Karen Swallow Prior is the editor of a new series of classic texts. I can attest as a book snob of sorts that they are beautifully bound, and the price point is incredible! When substantial hardbacks are priced below $20, it’s time to give serious consideration to buying a few. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, along with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darknessare now available.
David George Moore conducted the following interview. Some of Dave’s teaching tapes and interview videos can be found at www.mooreengaging.com.
Moore: Tell us a bit about how this series came to life.
Prior: I wish I could take credit for the vision that birthed this series, but the fact is that B&H Publishing approached me with the idea. All I had to do was say yes. Then choose the books. Then do the writing. Choosing just six titles may be the hardest part! Those choices are based on a few factors. We are selecting only from works that are already in the public domain. I’m choosing works I’m particularly knowledgeable and passionate about, so that does mean there is more of an emphasis on British literature as that is my area of expertise. The next titles to be released include Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, followed by two more classics after that. I know from decades of teaching that people can feel intimidated by the classics. I believe with just a bit of guidance, anyone can appreciate these works and gain much from them. The overall vision is to create beautifully bound editions of classic works that will invite readers in, illuminate the reading, and cultivate thinking about these works from a biblical perspective.
Moore: Both Professor Ralph Wood of Baylor and William F. Buckley told me that they were painfully slow readers. It sure has not limited the quality of either’s work! Why do so many of us have an aversion to reading slowly, and what are some of the benefits of learning to slow down and pay better attention?
Prior: So much of the reading we do today is intended for quick skimming and fast consumption before scrolling on to the next thing. Modern life has (mal)formed our brains and our very bodies (bending over our phones and electronic tablets) through habits of hurried reading. Slowing down, paying attention, and reading reflectively feels as counter-cultural as taking a horse-drawn carriage to the grocery store instead of a car. But reading for formation (rather than merely information) depends upon reading slowly. When I went through physical therapy a couple of years ago, my therapist constantly had to remind me to slow down my exercises. This is because relying on speed and gravity rather than muscle alone diminishes the effectiveness of the exercises. Similarly, reading literature—writing that uses words in an artful way--quickly not only decreases our understanding but also the delight such works offer.
Moore: Pardon the longer lead to this following question, but it is necessary. It would be blasphemous to say that any literature is on par with Scripture. However, it does not follow that this means great literature (and I am thinking of books by Christian and non-Christian authors) can’t fill out Scripture in some meaningful ways. For example, I know you greatly appreciate one of my favorite books: The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Bunyan does many things brilliantly in this book, but one of those things I find immensely helpful is what The Pilgrim’s Progress teaches us about Christian growth. Among other things, Bunyan shows how different Christians have different temptations. For example, Vanity Fair does not tempt Mr. Fearing and he loves rolling around in the Valley of Humiliation. However, Mr. Fearing gets terrified when he is about to go through the waters where the demons wail their wicked sounds.
It seems that reading great books other than Scripture can both help us read Scripture better but help us better understand Scripture’s teaching. What do you think?
Prior: Reading scripture faithfully and well requires the same skills it takes to read literature well. The Reformers knew this. It’s why they wanted to put the scriptures into the hands of the people and helped develop the technology required to do so as well as to teach the skills needed to read. Reading is a basic skill—essentially the same one we learn by first grade—but it’s a skill that can ever improve and deepen with practice and habit. Reading is not merely decoding letters and words, but it is correctly interpreting and applying meaning. We do this with scripture—and when we read well, we do the same with literature.
Moore: What can literature teach that systematic theologies can’t?
Prior: Logic and facts are part of knowledge. But so, too, are emotions and imagination. Our ability and desire to create and find meaning is a reflection of God’s image in us. To read literature is to practice the meaning-making faculties that are part of what it means to be human because it requires us to use logic, imagination, and emotion—sense and sensibility, so to speak.
Moore: One of your friends said, “Because you read so much, you are a better interpreter of life.” Unpack a bit what she meant.
Prior: In everyday life, we have to “read” people and situations (in other words, interpret). This activity is the same kind of interpreting one does when reading literature. Neither real life nor good literature “tell” you their meaning. Wouldn’t it be great if the people we meet wore signs telling us how to interpret and judge their words and actions? But they don’t. We have to learn to do that. Reading literature requires the same skills of analysis, interpretation, and judgement.
Moore: I recall the late David Powlison saying that every pastor ought to read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. (Full disclosure: I have not read it.) Since it is included in this series, I assume you agree with him. How come?
Prior: I did not know that! I’m gratified to hear he said so. I do agree with him. Heart of Darkness is, at its core, about the utter depravity of the human heart. It is written in and of a time when white Europeans deemed themselves to be the epitome of civilization. The story, drawn from Conrad’s real life experiences traveling by boat into the African Congo during the period of colonization, reveals that what we think constitutes human goodness may just be the result of external restraints. When those restraints are removed, we can see humanity’s true nature.
Moore: Even some non-Christians say there are certain works of literature that it may be wise to not read. The writings of Marquis de Sade are an extreme example while the writings of D.H. Lawrence are less clear. What are your rules of thumb for your own reading and in recommending books to others?
Prior: I often invoke Philippians 4:8: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” Note that this verse exhorts us to look for beauty (the “lovely”), goodness (the “admirable”), and truth (the “true”). Unfortunately, some of the sweetest, sappiest, and most popular works of Christian fiction (as well as self-help books) stray far from all of these traits. But great works of literature, those that have passed the test of time and are “praiseworthy” are so because they reveal universal, unchanging aspects of the human experience.