Featured Reviews

Jessica Hooten Wilson – Reading for the Love of God [Feature Review]

Reading for the LoveAn Earthy, Embodied Take on Reading

A Feature Review of

Reading for the Love of God: How to Read as a Spiritual Practice
Jessica Hooten Wilson

 
Hardcover: Brazos Press, 2023
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Reviewed by Tamara Hill Murphy

Jessica Hooten Wilson impresses me. She has published multiple books while parlaying her Baylor University Ph.D. and Pepperdine professorship into speaking around the world on topics as esoteric as the cultural influence of Russian literary greats (think Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky) and the theological influence of Catholic literary thinkers (think Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor). She has won multiple awards, including those attached to prestigious names like Fulbright and Templeton, and while I’ve been preparing this review of her newest release from Brazos Press, she gave birth to her fourth child. This kind of generativity more than impresses me—it delights me. That Hooten Wilson does all this with a colloquial warmth and orthodox Christian winsomeness astounds me. In Jessica Hooten Wilson’s newest book, readers with eyes to see will notice all these virtues—generativity, hospitality, intellectual rigor, ecclesial devotion—and more.

Reading for the Love of God is a hybrid-genre book translating literary pedagogy into the language of spiritual formation. As someone with a curious mind but lacking Wilson’s academic pedigree, I am a big fan. She stands in a modern-day cohort of scholarly spiritual formation authors to whom this college dropout owes much: James K.A. Smith, Karen Swallow Prior, Esau McCaulley, Kate Bowler, and Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt come to mind.

Hooten Wilson delivers a syllabus turned spiritual practice guidebook in a style that she describes as didactic but not systematic, ranging from the canons of rhetoric to medieval history of literary thought to theological application of the Incarnation and the Trinity to methods of spiritual formation such as lectio divina and contemplative prayer. Connecting all of these categories is a risky endeavor. Some may find Hooten Wilson’s academic and historical rubrics challenging; others may find her encouragement to practice “reading words redemptively” to be simplistic.

To be a Christian, Hooten Wilson argues, is to embody a storied discipline. Reading spiritually, she writes, is a “discipline akin to fasting and prayer and one that trains you in the virtues, encourages your sanctification, and elicits your love for those noble, admirable, and beautiful things.” Thus, there is a way to read that is distinctly Christian, though this may not mean what readers of certain traditions might think it means. By starting her book with a pop quiz entitled “What kind of reader are you?” Hooten Wilson invites readers to gently examine their assumptions around integrating spiritual formation and reading.

I stumbled around in the literary dark well into adulthood, hoisting a hefty weight of reading baggage. While I cherish the advantage of learning to read from my mother before entering kindergarten, I made it through high school without reading a single assigned book—classic, literary fiction, or otherwise. This is not because I was a slacker but because no teacher assigned a book. I never thought this was strange until watching my children read through several assigned literary titles a year, starting in middle school.

Guess which one of us attended Christian school?

If you guessed me, you’d be correct. My parents sacrificed to give us what they hoped would be a better education, steeped in scripture. I loved my school. I met my husband at that school. But I did not meet Scout or Atticus, Elizabeth Bennet or Mr. Darcy, not even Romeo or Juliet.

By the time I arrived at chapter two, “Why Read Anything but the Bible?” I felt deeply seen. “Students sometimes cannot understand the purpose of my literature classes: they confess that they think reading anything except the Bible is unnecessary,” Hooten Wilson writes. “My short answer? Because God revealed himself to us in stories—collected in the Old and New Testaments. Because Jesus told stories to teach about who he is. Because the mysteries of the faith will challenge us our whole lives, and only stories are strong enough not to reduce faith to x + y = z.”

In the school I attended as a child, we attempted to honor the Christian tradition by weaving portions of the Christian scriptures throughout each class curriculum. We read the Bible a lot, and I’m grateful for that. Still, we never enjoyed the Bible as literature, as a living story of God. We never giggled at the comedy of Jesus’ hyperbolic stories or wondered at the love poems in the Old Testament. (I’m pretty sure we didn’t even read those.) After thirteen years of that daily training, I could quote huge portions of the Bible and rattle off many lists, and I knew the difference between the major and minor prophets. But knew nothing of Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. We didn’t learn to contemplate the written word—scriptural or otherwise— as a work of beauty, which stunted our capacity to behold truth, goodness, and beauty everywhere.

