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Reading fiction could be seen as even further from “spiritual reading” but I believe in its own way the practice of reading novels as a spiritual discipline or core practice can bear rich fruit. One of the things that confirms this for me has been the growing awareness that my life has been transformed many times through the reading of good fiction (Watership Down, The Brothers Karamazov, The Clowns of God, Winnie the Pooh and several books by Chaim Potok are just a few examples).

A key difference in the reading of novels is that the first focus of attention in a novel is empathy with the protagonist. I actually think that reading novels has been my most important training as a therapist. If you’re not learning empathy when reading fiction, you’re not reading well. This is one reason I am greatly frustrated with newer novels that don’t stick to a central focus on one person’s experience (novels that alternate chapters focused on two or more central characters are alright with me too, but I can’t stand when the perspective just shifts at will within a chapter). We’re meant to dive in and feel the life the main character is living.

Good novels, however, are also about ideas. As a result, even though it may happen less frequently, the same kind of transcendent moments described in my previous post on spiritual reading can happen to me as I read a key passage of a novel. This happened at least two or three times for me while recently reading Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom. One time was when I was struck by how the son’s obsession (against both his rational and social judgment) with the girlfriend from his teens, seems to provide a sense of grounding and commitment that nothing else seems to provide in his free(?) life. This is so skilfully done, that you feel the pull inside of you between the head and the heart. You open yourself to wondering whether an unhealthy (by contemporary psychological standards) commitment to a neurotic girl might actually save him in spite of what the self-help books would say.

These kinds of moments connect my empathy with the characters with a slightly removed intellectual engagement with the author. I consider this to be like a secondary channel in my mind as I read a novel – like intuitive music playing in the background to which I might stop from time to time to give attention. With a really good author, this “background music” might become more important as I explore more of his works and come to appreciate the character of the author herself almost as a friend. The author then becomes not just the source of ideas behind the novel but another character that becomes part of the novel-reading experience – like learning to appreciate the conductor on stage and not just the musicians, seeing how her interpretation and way of being transforms the music.

I was slower coming to appreciate this kind of reading as spiritual reading because I experience it much more indirectly as prayer. I wonder if we need to mature into a posture of “prayer without ceasing” before this somewhat consciously becomes spiritual reading. The more we make all of our engagement with life into walking with God, the more this can become natural. Perhaps one of the conscious steps in this process, specific to the practice of reading fiction, is choosing to respect fiction and the characters within in a way not unlike our respect for actual people. I take my reading of novels as a spiritually serious (not sombre – perhaps significant is a better word) activity. I want God with me as I read just as much as I need him with me when I counsel someone in my office. And in both cases, I expect to grow spiritually as this happens.

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This blog post is too long. This means some of you won’t make it through (in spite of how good it is – much better than the short list, in fact). So just in case you don’t read it all, here is a summary of the actual “core practice”:

  1. Find something worthwhile to read in a subject area that matters to you.
  2. If the author seems worthy, commit yourself to trying out the author’s way of thinking (kind of life being an empathic listener).
  3. Minimize (or maximize, depending on how you look at it) the risk in this by asking God to be with you as you open yourself. Ask God to “light up” what’s important.
  4. If anything does light up as you read, then let yourself read at a pace where you allow your mind to roam around in what is opening up (What changes if this is true? How might this change how I think? Feel? Act? What part of me is resisting and why? God, what are you thinking?)
  5. Be changed (or chuck the book because it’s crap), and, if possible, do something right away to help it last – tell someone, write your new thoughts down, do something different, etc.

If this sounds at all interesting, you might want to read the rest of this post; if not, then you should still read the rest of the post to see if it changes your mind.

One of the most life-giving spiritual disciplines in my life has been the practice of “reading with God” whenever I am intentionally remembering to read well. Everything that is worth reading is worthy of lectio divina in a broadly understood way. Personally, I think many principles here could be extended to other interactions with culture such as watching a movie, but I will focus here on two main versions of spiritual reading: reading non-fiction (Part 1) or fiction (Part 2).

I have always loved reading and have always done a lot of it. In my youth I was pretty indiscriminate in my reading, but still tried to do it well. I think the fact that I was simultaneously learning to read the Bible prayerfully helped me naturally to begin to apply some of the same practices and disciplines into my other reading. At a conscious level, this would have applied firstly to non-fiction reading.

My interest in non-fiction is focused primarily on thoughtful reflection at the boundaries between the human experience and the presence of God. So I enjoy writers who honestly engage biblical theology with an insightful interpretation of culture, history and psychology. Or conversely, I enjoy those who write about culture, social justice and psychology with a perspective that seeks deep truth and that is informed by a real love of humanity.

The closer an author comes to inspiring me, the more I am likely to read intentionally looking to hear from God. (Of course, I don’t have a great deal of patience with non-fiction, so if I am not either inspired or required to read a book for some reason, I am not likely to continue with it for long.)

The main focus of spiritual reading of non-fiction is trying out the way of thinking of the author. I am trying to see what new things start to come into focus or make sense better or differently if I accept the author’s way of looking at things. I am looking for insights that have exciting new potential. I believe this is both a necessary and dangerous way to read – necessary because reading is not worth much without it; dangerous because it puts one’s present point of view at risk. An author needs to prove herself to me before this happens deeply. You don’t just open up your thoughtworld to anyone. But if you pay attention, you can actually feel it happening: something emotional and exciting starts to occur and you resonate with the ideas and become aware of your sense of truth shifting. New things start to make sense. Sometimes old things stop making sense, and so even though new understandings are being birthed, it can be disorienting. Other times it is a purely spiritual high as the pieces of the puzzle seem to fall into place.

Since this is so dangerous, I want God along for the ride. Sometimes consciously and sometimes intuitively, I am asking God to jump into this process with me, filtering my thoughts, grounding me in my relationship with Him. I want God to light up the thought-ways that lead to truth, that inspire more loving obedience and better ways to live in this world.

Though I usually start at an average pace, I usually end up reading either very quickly or very slowly. If nothing is inspiring me, I start skimming, looking for something that might change my mind as to my growing sense of the irrelevance (or familiarity) of what I am reading. When that doesn’t happen I start scanning ahead, perhaps skipping whole chapters or just chucking the book altogether. Why would anyone waste time on a non-fiction book that is not waking something up inside of them?

If I do start to feel myself waking up (spiritually) as I read, I slow down. I really know an author is “hitting the spot” when I find myself lost in thought on a page for long periods of time. I’ll have more inner dialogue in my head than I am reading words on a page. Right there in the middle of the page, I find myself trying on a new look at the world through the lenses the author has given me. I waver back and forth between giving myself permission or even encouragement to open a computer to write down some thoughts I find inspiring versus reading with trust that what is truly gold will stay with me. At least two different times, what I am writing now is because I felt so many thoughts overflowing while reading something that I had to start writing. Without exaggeration, it feels like the Spirit within me is released during these moments of reading in a way that I can almost never achieve through simple prayer alone.

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