A Theology of Reading? by Charles Halton

[This is Charles Halton’s first term of teaching for HBU; he teaches from a distance, partly online and partly by flying in from Louisville; we are excited to have him as part of the theology team and look forward to more from him.]

Our world is awash in words. They fill books and blogs, novels and noirs, mags and ads, texts and tweets. Think of how many hours a day you spend reading and writing them. It’s probably more than you think. Especially if you include all the instances of passive reading when words flash on screens or phrases leap off billboards and lodge themselves into your subconscious. But even if we only include this semester’s textbooks, reading involves a significant chunk of your life.

How does all this time and energy relate to your theology?

It doesn’t. The eye scans the page, the brain forms meaning, it’s what we do. It’s atheological, like swallowing. Or so I thought until I read Alan Jacobs’s A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love.

The title caught my eye. A theology of reading? That makes little sense. A theology for reading, that’s more like it. A theology for reading would help me understand the correct thoughts I should have as I weigh the ideas conveyed in books. Help me determine if the author is orthodox, heterodox, a heretic or somewhere in between. Enable me to see through the lies of advertising and the propaganda in politics. A theology for reading is focused on the content of what we read and if there is a need for theology when reading it’s here.

But that’s not Jacobs’s view. He taught me that theology encompasses the entire act of reading. It doesn’t merely determine the way in which we accept or reject the messages we read. Reading is a theological act–start to finish–and it’s a topic that deserves our sustained reflection.

When a scribe asked Jesus to name the greatest divine teaching he replied:

“Love the Eternal One your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is nearly as important, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The rest of the law, and all the teachings of the prophets, are but variations on these themes (The Voice).

Writing is produced by people–your neighbors. This sounds elementary and it is. But the implications that Jacobs draws from this connection are profound. Writing is the extension of a person. It’s a vehicle that, albeit imperfectly, connects two minds over the distance of time and space. Whenever you read you are in some sense encountering a neighbor. This, in turn, means that avoidance of error in understanding the author is not the main goal of reading, even when it’s a textbook. It means that reading should be pleasurable, even when it’s a dull and dry syllabus. It means that you should love the piece and expect the best for it, even when you disagree with it. Reading with love exposes you to risk but it’s a risk that a theological reader must embrace.

Some of this may sound controversial and in a way it is. You probably approach reading as if it weren’t theological, like I once did. After I came to understand that a theology of reading–one that is centered upon love–is essential to reading Christianly, I found Jacobs’s ideas quite orthodox. You’ll have to read Jacobs’s book to see how he unpacks all this but if you do I bet you’ll never read in the same way again. It looks like I may have added another book to your already long list this semester. But, alas, that’s one of the risks of reading.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Philosophy in Conversation with Theology | Musings and Philosophizings

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