Stories beautifully written tell the truth about the goodness of God’s cosmos which is blessed first at creation and then redeemed when the Word became flesh. The incarnation radically affects the way we exist in the world, including how we read. The reality of the incarnation means that all words have been blessed with the capacity not merely to inform but to transform.

In The House of the Soul and Concerning the Inner Life, spiritual writer Evelyn Underhill describes the transformative power of spiritual reading as “second only to prayer as a developer and support of the inner life.” The ultimate argument of Reading for the Love of God is that “there is a different way of reading for Christians than for others,” because “the end of all our reading should be contemplation.” And, as Hooten Wilson reminds us, “the path to contemplation, for the medieval church began with reading.” (Think: monastics practicing lectio, defined as “the careful study of Scripture with the soul’s attention”.)

Where Hooten Wilson invites us to read contemplatively, Evelyn Underhill extends the vision to reading communally. Underhill understands spiritual reading as a sacramental act because it “gives us not only information but communion.” In the spiritual life of Evelyn Underhill’s imagination, this shared nourishment is what it means to embody the Christian tradition of reading.

Christopher Smith offers a present-day vision for a communion of readers in the closing chapter of his book, Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods,

“These conversations – with brothers and sisters in Christ and with those who do similar work – are the nutrient-rich soil in which we take root and grow. In conversation we are sustained by the wisdom of those who have gone before us. We are also empowered to discern how we will face the challenges of both the present and the future….We read as a way of listening to the wisdom of others. The conversation continues as we reply to this wisdom in our own context.”

While Reading for the Love of God may not describe the explicit spiritual practice of communal reading, Hooten Wilson certainly implies it by describing language as a distinctive trait in Christian corporate worship. As a member of an Anglican congregation, I am especially grateful that Hooten Wilson takes time to remark on the explicit affection for the “book of books” enacted liturgically:

“The first time I attended an Anglican church, the most surprising part of the service was when they lifted the physical book of the Bible into the air and carried it down the aisle. People turned and bowed their heads as it moved past them. Their reverence for Scripture captivated my imagination… [T]he people of God stood for the procession of the Bible. They stood for the reading of the Word. I felt as though I had been pulled back in time to when Ezra read the law to the returning Israelites, and they all stood to hear it” (12).

While Reading for the Love of God remains centered on the art and science of reading as an act of worship, Hooten Wilson also devotes a significant portion of the book beyond the how of reading Christianly to the what. To this end, I thoroughly enjoyed the appendix list of great books and the recurring “bookmarks” that offered us examples of famous readers and authors of history: Augustine of Hippo, Julian of Norwich, Frederick Douglass, and Dorothy Sayers.

For example, contemplating the reading life of Dorothy Sayers, Hooten Wilson offers a rousing defense of fiction, “My students are eager to go and change the world, so they initially begrudge the time required in my class to sit and chatter about novels—until we read them together. Give me ten minutes with the most hesitant of Christian readers, and I will invite them to fall in love with God through fiction” (150-151).

Reading for the Love of God invites us to not only grow in our appreciation for good, true, and beautifully-written words, but to be redeemed by them. By centering us in the reality of the loving God, Word made flesh, Hooten Wilson casts a vision for reading all words—scholastic to monastic, philosophy to fantasy, historic to humorous—with the eyes of love.

There is nothing esoteric about this invitation. It is a love that is earthy and embodied, like “a mother reading aloud to her children in the living room, each child snuggled beside her, as she intones the words with her young ones, pausing intermittently to ask what they are feeling, thinking, and delighting in” (111). I am not an academic, but I have been well-schooled in this way of reading. The way of reading that is available to all of us when we read with the people of God for the love of God.

Tamara Hill Murphy

Tamara Hill Murphyis the author of The Spacious Path: Practicing the Restful Way of Jesus in a Fragmented World (Herald Press). She is a Spiritual Director and Supervising Faculty member of Selah-Anglican, a certificate program in spiritual direction with Leadership Transformations, Inc. She lives with her husband, Brian, an Anglican priest, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Find her at www.tamarahillmurphy.com

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