As a child growing up, I always loved to read. But somewhere in those early years of marriage, between child number one and child number five, reading dropped off the radar as quickly as I dropped off to sleep whenever I sat still. During those crazy days, I had a mom friend tell me she didn’t spend time reading fiction. She only read “Christian” books. Providentially, however, I started homeschooling my children classically, and as is usually the case, I needed the education even more than they did. Over the course of this last decade, I have come to understand that in addition to learning about God through His Word, we also learn about Him through His world, including great literature. When my oldest began the middle school years, I became a teacher at our homeschool group and as such, I was required to read all of their novels- 10 in that first year! I started reading really good fiction for the first time in my “mom” life. I read Nathanial Bowditch, Amos Fortune Free Man, Crispin, A Door in the Wall and more. I couldn’t believe how these books, assigned to my 13 year-old, had such deep theological truths with the power to move and shape my heart.
Fast forward a couple years to when I found twitter, the perfect place to argue, I mean, persuade people to truth. I used to love bloggers who could quickly put people in their place. Miraculously, however, in the dumpster fire that twitter can sometimes be, I found Karen Swallow Prior, a beacon of light and beauty, although more officially known as an author and Liberty University professor. Watching the way she gracefully interacted with people on this social media platform, whether they agreed with her or not, was exactly what I needed to witness. Even though it has been several years that I have faithfully read her wisdom in 280 characters or less, I am always amazed at how consistently she finds the perfect mixture of strong truth and kind words to convey her point.
As excited as I was to receive this book, I could not seem to get started. It came at a time when it was difficult for me to start much of anything. This year was filled with loss after loss following an eerie three month pattern.
A marriage, a loved one, a church, and a career. All Gone.
Some expected, some shocking- all devastating.
Every one of these losses hit so close to my heart I found it difficult to breath for quite some time after impact. Before I could come up for air, I would get another text.
The last loss was the final straw. This year brought pain I could not wrap my mind around and a profound confusion about what virtue is and what it is not. I was through the looking glass, and I needed to get back to a place where words had meaning and actions followed those words.
Before my procrastination got the better of me, I decided to just pick up my new book and start reading. My approach to reading this book followed the directions given by the author herself for reading any book. As directed in the introduction, I slowly took in each word, ready with a highlighter and pencil in hand. Most of my markings included the word, “Wow” followed by either several exclamation marks, or a solemn period. I would have highlighted the entire book if left to my own devices. The Biblical truths portrayed and expressed were deep and intricate.
For instance, featuring The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Prior differentiates between the words brave and courageous in a way I had never heard before. You can be brave about anything, she explains. But to display true Courage, you must take a stand for something virtuous. Similarly, in the chapter about Patience, we are reminded that Patience is a virtue only if the cause for which that person suffers is good.
What about hope? After this year, hope was something I desperately wanted to understand. I flipped through the pages until I found the chapter on hope. To define this virtue, Karen chose a book about the apocalypse called The Road because as Karen explains, “Nothing is more hopeless than an apocalypse.”
“In a religiously based apocalypse,” she continues, “the suffering and pain we encounter in this life gains meaning and hope is restored.”
The chapter on Diligence, as irony would have it, was difficult for me to trudge through without feelings of guilt from past and present failures. The comparisons to Christian in Pilgrims Progress, however, gave me a healthy perspective on perserverence which kept me from sinking into the slough of despond myself!
As I sat on my front porch, book in hand, grappling with divine Humility and a “Christ haunted culture” as expressed through the works of Flannery O’Conner, I couldn’t help but think of my friend who did not have time for fiction. Sadly, this is a common feeling expressed in the church and consequently, many are missing out on a multitude of life lessons that enhance the beauty of the gospel, not replace it.
Prior shows the reality of Faith through apostasy in Silence, the order of Justice through despair in The Tale of Two Cities and the beauty of Love through apathy in The Death of Ivan Ilych, all while pointing to the truth of God’s Word as it relates to events past, present, and future.
I read each chapter exactly when I needed it skipping around this work of art as Prior majestically links scripture, virtues, and the experience of man in a beautiful Gospel lesson from cover to cover.
On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior has moved me in a way that I cannot fully put into words, although with over 1000 words, you can’t say I didn’t try! I can say, however, that it has been a “very great mercy” to my soul with each “practice and image of virtue.” This book will not only inspire you to read well, but to live and love well indeed.