it, everywhere.
I think that in this day and age, and especially in our affluent culture, accumulation (and speedy accumulation at that) is the norm in expectation. We expect our needs to be met, and to be met quickly and conveniently. We desire fast food, fast cars, fast sex, fast educations, fast-track careers, fast fixes … we want to “click and be quick.” We tap our toes as the screen comes up in a Google search. We tap our screens to turn a page …
But even one of the greatest scientists of a century marked by such speedy invention, Albert Einstein, declared “Not everything that counts can be counted.”
The accumulation of information is not wisdom.
Knowledge is not discernment.
Charles Spurgeon helpfully identifies a basic philosophical definition of wisdom “is to make the best use of knowledge.”
Wisdom puts acquired knowledge to the right use. It doesn’t act separately from an ethical and moral grounding. It grows from values and is apparent in character, action and words.
Desiring to know God is wisdom.
The Bible teaches us, over and over again, that the roots of wisdom lie in the fear of God: in this deep desire to know Him, and to take Him seriously.
In thus pursuing God, we may not have the knowledge, but we are desiring the right thing, and – here’s the grace of it all! – in just the desiring we grow wise, or at least start to. In the knocking, we are told, we shall be let in. In the questioning, we shall be answered. In the seeking, we shall be truly acknowledged.
The one who knocks is no fool.
In my own, crude little way, turning through all those pages was my form of “knocking.” I was searching; I was earnest. And so, while what was on the pages was of interest, the true investment resulted from what happened between the pages, as well as between the lines.
One day, as I sat reading, I suddenly became aware of just what a profound experience the act of reading itself was.
As a relative newcomer to the serious concept of Christianity, I had been struggling with the notion of the “Trinity” (who doesn’t?). No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of a three-personed God. Just who was this one-in-three, this Father, Son and Holy Ghost?
No matter how hard I tried, Don McLean lyrics to “American Pie” kept creeping into my head. I kept imagining three homeless guys on a train, set out for the coast. Somehow, I couldn’t reconcile this with Pentacost, or a manger, or a cross, or infinity.
I didn’t see that it wasn’t about wrapping my head around anything, but about having the Holy Spirit wrap around me.
It continued to freak me out. And not just a little. Trying to grasp the Trinity seemed akin to trying to stare down a psychedelic pattern from the 60’s. Whenever I thought of this Father-Son-and Holy Ghost thing, I felt like I needed to shake my head until my vision cleared. How could God be all powerful, all present, all good and yet fragmented as such? I hadn’t yet made the connection that it was precisely because God is all powerful, all present and all good that He can be all three. Rather, for me, back then (and sometimes, still at times) they blurred together. They didn’t, well, make sense.
I wanted a God I could catch in my hand, hold in my consciousness. Especially if I was going to put all my trust eggs in this seemingly frail basket. I wanted the one bird to hold: not the two off somewhere in an inexplicably burning bush.
But as I lay reading … quite literally one day on the slanted floor of my tiny English dorm room, with pigeons clucking angrily outside my concrete view … the nature of the trinity flashed upon my understanding with all the silvered glint of a fast moving fish in the creek. Too quick to catch, but the sheen proof it is beauty-fully there.
There is the author outside of the story, who writes the story, and sometimes even writes himself into the story. Then there are the characters in the story, autonomous in terms of their actions within the story, and their determined free will (no, I do not think two such concepts must be at odds) holding consequences for themselves and others. Then there is the reader reading the story – me – moving the parts together so as to make sense in my own mind and in the process becoming a part of my own life experience. These entities were not random nor were they separate. They were, actually, amazingly interlinked and their relationship created meaning as it could be apprehended by me, the reader.
Something “electrical” happened in the reading itself. Some transaction between the author and reader. Some type of synapse exchanged between the characters, too (including the narrator) and the reader.
All these dimensions of the text, and then of the metatext, were not exclusive. Nor were they “irrational”. But the effect worked so smoothly as to belie the intricacy and potency of the forces at work. Like watching a talented figure skater on ice: medium, skill and surface all become one, and, oblivious to the complexity (or at times, with fleeting appreciation for it), we are transported by the movement and the music.
This insight couldn’t have struck me harder than if a heavy book had fallen on my head. It was definitely a Newtonian moment for me. Reading is a Trinitarian act, I realized. It is indicative, like all creative acts, of A and C connected by that third something, that “tertium aliquid” as Coleridge puts it, of the mysterious force in B.
As I eventually became a Christian and began to read more in the tradition of Christian thought, I realized that this insight was nothing new of course. Lewis, Sayers, Vanaukan, to name a few … many others have illustrated the tripartite imaginative force according to such an analogy. And though it is not perfect, the analogy does convey the “spirit” (if you will) of God’s moving parts among us, and yet also the stillness that comes with knowing He is God.
While other Christian thinkers have only confirmed or helpfully elaborated this insight, for me, reading will always carry the fragrance of this very personal epiphany. As I enter text, taking the Word at its word, I am reminded of my intimate brush with kenosis: the self-limitation of Christ’s divine power at the incarnation, and of how this true omnipresence can, as Roger Pooley explains so well, “translate into a Christian aesthetic.”
And, I would add, into a beautiful way of being when we believe.