The Impact of Reading on the Soul

I’m reading along with 100 Days of Dante, and learning new things each canto.

Dr. Jane Kim provides a helpful analysis of the Inferno’s Canto V. Her concluding remarks struck me powerfully. In Canto V, a woman named Francesca reveals to Dante that her descent into hell was a consequence of reading the story of Lancelot alongside her lover, Paulo. In that story, the two found inspiration for the fall that led to the tragedy of their death, and now, the two find themselves forever confined to hell’s second circle, where those who fell victim to lust now dwell.

Reading is formative. I am being formed as I read Dante in community with others. I probably wouldn’t be following this journey at all if not for my friend, Matt.

The same applies to reading the Bible, or any other great text, with others. What we read shapes us. Who we read with, likewise, has the power to transform. Therefore, choose what, and with whom, you read wisely.

The Spiritual Discipline of Doing Nothing

In a couple of recent conversations I have mentioned the spiritual discipline of doing nothing. These individuals were very performance driven people, and incurred a lot of guilt when they weren’t “productive” with their time.

I invited them to set aside time to do nothing with God. Just be, not do. Try it for fifteen minutes. It isn’t as easy as you might think.

The Christian gospel means that in Christ you are loved by God, not because of your deeds, but because of the completed work of Jesus. Once you have discovered that you are so loved, you are freed for good deeds which evidence salvation. You are also able to reject the assumption you could earn one’s place, position, or status in God’s household on the basis of your own merit. Christ spanned a gap, paid a debt, mended a tear that you, by your own effort, could never cross, pay, or repair.

While we are to be good stewards of our lives, doing nothing with God reminds us that apart from God, we could do nothing. So, even the things that we do are a gift of grace, a return of thanks, an act of service, freely given, in response to the love that has been so freely given to us, and freely received.

Chernobyl

Over the weekend I finished watching the 2019 HBO miniseries Chernobyl. Here are a few reflections:

  • Lies lead to death.
  • Our lives must be built upon truth.
  • If we do not face reality, it will eventually come crashing in on us.
  • Human beings are corrupt and corruptible.
  • When the world becomes broken, restoration will require sacrifice.
  • Communist ideology made Chernobyl possible, and even likely.
  • If jobs are awarded and retained on criteria other than competence, ability, and merit, catastrophe will eventually follow.
  • When the state is an idol whose reputation must be protected no matter the cost, the people with the least amount of power will suffer.
  • Scientists are fallible like the rest of us, but we need good minds, trust in institutions, and dependable sources of authority.
  • Nuclear energy may be the wave of the future, but goodness gracious, if you screw it up…

The five part series is the story of a disaster, but it is much more than that. It is an interesting look at science (you’ll learn how nuclear energy works and how the Chernobyl plant operated), Russian identity and culture, the Soviet state, the loss of innocence, the mindset of an oppressive government regime, the importance of written testimony, and the responsibility of one generation to steward the world and hand it off to the next generation.

The Chernobyl disaster was the result of an inability to face the truth, a desire to cut costs and corners by bureaucrats who did not adequately grasp the destructive potentialities of nuclear energy, and human ego. While certain characters are more culpable than others in creating the conditions that led to the disaster, it cannot only be pinned on select individuals. The ideology, and the nation state, was culpable. In the epilogue to the series, the Chernobyl disaster is credited with causing the collapse of the Soviet Union. I can believe it. It demonstrated that those in power were incompetent, and that their lies could no longer be believed or accepted.

“20 to 30 a Day”

Let’s make that an average of twenty five per day. Let’s say he works five days each week. I’ll assume he takes two weeks of vacation each year. That’s still 6,250 abortions each year. By one “doctor.”

I’ll put aside the legal questions for the moment, and consider this only as a moral question. This is a horror. This is a horror not only because this individual is responsible for around 6,250 abortions each year. This is a horror because we live in a society where this is imaginable and, the reporting on this story is meant to shame pro life advocates, and that the tone is intended to evoke sympathy from those who consider abortion as mainly a legal question, rather than as a moral question. If you consider this as a moral question, even for a moment, then: revulsion.

Shame.

Reading to Love

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

We might think that simply reading more would lead to informed discourse, a more educated populace, and more effective conversation. Alas, the counter examples are rife. Some of the most egregious tweeters are plenty well educated, products of the best schools, even voracious readers. Our society has often defaulted to the idea that we can educate ourselves out of sin (and make no mistake – much online behavior today is quite simply sin), but we rarely sin because we are dumb. We sin because we want to, because we find it, at least in the moment, gratifying and fun. In fact, reading on its own fixes nothing.

Echo chambers and tribalism are real. Whether our media are written – books, blogs, articles – or video – cable news, online videos, film – our society has quickly embraced separate self-referential echo chambers. As has regularly been noted in the past months, it is as if Americans are living not simply with political divisions, but with two separate epistemic realities, two opposite conceptions of even basic facts, the products of two entirely separate media ecosystems. Simply diving into a good book, with “good” being defined as one that supports everything I already want to believe, only deepens the self-referential hole.

We need to read the other, the author who comes from an entirely different cultural, political, and economic background, the author who has looked deeply at the issue in question and has concluded the opposite of what we are attuned to believe. We need to avoid not simply political tribalism but also religious, economic, and social tribalism. The beginning of the question is to read broadly, including those we find to be way “out there.”

Bill Fullilove, “Reading to Be Wrong

Fullilove argues that we should read “the other,” doing so with humility. Humility is a nice starting point. Hold a position on a given point of inquiry doesn’t mean that your position is right or that it is adequately supported by sound reasons. It is always possibly that “the other” is right, even if you doubt it. By reading someone with a different viewpoint, your position could be sharpened, or nuanced, and, as a result, strengthened.

Reading charitably requires a constellation of virtues. There is a temptation to read those of other viewpoints not in pursuit of understanding but with the a priori goal of ferreting out the ways that the other person’s viewpoint is wrong. Humility is a good place to start, but it might be helpful to think further of reading as an exercise in love. The loving person seeks truth not for the sake of winning an argument, but for the good of all parties involved. It can be fun to dunk on your opponents, and sometimes dunking on your opponents can even be easy, but that is not always the most loving action. While slamming a point home may energize your crowd, it might not be so compelling to the unconvinced.

A strong argument and a gentle answer can be had together, one and the same.